Talent vs Training

There’s a common misconception that people who engage in a “creative” line of work – to whatever extent – are “talented.” I put both words in quotes because we’re going to talk about what each of them means. It’ll be fun. I promise. Why? Because writing about words is fun!

What? It isn’t for you? That’s strange. It is for me. I wonder what could be the difference between us? Why would I enjoy thinking and talking and writing about words when you don’t? Is there an innate difference or does it have more to do with our respective life experiences? Is it Nature or Nurture?

I have no idea. People smarter than me can answer that. What I’m more interested in is defining what the terms “talent” and “creative” actually mean.

What got me thinking about this topic is a confession a friend of mine made to me one day. He used to be an artist, but decided for one reason or another to give it up. He said that the thing that bothers him, even to this day, is that people who look at his work always exclaim that he “…has such talent!” Followed by “Why did you give it up?” He’s bothered by this because, according to him, what he did had nothing to do with talent. He possessed no innate ability to draw or paint. He simply put in a large amount of time developing the skills necessary to produce art. At some point, he decided it was no longer worth the time and effort, so he gave it up. In short, he doesn’t believe in talent. The only thing that makes someone an artist is the willingness to devote the time required to be proficient at it.

 

Yes, yes. Prodigies. Blah, blah. The exception that proves the rule. They're all wonderfully mystical little turds. We're moving on.

Yes, yes. Prodigies. Blah, blah. The exception that proves the rule. They’re all wonderfully mystical little turds. We’re moving on.

 

Although I largely agree with him, his view is a bit too utilitarian for my taste. I actually do believe there is an innate trait within each of us that could be described as talent. But it has nothing to do with natural ability or even an artistic endeavor (where the term artistic applies to drawing/painting/writing/sculpting/music/pooping – oh! You didn’t know poop was an art form? Allow me to enlighten you. Go ahead and click that link. I promise you, it isn’t what you think) Instead, talent is that drive within each of us to like what we like, but to an extent where we care enough about whatever we like that we want to see it done well.

When I was but a minor Tone of Voice, I would read books and think to myself “You know, this is good, but I think I can do better.” Such arrogance! But I began to write and of course it was awful, but I kept at it. I would compare my writing to published authors and when it didn’t match up in terms of enjoyable reading, I would bother to find out why and correct it. That process still holds true. Even to this day I know that my writing isn’t as good as some others. I stare angrily at books I thoroughly enjoyed reading and think incoherent thoughts of rage.

“Why you do this! What? How? Why you do this how? I hate you so much I want to eat your brain and think your thoughts and steal your keystroke tappings, you minor deity of wordsmiths! Your mortal form is crazy sexy typewriter! I must mate with it!”

 

Something like this, but with more... ummm... ink.

Something like this, but with more… ummm… ink.

 

After I calm down and the bloody red mists dissipate and I dispose of the bodies, I think about what I liked and if it was something I could do. Could I do it better? Would I do it differently? Would it be better or worse if I did it differently? Would it be worth my time? Oh hell, I’ll just go write and find out.

To me, THAT is talent. THAT is what makes a person decide to devote time to a “creative” endeavor. It isn’t because they can sit down and instantly make art with their hands and thin air. It’s because they actually want to put in the time to see if they could make something beautiful.

But what is a “creative” endeavor? Isn’t every action that creates something creative? Does not a programmer create code that does something wonderful? Doesn’t an electrician create an electrical something-or-other in order to produce light and power in a pleasing manner? When people have sex, do they not create babies? Even if they don’t, aren’t they still creating something they enjoy?

Now, I’m not such a pie-eyed dreamer that I would say all things are creative endeavors. No. When I help mop the floors of the pizza joint, I don’t imagine I’m creating some new form of cleanliness for the floor. I’m simply cleaning up the mess. And trust me, I have tried to come up with some way to make it more palatable to my imagination. No luck. Worst part of the job. Emptying the trash is more satisfying. I hate that damn mop.

 

"Ain't no picnic for me either, bub."

“Ain’t no picnic for me either, bub.”

 

I also hated programming. I tried it in a couple of careers and I was terrible at it. Even when generously coached, I still struggled. Why? I just didn’t care. At every obstacle to achieving success, I would veer away from the task at hand and waste time and daydream. Even in the brief moments of clarity when I grasped some fundamental concept that could move me forward toward being a better programmer, I found my mind would soon wander. It was certainly a creative pursuit, but I just couldn’t get myself to care enough about it to doggedly pursue it. The level of interest in that particular suite of skills just wasn’t something I was either born with or given the necessary coaching at an appropriate age. Either way, it was obvious to me that I didn’t have “talent.” When I looked across the cubicles and saw the people who were absorbed in lines of code for hours at a stretch, it was easy to see who did.

Relevant to that observation is what I hear as possibly the biggest complaint from writers of all stripes when people ask them “Where do you get your ideas from?” As if there is an easy answer. As if ideas spring into being and fall into our laps like some fruit that grows on a mystical tree in a magical garden to which only we as writers have access.

“Did you go to the Word Garden to select your next story idea?”

“No, I was too busy today. I’ll go tomorrow.”

“Ah, but tomorrow’s harvest may not be as good.”

“True, but it is already too late in the day. No doubt the current selection of Story Fruit has already begun to spoil.”

No. We, like the programmers I mentioned above and my former artist friend, have no such access to a ready pool of solutions and imagination. Instead, we have to bang away at our keyboards for hours until something actually starts to make sense and could conceivably be interesting to some hoped-for prospective audience. It seems to me this holds true for anyone involved in the act of creation.

Yes, there are certainly occupations that have little to no room for “creativity.” But, I would argue that most occupations do, and we shouldn’t quibble about it. If you are engaged in the creation of anything other people can or will consume, that’s art. Even if you just keep your creations to yourself, if it’s something that you consume alone, it’s still art. It still took talent to make it. Why? Because you cared enough to try. Beyond that, you cared enough to try hard enough to make it something you like. And that thing – no matter how small or weird or banal – is a beautiful expression of talent and creativity.

 

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Again you have graced me with your time and attention! The honor was mine. As always, feel free to express your thoughts below in the comment section.

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