On Talent and Running with your Gift

I recently finished Kurt Vonnegut’s writing book Pity the Reader.  In it, Suzanne McConnell (a former student of Vonnegut’s) compiles various pieces of advice and tidbits from the master.  I might do a more in depth review of the book (which, in short, was great), but I was struck by the section, Eeny-Meeny-Miny-Moe or Choice.

In it, McConnell points to an interview Vonnegut did in The Paris Review in 1977.  He speaks about his sister Alice and her talent:  

“[Alice] could have been a remarkable sculptor… I bawled her out one time for not doing more with the talents she had.  She replied that having talent doesn’t carry with it the obligation that something has to be done with it.  This was startling news to me.  I thought people were supposed to grab their talents and run as far and as fast as they could.  

‘What do you think now?’ the interviewer inquired.

‘Well–what my sister said now seems a peculiarly feminine sort of wisdom.  I have two daughters who are as talented as she was, and both of them are damned if they are going to lose their poise and sense of humor by snatching up their talents and desperately running as far and as fast as they can.  They saw me run as far and as fast as I could–and it must have looked quite a crazy performance to them.  And this was the worst possible metaphor, for what they actually saw was a man sitting still for decades.’

‘At a typewriter,’ the interviewer says.  

‘Yes, and smoking his fool head off.’”

-Kurt Vonnegut, The Paris Review,  issue 69, 1977

As I’ve read his books, there’s been several times that I’ve felt kinship with Vonnegut.  This was another one of those times—In particular, the quip about Kurt’s family seeing him snatching up his talents and running with them… as he sat still at a desk for decades.  You see, my family’s been saying eerily similar remarks as of late.  

“I don’t know how you can sit still for that long/write that much/do that every day!”  Something to those effects.  I always responded that it was what I wanted to do—and I maintain that.  Writing is what I’ve always wanted to do (since at least middle school).  I just didn’t realize quite how silly I’ve looked while doing it!  

But that’s not the real reason I’m writing.  I’m writing because of Alice’s position about using or not-using your talent.  

Even after having read Alice’s take on the question and reflecting more on my views, I still squarely fall into the camp that someone with talent should pursue it—maybe not as a profession, but at the very least as a consistent hobby.  

Why?  Well, two reasons, I suppose:  Testing yourself and… What else are you going to do with your time?  

Testing Yourself

This part of my view comes from having grown up as an athlete (and also as a writer).  I think there’s truth to the phrase that Misery builds Character (as far as sports and the arts are concerned)My father calls it Testing your Mettle.  Waking up early for sports and pushing through a grueling workout builds resilience.  Practicing a musical instrument builds connections and insights.  Both are good for the mind, body and soul.  

I’d like to point toward another book, Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell.  One of the major discoveries in the book is that people that work harder at something are more likely to succeed.  Another discovery is that the earlier you start practicing, the better.  Sports and the arts go a long way in teaching resilience and hard work that carry over into other aspects of life.  

What else are you going to do with your time?  

Depending on your relationship with free time, this one may be controversial, but personally, I think we spend too much of our free time consuming instead of producing.  I think we spend too much time on TV, video games, and social media—I would even go so far as to throw reading in that category too!  I won’t name genres, but if you’re reading the same genre or same author over and over—then I totally count it.  

Okay, put down the pitchforks, because there is a reason behind this.  

We—humans—used to survive by making things, by doing things, and by seeing real, tangible effects to our labor.  Some of us still do.  Some of us are lucky enough to teach or build things or fix things.  Some of us work in cubicles and the only thing we see is our company’s stock price going up (and even that’s not tangible).  We’re like cats trying to catch a laser pointer—sure, we caught it… but it doesn’t feel like it.  It’s not the same as catching a mouse or a toy.   The company tells us that we did good.  If we’re lucky maybe we’ll even see a raise… For most of us, I would argue that creating something is intrinsic to our mental health.  If you don’t get to do that for work, then my argument is that you should dedicate a little of your free time to it.  

So if you’re a worker who doesn’t see this tangible, actual reward, what are you to do?  My suggestion is to get into art (or a sport—preferably both).  What?  You don’t have time?  Bullshit.  With a handful of exceptions, I bet most of us have time to start a hobby.  

If you’re up for it, do some time management.  Log how you spend your time throughout the day.  How many hours are spent at work or with your family?  …How many hours do you spend watching TV?  Playing video games?  Reading?  How many hours do you spend on social media?  I have video games that I’ve logged multiple hundreds of hours in—I kicked myself so damn hard when I started logging my writing time and realized I can write a first draft of a story in 100 hours…

I don’t point this out to shame anyone, but as a way of keeping tabs on yourself.  If you really want to write a book but don’t think you have the time, inventory your day.  I bet you can find 15 minutes or 30 minutes most days for art.  

Don’t have the motivation?  That’s a bit harder of a fix.  For me, writing is what I want to do with my life and I’m going to work my ass off until it’s my full-time job.  

For the rest of you reading this, my suggestion is just to start.  Do your time inventory, find 15-20 minutes to set aside and start with that.  Just start.  Get out your paper/computer/etc and just get to it.  Tell yourself that you’ll do the bare minimum, but—and this is key—if you find yourself in a groove or enjoying the process, keep going!  Don’t stop unless you’ve put in your time and you’re spent.  

Wow, this was not the post I had in mind when I sat down, but there it is.  

As Vonnegut’s sister, Alice, pointed out:  You do have a choice of whether to pursue your talents.  But if you ask me, I think you owe it to yourself and your mental health to do something with your gifts.  Something constructive.  You don’t have to run like a madman, as far and as fast as you can with your gift, but goddamnit at least pick it up and jog a lap with it.  You owe it to yourself.  

But if you don’t (or if you stop or move on to something else), that’s okay.  After all, the world needs readers too!

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