The truth about talent ~ my take on the troublesome topic.

The truth about talent ~ my take on the troublesome topic

There’s been a fair bit floating around lately about whether it is talent or hard work that makes a writer. I’ve read a few posts by people with bigger profiles than mine, and I’ve stayed silent because I think it’s something so heated that it’s too easy to get flamed for having a contradictory opinion.

When I was a child, I really wanted to be musical. I mean, really wanted. My primary school had a small bursary for a limited number of children to learn the cello. They asked first who would like to learn and then all those who said they would like to had a special afternoon test to see if they had any aptitude. A week or so later, it turned out I didn’t. I was extremely upset. My teacher was very kind and explained that no matter how hard I would have worked, I lacked something that was essential to the process. Much later, I understood that this was probably perfect pitch. I just don’t have it. I’m not tone deaf but I don’t have that innate ability to distinguish notes.

As a teenager, I decided to learn classical guitar. One of the music teachers at my secondary school ran a club, and for about four years, I went weekly, and practised daily. With hyper-mobile fingers I was always going to struggle, but I reached a level that was at best, competent. If I enjoyed it, that should have been enough. But for me, it wasn’t. I knew what good playing was, and no matter how hard I worked, I didn’t get there. I knew the difference between my playing and that of someone who had that talent. So when I was twenty one, I gave my guitar away to a university friend and have never played since. I still enjoy classical guitar music but the desire to play is long gone. I’d become aware of how rubbish I was, and how basically cringe-worthy that was.

After I married, we attended a church in Middlesbrough. The usual organist was excellent but among the congregation was a very nice lady who also considered herself musical; on occasions, as token attempt to play hymns more modern than ancient, Una was allowed to play the piano. At first I believed the piano to be at fault. Then I heard Una sing as well. She was completely tone deaf and completely unaware of it. When she played the piano, not only was she hitting as many wrong notes as Les Dawson, her tempo was dreadful and she was incapable of playing anything but forte. It was embarrassing in the extreme. She had no idea at all how bad she was. She’d taken piano lessons from childhood and had practised diligently every single day. But she was still terrible. It didn’t matter that much, and no one came out and told her, basically because she was enjoying her music and while it made us all cringe, she was oblivious. The kicker came later, for something else. She also knitted. One year for the Christmas bazaar, she knitted a vast number of soft toys, from teddies to dollies, and not a single one sold. As you might expect she was very, very upset indeed. But the reason they didn’t sell is they were so badly made that no one would buy one, not even out of solidarity or pity. No one had ever been able to tell her that what she did wasn’t good enough. It was the same with her music. No one could tell her how bad she was. People were reluctant to hurt her feelings by a bit of truth. It took the bazaar to bring home to her that what she had made was not worth paying money for.

When it comes to writing, I think that almost every writer has some talent. It’s a thing of degrees though. To use an example from another discipline, I know that I have some talent at drawing and art in general. It’s the kind of talent where it’s enough to bring me pleasure and self expression and on occasions, perhaps produce something others may admire or possibly even buy. With work and training it could be much more but I know in my heart of hearts, it’s a medium sized talent that could get me exhibitions in local galleries but the Tate is beyond its scope. I also know enough about art to be humble when talking to real artists; I know full well I am an amateur and not in their league.

Talent is an organic thing too, that grows when it is nurtured. Early nurturing of a talent may be crucial. To quote from Philippa Rees’s excellent book Involution, “Would Amadeus, born instead to a putzmadchen, have survived? Or offered man a note? Or too many in desperation?” Where and when we are born, and to whom is crucial too to our development, our discovery and exploration of our talents. My father, born in the 1930s in a not-well-off family (the area he grew up in is now recognised as being the most deprived area in England) , was lucky enough to go to a school that was ahead of its time. A state primary school, it ran what would now be termed a gifted and talented programme that meant he sat his 11+ at the age of nine and passed. His time at a prestigious grammar school gave him a head start in life, even though he started there during World War Two and all the subsequent privations of rationing. My mother also attended a very ancient grammar school, the first of her family to do so. The result of these two parents valuing learning and books meant that I was an early reader and an early writer. Do I have talent? Yes. Not only do I believe that I do, this has been confirmed countless times by people whose job it is to notice talent (agents, editors etc).

Talent alone is not enough. Hard work, determination, persistence, constant learning are all important ingredients in the cake. But without talent being present to a greater or lesser degree, that “cake” won’t rise. It’ll always be a like a pancake, flat and stodgy and in essence, a waste of all those priceless ingredients.

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13 thoughts on “The truth about talent ~ my take on the troublesome topic.

  1. A brave piece in our dominantly ‘polite’ society, ( and thank you for the quote!) The question of your piano players inability to recognise her mediocrity is very common. In every amateur orchestra of which I was ( a very modest playing) member those most sure of themselves were the worst players who insisted on leading their sections. But I suspect that is inevitable, those who cannot see the standards they fail to reach, will inevitably fail to reach them.

