EJ Levy: “Concern for Talent Kept Me from Writing for Years.”

Post by E.J. Levy, (retreat faculty):

The essayist Pico Iyer once said that, “Writing can be learned, but not taught.” Beneath this skeptical pronouncements lies, it seems, a niggling doubt about the source of art: whether the making of literature is a craft which workshops can enhance or whether art is born of that divinely inspired stuff—Talent.

Michelangelo Buonarroti


I’m wary of the term Talent: I think it distracts us dangerously from art itself, and making it. I won’t pretend that we live in a democracy of gifts. We don’t. Clearly we each have aptitudes (as we have habits, obsessions, tics), but it’s what we make of these aptitudes that makes a work of art. Michelangelo Buonarroti, that famously “talented” artist, did not speak of talent when he spoke to his student; his admonition to his pupil speaks to us still: “Work, Antonio, work, Antonio, work, Antonio, and don’t waste time.”



Concern for talent kept me from writing for years. I was thirty before I tried my hand at a story; I was well past that before I went to graduate school where I made my first attempt at memoir. In those days, I believed fiercely in talent—that if one weren’t called to write by God or The New Yorker then one had no business at it.

Once I’d arrived at graduate school, I was cautious about what I wrote, afraid what my work might reveal about me—that I was talent-less. My faith in talent was so great that when I wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” my first attempt at memoir, penned for a graduate seminar I was in—and received the professor’s damningly faint praise (a single line scribbled on the final page saying my essay, in its over-preening language, showed that I knew “writing was about words”)—I was so discouraged that I dropped out of the program and gave up writing. Convinced that I lacked Talent.

When I returned to graduate school three years later (a different program this time), I brought the same piece to another workshop; again the professor (a different one) dismissed it. I left the class embarrassed by my own glaring lack of gifts. But a fellow student told me what I’d been waiting years to hear—that the piece was good, done, urged me to send it out. So I did; in time it was published and selected for inclusion in Best American Essays 2005. (Unrevised—the prize-winning piece appeared exactly as it had in that first class.)

I think now that the writer who said my prose was over-preening was right; certainly the piece is flawed, but it is also trying to do what art does, to bring us into conversation with our lives, and history.

I tell this story as a cautionary tale about the danger of believing too much in Talent. I wasted too much time on that false god; I’ve watched too many aspiring writers do the same. When all along Michelangelo was right in his simple exhortation to the artist, to all of us: work, work, work, and don’t waste time.

Read (here) the first chapter of E.J.’s new memoir-in-progress, How to Cook an Elk, that is titled “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”

“Mastering the Art of French Cooking”
Salmagundi, Fall 2004-Winter 2005

* Winner, Best American Essays 2005
* Winner, Pushcart Prize 2007
* Reprinted in The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction

“…a remarkable first-person account of a life….E.J. Levy remembers [her] mother by way of the romantic Julia Child meals she prepared while [she] was growing up.”
–Publishers Weekly, August 15, 2005

Work Antonio, Work Antonio...

Levy was born in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, and earned a Bachelor’s degree in History from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. For a decade, she worked as an editor and environmental activist, founding a lesbian and gay newspaper for northern New Mexico and later serving as Managing Editor of The Independent Film & Video Monthly, a national magazine for independent film and video makers based in Manhattan, before returning to the southwest as Outreach Director for Amigos Bravos, a river-protection organization. She earned an M.F.A. in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction from Ohio State University in 2002. She has been a Visiting Writer at Colorado College and on the M.F.A. faculty at American University in Washington, D.C., where she taught for four years before returning to the Midwest to teach at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

She has received a Pushcart Prize, a Lambda Literary Award, a Nelson Algren Award, a Chicago Literary Award, a Gesell Award, a Michener Fellowship, and an Associated Writing Programs Intro Award, among other prizes, and her fiction has twice been named among the year’s notable in the Best American Short Stories series published by Houghton Mifflin. She has received many grants, fellowships, and residencies, including the Margaret Bridgman Scholarship to Bread Loaf, a Loft-McKnight Award, a Mid-Atlantic Arts Fellowship, the Goldfarb Family Fellowship, and fellowships to the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Cottages at Hedgebrook, Wurlitzer Foundation, The Millay Colony, and Sacatar Foundation, among others.

She lives with her partner in Virginia, and teaches nonfiction at Colorado State University.  To learn more, visit www.ejlevy.com


One response to “EJ Levy: “Concern for Talent Kept Me from Writing for Years.”

  1. This post is music to my ears! I’ve always wanted to write, but been too afraid to actually do it (seems silly now in hindsight). In the past 6 months I’ve cultivated a daily writing practice and I’m working on stories, trying out ideas and seeing what sticks. The ups and downs of the process can be overwhelming at times, but posts like this encourage me to stick with it, so thank you again!

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