July 29, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

A Parable of Talent

Does great writing spring from a seed of talent, or is it a slower-growing bloom, which responds to light and nurturance? That’s a question that haunts creative writing teachers, because what we do is based on the claim that writing is a craft that can be taught, while what we see ??? quiet students who show up on the first day of class with a slim folder of poetry that’s scary in its brilliance, only to hand in even better work the next week, while other students can take every workshop on offer and never strike that spark ??? suggests that writing is a gift given at birth by some capricious god. I find myself torn on this question, because every time I teach a workshop I see evidence of both astonishing natural talent and also the value of hard, dedicated practice. I tell the most talented students two things: (1) Being a gifted pianist doesn’t mean you don’t have to play scales; it just means the scales get harder. You want to play, you gotta pay. And, (2) the world is surprisingly full of talented people, but only a few of them fulfill their early promise. Good writing can come from talent or craft or plain hard work, but great writing requires all three.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I came across an article about talent in, of all places, the business section of the New York Times. Now when business people talk about talent, I figure it’s time to hold on to my wallet, because what usually follows is a crashing sound as some brilliant financial whiz kid’s investment scheme crumbles into dust. “Talent,” to most business writers, seems to be what we call securities fraud before the indictments come down. (Just ask “the smartest guys in the room.”) But this article struck me as making an important point for creative artists, as well as those who practice the dark arts. Based on the research of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, it argues that how people think about talent ??? as a set of natural gifts or as a process of growth ??? can determine our future creativity:

“Society is obsessed with the idea of talent and genius and people who are ???naturals’ with innate ability,” says Ms. Dweck, who is known for research that crosses the boundaries of personal, social and developmental psychology.

“People who believe in the power of talent tend not to fulfill their potential because they’re so concerned with looking smart and not making mistakes. But people who believe that talent can be developed are the ones who really push, stretch, confront their own mistakes and learn from them.”

Simply put, believing in talent can lead to early success but can also make one get defensive and set in one’s ways, while believing in growth and development allows for continued experimentation, because creativity becomes a process of learning from both failure and success.

Dweck’s 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success apparently follows the successful formula of many recent business books by flattering . . . I’m sorry, “offering case studies of” . . . wealthy tycoons: “She attributes the success of several high-profile chief executives to their growth mind-set, citing an ability to energize a work force.” I’m not sure we can do the same so easily for creative artists, since “success” is harder to define, but I’m tempted to try simply to balance the highly romanticized artists’ biographies that seem to define young writers’ views of talent.

Just imagine how much more productive it would be to substitute an ideal of growth and experimentation for the myth of natural genius in young writers. No more need to cultivate bad personal hygiene or hang out in hipster bars! Toss out those Gitanes Brunes and that unresolved Oedipal conflict! Trade in that scowl as you slump in your seat during workshop for a “growth mind-set.” It’s not that “we just don’t get it.” You just didn’t get it right! But no worries, mate, because you don’t have to prove yourself a genius by writing a perfect first draft. Geniuses revise. (I’m having that printed on a t-shirt as we speak.) And your first book won’t be your best book. You’ll mature; you’ll ripen. You’re not a morning glory, but a slow-growing vine. Only your author photo will remain unchanged as the years pass. Your prose will grow taut as your muscles slacken. You’ll write better when you have nothing to prove.

Hell, I’m convinced. In fact, I’m starting a cult. Meditation three times a day (“I am a slow growing vine“”), and ten percent of your Nobel Prize. (But you get a free t-shirt!) Long, productive careers for everyone!

Now if only we could get publishers to go along.

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