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Running From Talent: And Your Next Chapter

Image: The Next Chapter, Publit, Stockholm. [1]
Image: The Next Chapter, Publit, Stockholm.


Before Midsummer

Last month as BookExpo America [2] and its Author Hub were about to convene in New York, I had the good fortune to be in Stockholm to speak at a conference called The Next Chapter [3].

It’s produced by the very able Jonas Lennermo [4] and his team at Publit [5], a publishing firm at the heart of Sweden’s highly literate, gracious culture.

I say “good fortune” for two reasons.

Live-tweeting from the stage in Sweden. Image: The Next Chapter, Publit, Stockholm. [6]
Live-tweeting from the stage in Sweden. Image: The Next Chapter, Publit, Stockholm.

First, while making the run to Stockholm and back looked pretty meshugga on paper — I’d be getting back to the States with about a 36-hour turnaround to BEA in New York — the dash actually proved to be an amazing breather in a laughably busy spring season. There was a speakers’ dinner in a jewel-box castle built by the crown as a viewing stand for ice skating. There was a design-hotel room in a former barracks, centuries old. There were engaged, focused co-speakers and conferees ready with lively exchanges of views. And there was a long, long supper outdoors in the all-but-endless evening light, the kind of moment when colleagues become friends. I left richer than when I went in.

Second, the trip had a sort of parallel journey running alongside it, something peculiar on the wing of each 767 I jumped onto: it was as if I’d flown briefly away from the turmoil of the industry! the industry! and into what I seriously can only truthfully describe as the “talent” of what we’re on about here in writing and publishing.

In a curious coincidence, Suzannah Windsor Freeman’s [7] piece “Do I Have Talent?” You’re Asking the Wrong Question [8] ran here at Writer Unboxed as I flew back. And there it was: The Talent Question. Like The Intelligence Question, it’s one I find fascinating because it scares away so many people so needlessly.

Mind you, Freeman’s evocation of a special difficulty women can have with this point is powerful, I won’t raise a hand against it. Based in a Psychology Today article [9] from Heidi Grant Halvorson [10], it posits the issue as a gender-based dilemma in which boys are socially indoctrinated to believe they can do more to better themselves than girls are. I don’t doubt for a moment that most of this concept is woefully viable.

I know from reading Louann Brizendine [11]‘s marvelous reductio-ad-duct-tape The Male Brain [12] that the kinetic nature of boys’ development matches the kind of “try harder” instruction given to them — Halvorson refers to this — and I can understand how this may translate for guys into a “you can do it” message.

But we tussle with The Talent Question on a much roomier, broader plain in publishing and writing than gender-based considerations give us.

On that wider field of things that weird us out, a mention of talent gets everybody confused and defensive, just as a mention of intelligence does. So needlessly.

What Are We Talking About?

Intelligence is best understood as a measure of adaptability. How well can you adapt to a situation? How well can you take in a situation and handle it? How well can you solve problems. Not how many capitals of Asia you can name.

How adaptable are you? That’s intelligence. [pullquote]Doing It Yourself gets way beyond an IKEA kit when your idea for a book arrives with no instructions and more than a few screws missing.[/pullquote]

And talent? Aptitude. A proclivity for something. A faculty for something. A natural inclination toward something. Not necessarily a prodigy’s tour jeté across the ballet stage, just a propensity.

My grandmother never measured a single ingredient in her life in the kitchen, never had a moment’s training, and yet she was an astonishingly good cook. Her Deeply Southern recipes died with her because they were recorded nowhere. My mother tried to catch sugar, flour, other ingredients as Zola poured them through her hands into mixing bowls, to see if she could recreate what came out of that kitchen near Charleston. Impossible. She could never replicate Zola’s recipes. They were the results of talent, of a strange, almost scary ability to sense what would work and what wouldn’t on the stove and in the oven.

Why are we so afraid to speak of talent in writing, in literature, in publishing?

You want to tell me my grandmother wasn’t talented?

