This I Believe

Cathleen - Essex, Connecticut
Entered on May 8, 2007
Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: creativity, work
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Dare I Say Talent?

I believe in talent.

This is not a popular view these days.

I remember a young woman at my college urging her peers to submit work to the undergraduate literary magazine. “Everyone should,” she roused herself from a Student Union couch to say. “Because everyone’s poem is equally good.”

Equally good?

I thought of a piece in The New Yorker about elementary-school teachers who had their students use stamps and inkpads rather than letting them actually paint and draw. The stamps ensured that each child produced the same picture and that all pictures were equally good.

No hard feelings, no moment of trauma.

Now, I’m no fan of traumatic moments.

Mine usually have involved a ball and someone’s expectations that I’ll do the impossible when that ball comes flying at me (I usually just bend my arms into a protective X over my head). I’m also bad at math. I hate to sound like old-school Barbie (“Math is hard!”). But there it is. Anyone who’s as physically inept and mathematically challenged as I am (my husband laughed when he saw me subtract by crossing out numbers and sticking in their miniature replacements) knows what it’s like to not be good at something.

Yes, maybe teachers could have encouraged me more. Maybe I internalized bad gender-coding as a girl. But I don’t think I ever could have become a crack baseball player or math whiz.

Should I have been sheltered from this truth? Wouldn’t I have found out before long anyway? Bats not connecting with leather? Figures not adding up?

So I don’t believe it’s bad for kids to realize they aren’t gifted at everything. Johnny can’t draw. Joanie’s poetry sucks. The world doesn’t treat us as though we’re equally good at stuff. Why encourage the fantasy that we are?

Of course, who’s to say what’s good?

After all, the Louvre refused the Impressionists . . .

But I persist in believing in expertise too; even if judgments aren’t Platonic, aren’t perfect, they’re also not equal.

When someone asked a painter at an art colony I visited how she came to her art, she answered that her watercolors drew admiration when she was in kindergarten. “I thought, ‘I like this,’” she said as she raised her palms two feet apart and swiveled in her chair, miming her child-self showing off a picture. She didn’t say she loved to create; she didn’t mime putting brush to paper. She became a painter because people she admired admired her talent.

And talent, I believe, can’t be taught.

At most, it can be discovered.

So what do I teach in my creative writing workshops at Rhode Island College? Techniques and strategies. Not imagination, not depth, not talent. But tools are something.

Because I also believe talent can only take someone so far.