Of Talent And Turkeys


If Anybody Mentions ‘Talent,’ Just Gobble Louder

At the heart of mystique is talent. Which is the ultimate mystery. Why do some people have it while others do not?

That’s the writer Shelley Souza in one of several fine, thoughtful comments from Writer Unboxed late last week. In the lead essay there, I ask what, if any, impact contemporary networking has on the sort of mystique that once was a part of many authors’ persona. In an age without instant and constant online contacts, the solitude and quiet of a writing life may have helped many authors at something of a distance, for better or worse, from their readerships.

In my opinion, this bit of distance isn’t a bad thing. I think it helps the writer to think for him- or herself and to evaluate what she or he wants to say more clearly. Avid community life — so popular nowadays with many writers — can run counter to this, I believe, calling on too many of an author’s intellectual and emotional resources, albeit while supplying some interaction that can help reveal something of human nature.

There may be as many ideas of this — or as many gradations of the “right” amount of social exposure — as there are writers at work today, which is fine. No one needs to “win” these discussions. Keep that in mind if you find yourself running into defensiveness or even hostility when you discuss these things. Random, purposeless competitiveness is part of some people’s makeup, and it can mar a good conversation pretty easily.

What Souza does with the issue of “mystique” in literary and other artistic endeavors, is go either farther afield or deeper into the center, depending on your viewpoint. She looks about for the source of that mystique and dismisses the idea of it having as much to do with social availability or seclusion as it has to do with talent.

I’ll just note that she used the t-word before I did. If you say the word “talent” in talks about writerly success or failure these days, you may want to have a getaway car just outside, engine running, driver primed.

Souza knows this, too:

I know it is popular to say, and to want to believe…that everyone who attends [a conference] is talented; they just need a little help in making their talent shine. Therefore, if they attend X or Y conference, and listen to A or B expert and apply their advice or rules, the secret to polishing their work, making it shine, making it salable to the industry will be revealed.

Souza seems, as I do, to like a bit tighter grip on reality. She goes on in her comment to me:

I think we both know: this is not how talent or originality works. Hence the mysterious nature of creativity. The essence of mystique.

Van Gogh’s ‘Drop Of Talent’

What she’s getting at there has to do with more, too, than the traditional dodge in which we intone that everyone has a talent for something and that all we need to do is find our own or others’ talents and help nurture them into fruition.

Many parts of our culture have supported such stances, not least because it’s nice to be nice: we’d rather say that an obese actor is “plump,” even “pleasingly” so; we’d rather say that an author’s book “just needed a good edit”; and we’d rather say that some lousy musicians “just haven’t found their natural talents yet.”

Needless to say, our loose use of the term talent helps us evade the real issues behind it.

  • In contemporary network newsrooms, the anchorperson is your “talent.”
  • In the Old Testament of the Bible, a “talent” was a unit of weight; it could be spoken of as currency.
  • In everyday parlance, a “talent” is usually a mere ability, skill, capability: the kid down the block is “talented” at mowing the neighbors’ lawns; your mom may have a lot of “talent” in the kitchen when it comes to the annual Thanksgiving dinner.

The more we spread around the use of “talent,” the less fearsome a concept it becomes, until we arrive at the inanity of a title like America’s Got Talent. I guess America’s Got Mindless TV Viewers was already taken.

If we bring the word closer to issues of aesthetic and creative effectiveness, however, using it with more accuracy and meaning becomes important. The “special innate or developed aptitude for an expressed or implied activity,” as Merriam-Websters Unabridged dictionary puts it, starts reeling into view. Suddenly, as when parents start comparing their respective children’s grades at school, it get tougher to talk about.

Souza, for example, writes of Vincent van Gogh in compelling terms:

He is a prime example of someone who, among the group of illustrious artists he knew, had a mediocre talent. And yet he had such a passion and commitment to paint, above everything else in his life, in the end, the creative process overtook–I should say, overwhelmed–his given drop of talent, and transformed it into a raging ocean of originality. I’m not saying he didn’t do any formal study–he did the then-popular Bargues course three times, but did not succeed in improving his skills that way. But, in spite of his failures, he became the father of modern art.

I can readily accept van Gogh as a father of modern art, if not the one and only, but in fact I’d rate his “talent” starter kit, if you will, more highly than I think Souza does. She talks of “his given drop of talent.” I’d put it at about a quart and a half. He was able to see the world in a way the rest of us did not until he painted it. That interpretive genius for color, texture, stroke, rhythm, repetition, whimsy, near-terror…all of this, for me, is part and parcel of his native talent. And yes, the work that went into developing it was necessary, as I think it so frequently is. Many of the prodigies do practice, after all. Technique and talent can be two different things.

Also: If you see the world as van Gogh did, please don’t drive.

Craft And Passion

The reason to think about talent today in publishing circles, and particularly in writing, is that the do-it-yourself quality of self-publishing has created — for some, not for everyone — the idea that “talent” isn’t needed.

One of the most eloquent proponents of learning what you need to know is James Scott Bell, who has many times published, both self- and traditionally; an attorney but we don’t hold it against him; a former actor who is far less obnoxious about that than I am; and an instructor of writing and author of many guides — books of the kind he loves to talk about having used to teach himself the craft.

