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January 2013

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Talent

Last week was glorious -- spent knee-deep in books and ideas and writerly good will.
I was on faculty, but in truth, I felt like a student -- I learned so much from my fellow faculty and from the students whose manuscripts I was lucky enough to critique.

At the Pacific Northwest Children's Book Conference, the ratio of student to faculty is about 5-1, and we all spend a lot of time snug up against one another, not just in workshops and lectures, but at meals, too. And it was at one of those meals that I heard Bonny Becker (author of the witty picture book A Visitor for Bear) say a very wise thing. A student had mentioned something about a writer having natural talent. Bonny said:
"Talent, and the belief in it, is a trap. Being instantly good at something can make you believe you either have it or you don't. If you buy into that, when things get rough it means you lost it. You don't have it, or enough of it, after all." And there's nowhere to go after that, is there?

Bonny's thoughts go along with one of my favorite Malcolm Gladwell quotes, from an interview he gave about his book Outliers:
"Talent is the desire to practice, right? It is that you love something so much that you are willing to sacrifice and commit to that -- whatever it is -- task, game, sport, etc."

I used both these quotes in my talk about revision.
Some people love revision. Some hate it.
But I think all of us agree that revision is where the book happens. Story might show up in a draft, but a book is made in revision.

That's where I am now, doing a serious revision (so much so it is almost a new rough draft) of a long-suffering manuscript. It has been so good for me to be reminded this lesson about talent -- especially since writing this book has brought me back to my ten-eleven-twelve year-old self, a time when I was being told I was a "talented" writer. (I'll bet you were told the same.)

Hard work trumps talent.
How long it has taken me to learn this.
How long it will take me to learn it again and again.

Back to work . . .

Comments

Thanks for this, Linda. That whole talent issue and having it or not is one that always gets me. In my own writing, I never feel particularly talented, but when I read someone else's marvelous book, I always think, "Wow, he or she is SO talented!" This thought, depending on my frame of mind, is either followed by more happy feelings of admiration or an immediate transition to grumping about why I'm not as talented. Maybe if we trained ourselves to read an amazing books and think, "Wow! This writer worked SO hard!" things would work out better all around.

I got editorial notes for my new book yesterday & will post both these quotes on my bulletin board so I'm reminded of them as I revise.
Maybe we need to say: Wow, that person has really mastered her craft.

I felt that way when I read Gianna Z., Kate. I'm sure there are things to fix and fiddle with -- but the book is already as brilliant as its title implies.

I'm around this week if you want to call and talk through any revision bits. I'm a good listener in that way.
This is a great post! Thanks so much for writing it.
You're welcome, Grace.

(Anonymous)

Thank you for the wonderful post and the great comments! I love the quotes and the line about talent being the desire to practice. Of course I question my talent (daily), but never my desire.
You're welcome. I love that "desire to practice" line, too. It puts it all in proper perspective, doesn't it?
Glad you had a good conference!

*goes back to work*
Thanks!
I'm listening.
I'm glad.
Yes! The 'desire to practice' is so true!! And I love that look at our younger selves, being told we have 'talent' - I remember it felt like success would come automatically - LOL - still waiting...
"Hard work trumps talent" - Amen!
I remember feeling that way, too. I had talent. That was all I needed. Done.
And I suspect you're doing more than just waiting . . . :)
Amen!
And hallelujah, too, right?
I mean, if it were just talent, there'd be no place for me in the book world. With hard work, though, I can make a place.
Well said.

Thanks for the reminder.

I'm looking forward to discovering where your revisions take you.
Me, too!

On a side note: I am giddy with excitement anticipating your book. I can't wait to dance!

(Anonymous)

We need a new word

Linda, isn't that a wonderful conference? I spoke there once and enjoyed it very much. Bonny is a friend and as long as I have known her she has said deep, resonant things that I find myself thinking about days later.

I wince when I hear anyone praise student artists, athletes, actors, writers, musicians etc. as "very talented". I have met too many writers who were told that, over and over, in school and by their families, and who are now angry and bitter at "traditional publishing" because they can't "break in".

