Friday, February 27, 2009

Superior Animals

I've been running lately. Dare I admit I'm training for a marathon? I hesitate to say such things in the fledgling stages. Too many things, physical and psychological, can go wrong in between now and that mythical run.

But there it is. I've spewed it out. I go to my local park and run around the outskirts with my dog, Lancelot, as I prepare to begin training on this hellaciously long run. And Lancelot loves it. I think it's because he was built to run, and I was built to plod along like an ape who's lost his tree. At home, I am the king. I have the access to the dog food, and I am the only one who can turn that funny, shiny metal thing that opens the door and allows Lancelot to relieve his bladder.

At the park, Lancelot is the superior animal. He ranges out ahead of me, checking out out everything, marking a few poles, trash cans and trees that other dogs have so foolishly claimed as their own, and then bolts back at me. He loves that part. He charges me, wanting to play. I'm sure it makes absolutely no sense to him that I just run around in a circle. No doubt he wants to make me feel better by running at me, leaping up, and trying to rend my shoulder from its socket.

So, during this morning routine, I fall to thinking. My friend Peter, who is also a runner and also a superior animal, does math problems in his head while he runs. He calculates distances based on time and, I'm sure, various other ape-out-of-tree activities. There's not much else to do, really. But me, I don't think about math. I think about fantasy stories, and I philosophize. Amateurishly, no doubt.

What jumped into my head as I watched Lancelot bolt onto the green, subjugate inappropriately scented trees, and race back to nip at me was the notion of Talent.

I always wanted to have Talent. Oodles and oodles of brilliant writing talent. I wanted to be one of those fellows who would think for a few seconds, then write a paragraph that everyone would “Oooooh” and “Ahhhhh” over. Doesn’t every writer want that?

Perhaps some writers already know they have it. Perhaps they see drivel all around them except the brilliance that flows from their keyboard, then they go on to become Michael Chabon or Dan Brown. Me, I’ve never felt that way. Seems to me I’m constantly surrounded by people who are smarter than me. I remember sitting in my AP English class in high school, listening to the amazing papers offered up by my classmates, and wishing I’d said it the way they did, or wishing I’d thought of that brilliant idea.

I wrote my first novel in high school in the midst of all of those smarter kids. The class was tacked on to the end of my senior year, an Independent Study class where I’d somehow convinced them I should be allowed to write a fantasy novel for credit. Boy, did I think I’d pulled the wool over their eyes. Getting school credit for letting my mind wander, jotting down scenes of burly heroes hacking through shiny, slimy nightmare demons. What a gorgeous moment in time. Of course, I was convinced that it would be a bestseller, that the characters would become immortal. When I’d barely begun, I took the fledgling chapters to my English teacher for approval.

I waited impatiently for days, dreaming of coming to class one day and having my teacher –Let’s call him Mr. Vidsa– announce to everyone that there was a budding novelist in their midst.

But he didn’t. Days turned into weeks, and I heard nothing.

I finally caught him at his office and asked him what he’d thought. I think he pointed out that I was very excited about it, and I seemed to really enjoy it. I don’t really remember his response.

I do remember what happened a few days later, though. My new best friend and I were talking about my book (I’d pushed the chapters on him, too), and I told him how Mr. Vidsa had been really excited about the novel, and that I was going to give him the most recent chapters today. My friend looked at me quizzically, and then he said, “Really? I was just in his office yesterday, and he said he was overloaded with work, and on top of it all, one of his students kept giving him dozens of pages of a wretched fantasy novel he’s writing.”

Two things clicked for me then. First, my new best friend wasn’t ever going to sugar-coat anything for me. Second, Mr. Vidsa didn’t think I had any talent at all and, by the influence our English teacher had on us, probably neither did my best friend now.

It hurt. I never took any more chapters to Mr. Vidsa, and he never asked for more, or asked me anything else about my novel. I told myself that he just didn’t like fantasy stories. I told myself that he was overworked and was probably just in a bad mood when he read them. I told myself anything that took the focus off the notion that I had no talent.

