Thursday, July 30, 2009

Time versus Talent

Anders Ericsson is one of the world's leading experts on talent, and he doesn't believe in talent.
When I first heard of him when I came to FSU in 2004 and read his work, I assigned my grad students one of his psychological abstracts. (His work has been widely quoted -- yes, in Outliers, too, I've heard. I haven't read that book myself.)

Basically Ericsson says it comes down to this 3-4 hours of deliberate practice per day for ten years. That's what it takes to rise up to a national or even international status in a field, whether soccer or opera singing.

It's not talent. It's time.

I like to talk to my students about this because Americans are believers in a number of things about the creative process that I think are odd and off-the-mark.

#1 is Talent.

#2 is a second cousin to talent and that is Inspiration.

and #3 is that writers -- especially writers -- need to work in solitude ... to create their own voice...

The talent myth is problematic. It sends all the wrong messages.

There were writers in grad school who were stronger writers than I was, bound for greater things. And there were writers who people pretty much wrote off -- they'd never make it.

Now, looking back, I can see that sometimes a lack of time invested in craft was seen as a lack of talent, when, in fact, that writer was just greener than the others ... Or perhaps the really strong writers couldn't put in those last years of work.

The result is that the most talented don't necessarily have books. They have great, fulfilling lives, but not as writers. And that some of those who were written off have many books under their belts.

I'll go on to say that the hardest writers to teach are those who are the best writers on the first draft, those writers who blow you away in an off-handed in-class writing exercise, those with "talent."

Now I do believe in a certain amount of talent. There are those who have a natural ear for language, those who are intuitive about human nature, those who have rejected that the sun is a circle with lines coming out of it, and, instead see the world for what it is. (I'd argue, too, that many of these folks were either raised by great storytellers or went to plays or read a lot or or or ...)

I also believe you can drum some language into people by having them read the greats. I believe you can teach literary taste by reading the greats. I think you can teach people how to watch people and how to listen. Sometimes you can even teach people to un-see and then re-see the world. I believe you can teach writing. No question. (But I'll get to this on another day ... because I also think you can teach yourself ... if you've got a well-stocked library on hand.)

Now how easy or hard it is to teach certain writers goes back to scientific research as well -- that I can't name because I have no memory for such things. The idea is that when you start something new -- say learning a foreign language -- you make great leaps in the beginning -- huge ones. You get drawn in by how quickly you're learning ... If I threw you into Paris, you'd have some good French skills in a six weeks. You could be fluent in six months -- at cocktail parties and on the street dialogue. But if you wanted to be bilingual? Really take your French that last final, stubborn inch? Well, that's going to take years ... True too with writing.

And so the students who are really fantastic in a first draft are hard to convince that their work is great, but it's not exceptional, and then you have to tell them that the final, stubborn inch will take possibly a decade ... maybe more ... of intense focus? Well ...

(Now, why some people go on to gut out 3-4 hours of deliberate practice per day for ten years and why other give up along the way -- and perhaps for very healthy reasons -- is another question for another day ... Remind me ... )

The talent myth is especially damning because it allows certain writers to think that they don't have to work all that hard, that writing isn't blue collar. It isn't white collar. It's more like feathery, winged collar...

because much of it relies on ... myth #2 Inspiration.

I started to become really worried about inspiration as a pervasive cultural concept when I was on the road as N.E. Bode, my pen name as the children's book author of THE ANYBODIES Trilogy and other books ...

Kids kept asking at every single Q and A, "What was your inspiration for these books?"

I wasn't quite sure what they wanted ... a special teacher? My Aunt Rita who always loved me? God? My dog Tippy? (Fake dog name to protect my real dog's identity...)

Basically, I tried to tell them -- while giving credit to all those who have been encouraging as well as those who spurred me on because I wanted to prove them wrong -- that I don't rely on inspiration. If I did, I'd like sit around most days in a hammock not writing anything at all. I'd start a lot of books and never finish them.

I explained that writing is work, that I dig in, and make stuff up then work and rework.

I have given them the old Chinese proverb, "When there is no wind, row."

But with my grad students, I go a step further. "When there is no wind, row. And when there's wind, row. Basically, just row."

I also do believe in inspiration however. Every once in a while -- it comes and goes, and, well, was persistent pretty much the whole time I was writing The Prince of Fenway Park (as Julianna Baggott) -- I'm struck by inspiration. I'm pretty unaware of it because I become unaware of everything but the page, everything but my characters moving in their world. Time goes by. My stomach eventually hurts and I wonder why. Well, because hours have passed, and I'm hungry ... These are blissful times ... Blissful. But I have to work toward them, and I have to work in their absence.

I row.

Now go on and row.