by Maggie Tiojakin

When I was younger, it had never crossed my mind that one day I would be standing in front of a classroom and teach creative writing. First of all, I didn’t think writers were made—I believed they were born. Second of all, it’s creative writing, what is there to teach? Surely, everyone knows what being creative means. What’s the point of showing people what they already know?


Obviously, I was wrong. And it didn’t take long for my own naiveté to beat me in the head with a stick … over and over again. Here’s what I’ve learned in the last 15 years:

Talent is cheap.

When you hear major names like Stephen King or Pablo Neruda you would think writers are born. Surely, talent accounts for a large part of their success as writers—if not the largest. And, surely, it’s talent that attracts all the attention. I mean…it has to be. Right?

Well, listen. I’m sure in your own life journey you’ve met countless of talented people who just can’t seem to get a break. They’re so good at what they do you can’t wrap your mind around the thought that no one, other than yourself, has ever noticed how good they are.

Life isn’t fair, you mutter. And you’d be half right.

Life is never fair. Bad things often happen to good people for no particular reason. JK Rowling was rejected dozens of times before a publisher took a chance on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. John Grisham was deemed talentless when he submitted A Time to Kill to over fifty publishers—all of whom turned their backs on him. But they’re far from talentless.

So, what eventually got them the attention they needed?

Persistence. Sure, rejections are scary and disheartening, but you can overcome them. You can learn to get better at what you do, improve your craft. What you can’t overcome is your own tendency to stop moving, stop trying.

Talent is cheap. It’s everywhere. Persistence is priceless.

Creativity is not an art

For a lot of people, being creative equals having an artistic edge. That’s the reason they often pull themselves back whenever the concept is thrown at them. “Be creative!” someone might say to them—and their first response would be, “Sorry, I’m not the creative type.”

Here’s what that line of thinking usually translates to: “I’m not Picasso” or “I’m not Hemingway” or “I’m not Ansel Adams” or, worse, “Stop pestering me to be something I’m not!”

And this is what’s wrong with that line of thinking: nobody expects you to be any of those people, or anyone but yourself.

Sure, artists are, by definition, creative people. But creativity is neither art, nor rocket science. It is a skill—an ability to use your imagination and implement ideas to solve a problem.

On a smaller scale, it’s as simple as finding an alternative route to get to your destination when your usual route is closed. On a larger scale, it’s the ability to recognize potential problems in your business strategy and come up with ideas to troubleshoot them. On a grand scale, it’s the ability to make life, your life, matter.

Creativity is a skill that requires a specific mindset. Most people are of the opinion that creativity is a skill which cannot be acquired or learned. Basically, it’s something you grow out of your own self-will. Again, you’d be half right.

Look, the facts are these: no one can force you to develop your skill set and you can’t develop something you don’t know you don’t have, or don’t care enough to have. Like anything else worth investing in, the concept of personal development means you understand and acknowledge its value. It must start with you. That’s the first step. The second step is to unlock your sense of curiosity.

You’d be surprised to learn the many ways most people shut down their own sense of curiosity and trade it for comfort. They stop asking questions and they can’t even be bothered to follow their own instinct. At work, they’re the ones who always agree with you and rarely, if ever, raise objections—until it’s too late.

Well, then, how do you foster a sense of curiosity in yourself or your team?

Make it a habit to ask questions and give them a good wiggle room to debate ideas using their own critical thinking abilities. Give them a problem as an exercise and ask them to provide solutions according to their personal and professional views. But don’t just do it once or twice. Do it as often as possible until it becomes second nature, or until their comfort zone becomes uncomfortable to them.

And if you want to kill two birds with one stone: start writing.

There’s a reason why writing and reading are considered essential in any educational institution all around the world. It is one of the most effective, and potent, ways to train our brains to think clearly, logically and critically. You don’t write to be the next Hemingway or to save the world—you write to allow yourself then necessary room to grow and be the best version of yourself.


Maggie Tiojakin is the author of Balada Ching-Ching, Winter Dreams and Selama Kita Tersesat di Luar Angkasa. She is also the founder of Fiksi Lotus and the Managing Director of The Jakarta Post Writing Center.