It’s not particular to writing; it’s particular to life. And it comes in many forms, the first, most obvious, that some of us are simply born good. Good at writing, good at maths, good at music, talent not so much a seed as a forest, in full flower, with all the sunlight, water, everything it might need, unearned, untended, just there.
Einstein was doing Pythagoras while the rest of us were still mesmerised by the clickety-clack of the beads on the abacus.
In some cases it becomes modified to passion, to obsession that cannot be sated. King states, ‘ You can’t choose it any more than you can choose to be right or left handed’, and psychologist Ellen Winner defines the gifted as having ‘a rage to master’, being ‘intrinsically motivated to make sense of the domain in which they are precocious’. Neither believes that you can ‘make’ talent.
How about define it?
Winner gives it a fair try. She divides it into three categories:
One, an early mastery. Back to Einstein in the crib. But if a child is not exposed to badminton, or read bedtime stories 0r given the opportunity to play chess until out of nappies?
Two, creativity. Which seems somewhat circular. Can you measure creative talent by measuring creative talent? She specifies they have their own approach, ideas that set them apart, but this still throws up the question of ‘how can we determine this?’ Certainly every writer I have known has their own slightly peculiar sense of the so called rules.
The third, as detailed above, the obsession. Do we define obsession by output? By pursuit against odds?
If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, they would not think it so wonderful – Michaelangelo (supposedly)
Mozart crippled himself. Van Gogh gave an ear for his two thousand some scribbles.
But how then do we reconcile the work of JD Salinger, whose great first novel was to be his last? Or Harper Lee, famous for one novel only but whose power and influence is still reverberating through time? Patterson writes daily, and publishes hourly.. Amanda Hocking apparently wrote seventeen novels in her spare time.
But even Mozart, Beethoven and countless other greats, no matter how prolific, are known by the vast majority for only a few works. Many today couldn’t even name a Beethoven composition, although they’d likely recognise one or two.
Many believe output is still fundamentally about quality, the rest the steps towards mastering it.
How do we measure quality?
Our attempts often lead to another oft quoted form of the myth: Cream always rises to the top.
In 1984 Leonard Cohen penned a little ditty about the vulnerability of love, a little ditty the record company wasn’t too charmed by.
Couple of decades, a big green ogre and tv talent contest later and over 300 artists have covered it and it’s been so frequently used across most media even its creator thinks its time to give it a rest.
I was just reading a review of a movie called Watchmen that uses it and the reviewer said – “Can we please have a moratorium on ‘Hallelujah’ in movies and television shows?” And I kind of feel the same way…I think it’s a good song, but I think too many people sing it
Is that example of cream rising to the top? Or how easy it is for it to be overlooked, unrecognised for what it is? For the sheer power of familiarity? Doris Lessing certainly thought so, claiming after her publisher rejected her anonymously penned novel, that ‘nothing succeeds like success’.
When Stephen King was given a lifetime achievement for contributions to literature it moved Harold Bloom to say
He is a man who writes what used to be called Penny Dreadfuls. That they could believe that there is any sign of literary value there.. or inventive human intelligence is simply a testimony to their own idiocy.
Do you know who Harold Bloom is?
No, me neither, though he sounds in every way like a character from a Truman Capote novel.
Barbara Baig, who apparently spent an entire book disproving this myth called talent, believes it to be,
..the assumptions we make about other people’s ability that stop us from developing our own…
Why must you then concern yourself with it? It might seem a little like thinking about elephants when someone tells you not to think about elephants. But it will come at you in many forms, a true writer must write, luck is for the lazy; they’ll contradict each other, if its hard work maybe it’s not meant to be; it often involves the words, good, writer and must. It can seem to be about talent but just as often about luck, hard work or rules, of grammar, of convention, of story. It’s been present in this blog, I can’t deny it. At its heart it’s our innate desire to find our place on the hierarchy, to know before we poke our heads above the parapet if we’re going to get shot down, and where that shot might come from.
You can believe in innate talent, or not, but if you do, and you work in insurance, are you finding the days a little too grey and long? Does old age feel too far away? Maybe it isn’t about talent, or meeting someone else’s criteria of creamy goodness, maybe its just about happiness.