My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Talent: A +5 Sword That You Would Do Better Without

A Dungeons and Dragons/role-playing-game metaphor for why having talent might just be the worst thing that could possibly happen to you.

When I was in school a lot of people said I had talent.  I would sometimes be paraded in front of the other kids with a few congratulatory words from the teacher.  "Chris certainly has talent!" they would say.

It would have better if they hadn't.  If only they knew how much they contributed to perhaps two decades struggle to get the fuck over myself.

               It isn't elegant, but it is simple and effective.                    
         Fatal to even the biggest-headed and thickest-skulled
of SFSU Creative Writing Majors.                           
Of course, Janusprof beat the idea of "talent" out of his students (and me) by the second class.  He jumped up on his desk wielding baseball bat with nails sticking out of it and slammed it down into the bedhead-covered melon of which ever pretentious freshmen drew the short straw.  It was done as an example to all of us.  He emphasized each word with a swing of the bat: "YOU! DO! NOT! HAVE! TALENT!!!!  YOU! ARE! NOT! A! SPECIAL! SNOWFLAKE! AND! THE! SOONER! YOU! REALIZE! IT! THE! SOONER! I! CAN! HELP! YOU!!!!"  And as the body--now perforated with grisly holes--lay in a spreading pool of vermillion, and we all stared in open-mouthed horror, he turned around to reveal his other head, which promptly began to talk.  "Because I really do want to help you get better, and that is so difficult to do if you already think you know everything.  So...I'm dreadfully sorry about that unfortunately necessary business.  Now, let's talk about characterization through significant detail and the word choices that create it...."

Let me make this clear: you never want anyone to tell you that you have talent.  Ever.  If you can jump out of a plane with nothing but an inflatable raft in order avoid someone who's trying to tell you that you have talent, do it.  If someone ever does manage to tie you down to a table and stun your vocal chords for long enough that you have to listen to them, and then they tell you that you have talent, the best thing you could ever do for yourself is to attempt experimental brain surgery to carefully remove the neurons in which that memory is stored.  You might be able to handle it when you've been writing for decades.  Before that, it's not doing you any favors.  Also, it's not just so that you if you ever have to witness Janusprof killing a random freshman, you are subjected only to the sight of a brutal murder and not the much worse trauma of being told you actually don't have talent.  That's nice, but it's not why I'm warning you.

It's not just that you need talent AND $20 bucks if you want a decent hoagie (though you do).  It goes even deeper than that. The very idea of talent is actually doing you a disservice.  But to explain why, I have to tell you the story of the first level character with the +5 sword.  Let's call him Werner of the village Satinerous, and let's call his sword Talentos.

I hope that you have enough exposure to role playing games--the pen and paper kind or the computer game kind--to follow the basic concept of a +5 sword, but if you're not let me just say that in Dungeons and Dragons +5 is the most uberific mega-fucking-awesome magical sword to exist--the only way to be better than +5 is to be +5 AND have effects like bursting into flames on command, shooting lighting bolts, or beating you at chess. Technically, without going outside of the rules as they are written, there is no such thing as a +6. +5 is as good as it gets. 

But the sword Werner has doesn't do any of that this-game-is-absolutely-overpowered shit.  It's just +5.   It increases Werner's chances of hitting someone by 25%.   If it does hit, it does almost twice as much damage as a regular sword. It makes Werner swing faster even than someone using a dagger. This fucking sword is so awesome, it practically fights for him.

Werner had Talentos from the beginning.  His uncle was also an adventurer until he took an arrow to the knee, and then he handed Talentos over to Werner in a totally sentimental moment (even made him swear to avenge the knee in question), and wished him luck.  And Werner went out in the world, Talentos in hand, to make his fortune.

Werner was in a normal adventuring scenario so he fought giant rats and kobolds and maybe some goblins for a while.  Werner didn't even have to try during these fights.  Before the kobolds could even pull out their feeble little weapons, Talentos had sliced them into two diagonally-sliced pieces of kobold.  He dismembered goblins without really even paying attention.  During these fights, he could actually keep talking to his henchmen, The Duke of Monroth, without missing a beat.  It was effortless.

Nothing in the local area was even a challenge to Werner.  Some troglodytes moved in but he dispatched them while still in his pajamas.  Some other fighters of the local area--who Werner thought of more as contemporaries than equals--found other magic swords, but none of them were as good as Talentos.  These guys took like five minutes to kill an owlbear and they would be bloodied and wounded when they finished.  Werner continued to be the best warrior in the area because of his amazing +5 sword.

But then the terrible dragon Kristianik cast it's rapacious eye upon Satinerous.

A cry went out to all the heroes of the land to help Satinerous in its hour of need.  And of course, Werner, with his awesome sword, rose to the call.  His henchman, The Duke of Monroth, offered to let Werner use his full plate armor and dragon scale shield, but Werner said those things would just slow Talentos down.  Werner's uncle tried to give him advice on dragon slaying, but Werner insisted that with Talentos in his hand, he could not but win.

The other heroes who had rallied to the banner were concocting a plan, but Werner sauntered past all of them.  He walked up to Kristianik, with Talentos at the ready.  And Kristianik--who at that moment was experiencing dreadful gas from having eaten a whole field of cows--burped a very large burp as Werner approached.  This burp had a little flame in it because Kristianik was a middle age dragon and was really not able to eat a lot of red meat anymore without having to deal with some very unpleasant indigestion.