His basic point on this is encapsulated in an essay called Putting The Big Lie To Sleep. Los Angeles’ Bell writes, in part:

I wasted ten years of prime writing life because of The Big Lie…In my twenties I gave up the dream of becoming a writer because I had been told that writing could not be taught. Writers are born, people said. You either have what it takes or you don’t, and if you don’t you’ll never get it…And I discovered the most incredible thing. The Big Lie was a lie. A person could learn how to write, because I was learning.

Now, yes, Bell makes some of his income teaching courses and selling his “how-to-write-a-book books,” as I call them. So we might suspect that it behooves him to say that writing can be learned.

I know Bell well, though, and can vouch for him: he believes this is the case, the teach-ability. I think he would insist that good writing is learnable even if he weren’t making money assisting people in learning it.

I believe him. I believe that he means this with complete sincerity. But I don’t agree. And a part of my admiration for Bell is that he and I are the best of colleagues, despite some differences of opinion.

One of the truest marks of excellence is a lack of defensiveness on significant, core values and principles. In fact, such comfort in one’s skin? — looks a lot like talent to me.

Another of my favorite colleagues, Scratch Magazine’s Jane Friedman (whom at times I’ve credited as “Porter’s Brain”) has written very compellingly about Placing Too Much Importance on Passion.

On that near-cousin of the “talent” confusion, I couldn’t agree more with Friedman, who is based at the University of Virginia. She writes:

I’ve taught hundreds of students with passion. I teach few students with commitment to do the best work possible.

On talent, itself, she and I agree with each other that blisteringly hard work, full commitment, focused concentration, and wise use of resources certainly may be as important as talent. (Talent really can be wasted or simply left unused.) While I tend to see more importance in the presence of talent in writers than I think Friedman does — I think that’s accurate — I do love this note from a “There Are No Rules” column of hers, years ago, at WritersDigest.com:

What I’ve noticed is that most writers who haven’t succeeded (and aren’t sure if they can succeed) love to hear that determination is more important than talent. People who’ve already achieved some level of stature tend to argue for the importance of talent. Successful people have already been “selected” in some fashion, so they’re liable to believe they have talent that others don’t. (Maybe they do, and maybe they don’t. It doesn’t really matter.)

Do We Need To Care?

In so many ways, the digital dynamic is changing things, and some are more subtle than others. I think that one of the subtler shifts has to do with what we’re hearing from Mark Coker of Smashwords — I’ve just written about his latest comments here — and from others, about the overwhelm of so much material.

  • At a time when self-publishing contributes to the glut of content in the marketplace, do would-be writers need to take more seriously questions of whether they have talent to bring to their chances of sales?
  • As hard as it may be to succeed in such an over-crowded field, couldn’t a talk about talent (and what’s needed to develop it) be the most responsible conversation you could have with a writer who seeks your advice?
  • Does it signify a problem that some writers of fiction today have more success selling “book books,” as I call them — how-to-write manuals — than they have selling fiction? If their fiction isn’t selling, do you want to study with them?
  • And how long before the market of aspirational writers will simply be swamped with “book books” telling them how to write? — are we there already? Do truly talented “natural” writers even need so much craft instruction?

These are hard, uncomfortable questions, not the things we like to talk about.

Forget Mozartean prodigies, move past van Gogh, set aside for a moment Philip Glass’ pivotal way of “hearing” our world, and just look at the work in front of you and that of your fellows. Where is there talent that might be described as a special way of seeing the world? — a unique way of hearing dialogue? — an unexpected turn of event in a story? — a stark gift for darkening orchestration? — a new textural approach to marble?

Talent usually makes itself known not in general excellence but in profoundly specific expressions, turns of phrase and idea so distinctive that they feel, paradoxically, universal.

A bit more from Souza’s comment, very lightly edited by me here just for flow outside the context of the comment:

In the end, talent and creativity cannot be quantified or bottled. I believe you do know whether you truly have talent or not (notwithstanding overwhelming doubt perhaps one’s whole life), because it shows up in your writing long before any polishing agents are applied. If you have talent. then I feel you should follow that, and that alone. In your talent –however it shows up in your head and subsequently in your writing (or any other aspect of your life) is where your true Voice resides. The uniqueness that is You. Your talent is you and you are your talent.

I think Souza is right in her understanding of the intimacy of personality and talent. And I agree with her that the person of talent knows that she or he has it. There may be surprises at how it can and cannot be developed, yes, but, as she says, talent is integral to selfhood.

And so what if you know you don’t have talent? What then?

I do think that intelligence and drive can get you a long way, and maybe all the way through to the goals you set for yourself. Those are yours to set, and yours alone.

But certainly in books, where self-publishing’s new plethora of writers is making it harder and harder to find and hold a readership, I think these questions will become more pressing for many in 2015. Without the advantage of talent, success will lie, more than ever, in luck and in sheer force of self-application — the latter being something the most talented people normally bring to bear on their work, anyway, but often with the added zeal of their creativity’s concentration.

Souza, once more:

[Talent] is not something you can manufacture or acquire from attending a workshop or conference. Just as smart people have done nothing to earn the capacity of a smart brain–they were born with that potential through no making of their own. All they had to do after that was make the very best use of their, dare I say it, God-given, or star-driven, capacity.

And this, in the competitive energies of the digital dynamic, may be something we come to know much more about, quite soon.