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.