Somehow, we have to change the language used to describe kids who show some aptitude and interest in one thing or another so that they are encouraged, but understand that talent (whatever that means) is a starting point, not a gift or an entitlement, so they aren't later crushed by the reality of the steep learning curve and the universal lack of guarantees.

Re: We need a new word

You, dear anonymous, are a very smart cookie.
I'm working on making this linguistic shift with my own daughter. She is young and has an affinity for art and words. I want very much to encourage her, while still teaching her about reaching and stretching and getting in over her head from time to time.

There's talk out there about a study that followed two equally smart/talented/gifted/"whatever your term" groups of school kids through their academic careers. The first group ascribed to the belief that they had talent and were just good at some things. When faced with a challenge beyond them, they blamed the test (or the obstacle or whatever) and then blamed themselves for not being good enough. The second group identified the obstacle and then set about figuring out how to get beyond it -- even when there was no possible way for them to do so. They had a belief system that was centered on practice and getting better.

In early grades, the two groups did equally well, but by high school and college, the "practice" group had outshined the talent group in all measureable areas (grade point, reaching goals, colleges entered, etc.).

This is a hard thing to learn later in life, but it can be done. And there is a lot we can do to teach our kids this early on. That said, I'm afraid that an academic world so focused on test results and yes/no answers does not foster this in the least.

(Anonymous)

Linda, isn't that a wonderful conference? I spoke there once and enjoyed it very much. Bonny is a friend and as long as I have known her she has said deep, resonant things that I find myself thinking about days later.

I wince when I hear anyone praise student artists, athletes, actors, writers, musicians etc. as "very talented". I have met too many writers who were told that, over and over, in school and by their families, and who are now angry and bitter at "traditional publishing" because they can't "break in".

Somehow, we have to change the language used to describe kids who show some aptitude and interest in one thing or another so that they are encouraged, but understand that talent (whatever that means) is a starting point, not a gift or an entitlement, so they aren't later crushed by the reality of the steep learning curve and the universal lack of guarantees.


kathleen duey
Ah, so that was you above! I should have guessed!
All of this writing is so particular and fragile as we make our way to a stay where it's not about talent or no-talent but just being in the world of our characters. Lovely post, Linda, and as others have said, good words to live by. I think of those talented eleven year old girls who would have gone on doing what they wanted whether anyone called them talented or not: that's where I want to be.
That is a fine place to be. How hard it can be to get there.
Thanks for this. The whole question about talent always makes me feel wobbly inside.

I had a wonderful music teacher who said again and again not to talk to him about talent; practice and love was what saw you through. That helped me as a musician, and it helps me now as a writer.
That IS a wonderful teacher!
Oh, lordamercy, Linda.
This is just exactly what I needed to read tonight and probably again tomorrow morning.
What ridiculous traps we set for ourselves.
And for our kids.
Lordamercy...
Ridiculous traps.
I like that.
You have me picturing crazy-complex Rube Goldberg contraptions. Maybe if we thought of talent that way, we wouldn't take the notion so seriously.
I'm glad this post happened at the right time for you, too.
Stubborn can be such a virtue. Keep going!! You can do it!

(Anonymous)

Don't you look familiar.

Hi Linda, I'm knee-deep in A Crooked Kind of Perfect and loving it. I can't really adequately explain how incredibly helpful your talks were to my own long-suffering novel. Particularly what you said about finding your story's spine and battling perfectionism. Revolutionized how I'm writing my story. I've also been telling all my writer friends that they need to find the spine of their story. They think I'm all smart, but between me and you, you're the smart one. And you're funny.

Really enjoyed meeting you. Thank you so much for all your passion and knowledge you shared with me/us. What an incredible week.

Take care.
your class clown,

Ben Watson
I'm glad to hear you're liking the book, Ben. I had a ball at the conference and really enjoyed meeting you. Best of luck with that novel. Finish it, okay? I want to read it when it is done!