Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Talent: Mystique Or Mistake

I saw a comment on Twitter about writing TALENT that I just have to discuss here because Talent is such a big issue when you're contemplating "becoming" a writer. 
Before we start on that, I have to point out that this week the Vampire anthology I edited (but did not contribute a story to) is just now available on Amazon etc, and it contains stories by 9 authors who would all be labeled "Talented" by most observers.  I didn't select these stories because the writers are "Talented," and I doubt any editor would choose stories for an anthology on that basis.  


So this comment I found on Twitter could be paraphrased: "I hope someday someone will recognize my Talent as a writer."

The comment made me very sad, but it reminded me we hadn't discussed Talent here at all.  In fact, I'm not sure I've used that word in these writing discussions.

That's because I don't "believe in" Talent as necessary to being a professional artist, actor, writer, wordsmith, dreamspinner, whatever you call what we do in writing Romance stories.  

I don't believe a lack of Talent is a barrier to achieving anything, in the Arts, Sciences, or anywhere.  In fact, you'll do better without Talent than with it.

When I was in 4th grade or so, there was an English assignment to write a "Tall Story" after we'd studied Paul Bunyan and related stories. 

I immediately grasped the concept of the Tall Story.  It seemed way beyond the conceptual ability of the rest of the class (in my school, a class was about 50 students and 1 teacher, which I consider an ideal ratio probably because I got used to it young.)

Now this was long before I became steeped in Science Fiction, and may have been the reason my mother introduced me to Science Fiction when I was in 5th grade, but she never said so.  I basically invented the entire field of science fiction, whole cloth out of nothing except kid-lit about talking animals etc.  I'd never heard of science fiction at that time, and Adult Fantasy didn't exist as a field.  So I made it up for a Tall Story. 

I don't remember much about that first story I ever wrote.  This is pretty much before I actually learned to READ which was in 5th grade after my mother brought me SF novels from the adult library when I was home sick.  I do remember I wrote about a guy who lived all alone in a cabin on the side of a craggy, rocky mountain overlooking a huge gorge (I can still see the image in my mind.)  I lived at that time in a totally flat town with a couple of small hills in the distance.  I'd never seen any place that looked like the setting for this story.  I don't remember the character I invented or what he did except it was "impossible" and involved affecting something on the other side of the gorge.  Yes, it was about a guy not a gal.  I had no idea of plot or story structure.  The assignment was to think of a Tall Story - something impossible that nobody else could imagine could be true. 

That's exactly what I did.  And everyone was astonished (except the rest of the class of course; they were just confused).  My teacher and my parents said I was Talented.  I didn't have a clue what "Talent" meant but it seemed to me it pleased them, which was a rare experience for me so it made an impression.

I was in 10th grade before I actually committed myself to a lifetime career as a writer of science fiction, do or die trying. 

Even by then, I had no clue what Talent was but I had ascertained by experiment and experience that I had NONE other than the ability to imagine the inconceivable as if it were commonplace reality.  I just didn't live in the same "world" other people around me lived in, but most people wouldn't call that a Talent.  More like a handicap?  

Long after I finished college, I did discover what Talent is and that I do have some, just not for art or writing stories or anything I really wanted to do. 

In between, I was increasingly puzzled by what people mean by the word Talent, and more and more determined to find out what Talent is, where it comes from, why it exists, and whether or why it matters at all.

The prevailing culture we live in is as obsessed with Talent as I am with the meaning of Words.  I love words.  I love how they feel in my mouth, especially words in a foreign language.  I love languages, especially those that are not cognate with English, my native language. 

I love gnawing at the puzzle of how the mind works, how humans use symbols like words, how ideas are generated and communicated with words, binding generations together so that we truly do "stand on the shoulders of giants." 

I love ideas, and how they interweave and turn around each other, forming dimensional pictures in the mind.  I love the research involved in relating the mind and the brain.  I love this world and the people who live in it, bewildered and happy at the same time.  Falling in love is what life is all about.  The things you do when in a mental/emotional state of that kind of love/joy/happiness/delight succeed no matter the barriers that seem to be in the way, no matter the lack of Talent or Skill.  Love does indeed conquer All. 

