Mark Terry

Friday, February 23, 2007

A Talentless Schmuck?

February 23, 2007
Well, the Academy Awards are Sunday night and I suppose I'll watch some of them. I don't think I've watched them to the end. I was thinking about them during "Good Morning, America" today, especially where Jennifer Hudson is concerned.

For those of you who aren't aware of this, Jennifer Hudson has been nominated for, I believe, Best Supporting Actress for her roll in "Dream Girls." What makes this apparently notable to the media is that Ms. Hudson got booted off the TV show "American Idol" well before the finals a while back. The media has decided to use this as a hook for many stories about how the "American Idol" judges, especially bad boy Simon, is full of crap.

Except he's not. And if you get past his bluntness and look at the fact he's the guy who created the show, he's a guy who ran a successful business and lost all his money in the stock market crash in the '80s and has come back to have a hit TV show and run a very successful talent and booking agency, etc., the man must know something.

When this story first came out, I commented to my wife that although I hadn't watched much of "American Idol," I had seen most of the finals and without a doubt, every single person in the finals has talent--a lot of it. And from what I've seen, every single person who makes it to the top 24 has a tremendous amount of talent.

And what the winner is going to face is a possible 6 month to 12 month concert tour where you perform 5 or 6 or 7 nights a week in dozens of different types of venues under all sorts of conditions. And the "American Idol" show structure is designed to weed out the people who just aren't ready for that kind of grueling schedule. If you're going to phone in a performance you had a week to prepare, how are you going to act when you've been on a bus or a plane all day and have to do a show at 8:00, then hit the hotel and be back on the road at 7:00 the next morning in order to get to your next show?

Doing a movie where you're allowed take after take to get it right is a very different gig.

Anyway, I was thinking about talent and writers. Aspiring novelists often get the sense that the industry thinks they have no talent. Undoubtedly in some cases they don't. What I've tended to see in bad manuscripts by unpublished authors is a lack of skill and craft; talent is almost impossible for me to determine at that level. If they work harder and persist, persist, persist and are willing to stay open-minded and learn and take feedback, then it's possible they might get published in the future.

Talented writers are a dime a dozen.

Talented writers who have really learned their craft are much rarer.

Talented writers who have learned their craft and persisted until they succeed are even rarer still.

And talented writers who have learned their craft, persisted and then had a little luck? Hey, you figure that out. Rare of the rare.

I also think the Jennifer Hudson story might be an example of something else I believe. Sometimes we're talented, but not necessarily in the areas where we are striving.

Lawrence Block wrote a column once about a friend of his who desperately wanted to be a novelist but kept getting rejected. Somewhere along the way the gent wrote a travel article, which got picked up and turned into a wonderful career as a travel writer, being sent by numerous magazines all over the world to write about all these exotic locales. Block said he was pretty jealous of the man. But the man only wanted to write novels and couldn't be happy with just being a wildly successful travel writer.

I also remember reading an article by a couple of literary agents who told a story about a client of theirs, a woman who was a PhD in biology, who had written a novel. They sold it and it did okay, but they suggested she try writing popular science books, which she was resistant to doing. Eventually they convinced her to give it a try and she was very, very successful at it.

This sometimes hits me where I live. Had I put the energy into nonfiction that I put into fiction when I was in my twenties, I would have been freelancing for a living by the time I was 30. By the standards of almost all freelance writers, I am very successful (if success is defined by money). Yet a part of me will only view myself as successful if I make a living just writing novels. (Is there a medication for this? Sign me up.)

I also think I have found a certain kind of niche with thrillers, which suits my worldview and my writing style better than straight mysteries. And if what my gut is telling me about my nearly completed children's fantasy adventure is correct, I may have found another area I can write well in that I never would have considered writing in even three or four years ago, let alone fifteen or twenty.

The point is, I think, that most of us that write are talented. Some are undoubtedly more talented than others, but we may have talents for different things. That isn't to say that if something really appeals to us we shouldn't try to develop our talents in that area. In fact, I think we should--that's part of the creative journey, which is an important part of life for us creative types. But I think it's safe to say that having a sense of your talent's strengths and weaknesses and working very hard are more important to eventual success.

Mark Terry

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Blogger Ron Estrada said...

When I first got this writing bug, I was almost hoping someone would be a Simon and say, "Give it up." But they didn't (thanks Mom). It's almost a cruel joke that, if you're blessed with a little talent, you still have only a one in a thousand shot of making it. Like you said, talent's just the beginning. We all know that Simon is doing some of those people a huge favor. They can get their guts kicked in for a few seconds by him or have them slowly extruded over several years before giving up an impossible dream. If someone takes their quest seriously, what he says won't make a difference anyway.

8:41 AM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

The whole time I'm reading your artical I'm thinking; How do I know which stuff I'm good at?
Some of my stuff is religious sci fi/horror, some is cops and, maybe scifi/stephenkingish creepy (you know that space where his stuff is scifi-supernatural) and some is just goofy. I like to write it how do I know?
Do you have Simon's phone number?

4:58 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

The wisest advice I ever ignored was that you shouldn't try to do all one thing, or you'll get burnt out. Gosh, he was so right.

Is it something in society or in ourselves that makes us want to say we get all our income from one thing? Is it a sign of success or something? Of dedication? Of a bias that one can't give one's best if one is doing more than one thing?

I'm with you on talent. In my teaching, I've noticed that talent is almost a hindrance, for some insane reason. I don't even factor it into a student's equation; it's that unimportant a factor in their eventual progress and overall achievement.

Talent can do two things. In the beginning, it can let you slide by without as much effort (which I suspect is the reason why most talented ones drop out when the going gets tough). In the end, talent will give you an extra special something, if you've nailed the skills and the practice and the craft. (Oh sheesh. I'm under the 5 paragraph rule, right?)

5:52 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

In my case, I think I found out what I'm good at by succeeding at it. (Now there's a Catch-22 for you, isn't there?) I'm not as successful at the other stuff. Of course, there are definite market considerations, but we can't ignore that fact either.

I know exactly what you mean. I'm always slightly skeptical of the novelist who wrote a single novel, got a huge advance and was a huge success. Aside from being hugely jealous, they're either geniuses or really, really lucky. Will they have what it takes to have a career? Dunno.

I'm always interested in people who are hugely successful but don't seem to ever had failures. I'm significantly MORE interested in people who are hugely successful but who have failed and come back. There's just something about their mindset that suggests to me that "success" (whatever that is) depends a great deal on how you approach life and viewing failure as just another step along the way to success is a big part of that.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Joe Moore said...


You bring up some really interesting points about talent. It’s a hard concept to define. Here’s my take on it. First, I believe that every human on earth has at least one talent that they can perform better than all other humans. Second, I believe our one true talent will come effortlessly.

Talent is like water; it will always find the path of least resistance and emerge where it belongs.

Now, the big question is what each of us does with our one true talent.


6:48 AM  
Anonymous Barbara W. Klaser said...

Good post, Mark. I do think sometimes our talents lie in areas other than those in which we're striving. I've wondered that plenty of times about myself, in fact. Then there are the really lucky ones who seem to excel and star in more than one area. A few people come to mind who were fiction writers, nonfiction writers, painters, poets and so forth and couldn't seem to do anything wrong.

Maybe the most important thing for anyone to do is find their truest talent and work with that, and find a way to be happy in it, no matter how low or high on the scale of success it places them. Well, unless they're starving at it, and then they'd better keep their day job. ;)

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