That knee-jerk reaction returned many times over the years, anytime anyone said they hated my writing. It always stung, and I always listened, and I always ignored everything that didn’t help me continue. And I wrote and wrote and wrote. Well, it’s been twenty years since then, and an interesting notion popped into my head while I was running this morning. If Mr. Vidsa’s appraisal of me was correct when I was eighteen, if I truly had no talent, but I now have several novels and short-stories published, what does it mean? Was Mr. Vidsa simply a bad audience and I was right to ignore him? Should we, as writers, be extremely cautious who we allow to influence us? Or can talent be earned? Is the word “talent” too narrow a definition to contain all the important pieces that can make a good storyteller?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I wonder. I wonder if a no-talent writer like myself can ever achieve a place on the New York Times bestseller list, or earn that mythical six-figure advance. I do wonder.

And it’s a nice feeling sometimes, wondering.


Carl Greene said...

Todd, you have talent. You cater to a specific audience, not EVERYONE. Those who make the NYT bestseller list, or get talked about by English teachers, have written universally-appealing "literature." Those of us who love your stories tend to get seriously bored by "literature," longing instead for some F***ING IMAGINATION FOR A CHANGE!!! Like what we find in your Wildmane effort (effort? draft? unpublished work of art? What are we calling it these days?)

Don't forget our Creative Writing professor at CC. He hated fantasy. What the hell is he doing, teaching "creative writing," if it won't include fantasy?

I'll answer that question for you with a cliche: Those who can, DO. Those who can't, TEACH. Keep on keepin' on, and don't let considering your audience alter the story from what it is really meant to be.

emer_101 said...

I think even the writing on this blog entry proves you have real ability-- your writing is thoughtful, structured, and with a touch of whimsy. Basically, I've loved your writing (even as someone who doesn't normally read fantasy) because it has "soul". And, just for the record, even though I believe you do have "talent", talent doesn't amount to much in this world without work to develop it. Would Yo Yo Ma still be a great cellist if he was never introduced to the instrument? If Michael Phelps hadn't practiced every day for 2 years, would he still have gotten his 9 gold medals? Talent is just the small kernel that must be fostered by work, interest, and desire-- and you have the whole package. I'm sure your writing has improved dramatically over the years as you've had new experiences, grown in depth as a person, and learned new writing skills from your brethren. I'd hate to have one memory from a soured high school teacher tarnish your image of the gifts you have, and what you have accomplished.

Megan said...

Who is this emer_101 and how is it possible that he/she said exactly what I wanted to say? Great post, emer, and read it again for me, Todd. Truer words were never spoken (er, written.)

Lara said...

You are talented. Writing makes you happy which makes me happy which produces a great big snowball of bliss that is necessary for my daily sanity. So- believe your fans, believe me and use this experience as a story to show our children how important it is to follow their hearts and not let inconsiderate comments squash their dreams.

Lynette Conner said...

Have you ever looked at a magnificent skyscraper stretching into a clear blue sky and said "Wow!" Looking at the beauty, summitry, and design you wonder how it was even built? Rarely do we ever look down into the depths of the foundation. There are years of planning, digging, and preparing for the structure that
it will eventually hold. When the foundation is properly laid the work of art stands the test of time.

When you find yourself on the NYT bestseller list making a six figure income with ease you will know that it was the composition of your talent, which included both the positive and negative feedback, that is blended into your foundation. The planning, the diligence, the discipline, the intention, the passion, and the love of sharing a good story will hold you up. When you arrive, you will know you stand on a firm foundation and you deserve to be amongst the great writers of our day and your stories will stand the test of time.

When you arrive It will be a deep knowing and confidence that you deserve your success and not just a puffed up ego and a one fly-by- night fluke.

In my mind you have already arrived and that goal is pulling you to it. You have the perfect amount of talent. Every successful person knows that it takes a lot of failures to get it right. And when you do all the failures melt away. It doesn't matter if others doubt you, it matters if you doubt yourself.