Friday, 8 February 2013

Opining: On Talent in Writing

To begin with, I’m not too sure that being able to tell stories more effectively than others, enough that someone would tell you in your formative years that you are good enough to someday be really good at it, is that much of a talent. In fact, I’m not so sure any skill or ability the world likes to call talent is as as special as the word ‘talent’ implies. It’s naysaying and gloomy to question the notion of talent like this, which is why I don’t think about it much, but it seems to need addressing now I’m starting a blog specifically centred on the only talent I can lay claim to.
What I want to address first is the act of writing about writing, as if I know much about it, or as much as any other among the multitudes of young ‘aspiring’ writers who keep blogs about their writerly endeavours. I want to address the point that I don’t ‘know’ much. I am not going to school to study creative writing, and I am not going to school to study literature, or English, even though either would definitely be of massive value in my writerly endeavours. I am not getting an education that will teach me how to get published in the book world’s current climate. Call me pompous, but I feel I can learn all I need to as long as I write regularly, study the novels and stories I’m reading closely, pay special attention to structuring and voices, and prune my own often overblown language style with a clear mind.
It may take forever to get my work accepted by a publication or publishing house this way; I may never be published. But I don’t mind this enough to go to school and hone my storytelling craft there.
I’m reluctant to call myself ‘aspiring.’ I was an aspiring writer as a teenager, when I’d written only three or four complete stories but all were lauded by an English teacher, and then, without writing much more than a couple other stories, I began dreaming of having those stories make up the bulk of a very slim short story collection that would be my first ever publication that would garner me all sorts of awards and recognition. I was aspiring then, when I wasn’t aware I had to work on it – building up my store of work in order to actually make progress; my wording and sentences; my voices. It wasn’t occurring to me that just because a teacher liked my work and saw potential in it didn’t mean the way I wrote then was all I needed and I was set for life.
So I was ‘aspiring’ as a teenager. Now I am twenty-one years old; I’ve been working on my writing for a couple of years. I would estimate that I’m years away from being good enough. I started tentatively submitting work to competitions and publications around six months ago and one out of the nine or ten pieces I’ve submitted thus far came close to being worthy (finalist in a generously-rewarding competition! which I’m probably happier about than I ought to be). I understand that for a lot of writers who are trying to get their first acceptance, this isn’t a bad sign. So hopefully I’ll start submitting a lot more this year; better than not trying at all …
I think that I’m aware of what makes good writing good, and that I will be able to better mine all the time. It’s one thing to understand instinctively that something you’re reading is good or exceptional, but it’s another to learn from that story or novel and ensure that you consciously apply what you learn to your own work – without blatantly imitating what you’ve read, therein undermining your own style.
This is essentially how I’m trying to better my writing – reading and learning from a load of established authors’ great novels and short stories.
To the point about talent, then, because we know established authors are talented, and the people who are currently writing vigilantly and being discovered by great publishers this very moment are talented, so who am I to say their talent isn’t all that real or special? Maybe I ought to state what I will about talent for myself and never mind whether others’ talent; I ought to be a naysaying gloomy guts about myself only.
There are moments in time when I prefer to call myself a storyteller over ‘writer,’ because
a) I’m more connected to stories than I am to the art of writing, hence my not wanting to dedicate years and thousands of dollars towards studying so much language; I think language can be used beautifully and I want to use it the right way and I do care about it, but at the same time storytelling is the more primitive aspect of this deal and that’s where the essential beauty lies for me; and
b) I don’t think writing is the only platform I could have found to channel my storytelling – it was just the mode of expression most accessible to me early on in life.
It’s by chance that I wasn’t born into a more creative environment, to parents who might have introduced me to a paintbrush or a piano instead of teaching me to spell and speak English and read so well early on as my actual parents did. Maybe I always would have discovered an affinity for writing, though, whatever the circumstances. I could really be one of those egos who loves the written word for how tangibly it corroborates and preserves through time one’s scope and depth of imagination and eloquence. Who knows?
For me it’s all tied to chance. Isn’t my wish to tell stories, and my only spark of promise and potential being that ability to conjure stories, a product of childhood circumstances anyway?
If I’d never been bored or lonely I wouldn’t have needed to gather all my felt-tipped pens, turn them into my imaginary friends, and send them on muted adventures and then have them all write down what they’d seen. If I’d never been able to go to school and learn about outer space I never would have experienced that particular burgeoning inclination towards the universe, the idea of something existing outside of our blue sky, and eventually, my narrow toleration of science fiction in the form of deep love for Doctor Who and Frank Herbert’s incredible series Dune. If my mother and father hadn’t wound up living in New Zealand I would probably be in Fiji, without the sort of education I was lucky to get here, without all the influences that capitalised on my inherent inquisitiveness and got me hooked on the world, as well as the often ridiculous minutiae of people’s lives and what hooks them, and I’m sure I wouldn’t be writing, if finding a way to tell stories at all.
So yes, for me it’s chance. If there’s talent, it’s only allowed to come out with the spurring and ongoing culmination of environment and influences. One with talent is always susceptible to letting that sensitive need to be witnessed become so influenced by his or her universe. This must be how you wind up with so many writers, musicians, artists, filmmakers, so on. It’s your environment, the universe, that both allows and inspires.
