Talent or Whatever

There are many interesting side conversations that came up in response to Ryan Boudinot’s horrific and self-indulgent critique of his MFA students. If you haven’t read it, waste a few minutes by going here, or just read my response for a short summary of his Goddard bash-fest.

Among these tangential conversations is the one about innate talent. Isn’t Boudinot correct in his observation that, “Some people have more talent than others”? And that talent is something you are born with?

I was talking with some friends over the weekend about Boudinot’s article and some of the issues it brought up. We started talking about the relationship between talent and writing. The sentiment was clear. Sort of.

“Of course, some writers are born with more talent than others – pause – right?”

Three out of four of us have experience teaching in the classroom, and all of us have been graduate students. In our experiences, there are students who do in fact exhibit strengths in language usage, while others struggle with aspects of craft. But, still, we couldn’t agree on one clear-as-day answer to the question, “Is talent for writing the same as, say, talent for painting, singing, playing guitar, or ice skating?”

My Defective Brain

It seems easier to identify a perfect triple axel than a perfect poem. Even with expensive trainers, decades of lessons, and the most intricate hand-stitched sequin leotard, I could never be Gracie Gold. But, with the right teachers and enough practice, I am pretty sure I could write a kick-ass rondeau. And that’s not because I was ever labeled as “gifted” in language.

In fact, I was the last child to learn how to read in my class. My kindergarden teacher was convinced there was “something wrong” with me, which led to weekend hours spent in cold rooms taking various cognitive assessments, when I should have been playing kickball with the neighborhood kids. The result: who knows, my parents refused to hold me back, and I attended first grade just like the rest of the children in my class.

Fast forward almost two decades.

While in grad school, I experienced a week-long bout of intense vertigo. It felt like I was on an acid trip every waking hour. When the walls started to look more like jello than drywall, I went to the emergency room where I was placed in one of those MRI machines and hooked up to icy blue ink that travelled through my veins, coloring my brain cobalt.

When I got the results, I was told I had a Dandy Walker variant, a cyst in my cerebellum and 4th ventricle. The cerebellum is the part of the brain responsible for helping to coordinate movement, and is also involved with cognition and behavior.

Kids with the congenital brain malformation Dandy Walker rarely survive. Sometimes they are born with large heads, have trouble with balance, and don’t develop general motor skills.

It’s extremely rare to learn that you have Dandy Walker as an adult.

This variant might explain why I walked on my toes for the first eight years of my life, was extremely clumsy as a child (okay, and as an adult too), and was a late reader. But it doesn’t explain how I was also able to win essay and poetry contests by the time I was in middle school.

As far as I know, Dandy Walker isn’t something you grow out of. My cyst has been living with me since birth.

The kindergarden teacher that suggested I take all those cognitive tests may have sensed something no one else knew. She is probably over 100 years-old these days (I hear she’s still alive) and I’m sure she’d be shocked to know that not only did I learn how to read, but I also have an MFA and a PhD.

I don’t know if I am evidence that the least suspecting students can learn how to be a writer, but I do know that good educators believe in writing instruction.

I also know that innate talent doesn’t have everything to do with success.

Can You Teach Talent?

I wanted to teach creative writing because I believe that craft can be taught.

When I was given my first 300-level poetry and flash fiction class to undergraduates I cringed on the first day because I only had one English major in the class. I assumed the business, science, and kinesiology majors would either slack because their advisors told them, “creative writing is an easy A” or that they didn’t really want to be there. But I never worried that some of my students were talentless.

One of the worst things I’ve ever had to do was grade creative portfolios. I hated giving students a grade because I always thought if you followed the parameters of the assignment, handed the assignment in on time, and made a visible effort to revise, then you should receive a good grade. There is no way I could judge a student’s work on whether or not it exhibited a measurable amount of talent.

If you love writing, and you want to continue beyond your undergraduate understanding of craft, then you, like hundreds of others, apply to MFA programs. Even though these programs are sprouting up everywhere, they are competitive. Not many programs will accept students just because they wrote a poem once when they were in high school.

