Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Lists and Talent
My life runs on lists. I have lists pinned to walls of everything from story questions (Is the MC actively pursuing a goal? Is the event building excitement?) to lists of words I need to avoid. I have work lists, writing lists, life lists (Have you walked today?) and I'm fairly certain I have a list of lists somewhere around here. I live by lists, and as some people have figured out, if something is not on one of my lists, I'm apt to forget it.
I outline my novels, which is just another form of list because it allows me to apply questions to the base core of the story and see if it is following through on what I want to achieve. I list stories that need additional work and list more questions to apply to them. I am working on a massive database that lists all my manuscripts, all the characters, places and things associated with them so that I can make lists of them. I even have Excel lists of my daily word counts going back to January 1, 1998.
The first thing I do each day is list out what I want from the day -- not only what I need to do, but what I would like to achieve. Sometimes those things are solid, easy stuff things like finish reading a book or write X number of words on a story. Other times they are far more esoteric like figuring out how to reconcile emotional needs with reality. Outlook pops up with recurring lists for me every day. (And yes, doing the Joyously Prolific post comes up every Wednesday to remind me.)
However, a discussion on FM has reminded me that not everything can be confined to lists. I believe trying to define talent, for instance, is too individual to make a check list to say if someone has it or doesn't have it. I think lists of that sort no longer define something, but box it in. That doesn't mean the list won't help some people who need definitions, but for others looking at the list would be the way to define themselves out of talent rather than into it. What one person lists as important, another would define in a different way. Or they might not list something one writer feels is the most important aspect of talent. Did we ever mention anything related to 'vision' in that discussion on FM?
Writers are artists, and artists are, on the whole, the most individualistic people in the world. They have already looked outside the normal world that boxes most people in with definitions of who and what they are. They have moved beyond definitions into a world where they don't accept the lines drawn that others don't cross.
Artists vary in that indefinable quality we call talent. How can we define it in ourselves when we can't even agree on talent in others? How many times have you read a review of something that was described as 'talentless' in one way or another, and yet which you enjoyed? Would you take the word of a reviewer over your own, personal feelings -- even if you cannot clearly define those feelings? If you enjoyed something, then the person who created it (book, artwork, music, whatever) had the talent to reach you. Not reaching everyone else isn't important.
If we only measure talent by individual success in the field (and some people do, of course), then you would have to put Rowling and King on a modern top ten list. I don't like King, but I enjoyed Rowling's books. I don't think they're great art, but she has the talent to reach readers on a level that entertains them. King does the same, just not for me. Of course, if you start equating talent with personal success, it gets really tangled. Emily Dickinson? Never had personal success, of course -- so does that mean she wasn't talented during her own lifetime?
So maybe not success, but ability to reach the audience is a part of talent -- but then, in order to define if you have that particular aspect of talent, you would need to define who your audience is, and that might not be so easy. I love Dickens, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Virgil, C.J. Cherry, Jim Butcher, Chip Delaney and the nonfiction of Michael Grant. Am I your audience? I might be -- my tastes, like most readers -- is eclectic. If someone tried to define me into a specific audience, they'd have trouble.
So the ability to reach an audience may be a part of talent, but you know what? You can't know if you can do so until after you have written, and probably written far more than one thing. So asking if you have this talent before you've done the work is pretty much useless. And even after publication... well, I am reminded of the innovators in The Modern Art movement who were scorned and derided (and who still are) as talentless. I don't particularly like modern art like Cubism -- and while I like some Minimalist music and design, I don't particularly care for the art pieces.
I don't think the people involved are talentless just because they didn't reach me. And if someone set down a list of 'what you need to be talented' then a good many of these artists would be denied the title of talented because they don't fit into ... well, into the box that the list created.
Lists have their places. Ones about 'what is talent' can even help an individual with personal questions. However, if you find yourself looking at a list and you don't meet the qualifications, it may only mean that you are thinking outside that particular box.
And that's a good thing.
And here is a little piece of The Servant Girl and then I'm off again to take care of more things off of lists!
She reached the library door and ran her fingers over the familiar wood before slowly pushing it open. She stepped into the library and looked at Master Noah where he sat at the table, a decanter of wine and two goblets before him. He looked up from his book.
"I am going," she said softly. "With the merchant, back to Teloris --"
"I know, I know. Come and sit down. Have a little wine. We'll draw out maps, shall we? Ways that you might need to take to get there ... and back here again, next spring. It's going to be a hard journey in the winter. They'll have you fitted out for it, won't they?"
"Oh yes, sir," she said and gratefully sat. This proved easier, having gotten past that part, since he had already known. "Bell and Darva are seeing to it now. Darva will be going with us --"
"Will she indeed?" he said, a little startled by that news. "Well, I think that's good. She's a remarkable woman, our Captain Darva. Though I dare say this will be very hard on Bell. I'll have to remember to ask her to have lunch with me some days. We'll keep each other company while you both are gone."
"That would be good, sir," she agreed. She stared at her hands for a moment and then looked up again. "But ... But ... I might not come back. There may be things in Teloris that require me to stay --"
He lifted a hand and quieted her. "I'm not a foolish old man, Beth. You are far too smart and well-educated to waste your life locked away in this tower at the edge of civilization. I always knew you would move on."
"I like it here. I wish I could stay," she said, and meant it in all seriousness. He seemed to understand and nodded as he poured them wine. "I don't want to go."
The wind blew hard against the window. They both looked to see the trace of snow against the glass.
Master Noah looked back at her and shook his head. "If I had my way, you would never leave. I hate to think of you out there in that weather and so far from safety. But the world does not run on my will, as I have learned so late in life. Sip your wine. I'll get the atlas and we'll go over them so I can pretend I am helping you."
"It will be a help!" she said and meant it. "I would like to know the best way to go. I came here by chance. I don't want to trust to chance to get me back to Teloris again."
So they worked through the nice, quiet afternoon. He finally folded the three maps they had made and handed them over to her.
"Go on now. Get a good night's sleep, because the Gods know when you'll have such a nice, warm bed again."
"Oh, I wish you hadn't mentioned that part," she said with a rueful shake of her head.
He gave her a little smile and a pat on her arm as she stood -- and then, quite unexpectedly, he pulled her into an embrace. "Take care, Beth. Take good care. Write to me from Teloris if you don't return. Tell me what is going on in the city so that I can live it vicariously."
"I promise. I will. Take care, Master Noah."
"Now go to your dinner. Your friends will want to say goodbye, you know."