When Self-Help…Doesn’t

Image: The Next Chapter, Publit, Stockholm. [13]
Image: The Next Chapter, Publit, Stockholm.

What if it’s because we’re in an era of highly inflated self-help? — and in an industry that, indeed, has always depended on the talents of strangers, Blanche.

Modern traditional publishing, because it uses a creative corps that works outside of those office buildings in Manhattan, has always had to hope that someone, anyone, probably without formal training, would turn up with a manuscript that could be made usable. Like an automaker waiting for the next model design to come from an unknown bright kid in the boondocks, publishing’s whole infrastructure of queries and rejections, agents and acquisitions, has marched forward on the belief that somewhere out there, somebody’s talent was enough to get a respectable start on a book that ingenious editing and production could make salable.

And today, as the digital dynamic puts the tools of publishing into the hands of those bright kids in the boondocks, those bright kids are newly aware that they’re having to hunt down and recognize their own talents. Cultivate them. Refine them.

For most of them, there won’t be any uptake at big buildings in Manhattan and no ingenious editors and designers to make them fly. Doing It Yourself gets way beyond an IKEA kit when your idea for a book arrives with no instructions and more than a few screws missing.

Of all things, this is the worst time to try to deny the importance of talent.

And yet, “guru” after “master” after “expert” comes trundling past us yelling, “Talent is crap! All you need is hard work!” Whole books are out there on this.

I read Geoffrey Colvin’s [14]Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else  [15], and I’m here to tell you that Colvin is overrated. He talks of “deliberate practice” as the key. I’m good with that, no problem — and what else would talented people do but engage in deliberate practice in the area in which they discover their natural capabilities?

How can we be so crazed for political correctness that we’d toss off the importance of the soul-rooted interests and gifts we need and should learn to locate in ourselves? Why not name them, trust them, yes, Colvin, practice them?  No, you need  not walk up and down the street in your neighborhood listing the talents you’ve discovered in yourself. But you do need to discover them. And then, yes by all means, work hard on them, build up the craft to raise the art of your interests, sure.

[pullquote]Could it be that so many folks trying to succeed in this newly accessible career path believe they don’t have the talent to handle it?[/pullquote]

Here’s my question: Why are we so busy these days denying this? I can’t see why shouting “Talent is crap! All you need is hard work!” is so satisfying.

Could it be that so many folks trying to succeed in this newly accessible career path believe they don’t have the talent to handle it?

Ah. Well, then. Maybe when only three Americans are left not writing books, we should expect a lot of them to be working pretty hard to convince themselves that “All you need is hard work!”

If that’s it — if this time of inflated self-help is the outcome I fear it is of a lot of folks trying to do something for which they may not have identified a real talent in themselves — then you’re going to need to be truer than ever to an understanding of your own potentials and what they are.

Is This About Insecurity?

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh [16]
Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

Believe me, spotting the talent that underlies what you’re working to do is your best course. Work like hell on it, absolutely, but don’t let some quack tell you it doesn’t count.

What I saw in Sweden was a day of conversation about publishing and literature that turned on the talents of various presenters.

The program had a sort of clean elegance to it because each person coming to the stage arrived with his or her ideas and presentation well in hand. Instead of multi-tracked panel discussions with folks trying to address issues in 50 minutes flat, we heard targeted, neatly conceived messages,  one at a time, in a sequence with an arc — a beginning, a middle, and an end.

It took talent to program this — and hard work.

And it took talent — and more hard work — for each person to play her and his role in the day.

I like what it showed me about working at one’s desk. Instead of trying to mash oneself into the wrong chair to write the wrong thing for the wrong people, it starts with what one might do best, might like most, might find nearest at hand.

Talent tells us these things about ourselves. I say we deny it at our peril.

How closely to your own perceived talents are you working in your writing life? Do you feel like you’re trying to contort yourself into something you may not really be? Why do you think we’re so hesitant to talk about talent? Is everybody that insecure about what they’re doing? Or is it something else?

About Porter Anderson [17]

@Porter_Anderson [18] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [19], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [20] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [21]