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.