The flame from the burp hit Werner and instantly charred him.  The people of Satinerous still insist there was a split-second, blood-curdling shriek, but my uncle said that claim is preposterous. Werner was nothing more than a smokey, blackened skeleton.  Then the skeleton fell into a pile of ash as Talentos clanged to the ground nearby.  Magic swords can't be destroyed by anything as pedestrian as dragon flame.

However, Werner had provided a pretty good distraction for the other warriors and they charged in on Kristianik's flanks.  The battle was long.  It was bloody.  For four of the warriors that fought that day, it would be known as their last stand.  (No ninth level priests around, apparently.) But in the end Kristianik was slain by a badass knight named Henry Lautrek who only had a +1 sword but knew how to find an enemy's soft spots and who climbed up the dragon's back Shadows-of-the-Colossus-style, tied himself fast with his 50 feet of rope, and shoved his sword into the weak point where head met neck.  The plus one sword didn't kill the dragon, but then one of the other warriors on the ground grabbed up Talentos, and heaved it at Henry with a mighty cry. "What a great gift!" Sir Lautrek cried.  He jammed the sword into Kristianik with a battle shout.  The dragon yanked and twitched through death throes, and even dislodged Henry (who hung suspended from his rope by his ankle).  But after a moment, Kristianik fell to the ground with a deep thud. Satinerous was safe. Kristianik was dead.

See, it turns out that while Werner was just swinging Talentos around without thinking, the other warriors were actually working on becoming more skilled.  They where learning how to duck and dodge and block and parry and riposte and not to telegraph their swings and how to tell when an enemy is about to strike and how to approach things that breathe fire from their rear and all sorts of great battle survival skills.   They were training until the callouses on their hands burst open, and then they were training more. They were actually doing the hard work of getting better while Werner just relied on Talentos.  They were letting seasoned vets train them.  They were learning to move in armor.  Talentos was an amazing boon when fighting kobolds and goblins, but it turns out that actual skill was needed to fight a dragon, and the power of Talentos wasn't enough to turn someone too good to train into a dragon slayer.

And the reason they were learning all this great shit was because no one ever gave them a +5 sword. They had to actually get better if they wanted to beat their enemies.  Werner's uncle--god bless his soul--basically got his little nephew killed.

Now I know this allegory is a doozy, so I'll help you decode it a little.  The world is filled with people declared at a young age to "have talent."  My teachers said it of me over and over again when my fledgling spark of interest in writing first manifested.  I was paraded about before the entire school and had many of my young writings picked as the winner for school contests and such.  But the talented cover the earth like a plague of flies.  Even if we consider only the artistic medium of writing, each school produces half a dozen truly "talented" people each year, the 2010 census says there are about a hundred thousand schools in the U.S.  That's half a million or so talented people EVERY year.  99.99% of people take their artistic talent and go manage restaurants or sell real estate.

But it's worse than that.  Those who do try to cultivate their art have been damaged by being told this myth about talent.  They assume that means they are too good for advice, too good for others' input, too good to work with a group of other writers reviewing each others' work.  They think they are too good to need their ten thousand hours.  They mistake "talent" for unmitigated genius.

It's not.

It's really, really not.

And here's the real sphincter muscle of the whole thing–even some unmitigated ubergenius wunderkinder of writing divinity who causes their teachers paroxysms of ecstasy as a child will be outstripped by someone with less talent and zero genius who is willing to work hard in only a few years.  Talent isn't just meaningless in the face of hard work–it can be dangerous to acknowledge when it makes you think you don't have to try.  Best to forget about it.  Best to proceed as if you suck rocks–not even rocks....hardened chips of cow dung.  Then you will never meet the advice that is too good for you or the opportunity to practice that you will think you don't need.

There are a lot of parts of writing that can be taught in classes or learned from books despite the pedagogy of many MFA programs. There are a lot of other parts of writing that can be cultivated, like the discipline and the habit of creativity. But there are a few parts that are damned hard to teach like the linguistic creativity and wordplay or the empathy towards humanity that are so much a part of the ingredients for being a good creative writer. Having talent really helps in these areas.  But if you've got some sense that your talent is going to mean more than someone else's sweat, get over yourself.....like ten minutes ago.

Because there are things a lot worse than dragons waiting for you out there.   And most of them are guarding gates that you need to go through if you want to be a successful writer.  Talent won't mean a thing to those monsters if you don't have the skill to avoid the fatal pitfalls and get yourself positioned perfectly to strike.  And by the time you've done all that...you're going to find that you already have talent.  It has come to you from quarters unexpected, and NOW you are ready to wield it.


  1. I see what you did with the names. Clever.

  2. Talent is a dirty word. It often keeps people from trying "I don't have the talent for that," or people ignore the work you've put in to hone a skill "I wish I had your talent." I hate it as both a teacher and an artist.

  3. It always kills me that when it comes to drawing and painting, people think they have to be born knowing how and won't even try to learn if they don't think they have talent. Art is absolutely something that can be taught and learned, although sadly it is rarely taught that way. I was often told as a child how talented I was, but later learned I just had a head start because my mom was an art teacher before I was born- I thought everyone grew up learning about grids and other drawing techniques. It wasn't until I was 50 and found a good teacher that I started learning about color theory and other essentials. What a difference in my artwork! I am now thinking of going pro after I retire from my day job.

  4. Yes, its often the ones in the second class, not the top class, who succeed most in adult life. They had to make more effort when young. Very bright children who sail through school, don't know the meaning of hard effort.