So when you get to an MFA program, it’s already assumed that you have the goods–some sort of talent, judged by that program’s committee–to have a successful career as a writer. As long as you put the work in.

As a writer who is also an MFA professor, you have one of the best jobs in the world: teach what you’re passionate about to students who have both personal and professional writing goals. In my mind, the student has worked hard to get where he or she has landed, and while the work isn’t even close to over, there is time, instruction, and resources at the student’s disposal.

Talent is a Tricky Word

I’m not even sure  I know what “talent” means. Our society uses the word to make judgements about people, and about people’s capabilities.

Gracie Gold is talented and is therefore a great figure skater. 

Or, Gracie Gold lacks talent and therefore will never win an Olympic Gold medal.

But according to the good ‘ol OED, the etymology of the word suggests that talent, as a verb, has something to do with desire. As a noun, talent refers to something “rare.” The online etymology dictionary, too, points out that talent comes from the Medieval Latin talenta, defined as “inclination, leaning, will, desire.”

Could the desire to learn also be talent? And if so, doesn’t that mean that everyone has some innate talent?

What about talent as “rare”? My Dandy Walker variant is rare, but I don’t think that’s something to be desired.

Enter Scott Barry Kaufman

Like me, Scott Barry Kaufman tells his story in The Guardian about how he was a “late bloomer.”

At the age of three he was diagnosed with auditory processing disorder, which fast-tracked him to a special school for kids with learning disorders. Prompted by a concerned teacher who noticed his boredom in school, Kaufman started seeing himself differently, not as a special ed kid, but as someone capable of achieving more.

By his early teens, he was playing the cello in an orchestra. Years after that, he became a psychologist and NYU faculty. He has a Phd, from Yale.

Kaufman began wondering if talent was innate, and his article tells us that practice–known as the 10-year rule, an average amount of time it takes to become an “expert” in a particular domain– while important to success, only accounts for 30% of what makes someone learn more quickly than others.

According to “experience producing drive theory,” Kaufman writes that our

genes indirectly influence the development of talent by motivating us to seek out experiences that in turn will develop the neural brain structures and physiology that supports even higher levels of talent.

This means that while we can certainly be born with individual characteristics, those characteristics have to be fostered by our environments. You might even be born doing one thing really well, and then another gene develops and you become really good at something else later on.

Yes, there are prodigies or “early bloomers.” But most of us are just a unique conglomerate of genes, waiting to find our domains. And what Kaufman concludes is that the “latest science suggests we are all capable of extraordinary performance in some domain of expertise; the key is finding the mode of expression that best allows your unique package of personal characteristics to shine.”

Now, doesn’t that sound like it came right out of the mouth of a creative writing teacher?

The Debate Continues

One of my favorite poets, Alice Notley, said in an interview with David Baker, published by The Kenyon Review,

For we are talented in the way musicians and painters are, working with specifics that only we, the talented in poetry, know how to manipulate. We have an ear for very fine changes of sound and meaning between letters and words and lines.

The exclusive “only we” world of poets where our abilities to capture sound and language is queen, for Notley, is no doubt a world only accessible by “the talented in poetry.”

But Notley also believes that poetry has no business in the academy. She says, “poetry should feel hugely uncomfortable in the academy,” and all that matters is “how much talent someone has and how far they’re willing to go with it.”

I agree, to some extent, with Notley that poetry should feel uncomfortable in the academy. Without that anti-academic fervor from poets, we wouldn’t have some of the most compelling poems to learn from and teach.

But I disagree with Notley when she says a poet’s success can only be attributed to “how much” talent someone possess, as though you can measure talent with a different yardstick than the one you can measure practice with.

Like Ryan Boudinot, who gets it wrong when he conflates talent with being “the real deal,” Notley suggests talent is greater than practice. That kind of thinking ignores the other factors that come into play when measuring success, like socioeconomics, education, gender, race, and health.

I’m not saying that there is no such thing as talent, or that we aren’t born with talents. We clearly are. Rather, I’m saying that, like Howard Gardner’s view of multiple intelligences, talent is abundant, and is directed (or misdirected) by personal practice, educational encouragement, and– most obvious to me– social environment.