How do you know if you’ve got potential or even raw talent?

“Unless you live in a cave, you’ve heard of American Idol.” That was a recent comment made by a morning news anchors prior to a clip about the latest American Idol poll.

I don’t profess to living in a cave, although if you’ve seen my office you might suggest I should, and the more isolated the better. But, seriously, she’s right. I love music, but I rarely watch the show. But I will admit to talent envy because I couldn’t sing my way out of a shower. But that’s another story.

During each new season as we watch the early (and mostly awful) auditions on the morning news, my husband and I always ask the same questions: Do some of those people actually think they can sing? Do their families love them that much, or perhaps not, that they’ll let them make fools of themselves in front of millions of viewers, simply to claim their 15 minutes of fame or follow their dreams?

When you think about it, though, it’s a lot like writing. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything you write is nothing short of wonderful. After all, the grandchildren (friends, family, students, etc.) said so, right? But, what would you expect them to say? “Gee, Noni, I love you, but you can’t write worth a darn. Maybe you should take up cross stitching!” (I have, by the way.)

Unfortunately many writers are fooled into thinking there is simply little room for improvement. It happens on national television, in front of millions of people every season and any editor will tell you it happens in slush piles every day. And remember, while an agent can help you become a published writer, he or she can’t necessarily make you a better writer, unless you’re willing to work at it.

So, how do you know if you’ve got potential or even raw talent? As always, anything worth doing is worth doing well, so continually striving to hone your skills and learn your craft are vital, whether you’re published or not. Joining a critique group or having one tried and true friend who will be honest about your work is invaluable. Attending conferences and workshops is another way to rub elbows with people who have risen to the top, can share a wealth of information, or who are dreaming right along with you.

Of course, getting rejection after rejection after rejection without a word of positive feedback from an editor or nothing other than form letters year after year might also be a clue about where your career is headed. But that goes back to the idea that a good writer has to want it bad enough to work at it. I can guarantee that the Jerry Spinellis of the world paid their dues and labored in obscurity, too, before getting that one break that changed everything.

Do I advocate giving up on your dream if it’s something you are really and truly passionate about? Of course not. But I think being realistic about your talents and how they play into your dreams or can alter them is absolutely essential. After all, if it didn’t take natural talent or dedication or plain old sweat equity, we’d all be famous.

But consider this: Would you play a Steinway at Carnegie Hall if you’d never tickled the 88s before? How about piloting a plane without a lesson? No medical school? Not to worry. But I think I’ll pass on your offer to remove this wart for me.

To misquote children’s author, David Greenberg, “Anything less than your absolute best isn’t good enough.” And in the mantra of writers everywhere that means read, read, read, write, write, write, revise, revise, revise.

Of course, if you don’t see the need to work at being your best, then you, my friend, are a perfect candidate for American Idol. I’ll let you know when the next casting call is, because if the writing thing doesn’t pan out for me, I just might be in line. If I can sing my way out of the shower, that is.