So, after my mother introduced me to science fiction, and I found science fiction fandom (or rather it found me: I wrote a letter to an SF Magazine that was published with my address and my mailbox exploded with letters from fellow-fans) I set out to launch myself into a profession as a writer, and knew I needed a strategy.

At that time, I didn't know that Love Conquers All, I just knew that nothing on earth was going to stop me no matter what. 

So I started my research by reading a lot of biographies of writers, famous and otherwise, (and autobiographies, too), which led to reading a lot of history and non-fiction travel books (I read everything on parapsychology and UFOs in the library even though I had to sneak into the stacks and sit there to do it being too young to borrow those adult books).  My attitudes towards words and language, and a host of other subjects like drama and philosophy, all painted a picture of a writer.  I learned that I had everything needed for a career in writing except Talent (but who cares, I will not be stopped!)  One thing all successful writers had in common was Travel -- and I hadn't done much of that. 

Talent, I thought, was something I'd have to do without, but Travel -- that lack I could remedy.

I loved to travel.  My Dad took us on a vacation every year to interesting places, and I loved riding in the car staring out the window, stopping and meeting people who lived in different places.  Eventually I learned to love driving the Interstates.  By the time I got out of college, I was able to drive across country (coast to coast) and stop and drive around towns without a map (pre-GPS), though years later I had to rely on maps because they kept building roads.  With a map, I could go anywhere.

But I'd never been farther out of this country than across the Mexican border to a border town (places you wouldn't go wander around in by yourself today).  So when I got out of college, I got a job in Israel and lived there for a couple of years -- language, travel, adventure became my middle name. 

I had determined that I was a science fiction writer -- though I hadn't written anything except a couple of novels when I was in college, and some worldbuilding exercises when I was in 7th-10th grade. 

I invented worlds and  characters incessantly (another signature habit of the pre-writer).  I wrote a lot of long-long (20 page) letters to pen pals in foreign countries.  I wrote a lot of letters to other science fiction fans, and articles for fanzines (on paper), and that letter-to-the-editor that was my first print publication.  I chained a lot of words together, but never actually did any of the things I've been discussing in these blog posts as the essence of the writing craft until after I was married and raising kids.

I realize now that I was educating myself in the craft by churning out millions of words.  When I had decided to commit my life to the profession of writing, my Aunt gave me a subscription to Writer Magazine, and I went to the library and borrowed (systematically) all the previous issues they had in archive (kids weren't supposed to be able to do that - I had to get my Mom's permission.) 

I came to understand that I have no talent for writing at all.  But I also learned you don't need talent to do a better job at anything than those who have talent.  In fact, having no talent for something is a prime credential for doing that thing at the world-class level. 

I learned that TALENT is the word we use to refer to something that's born into a person.  If you have a talent for something then when you first encounter it, you can do it easily, almost without effort, and with very little actual instruction, and ridiculously few failures.  

You've read biographies of child prodigies who can play Mozart by age 8, or whiz through college math courses before they're 12.  That's talent.

It's like your computer that comes with programs pre-installed.  When you boot it up the first time, you click a few things, type in your name and whatever, and presto the program is running.  You didn't have to shop for it, put a disk in the drive, coax it to load the install program, fight with it.  It just works.

That's talent -- a set of skills pre-installed.  One encounter and presto, the skills are booted and ready to use. 

Some kids can play tennis after being shown how to hold a racket.  Some can learn Ballet at professional levels after some basic exercises to stretch and strengthen muscles, and then being shown how to move to a rhythm.  Something inside goes CLICK and then they can do it, and do it perfectly. 

Some are like that with a violin, and after going through 3 local teachers, they get sent to Juliard at age 14 and pushed to Carnegie Hall.

Not me! 

Not only did I come with no pre-installed writing/storycraft skills, but the talents I do have are irrelevant to learning those skills.

Here's what I learned about Talent that makes the whole thing clear.

Study of Astrology reveals sets of aspects in a natal chart that manifest as what most people call or recognize as Talent. 

Here's the list of Astrology Just for Writers posts I've done on this blog which may mention Talent.

http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2010/03/pausing-for-you-to-catch-up-with-me_30.html  (parts 1-9)



The theory of reincarnation when combined with Astrology indicates that these Talents you see in natal charts are the skills and abilities acquired in prior lives, or maybe bestowed before you're born. 

Well, what I learned is that THIS LIFE I'm living now is the "prior" life for my next life, (if I have one.)

