Tuesday, April 10, 2007

What's Talent Got to Do With It

97,000 words (back on track)

One ending has been chosen, the other locked in its cupboard. The scratching behind that door grows feebler, the weeping softer. Soon they may stop entirely.

Meanwhile, CS Harris got me thinking. She's got a great series of posts up right now comparing bestsellers with similar, though much less successful, books. The differences seem to jump right out.

Which made me wonder, what's talent got to do with it?

The creative fields are a funny business. Art, literature, music-- hell, interpretive dance and mime are crowded with yahoos whose self-esteem eclipses their ability (think American Idol open auditions), and then there are the few superstars who make it to being household names. And those two ends of the scale are all people know.

Mention you're a writer at a party. You'll hear about Uncle Elmer's manuscript, unfinished after twenty years. You'll hear about how JK Rowling's richer than the Queen. You might even get my favorite suggestion, "You gotta get you an idea like that one." Gee, thanks.

It takes an enormous amount of work, training, drive and maybe talent just to rise onto the lowest rungs. And from there? Fuggeddaboudit....

I worked hard, trained hard and drove over, under or through every obstacle to carve out a lovely career for myself in art. Then, selfish prick that I am, I 'decided' (reason for air quotes: see That Twisting Urge) to reinvent myself as a writer.

So what's talent got to do with it?

I had no idea if I had any, for one thing. I also didn't care, for another. Now, I don't mean that in the sense so many Idol hopefuls obviously do. It's just that there are several factors important to success.

Talent's the only one we have no control over, so why worry about it. Most people don't fail through lack of talent, and quite a few succeed despite any discernible scrap of it. They fail due to fear, laziness, priorities and bad influences.

Fear: kills heaps of dreams before they start. Understandable, I guess. The creative life offers no steady paychecks, no built-in understanding from family and friends and the sorts of embarrassment that make standing naked in a roomful of strangers seem easy by comparison. It's not for the faint of heart.

Laziness: A many-headed beast I rail on about a lot on this blog. It takes a lot of hours to write a novel, even a bad one. It takes a lot of hours to do the reading to stay up on the field. And it takes something extra to not settle for any less than your best.

That means not accepting stereotyped characters, flat prose, hackneyed situations and anything less than total honesty in our observations of human nature. I think the horror genre unravelled in the eighties under a flood of 'good enough' work.

Good enough never is.

Priorities: I had to include this to be honest. I have no children and a 'job' that only requires me to work two or three days a week. I keep my needs modest so that I have the time to write thirty, forty, even fifty hours a week if I feel like it. Most people don't have that, and some will just be too plain tired at the end of a day to sit down with pad and pen or keyboard or goose quill and parchment and give it their best.

Fair enough, too.

Bad Influences: Another form of laziness, really. Before I got serious about writing, I read what I felt like, and my tastes are quite frankly a little on the trashy side. I come back again and again to 50's and 60s pulp crime, 80s horror and sci-fi/fantasy. Like a lot of casual readers, I was reluctant to take a chance on any first-time novelist and anybody who wasn't on the bestseller lists.

My first novel sure reflected it, too. I put myself on a strict program of every award-winning debut novel I could find, as well as the top winners in my favorite genres. There was no use looking at where the bar had been set thirty years ago. There was no use looking to certain established authors who'd been writing essentially the same book over and over for years, either.

Where does talent fit in?

It's a tiny, tiny leg up. It's a little rush of pleasure and promise that gets us started. It's an extra inch or two forward on the long, long, LONG road to becoming as good as we can be.

And maybe, in fact probably, it's also the hidden end of our personal ruler. I'm tone-deaf, and I seriously doubt that any amount of hard work, training and perserverance will make me a concert violinist.

Too many musicians out there putting in the hard work who actually have talent, too.


etain_lavena said...

Thank you for this....I am packing my entire life up to go and write. I mean I can stuff up bad and lose everything. But at this moment it is not half as bad as living a life I do not want. So I am gonna be a writer, fine I will struggle, hell I might not be any good. I am gonna give a hell of a bash at it...
REALLY THANKS for this post:)

Charles Gramlich said...

Talent considerations aside, for me in the last decade the issue has been priorities. I've spent a lot of hours writing, but have also raised a boy to the age of 19. Josh always was number 1 on my priority list. Always will be. I became a teacher in part because I thought it would give me more time to write, but that career kind of took off too so I ended up for nearly 20 years spending more time on it than I would originally have thought. When I was in my 20s and 30s, though, I had the energy to do both to some extent, and wrote late at night and on weekends. Now in the 40s I'm prioritizing again. Thus my plan to take off this summer. We'll see how well it pays off. Great post, full of food for thought.

cs harris said...

A friend who teaches music says his best students aren't the most talented--they tend to be lazy because it comes too easily. His best musicians are the ones with some talent who work hard.

As a child, I wanted to be an artist. When I realized in my teens I was never going to be the next Leonardo, I gave it up. When I started writing, I knew I was never going to be the next Shakespeare, but for some reason I didn't let it stop me. I'm not sure if it was because I was older, or because I actually have less native talent as a writer than as an artist, so I had no illusions of grandeur. Good, thought-provoking post.

Steve Malley said...

And to think I woke up this morning tempted to delete this post. It struck me as blathery and embarrassing.

Mostly, I think it was just a bit like standing naked in public. But that's what connects, I guess.

Charles Gramlich said...

Yeah, I think that even here in net land people can sense sincerity. And they appreciate it because our day to day war with the media doesn't give us much of it elsewhere.