Discussion → Talent as an Unexamined Asset

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    Edward Mullany
    Mar 13, 08:41pm

    Of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway once said:

    “His talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could only remember when it had been effortless.”

    Is it true that a writer does his or her best writing by not thinking about the thing that makes it good?

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    Cooper Renner
    Mar 13, 10:26pm

    That's a tough one, and I'm not sure there is any ready answer. Maybe it was true for Hemingway, but not true, say, for Yeats. How much of what is individual and "magical" about a writer is under his/her control? I don't know that I've ever answered that question satisfactorily for my own writing or for the writing of others. A writer like WG Sebald seems to have been very much in control of the work--the work seems very intellectually structured and produced--but maybe it wasn't. I think it was Madeleine L'Engle (noted mostly for her children's books) who said that when writing something new it was important NOT to be a critic--to just get it all out; and then to come back at it, once the first draft is done, and do the critical work then.

    Perhaps underneath Fitzgerald's remark is a presumption of being spoiled not simply by knowing what makes one's writing 'good' but from taking the praise of others too much to heart and not allowing oneself to go in other directions, continuing to grow.

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    Sam Rasnake
    Mar 13, 10:33pm

    Interesting quote - and question, Edward.

    For me the not thinking would be an absolute truth. I'm not saying there's no toil or design to the process - no sweat and blood. But, my best work is when I'm overpowerd by the presnece of the creative moment - a bit possessed. And no room for thought. I don't think my way through a piece.

    While my comment here is directly focused on writing poetry, this most likely has more to do with me than it does with poetry. I must say, however, that my approach to flash is the same.

    My strongest connection with poetry is in the lyrical mode. And for me that's more about discovery than it is mapping out - or thinking - the form and content. I do write some narrative poems, but that's uncommon for me.

    I realize that if I were writing short stories, epic poems, plays, or novels - my way might not be effective.

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    James Robison
    Mar 13, 11:10pm

    "Is it true that a writer does his or her best writing by not thinking about the thing that makes it good?"

    "...the thing that makes it good."

    "...thing makes it good."

    "...the thing..."

    My guess is that once this single unique "thing" has been acquired, earned, discovered, it naturally inhabits a writer's work but that the acquisition requires tremendous focus and self awareness.

  • Amber Sparks
    Mar 14, 12:41am

    I'm sure it's true for more instinctive writers, that overthinking the thing kills the talent that feeds it. I know a lot of writers do the trance-like thing--write and write and let the thing pour out of your guts then come back and edit later. For those writers, overthinking it kills it because the talent lies in producing that great gush of words. For me, it's not that at all. I write like I'm putting together a puzzle, and there's little intuition involved at first--it's all planning until the last stage where I create the words to fit the missing pieces. So I have to think it to death, and overthink it, or there'd be no story to begin with. Does that mean there's only craft and no talent?

    Who knows...what is talent, anyway...but I do think it's interesting because when I read the quote I thought about piano, not writing. When I play piano, my hands just know what to do but when I start thinking about what my hands are doing, I can't play so fluidly anymore. Is that what writing is like for some people?

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    Gary Percesepe
    Mar 14, 05:38am

    i worked with two writers who are as diff as night & day on this question--

    william gass is as self aware a writer as one can find; as a formalist, he unpacks the meaning of language. his writing is painstakingly slow

    tc boyle is at the other end--lets it flow, tries not to think about it. i asked him once if he knew where his endings come from, if he could hear them coming, and he looked at me like that was a crazy question. he writes in order to know what he thinks, ot because he knows what he thinks.

    i like jim's relection above--

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    Gabriel Orgrease
    Mar 14, 06:03am

    It depends to a great deal on a person’s relationship to themselves, and to their ego that presumes possession of a designated talent. In most cases, and I cannot right this minute think of any where it is not, good writing (leastways writing that we keep reading) occurs where there is an exploration of conflict internal to the writer.

    If the writer is unconscious of this conflict, and more-or-less wandering around exploring it as a child, then becomes self-aware, the impact on the writing process can either be crippling or it can be transcending. It is not necessarily consciousness of the attributes of one’s writing that makes the difference.

    The problem of consciousness of talent as it impacts on the quality of the writing has more to do with the psychological grip of the writer than with the process of writing.

    For my example I think of Frederick Exley who, according to Jonathan Yardley, wrote one interesting book and then went on to a subsequent career of writing terrible material. In Exley's case a lack of psychological control imbued the talent of Fan’s Notes, but the self-same cluster of internal conflicts when heightened by public praise and fame resulted in a tragic denouement.

    One may also ask if a writer is an alcoholic does it hamper their talent when they stop drinking?