What skills and abilities I acquire in this life will appear in my natal chart next time as Talent.  (Or maybe not, we'll see.) 

So if I work to acquire skills now, I may have them later when I need them.  Or maybe, like now, doing those things won't seem interesting to me, and I'll be off acquiring new Talents. 

I learned that this concept of what Talent is and where it comes from implies something even more profound.  You don't need TALENT!!! It's excess baggage.  And life is better if nobody knows you have it.

In Astrology, the 10th House Cusp is your vocation, your sacred calling, what you were born to do.  That mathematical point in the sky when you were born may not be involved in any of the Talent aspects in your chart, and thus you don't have a Talent for what you were born to do, but it's still your mission in life to do it.  Talents may be missions accomplished in prior lives, but not what this life is about -- or what this life is to prepare you for next time. 

You don't have to be talented to accomplish things.  In fact, the most successful people aren't talented at what they are successful at.  (Madonna comes to mind.)  Those who are talented at something (golf, acting, surfboarding, football) have enormous success very early in life (because what they're doing is altogether too easy for them), skyrocket to the top of their profession, then crash and burn in mid-life, rarely living to old age and seeing great-grandchildren through college.  (Michael Jackson comes to mind.) 

Others, like say George Burns for example, doggedly gain skills and advance in their profession, adding dimensions as they go along, and live to a hundred before they star in the definitive movie of a lifetime (he played God in "Oh, God!"

He and Gracie Allen had a long, massively successful career always adding skills as they went from medium to medium.  Here's another photo from Wikipedia

Stage, to screen to radio to TV and back to the Big Screen.  That's growth, not reliance on Talent alone.

The lesson learned from reading biographies is very simple.  Whatever Talent you have, don't rely on it for everything.  Use it sparingly when necessary, but ignore it most of the time. 

Don't think that if you have a Romance story to write as novel or screenplay, you can't succeed because you have no Talent -- and therefore you never do it ("Don't try; do!" says Yoda for a reason.).  Don't think that you have to find what you're Talented at and do that for the rest of your life.  Don't think that you have to wait for someone (who is Someone) to "discover you" - to recognize your Talent.  These are self-crippling attitudes especially in the kind of turbulent times of technology impacting business models that we live in today. 

Back when George Burns was starting his career, something twisted the consciousness of our culture.  It happened somewhere around the time of the founding of Hollywood and "I'll make you a star!" and Movie Magazines, and "Go to Hollywood and wait tables until you're discovered."

Somehow, a premise has been inculcated into our thinking that Talent matters, that it defines you and your limits, and that having Talent explains stardom, success, and even happiness!  Either you're a Born Mage -- or not.  You have Magic - or not.  And there's nothing you can do to change that.  Worse, without that Talent, you can't do the same things that those with Talent do.  I think I've read at least a hundred Fantasy novels with that premise built into the assumptions. 

So people with money to invest were known in the early Hollywood days to "make Stars."   These producers chose people "out of the gutter," created buzz, popularity, and the Mystique of Talent.  Think Marilyn Monroe. 

Here's a list of Talented Celebrities who have died from Drugs instead of living to 100 and starring as God in an iconic movie:


It's a long list.  It's alphabetized. 

So we've been conditioned to think you can only have this coveted spot at the top of things if you Have Talent.  Now there's a large and growing layer of our society full of people who know they have Talent, who burn with the inner knowledge that they have Talent, and therefore deserve to be "discovered" and "recognized" and elevated to a position of fame and glory celebrated for that unique, special attribute, Talent.  If nobody will "discover" them, then they can't have those coveted things.  Those who don't have Talent are to be pitied and disregarded, so the feeling becomes a desperation to be discovered, thus vindicated in their belief in their Talent.  Everything depends on Talent and only Talent.   

If you buy into the reality of this Mystique, you can find you've made a huge Mistake.  You may succumb to the lure of drugs to cushion the misery or gain acceptance into the community of the Talented who have relied solely on their innate Talent in this lifetime and have not grown on the Soul and Character level.

I decided (way back in High School) after reading of the lives of the Talented Celebrities that the Mystique of Talent was a huge Mistake, and I wasn't going to have anything to do with it.