    Is this also true of writers? The question of whether writing can be ‘taught’ is constantly debated ( particularly by those who teach it) but I suspect the difference lies in the difference between competent and talented, just as you suggest. Yet Ashen’s point is equally valid, that the reception or recognition of talent is timing and luck so recognition is ,in itself, no signal of ultimate value.
    A thorny issue!

  2. I’m a great believer in practice and discipline. But in some areas this will only get you to competance and give enjoyment, it might not be enough for earning a living. I insisted on doing music O level without playing an instrument or being in the choir. I learnt a lot. In fact it was the hardest subjec I studied and probably kept me interested in being in school. I’m proud of my grade D. Perhaps if my parents had been able to afford piano lesson or something from when I was young I’d have got somewhere – actually probably french horn or trumpet might have been a good idea. But I went to ballet lessons as it was obvious I was going to be tall. There was no more money. Practice and discipline alone will not make you a professional dancer. Nor a musician. There are certain physical atributes required. But music and dance are not just about making a living they can offer so much more.

    I do think there is more scope for practice and discipline to make an artist or a writer – if there is a will and a capacity to listen to teachers. A friend sent me a text yesterday as he was watching the artist challenge programme whatever it’s called and said the feedback was blunt, was it like that in art school? I thought a bit and said actually, yes, a lot of the time, but in dance it’s worse! I probably only achieved my MA in performance writing because a lecturer on my BA did creative writing classes and taught us to be ruthless with our words – they all had to count and create the meaning intended – he didn’t much worry about our ideas but whether we were putting them across.

    Too many times I have heard people say to my Ma and to me – oh but it’s easy for you [over various skills] – YES because we’ve practiced, A Lot.

    Then we have to find the honesty to help people find out their level and adjust their expectations

    • Oh I agree, entirely. I do think that the so-called 10k hour rule is the work needed to turn raw talent into something polished and professional. And I also know how frustrating it is to have people say, oh it’s easy for you. The only answer is what you say, yes, because we worked at it a lot. I get that sort of thing, quite often, and it never fails to annoy me. Yes, having talent is one thing, but then it takes work to make that talent be something concrete. There’s a line in a poem by Hopkins: Sheer plod makes plough down sillion shine: in other words, it’s the slog that makes the thing something worth looking at.

  3. P.S. This is a very sharp debate for those who make a living teaching in any of the arts- how to decide when to break the news that no matter how dedicated the student will never scale the heights. Some won’t expect to, and derive all they seek from just being able to participate- then the more competent the better. Others aspire unrealistically, to heights, and the diligent years put in before disappointment will sting with hindsight. A decent teacher with integrity has to measure aspiration against natural talent and make that call. When? How? and How certainly?
    I know a professional conductor who would like to introduce a kind of consultancy to parents to help them decide which instrument would best suit both physical and psychological disposition. Bowed strings need far more hours put in than wind, oboe more aptitude than recorder. It would save so much money and quite a lot of despair! MOst of the pleasure from amateur playing is from playing with others. The piano is pretty lonely unless you are really good enough to play chamber music.

    • I think there does need to be some basic honesty about ability, because paying for years and years of tuition, putting heart and soul into a dream, only to discover later that it was for the wrong thing, well, doesn’t bear thinking about.

  4. Nicely written piece. I am a believer in the 10,000 hrs. idea (http://youtu.be/XS5EsTc_-2Q), even with increased evidence to contradict it, and enjoyed reading your balanced views on talent… Perhaps if that old lady had continued practising piano and knitting, she would eventually have got there…?

    • I very much doubt it; she wasn’t old but middle aged, and actually intelligent and educated. But she had several blindspots and self awareness wasn’t one of her strong points.It was painful to listen to her; if after 30 years she’d not twigged to being tone deaf, she was never going to magically gain even a slight sense of pitch. I believe that the 10k hours idea is the time and work needed to turn basic raw ability into something polished and presentable; often, those hours are unseen and unappreciated. Several people have been credited with the dictum, It only took me 20 years to become an overnight success, but there’s real truth there. In terms of writing, I recall Roz Morris mentioned that those 10k hours fitted into a normal life, slotting writing in evenings and weekends, equals around 13 years. I think that often people go to classes and take courses to try and shorten that time between raw beginner and polished, published author.

  5. I certainly agree – without that ‘special something’ no amount of polish and clever tricks will captivate the reader. However, Viv, I’m now filled with dread that I’m the little old lady playing her piano and making dodgy stuffed toys! Ah!!!!

  6. It seems to me, after reading all the comments in these posts, that there has been a misunderstanding about the nature and the passion of art..I mean any kind of art! Especially writing! You write or you paint or you create in any form, because, if you don’t you stop breathing. There is no question of publishers, or power in the world or money or anything remotely related to the “need for validtaion”. There is only the expression of essence. Unsung,unrecognized, unremunerated, it is, neverheless, a contribution the daily Life of us all!

    I write in order to breathe>

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