On Talent

I read with interest this article in The Atlantic today.

I think Ms. McArdle has some really interesting thoughts here. I will confess to having been one of those students who sailed through English classes with straight “As.” In one high school class, I scored so high on a grammar pre-test that the teacher had to dig up more advanced worksheets for me so that I would have something to do when everyone else was working on the standard fare. I graduated from high school with 104% of possible points in my last term of senior “college bound” English (it was my paper on Hamlet that pushed me over the top of the curve, I think). I wrote my first (really awful, really stupid) novel in high school.

But I was that kid who was always doing the English assignments at the last minute. I would do any assigned reading right away, but papers? Meh. I’d dash them off the night before the deadline. The only exception to my night-before habits were those times when outlines, drafts, theses were due ahead of time. In those cases, I’d write the paper and then go back to do all of the required steps after the fact so that I had something to turn in. (I still hate outlines, by the way.)

Lest you think this was how I got through all my classes, let me assure you that I was less than stellar in many other subjects. I had to work my rear-end off in math to maintain my A-minus average. I quit taking math altogether after Algebra II (Hermione, my almost-13-year-old daughter, will very shortly eclipse me in all math-related knowledge). I hated biology and paired up with a lab partner who wanted to be a nurse so that I wouldn’t have to dissect anything. She was happy to let me take notes. I despised P.E.; I was never athletic, so I showed up, dressed down, did the bare minimum to the best of my abilities, and took my B.

My point in recounting my academic career is to assure you that I never felt like one of the “Trophy Kids” Ms. McArdle mentions. I maintained a pretty good GPA, but I had to work for it in most of my classes. I was able to breeze through English (and social sciences, history, and journalism), but there were plenty of subjects that taxed and challenged me.

Which brings me to writing . . . and to the other interesting thoughts in Ms. McArdle’s article.

First, regarding procrastination . . . . Yes, I am the very worst procrastinator in the whole world. And not just in writing endeavors, either. I procrastinate everything. EVERYTHING. So I’m not entirely certain that my procrastination is simply because I was great in English, but I do think that the procrastinator personality might be somewhat connected to the writer/artist personality. I think it might be a creative curse. There’s a certain kind of creative tension that comes from letting thoughts and ideas germinate and stew and simmer as long as possible and then birthing them at the last possible moment. That creative tension often produces some of the best results, in my experience.

Second, regarding actual talent and competition . . . . I think Ms. McArdle has an excellent point about competing with other kids who were also the best in their classes. It’s one thing to be the kid who cruises through English in a small school where she competes with only about 60 other kids in her class. It’s another thing entirely to be a very small fish in a very big pond of very talented people. (Looking back a couple of years, it’s really rather amazing that I got an agent at all.) I thought I was talented . . . until I started reading other writers. REAL writers.

Third, regarding those other writers . . . . Let me amend my previous comment: I thought I was talented until I stopped reading other self-published writers and started reading seriously, ridiculously talented writers. Now . . . well, I think I might be more like one of those singers who thinks she’s talented until Simon Cowell has a chance to express his opinion.

Before someone accuses me of being an elitist when it comes to writing, yes, I do know that there are some very talented writers who are self-publishing their works these days. I’ve read some of them. Some of them are scary good. But the vast majority–and I do believe that’s true, that it’s a vast majority–of self-published stories, novels, and the like are just not very good. That truth becomes abundantly clear when one returns to the mainstream world and starts evaluating self-published works against a higher standard.

That’s what happened to me. Just as when I was in high school, I evaluated myself against others who were not as talented. In my view, I was getting an “A”–soaring through with nary any effort, cruising to excellence because it was easy for me.

But the disconnect came in two places. First, it frustrated me to no end that people with little or no talent–people who were essentially, in my view, vomiting words in random order and slapping them online–were making money hand over fist while I worked hard to offer professional, quality stories and could barely get noticed. To me, it seems like the public would rather have McDonald’s literature than 5-Star restaurant literature. Let’s face it–it’s fast, cheap, and easy. Why not eat a steady diet of McDonald’s? I started down that road myself . . . and let me say, when you consume nothing but McDonald’s literature, you start to think that your own Olive Garden offerings are pretty dang great.

But then I started to feel nutritionally deficient. Here’s the second disconnect: I was starving for decent food–even Olive Garden food. So I started reading classics, literary novels, histories, biographies again. And then I realized that I didn’t even have any right to compete in the same circles as those authors.

All of a sudden, those “As” in English don’t seem so valuable.

Here’s the thing: I am realizing, slowly but surely, as I re-read my most recent writing efforts, that I am just simply not good enough to compete in the literary world. My “As” in English were based on literary criticism and analysis and the papers that resulted from such. So yes, I can analyze the works, I can find the symbolism, I can critique the writing.

But produce good writing?

No. Not even close, not when compared with really talented people. Even the most brilliant literary scholar would have to admit that critique and analysis do not equal talent. A movie critic might be brilliant movie critic, but he’s quite possibly a lousy filmmaker.

So what does that mean for my writing?

I think the concept of giving it all away is sounding better and better.

I have no delusions about my knitting abilities; I’m a fairly average, advanced beginner knitter. I can’t write patterns, and I am only just learning some of the more intricate kinds of stitches that other knitters have mastered. But that’s what makes it so easy to just knit for fun and give it away.

If I’m honest with myself–brutally, painfully honest with myself–then I have to admit that my work is really only worth the free or minimum price that one can charge for self-published works. I’m not a V. S. Naipaul, a Willa Cather, an A. S. Byatt, an Ian McEwan, a Cormac McCarthy. I’m not even close to being a Neil Gaiman, a Stephen King, an Ursula LeGuin. I never will be. And I’m not a career author. I never will be.

And oddly, I think I’m finally coming to a place where I’m okay with that. It’s . . . kind of a relief.

There’s something freeing about this whole thing, really. If I just start to look at my writing as something I do for fun, something I do because I enjoy it, a way to kill time, then . . . well, then it doesn’t matter if I’m the Olive Garden variety or the C-level English student. It doesn’t matter if I give it away, either, because there’s nothing riding on it–no future, no career, no reviews. It doesn’t matter what people say.

It’s just me singing in the church choir or knitting a hat for a friend or dashing off a story for the heck of it.

This is long, and it went in a direction I didn’t intend for it to go, but . . . it feels kind of like a relief to say this stuff.

So now . . . now I have to decide what to do with all the stories sitting there on my hard drive. I’m still not ready to share again, but I am closer. And there are some problems with the concept of giving away my work. I’ll go into those another time.

For now, I’ll keep plugging away at my massive TBR list, and I’ll keep ruminating on these subjects. Time will tell.


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