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The Matter of Talent


6266047952_d66b7d7cac_zI’ve been thinking about talent a lot lately, and also about the whatever it is that drives us to follow certain paths. Why does one person dance, another preach, another write novels? Is talent a thing? Where does it come from? How do we know if we have it—or don’t?

It is a snowy Friday morning. The pine tree outside my second floor window holds up ice cream cones of powdery snow. It is utterly quiet aside from the dog snoring at my feet and a pair of finches commenting on the state of affairs.

I am writing.

I am writing, because writing is what I do. Writing is my job, of course. It is my vocation and my passion. It’s also the way I make sense of confusing ideas, when I write letters or engage in discussions online. I write in my journals to discover what I’m thinking, and to create a record of my days, just the ordinary things, the big and small (nearly all small, frankly, as the details of our lives tend to be). I write about the weather and my pets. I write the details of a world that exists only in my imagination, and about the looming reality of my beloved leaving his very cushy job to pursue other passions. I write about my grandmother and my granddaughters, painting and the garden, sisters and the Black Death and travel and possibility.   In my journals, I’ve written my way to understanding that I had to end a marriage, and then, to know I was ready to make a new commitment.

Writing is my oldest friend, my most reliable and long term companion. As long as I can remember, the page has always been there, the words rolling around in my head, and pouring onto the page. It has nothing to do with talent or training. It’s something that flowed into my life so early I can’t even remember it not being there. That must be at the very least a sort of genetic leaning—I come from a long line of Irish mystics and storytellers.

Is that talent?

I don’t know. I’m not sure I even know what talent is anymore. A leaning, an inclination, a knack for a certain something. My younger son has always been gifted athletically—he could out-run anyone in the school without even breaking his sweat. Maybe that’s talent. His older brother has a knack for elegant argument, and has since he was a small child. Is that talent?

One of the reasons the notion of talent has come up for me is the fact that I’ve become devoted to painting and drawing again. At one time, I would have said that I had a genuine talent for art—it was natural and ordinary to me. Artists run in the family. I also loved art classes at school and populated my electives schedule with them. I took it as a given that I’d always engage in drawing and painting, and I’d do well at it.

After an extreme encounter with a bad teacher when I was fifteen, however, I put my pencils and paints down, picked up a camera, and did not touch my art supplies for several decades. Now it has come back into my life, and I’m awash with the wild pleasure of it, even when the work is raw and awkward, even when I can’t quite get it right no matter what I do. I pass many hours every week engaged in the pursuit of getting better. And you know, I honestly am getting better.

Is that talent? Was that something real when I was a child, or is the pursuit of art a natural thing children do? I don’t know the answer to that, either.

Writing was in first place for me from the age of twelve, when I wrote my first short story. I was the crazy bookworm who ordered more Scholastic books than anyone in the school, who had the biggest stack of library books, who never did much of anything but read (and draw). But when I realized that writing could be a job, I never seriously considered any other thing. Never.

No one in my family was a writer, not including my grandmother who wrote a truly prodigious number of letters. They’re artful and rich, the outpourings of a lyrical, heavy reader with a big vocabulary and passion to spare—but she didn’t become a writer. I was on my own in that one. I didn’t even know how to think about being “talented” in the writing arena. I just knew I liked it.

Luckily, in this arena I found encouragement from teachers, friends, relatives I wanted to please. The more approval I found, the more I wrote, practicing, practicing, practicing. Over time, that practice added up to more adroit skills, which led to more encouragement and positive correction. By the time I published my first book, I had definitely written more than the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell popularized, easily the million words Bradbury says we have to hit. (As I considered writing this article, I tried to calculate how many words I’ve actually written in my life, and I gave up at ten million published words, which barely covers my books, never mind the blogs and articles and journals and letters and internet posts.) That number doesn’t even have any meaning to me.)

I’ve written a lot. A lot.

But there is that never-quite forgotten inclination toward drawing. Painting. It seemed sort of hopeless when I started a year and a half ago, that I could really “catch up.” I kept apologizing to the world in general for falling so crazy in love with it—I’m not really very good, it’s just for fun, it fills the well. All of that is true. But it’s also protective. It seems crazy to imagine mastering something you pick up at midlife. If I had any kind of “talent” for this, would I have allowed myself to be derailed by a mean-spirited teacher?

I’m taking a drawing class and the instructor, a Yale professor, insists that drawing is not a mysterious undertaking that only certain people (those with “talent”) can master. It is a skill built on particular blocks of knowledge. If you gain mastery of the blocks, you’ll gain mastery of the skill. In his estimation, it takes an average of 150 hours to master it. It is hard work, this class. The building blocks are sometimes, frankly, a bit tedious. They’re also really helping. I am beginning to understand proportion and volume and perspective and shape and… how to use my pencils, my erasers, how to fail and keep going.

150 hours to learn something is a lot better than 10,000, right? Even better, my friend Mel Scott [1](who is the writer who inspired me to pick up watercolors in the first place), tipped her readers off to a Ted Talk [2] in which the speaker claimed what you really need is only 20 hours. 20!

No talent necessary.

That’s the thing. I don’t believe in talent. I believe we’re born with inclinations toward numbers or shapes or color or words, but that’s not the same thing as the emotionally-loaded “talent.”

We make the creative impulse mysterious and difficult, when actually, it’s just like anything else: it needs practice and attention. To learn any skill, we have to practice. We have to find teachers who know more than we do and spend time listening to them, then trying their methods. We do this over and over until we find the methods that work with our brains and minds. We do it for 20 hours, 150 hours, maybe even 10,000 hours (which the TED speaker says is for high level mastery).

That makes it so much easier, doesn’t it? If I only have to go to my drawing table and work on the next lesson on perspective, that’s a very straightforward, clear goal. I’m working on perspective. Maybe I’ll get it right away and maybe it will be hard, but what I have control over is showing up to practice. Train my eye, my hand, my nerves.

Same with writing. Talent is mostly an inclination and a desire toward doing a particular thing. Wonder, delight, an urge toward it. If you’re here, reading this column, you obviously have that. What you must to do master your writing is to practice. You must learn your own voice, how you like to set down words, what hours are best, what subjects inspire you.

To do that, you’ll have to set up your lessons, the space and time you need, and give yourself permission to practice, expand, experiment, explore. Just practice, wherever you are—maybe you’re a high level master who is working on the finest, most intricate points of plotting or character development or language. Perhaps you have just begun and must practice the basic blocks. It doesn’t matter. Practice where you are, take the next hour and the next to learn what you need.

Talent? Bah. I believe in practice, which what really leads to mastery.

How do you feel about the idea of talent? When did you discover your inclination toward writing? What are your modes of practice? Have you found your voice under the direction of a good teacher or workshop?

About Barbara O'Neal [3]

Barbara O'Neal [4] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [5], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [6].