“Talent”, Fatalism, and the Artist’s Fears

One of my favorite “books for writers” is Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Whether you need to sustain your faith in a long-term project or gather the courage to leap into a new one, this little book is an invaluable aid to identifying and overcoming the fear-based myths that prevent you from doing your work. One of those is “talent”:

Talent, in common parlance, is “what comes easily”. So sooner or later, inevitably, you reach a point where the work doesn’t come easily, and — Aha!, it’s just as you feared!

Wrong. By definition, whatever you have is exactly what you need to produce your best work. There is probably no clearer waste of psychic energy than worrying about how much talent you have — and probably no worry more common. This is true even among artists of considerable accomplishment.

Talent, if it is anything, is a gift, and nothing of the artist’s own making….Were talent a prerequisite, then the better the artwork, the easier it would have been to make. But alas, the fates are rarely so generous. For every artist who has developed a mature vision with grace and speed, countless others have laboriously nurtured their art through fertile periods and dry spells, through false starts and breakaway bursts, through successive and significant changes of direction, medium, and subject matter….

Even at best talent remains a constant, and those who rely upon that gift alone, without developing further, peak quickly and soon fade to obscurity. Examples of genius only accentuate that truth. Newspapers love to print stories about five-year-old musical prodigies giving solo recitals, but you rarely read about one going on to become a Mozart. The point here is that whatever his initial gift, Mozart was also an artist who learned to work on his work, and thereby improved. In that respect he shares common ground with the rest of us. (pp.26-28)

Another myth that is deadly to art-making is “magic”:

Imagine you’ve just attended an exhibition and seen work that’s powerful and coherent, work that has range and purpose….[T]hese works materialized exactly as the artist conceived them. The work is inevitable. But wait a minute — your work doesn’t feel inevitable (you think), and so you begin to wonder: maybe making art requires some special or even magic ingredient that you don’t have.

The belief that “real” art possesses some indefinable magic ingredient puts pressure on you to prove your work contains the same. Wrong, very wrong. Asking your work to prove anything only invites doom. Besides, if artists share any common view of magic, it is probably the fatalistic suspicion that when their own art turns out well, it’s a fluke — but when it turns out poorly, it’s an omen. Buying into magic leaves you feeling less capable each time another artist’s qualities are praised….

Admittedly, artmaking probably does require something special, but just what that something might be has remained remarkably elusive — elusive enough to suggest that it may be something particular to each artist, rather than universal to them all….But the important point here is not that you have — or don’t have — what other artists have, but rather that it doesn’t matter. Whatever they have is something needed to do their work — it wouldn’t help you in your work even if you had it. Their magic is theirs. You don’t lack it. You don’t need it. It has nothing to do with you. Period. (pp.33-34)

The Bible, understandably, takes a dim view of magic. Thus I found it particularly helpful to see my reigning writer’s-block myth tagged with this label. Magical thinking, for me, is what happens when I look to the success of my work to shore up my belief in God’s faithfulness, instead of taking that belief as bedrock and letting the work build on it. “I haven’t written a good chapter in two weeks — the mandate of heaven must have passed from me!” 

For no obvious reason, I grew up afraid that God was Tennessee Williams and I was Laura in The Glass Menagerie. I didn’t understand why so many people’s lives just stalled, trapped in meaninglessness and dysfunction, when they had started off like me, believing they could do anything. In literature, there was an author who set such characters up to fail, sacrificing them to the storyline. Perhaps someone already knew that my story would end as another tale of someone whose dreams outstripped their pathetic destiny. Could I spot the clues, and if so, what should I do about it — fight the tide, or reconcile myself to insignificance?

The Psalms and the Hebrew prophets tell a different story. God’s chastisement is always a prelude to restoration. Even the “vessels of wrath” passage in Romans 9 — the closest the Bible comes to supporting my fatalistic neurosis — is only a hypothetical.

In this context, what might it mean for the failure of some aspect of my writing to be “for my own good”? Salvation by grace breaks the chain binding works to self-worth. Therefore, when I’m blocked, my first assumption should not be that God wants to take me down a peg, but that I can learn something useful about what was wrong with my original agenda for the work. This depersonalizes the issue, and also gives me hope, because the failure itself is not the divinely desired outcome but only preparation for starting off again in a new direction.

I figured this out yesterday, and the writing went very well. But what about today? Keep on keepin’ on.

12 comments on ““Talent”, Fatalism, and the Artist’s Fears

  1. Not long ago, I wrote a column for The Guide entitled Is Talent Enough? so I am reading this with interest. In that column I quoted Jean Cocteau: “Only intensity matters. Talent—you have it or you don’t.”

  2. Alegria Imperial says:

    Thanks again for taking us with you on this intense if brief ride. I read it, feeling like I were shooting the rapids–it ends where you seem purged of both your joy from the excitement and your fears from real danger. You feel out of your body, totally no longer yourself. It’s exactly what God asks of us in anything we do, thus will. Easy as it sounds because He never fails to reassure us that if we act not of our own will but in consonance with His, surely we would find Him, the sea of peace. But how does that happen? He wants us to chose virtue over worldly ends such as power, fame, prosperity or everything that gratifies the ‘self’ to the exclusion of others. He puts ‘charity’ as the highest of these virtues because by loving others as we would ourselves we forget ourselves. How does that square up with simple tasks like getting on with our writing, indeed? You’re right Jendi, in that we have to dig back down to our motivations or what prompts us to write or as you put it, ‘the original agenda for the work’. Apparently, depersonalizing the issue, which again is how you put it, is the answer. This is about the closest we could get, I believe, in what God means when He urges us to exercise not our will but His–to banish the self and let that which is larger than the self take over. Perhaps it is then when the act of creation, which is always a mystery to artists, happens. And which by the way, as we know in great works of art, has happened.

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