I used to roll my eyes when people said, ‘the universe brings me a story/song/vision, all I do is channel it and complete it for the rest of the world to see’ – it’s usually something to that effect, isn’t it? (I’m not a God-believer but I am not against other people believing, and so I would say it’s fair when they grant their talents back to their higher power, because it makes sense that some people can do some things better than others and some people have no obvious talent at all because a God would mould everybody differently, obviously, to have different purposes and paths, etc.). I would roll my eyes because it always sounds like such a cliché, and also because I’m not for sounding like a prophet or what-have-you about one’s art. That aside, I agree that the universe is what brings these stories and songs and visions. We’re a product of our world and our world is a product of us – kind of a chicken-egg cycle, almost, only here I’d say first we have to have that special grain of luck which allows our particular intrigues, temperaments and innate compulsions to be stoked and spurred by what our environment can offer us in the way of creativity.
Even so, often a complete dearth of inspiration for the right sort of temperament and mind can be enough of a canvas on which to create a complete fantasy world where anything can happen, even if one has no idea whether or not such possibilities have any basis in reality.
A lot of people are good at turning this ability/need to express and share stories or messages into their boon, their full-blown ‘talent.’ It takes a lot of hard work and perserverance to become good enough to be published, let alone create a whole body of work that will be respected by a good number of people. And it’s at this point that I question the notion of talent. That talent, that ability to use words or brushstrokes or strums or so on in an instinctual but also often very conscious order and manner, is a product of what’s influenced us, as much as it is rooted in the self, the psychological and spiritual self’s need to absorb the world and ferment faces and places and churn up something for their comrades to absorb for themselves and think upon. The content comes from both within and without, as much as the understanding, in particular regards to writing, as to how words fit and flow together.
You have to have the right ear and if you’ve been around enough, listened enough, it’s because the world has allowed you to be, and the world has allowed you to eavesdrop and pick up its secrets for your purposes – but there’s also credit for your cunning and determination to seek out, learn those secrets and make use of them for your needs.
And none of it means anything without the hard work put in to make your particular talent seen/heard. Is someone really so 'talented' if they had the ability to be a great something-or-other, but didn't put the work and effort in to be so? As opposed to someone with less obvious or natural-born talent, but who has worked hard and gained ability enough to be considered successful? The former just had a lot of potential that wound up going to waste; talent is not a word I'd use at that point. And the latter is the one who used what talent he or she had, but combined it with good work ethic and determination to gain success in what they do. I don't think my view of this fits with most views, particularly on a topic that is quite narrow like writing, but considering all the people I've met, people my age, who say they want to be writers, but then complain that they just don't know what to write, they thought it would be so easy, well, what am I to think? I look to my favourite authors and can't imagine them struggling with what to write. They got on with it and sweated through the struggle. They were hard workers more than they were talented, is my opinion.  
Altogether, I look at it like singing – a beloved opera singer could just as easily have been born with a terrible voice that no number of lessons could reasonably tune, and then would never have risen to the top of their field. Or acting – someone like Keanu Reeves virtually always comes off quite wooden yet he’s gotten a lot more parts than such a wooden actor ought to, no? And good acting is so much harder to judge than most else of the arts, I think, because you can forget that a person is actually acting and start to lose yourself in their character, but if that person is pretty much their character already, making it an easy task for them to play this role, is it really ‘good’ acting, whether or not you believe they *are* this character? Acting ‘talent’ comes from chance as much as singing does, it seems to me, when you look at what is popular today, and how arbitrary popularity really is.
Obviously, you can learn to sing and act better (depending on what ‘better’ is according to the bigwigs of showbiz and the general public), and you can hone your craft, and turn your potential into marketable talent; and you may not have to be as good as you think, or even all that deliberate about it, in order to go out and get noticed, and then be granted great opportunities to ‘live the dream.’ The same can happen with writing, Fifty Shades of Gray being the operative example. Writing can be learnt and honed into some marketable talent, but except in cases like Fifty Shades, unless the universe contrives for your particular brand of talent to coincide with what others like, want to read, and can at least somewhat agree is brimming with insight, intrigue and such arbitrary value to the world, then one’s ability/talent to conjure readable stories is no more special or fascinating than one’s ability/talent to blow smoke rings.
It’s just that the ability to do the latter sometimes take lots of practice to achieve, whereas some people can do it without mindfully trying. The very same can go for writing. It’s arbitrary. But with writing, we can make something of it, as the world is full of audiences who love to be enraptured by a storyteller.
So here, I’ll call writing not so much a talent as a natural and well-incited determination to be heard.
All that’s channelled through writing, for me, is a conglomeration of influences, and I don’t want to hold credit for it all. I don’t personally believe that credit is owed to me.
Countless of others are just as young and full of writerly ambition as me, and it doesn’t seem right to try and claim we’re all uniquely talented, or that I’m uniquely talented and will absolutely positively make it where most won’t – as most of us won’t ‘make it,’ which is just how it’s going to be, as it’s always been that way.
The nice thing about being young and starting out is that you don’t know you won’t make it for sure, and even when you’re completely full of self-doubt, you still have time on your side, so such self-doubt can still feel too frivolous and futile to entertain. By reminding myself of the arbitrary nature of what will work and what won’t, and of my own abilities, I feel a strange but definite comfort; I’m able to stop questioning why I bother at all. I remember that I bother because I want to, talent or no, and it’s as simple as that.

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