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    Ann Bogle
    Mar 14, 07:49am

    Texta: from "Do It Yourself," a weblog entry by Christa Forster:

    "I explained how I choose a genre in which to write: blog entries are about turning the daily into the daily bread. Fiction is about crafting art from an experience that seems ripe with symbolism. Poetry is about turning to the ether, pulling something from it, and through the imagination, creating something "Fanciful" from the sheer air: a rarity of the imagination, so rare that it makes the indecipherable plain. Poetry clears the mind's eye with all its glorious confusion. And there are no resolutions in poetry, only pauses."


    Also from this entry:

    "So much of writing is about writing, until the writer finds her subject."

    Forster's subject, according to this otherwise exploratory blog entry, is her father, who died not long ago. She writes from obsession.

    It was Christa Forster who brought me to a psychiatric hospital in Houston in 1991 during a writing-related breakdown. I pleaded with her not to leave me there. "Zelda," I said as we sat outside under perhaps 25 small planes flying overhead in an airshow at the airstrip next door, "Do you know who Zelda is?"

    I am informed, since, by Peter Kramer's discovery of letters Fitzgerald wrote to Zelda's doctor, asking the doctor to view Zelda as having no more potential as a writer than as a contributor of short pieces to The New Yorker.

    I think of both Hemingway and Fitzgerald as writers from trauma, Hemingway by his admission in this description of Fitzgerald's talent, the better but not the purer of the two because the more sustained.

    If you flip open to any page in Fitzgerald's Collected Stories, you might find, as I have, hack work, even offensively destructive stories, written, as Hemingway would have it, on marred wings.

    Another passage from "Do It Yourself":

    "My father-in-law [Houston poet David Brown] liked my line about 'the small wings of speech' from my poem "Chaos Theories".

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    Stephen Stark
    Mar 14, 09:16am

    Hard not to read Hemingway on Fitzgerald and think he was a) imitating Fitzgerald, and b) as much writing about himself as anyone.

    Not long ago I watched Rufus Wainwright talking to Elvis Costello on the show Spectacle on Sundance. The former said of his first record that he had his entire life to come up with the songs on it, but felt that the sophomore effort in some ways had to be a singer's best record, nearly perfect if flawed in its own ways. Probably bad paraphrasing on my part. But it's often surprising how good early works are by really talented people, compared with later ones. And then there are writers (I'd put myself in this category) that, as Ann quotes CF as saying, have to find their subject before they find their voice.


    It does not take talent to write/tell a story. We are all creatures of narrative, we all tell stories. Ken Kesey once wrote in the introduction to a book (the title of which escapes me now) that he discovered that, after trying to teach novel writing, it is just as difficult to write a bad novel as it is to write a good one. I've written bad novels and I'd say it's often harder, because of the strain.

    I have felt as delighted about the crap I have written while I am writing as I have about the good stuff. The key I guess is to know the difference.

    Talent is maybe what makes a story into something more. Talent is "genius" in the utterly Latinate sense of the word as a spiritual attendant. Talent is what makes Hemingway as different from Fitzgerald as he was from Faulkner.

    Overthinking anything isn't necessarily a guarantee of its ruin, but it's as close as anything.

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    Susan Gibb
    Mar 14, 11:49am

    I agree with those that say the statement is true for some, false for others. A writer depends on skill and talent, some must be learned, some comes natural. When it comes time for the experience to turn itself out as story, poetry, lyric, essay, it is a combination of all those practices at play. If plotting prior to writing is part of the learning, then that's what a writer may employ.

    Personally, my best writing comes from a single sentence that bothers me until it gets written down. And just like a crowd gathering, the rest follow it until a story has happened. I almost never edit a story for the story itself (except for the ending) but I spend hours, days, on the words.

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    Katrina Gray
    Mar 14, 12:10pm

    Everyone here is bringing up such good points. Different points. Or the same points expressed differently. This thread, I think, is good an example of how varied talent is, how individual.

    Stephen, you have inspired some Sunday-morning conversation between John (Minichillo) and me. You wrote something that struck us both as so true: "It is just as difficult to write a bad novel as it is to write a good one." Wow. It seems an obvious truth, but I'd never heard anyone say it outright.

    And your Rufus Wainwright example was a good one. (And for the record, I think his sophomore record "Poses" is hands-down better than "Rufus Wainwright.") What I take away from his statement is that as writers, we must continue living examined lives, living exuberantly, so as to keep informing what we do. And that writing may get harder as we grow older if we pull out all our tricks at once and don't cultivate new ones.

    This corresponds to your point, Gabriel, about the psychological grip of the writer. Yes, yes, yes.

    I think that at some point--like your piano-playing, Amber--literary traditions, writing patterns, etc. become so much a part of a writer's psychology, spirit, and unconscious mind, that consciousness is not necessary, or *as* necessary. It's like anything else in this sense, like how some of us might zone out as we drive home from work without thinking about the route. We arrive home, somehow.

