December 18, 2013

On talent

I might have some pretty big news to announce sometime soon, but for now I thought I’d talk a little bit about a subject that’s bothered me for a long time.

Creativity is usually thought of as being inherently mysterious. This is chiefly because creativity is usually experienced from the audience’s perspective: you are not seeing the process, you’re seeing the product, which, if successful, is engrossing and communicative in all kinds of exciting, thought provoking ways.

Since (I’m gonna go ahead and trot out the a-word) art does stuff to you in such weird, unseen ways, people assume its creation occurs in a similar manner: art is made in a mystic, impenetrable series of suggestions and obfuscations leading up to, I don’t know, something akin to revelation for the artist, which the artist then shares with the audience. Every act of creation, one might imagine, is an epic journey, one dedicated prophet scaling the mountain to capture a few licks of fire in their hands.

Because of this assumption, people usually chock up any success in art to talent, which is as inexplicable and arbitrary as they imagine creation to be: “It’s just something that person is good at,” they might say. “They have a natural ability. Their brains have antennae that receive signals the rest of us don’t even know are there.” What is unspoken is, “These people are chosen to do this. It’s a gift.”

This is crap.

I personally know that though talent is indeed real, its participation in the final product is often much, much, much more minimal than most people seem to think.

An anecdote:

When I was in high school, I was setting up myself to eventually one day be a professional classical violist. For those that don’t know, a viola looks like a violin, but is really more akin to the cello. It is usually relegated to a supporting function in any given performance, possibly because it’s a little harder to make a viola sound nice; more so than a violin or a cello, at least, which musicians seem to agree have designs that make it easier to create prettified music.

I was pretty good at the viola. I placed in a lot of competitions. I was always first chair in my orchestra, and when I played for chair placement in competitions, I usually got second to fourth or fifth chair. (Rarely first. More on that in a bit.) This was for two reasons:

1. The viola was a lot less competitive than other instruments. Kids prefer the spotlight, which the viola rarely gets. So that made it easier.

2.  I was pretty talented at music.

The way I know I was pretty talented at music was that I could intuitively feel the way the music was going and the way it wanted to be played. I knew the beats, I knew the flow, I knew when a note was sharp or flat, and once I heard a piece two or three times I could probably play the melody back to you with only a couple mistakes. Given a few minutes, I could probably play most of it acceptably well. I played piano as a kid too, and I still recall picking out tunes on the piano from the far more complicated symphonic works I was practicing on the viola, much to the irritation of my teachers.

Most kids couldn’t do this. Some kids could do it better. But on the most part, I was one of only a handful of kids who could sightread and mimic music without working too hard at it.

But as stated above, I almost never got first place when I competed. I usually got beat, often by a handful of the same girls, year after year.

Why? Well, just because I was talented at music, it didn’t mean I had an overwhelming passion for it.

I know that now. Because now I know how I write.

When I’m working on a book, it’s like only a third or less of my brain is functioning at any point in time. It becomes very hard to focus on my day-to-day life: I find myself getting into the car with my family with absolutely no idea where I’m going or what’s happening. I never have any idea what’s happening later in the week, or the month, or even that day. When I go to sleep, I’m thinking about the story, and when I wake up and shower, I’m thinking about the story. Often I randomly open up the story and scan pieces of it to make sure it’s okay. I email myself notes about it in mid-conversation, to the infuriation of everyone around me. I’ll randomly think of an error or a problem in the story – “Shit, I said these guys were tri-lingual at the start and later I say all foreign languages were phased out hundreds of years ago!” – and I’ll have to fix it right now, right now! And if someone mentions a problem with the story, it’ll bother me until I fix it, making it hard to think about anything else.

I didn’t do any of that kind of shit when I played viola. I wanted what I played to sound good, but it didn’t really bother me if it didn’t. I didn’t obsess over it. And I definitely didn’t work at it. Rather, I coasted, winning acclaim from the lower tiers but never really trying to make my way at any higher levels, because I think, perhaps subconsciously, I knew that this wasn’t something I especially wanted to do with my life. I liked people telling me I was great – who doesn’t, especially at sixteen? – but I had no ambition to build on that.

So when it actually mattered, I got my ass kicked. Because there were kids out there who felt the total opposite: music obsessed and bothered them on a preternatural level. They went to bed and woke up thinking about music. They learned other instruments so that they could learn more about their original instrument, exploring the differences and similarities. They spent hours and hours and hours in the practice room – something I personally dreaded and hated. And on the buses to and from performances, they’d sit there and read scores, full orchestral scores, as if they were books. They couldn’t imagine not doing this.

So I was a kid who had talent but possessed no particular desire or drive to do more with it. As such, I eventually did not do much with it: in college, I switched my major to English and started thinking about writing. And that made me pretty happy.

Talent, y’see, is maybe 5% of what makes the creative process. The rest of it, as I can personally attest, is gristle and tedious bullshit: it’s trying, trying, trying, trying, trying, trying and trying again. It’s work. It’s hugely imperfect. It’s ugly as hell. It is frustrating and, frequently, stupid. And ideally it’s a far cry from the finished work, because odds are behind any good work is an ocean of blood, sweat, and tears. (For me, it’s work to the degree that I don’t dedicate my books to anyone anymore, because I don’t wish to mentally associate my loved ones with something that might’ve beaten the shit out of me, or bothered the hell out of them as I worked on it. Would a miner dedicate a particularly good chunk of a coal to his mother?)

The difference is who’s willing to do the work. Talent can make some difference. A talented person who works will probably find success slightly easier to obtain than a person with less talent who works.

However, a talented person who does not work will always, always, always find less success and less reward than a less talented person who does work. A person who works, who really, really works, can teach themselves things that easily make talent a moot point.

There’s a choice implicit the creative process – “Are you really going to work at this?” – and no one is really chosen or given a special gift to succeed.