As a result, I'm spending this life doing something I've never done before (writing), going where my Soul has never been before, forging a New Path through my cosmos. 

I've concluded at this moment in my life that everyone has Talent for something, but the happiest people are the ones who ignore the Talent they already have and work to develop new Talents and thus find themselves growing spiritually and becoming stronger characters.

If nothing else, that strategy keeps you humble because you're always neck-deep in something you can't do and taking a pratfall that would embarrass George Burns (who was a "straight-man" for Gracie, not a Bob Hope or Red Buttons -- look them up on imdb.com ).  Humility-enhancing pratfalls are the lot of every storybook Hero, so choosing such a life, you gain real life experience walking in your character's moccasins.

For more on Strong Characters, see:

And I suspect that because I am spending this life doing something I've never done before with so much love, joy, delight, and happiness in what I'm doing, I've smashed through some barriers that would have stopped a more sober, deliberate, practical person cold in their tracks and sent them scurrying back to relying their innate Talents. 

My advice to young people seeking a Happily Ever After life is not to "do what you know" or "do what you're good at" -- but rather "do what you LOVE, what jolts you with joy."  Do the things you don't need mood-altering-substances to endure doing.  Do the things that elevate your mood without chemical assistance such as "energy drinks" (which I secretly suspect are poisonous: they just discovered they enhance tooth decay!).  If you need an energy drink, you're in the wrong business.   

I've had to learn writing craft with conscious, deliberate, slow, plodding, error-ridden efforts, driven only by my obsessive curiosity, absolute determination, and a need to talk to people in symbols and hear their responses. 

Here is a web page where I've been collecting a list of writers who have responded in ways that fill me with joy.  I have recently added Peter Smalley http://www.kindlingpress.com  a writer who has chosen the Indie Author path, which I've talked about in so many posts here on the changing business model of writers. 


 Here's what he said to me on Google+
When Anne McCaffrey died recently it made me think of all the great authors whose work meant so much to me as a young reader. Growing up, my imagination was taken to so many wondrous places, was populated by so many amazing characters, and rarely lacked for some creative question to pursue. Now that I am following in the footsteps of those writers, I see ever more clearly how great a debt I owe to them. After Anne passed, I resolved to do my best to tell the giants of literature whose shoulders I am slowly scaling how much their work has meant to me, both as a reader and as a writer.

You are among those I wished to thank. Your writing was inspiring to me as a young adult and remains among my treasured memories of growing into new vistas of story and imagination. When I think of some of the conflicts and struggles that appear in my own writing, I see how clearly they draw on the legacies of House of Zeor (Sime~Gen, Book 1)
 and others in that series. I may never achieve such success as a writer, but in undertaking to walk the path of those writers who I admired, I re-learn every day a new appreciation for what their struggles and successes have meant to me as I make the attempt.

Thank you for sharing your hard work and profligate talent with me. It has meant the world.

-----End Quote---

If I had Talent, I wouldn't have a clue how I turn a story into text that gets the kind of response Peter Smalley is describing.  Since I don't have any Talent for writing, I can explain exactly how I do it because I had to learn it piecemeal.  From my explanations, you can learn how to manipulate the ideas inside your head to create this effect on other writers (and on readers -- I have comments like this from readers collected on another page on http://simegen.com/writers/simegen/  ).   

Those who have Talent for storycraft will likely get very little out of my writing tutorials here.  Those who have a love for Love Stories and are determined to share them with the widest possible audience because they are important stories about Love Conquers All and Happily Ever After may find my approach helpful. 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

PS: also this last week there appeared a splendid review of the new audiobook edition of my novel HOUSE OF ZEOR, via audible.com  which compares the writing to Herbert and Zelazny, which tickled me because THEY display real Talent! (as well as true craft skill.))


  E-book version. 

http://www.amazon.com/House-Zeor-Sime~Gen-Book-1/dp/B007K9OQWW/  Audiobook version

1 comment:

  1. Great post! Finding my talents is something I have been really working on lately, which is why this post really touched me. I have been wracking my brain trying to figure out what it is that I might be good at- I mean seriously I have to be good at something. Luckily I stumbled across Scott Edmund Miller's latest book, "The User's Guide to Being Human: The Art and Science of Self," which helped me discover that I am not necessarily a good write (which I was really bummed out about, since I love to write), but that I am really great with people.