My daughter writes. She is very talented, for her age. (She’s thirteen.) I’m happy about this, but also a bit cautious, as her father is/was a “writer”. The quotation marks indicate that, although he referred to himself as a writer, there was no concrete proof that he was one. He reads a lot of catalogs, clips a shitload of articles from the New York Times, and talks a lot. But to me, this doesn’t add up to being a “writer”.
When I met him, originally, I was super, super excited that he wrote. He showed me one or two “treatments” he wrote for a television sitcom that was no longer on the air, to impress me. Even though this was meager, I was kind of stupid and impressionable, so it worked. And I was still excited.
“Oh, awesome!” I said. “Do you send out copies of these wonderful pieces of art to every possible source, every minute of every single day, and repeatedly, since the entertainment industry is so incredibly cutthroat and competitive that your chances are close to nothing that you’ll even get a measly “runner” job, much less a real writing job”?? “No”, he said, with a strange amount of what I took as knowledge and pride, but which was really, I came to realize an unfortunate many years later, extreme arrogance and laziness, “That’s not how it’s done. The only way to make it in "this town” is by “knowing someone”.
And he did actually “know” someone. He had attended college, and was still on relatively good terms, with two nephews of a very successful comic actor/writer/director. He had even gone to this man’s wedding. (I actually got to go with him, years later, to a birthday party for this man’s wife!!! It was totally awesome!! And brain-splittingly intimidating!!!! And I was totally star struck!!! I stood a matter of inches away from Bud Cort, who was, due to his performance in “Harold and Maude”, which is one of the finest films ever made, for me, at the time, the personification of internalized pathetic sexiness!!! And I also saw my ex-boss there, who was also, like the host, a comic actress/writer?/director!!!! And I said nothing to her!!!! I didn’t even want her to see me!!!! She had laid me off, two years earlier, during one of the worst (comparatively; I now have a ton more perspective on what constitutes “bad” in life!!!!) periods of my life!!! Yippee!!!)
(To top that amazing evening off, were the repercussions: I never lived down, for him, the fact that I did not speak to and introduce him and his talent to [name of another comic actor/writer/director] whom I knew only through his personal assistant. This was, as he never failed to remind me, one of the main reasons for his tragic lack of success.)
Unfortunately, he had no material whatsoever to show to this man or to anyone else, ever. All he could present to any person he was lucky to get an audience with was his awesome attitude, which was always the same, and which he could never hide: “I cannot believe that you, who are clearly an incompetent idiot, and even more clearly, massively jealous of me, are sitting there, behind a desk, making the wrong decisions about me”.
So, I spent many, many years attempting to support his “talent”, and his self-esteem. Or at least I thought I was trying, but clearly I sucked at it. Not just in his opinion, of which he reminded me daily, but also, I realized, again, with time, in my own reality. I am not very good at helping people out of ditches that they themselves have dug. Of course bad stuff happens, but if you make no attempt to change your attitude about it, I will go numb to your plight. His strong desire to be hand-delivered a contract with SNL, just because, ended up leaving me with the tragic realization that he was a complete nutjob, and desperately hoping that my two children had not acquired the gene for an over-inflated sense of entitlement.
What I want for both of them is to understand, really, really understand, that if you don’t work very, very hard, you may not get anywhere, no matter how much talent you have.
So my daughter has a talent, for writing, and she mentioned recently that in her English, oh, oops, I’m sorry, Language Arts, class, they had read an article by a famous writer that proposed the idea that talent doesn’t exist, that if you “want” to do something, and study and study and study, you will be good at it, and that’s all talent is. This is bullshit, (although that’s not how I answer my daughter, since I don’t like using swear words around my kids) and I can prove it, even if only in my own head.
See, my son also has a talent. His is cartooning. And here’s my experience: there exists the desire to do something, which can lead to learning a craft. And there exists something else, which is a hell of a lot more difficult to define, which boils down to the absolute inability to not do that thing, that thing you need to do, no matter what, and do it well, without study; this to me is talent.
And that's what I watched as my son grew up. If anything could ever nudge me into believing in a higher power, a god or what have you, (and I’m not saying that it did) it was the beautiful and mysterious moments of watching ideas, in the form of ink or graphite, flowing down from somewhere above his head, down through his arm, into his small hand and onto paper. And it was not just a mystery to me; Sometimes, while watching him work, I would ask him why he added this or that detail, and he would say, “I dunno." It didn’t matter, though, because whatever he did always worked.