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    John Minichillo
    Mar 14, 02:07pm

    Literature requires a recognition of tradition (without going back to Eliot, I know it's in there, "Tradition and the Individual Talent"). And so much of talent comes from technique and a critical perspective. Of course there are bursts of intuitive greatness, but it becomes inseparable from the rest, which is maybe the harder part: the transitions, getting to and from the intuitive passages, or at times, when it's the right choice, to edit that stuff out.

    Talent has to be recognized to be considered such, and probably a good deal of that has to do with consistency, a perceived originality, a vitality, and an engaging imagination. But it also has a lot to do with who is doing the recognizing.

    We respond with our heads and our guts, but maybe, I'm guessing here, that we write mostly with our heads. That the gut response is mostly calculated? And so a lot of this has to do with our ability to disguise the moves, to plod along surprisingly, to be able to look at our own stuff as readers, and then to find the right branching paths, to make good connections, to know the work and remain true to it. So there is this stubborn steadfastness to the writer's own perception of the work, but then where we are obtuse or coy or the language fails - we have to know to see it, and to keep at it - 99% perspiration. So it maybe has a lot to do with not putting the work out too soon? Finding first readers who are trustworthy, and second-guessing. We have to continue to grow as readers and thinkers, and to keep in tune with that. We don't talk about readers as talented, or as geniuses, but that particular talent is inextricable.

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    Finnegan Flawnt
    Mar 14, 03:14pm

    i like to think of my own writing.

    i like to think of my own writing. i really do.

    i like to think of my own writing as a game between my unconscious (using the concept ‘my unconscious losely, including, among others, your unconscious) and my conscious mind (using the concept ‘mind’ losely as well, including, among others, your minds).

    i like to think of my own writing as something that goes on largely behind closed curtains. wrestling with that verity feels like the work of a lifetime.

    i like to think of my own writing.

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    Andrew Bowen
    Mar 14, 03:37pm

    There are few hard, fast rules in literature. This one doesn't apply.

    Something that makes kids a joy (sometimes a fright) to watch is their spontaneity and fearlessness. They aren't aware of rules or dangers, which seems to give them an generous supply of power to overcome the very dangers we as adults point out. There's is, I think, talent--something they tap into without knowing it.

    But there are some folks who like rules, who like form, and like mathematician, uses this love of order to create work that is beautiful in its symmetry.

    Now, when these different folks try to work against their own grain, things don't often go well and get frustrating.

    Artists trying to be what they are not ends badly.

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    Sarah Malone
    Mar 15, 08:17am

    I'm with Finnegan—I love to think about my own writing—but I only feel confident saying what makes work "good" in retrospect. By which point stories feel cordoned off.

    When a story isn't fully unrealized it's hard to know what I would be measuring it against except the shape I haven't found yet. There might be sentences or scenes that are good in ways that are recognizable from previous pieces... but they might need to be cut or revised. Each new piece has its own needs and rules to a degree that thinking about what made others good at best gives comfort or confidence (not to be underrated!)

    Pausing for some intentionality, though, I find essential. Then it's time to dive back in.

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    Nicholas Rombes
    Mar 16, 08:38am

    I wonder if, at some point, the accumulated residue of all that we have experienced just forces itself through in our writing, and no matter how much we try to think about it or control it, this experience wields a terrible and wonderful power. Can we escape our own voice? The auteur theory of writing: Murakami, DeLillo, Morrison, Stein, Evenson, Hemingway, etc. A Kubrick film. A Welles film. We can't escape who we are, and mark our territories with each word. Maybe?

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    Brian Mihok
    Mar 17, 07:25pm

    Is it me or does that Hemingway quote seem terribly tragic about F. Scott? I like what Finnegan said about the sparring between your conscious and subconscious. I always sort of feel like I try to write with one eye open and one closed as to what exactly it is I am doing--trying to direct it so it goes someplace, but not too much to allow for creative spontaneity and satisfying surprise.

    I wonder if there is something about getting older and that inevitability Nicholas mentioned. I guess my fear has something to do with finding something creative and exciting to produce, and the voice with which to produce it, only to find that at some point in life, somehow, my brain stabilized too much from experience or whatever and I've been producing very boring material. Is this what happened to Paul McCartney?

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    Finnegan Flawnt
    Mar 19, 12:35am

    you know, brian, last thing you said resonates strongly with me - that fear and also the stabilizing effect which seems to render the un/conscious play ineffective more of the time. glad this thread's become quite personal, that's most valuable for me.

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    Ann Bogle
    Mar 19, 07:03am

    Talent at the beginning:


    This is Bonnie Farber at 17 in the role of Bloody Mary in South Pacific in a traveling production of the Guthrie Theater in Appleton, Wisconsin ca. 1979.

    Born in Brooklyn in 1962. A fallow hidden from us. She plays in a samba band in Madison.

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