And I’m by no means biased. To prove that I am totally objective, I will say that he is an amazing cartoonist but he lacks in other areas, like having a sense of narrative. He would create dozens and dozens of multi-page comic books, with a myriad of whimsical characters, full of expression and emotion, fantastic action-packed visuals and no cohesive storyline. Almost all of those proposed 20-page comic books stopped around page 7 or 8, with petered-out endings. Or rather, no endings. They just stopped in the middle. Presently, his work seems to include more single panel stuff, which makes a lot of sense. But if he ever does need a narrative, he can always find a partner who writes!
And he could never stop drawing. I was asked repeatedly, sometimes gently, sometimes not, by his teachers to “please tell your son not to draw all over his tests, homework, notebooks, textbooks, classmates, etc.”, but he just could not stop. There was not a surface in our house that was free from his characters (or characters that he copied from television). But this was ok, actually more than ok… To me it was as glorious a sight I could hope for.
The experience is different for my daughter, though. The words don’t flow as effortlessly as the characters do for her brother. She is blocked quite often by what anyone who wants to write is blocked by. “I’m sure this idea has been used before”; “I liked this idea in the beginning, but I don’t know how to continue with it”; “I like this idea, but now I’m bored with it”. She is good, though, and already has her own voice, so I encourage her talent.
I write too, (even though my children’s father believed only “writer’s” should be writing) and I too have stuff that blocks me, and I can fight through most of it, but one of the things that I gives me more of a hard time is that, well, um, and I know that this may seem obvious, and predictable and common, but I have no idea how you can precisely put your feelings into words.
If it’s really, really cold outside, I can say, “The icy wind whipped and bit through my skin” (And whether that’s a “good” sentence, or better than “it was so cold my teeth froze, cracked into splinters and fell to the ground”, or “it’s so fucking cold out”, is not the issue here). Even if I “like” what I’ve written, no matter how well I can put words together and form something that expresses my experience, it still is not exactly how I feel when the icy wind whipped and bit through my skin. And that drives me fucking crazy.
I can say I like a song or I loved that song or that song has a beautiful melody, a driving rhythm, or, the lyrics made me laugh, cry, puke, whatever. Or, I love my boyfriend. I can write that and I know what it feels like to love and feel loved back. When I would watch my son draw, and be conscious of his talent, it made me feel something else that I can’t explain properly. Pride, amazement, joy.
But these words don’t do any of it justice…. they cannot describe what is going on inside, which is something far far, beyond words, or at least I don’t have the words, or I guess, the language, for expressing these things. I’m not even sure what that language is, or if there even is one. But I keep trying.
There are authors, talented ones, whose writing I admire. For whatever reason, I tend to like someone’s style over subject matter. I appreciate the mystifying ability to put several words together in an appealing manner. It’s almost intoxicating, really, when someone can evoke a very specific mood with just a few words. I just don’t know how they do it, and when I read what I write I usually feel short-changed.
On the one hand, I try to be exact with the language that I do know, anal really, or as anal as I can be, given my limited education: I did not like hearing a host on the Mickey Mouse club say to a guest, “Let me ax you a question”; I didn’t like my son’s pre-kindergarten teacher say to the class, “Now youse all sit down over here”, and I am mortified that executives of my world class “European Paper Clip” company compose emails with spelling and grammar errors, repeatedly. And, please, let’s never forget, “supposebly” is not a word.
On the other hand, there is that other part of me that finds it frustrating that words do not come even close to what they represent. In fact, there is an even pretentiously deeper part of me that understands that words are close to meaningless, in the grand scheme of things. (I do not understand such things as “how language and the brain interact” “how the brain is formed by language”, “how language forms civilization” and so on, although I’m just making this up as I go along: my lovely boyfriend, being a scientist, really does read, and enjoy, books about stuff like this. I can only nod and smile.) Words are just symbols, obviously. Poor ones most times. I’m thinking now about a Curious George book that I used to read to my son, where George is being taught to read by the Man in the Yellow Hat. When George first looks at a page in a book, he sees “little black marks and dots and lines, and George was curious: what could one do with them?”
This is what I’d like to know, also, but I don’t think I’ll get a satisfactory answer.
In the end, of course, I tell my daughter that, yes, talent does indeed exist, even if it is difficult to define.
And even if I can’t prove it, I know it to be true.