Mark Terry

Friday, February 23, 2007

A Talentless Schmuck?

February 23, 2007
Well, the Academy Awards are Sunday night and I suppose I'll watch some of them. I don't think I've watched them to the end. I was thinking about them during "Good Morning, America" today, especially where Jennifer Hudson is concerned.

For those of you who aren't aware of this, Jennifer Hudson has been nominated for, I believe, Best Supporting Actress for her roll in "Dream Girls." What makes this apparently notable to the media is that Ms. Hudson got booted off the TV show "American Idol" well before the finals a while back. The media has decided to use this as a hook for many stories about how the "American Idol" judges, especially bad boy Simon, is full of crap.

Except he's not. And if you get past his bluntness and look at the fact he's the guy who created the show, he's a guy who ran a successful business and lost all his money in the stock market crash in the '80s and has come back to have a hit TV show and run a very successful talent and booking agency, etc., the man must know something.

When this story first came out, I commented to my wife that although I hadn't watched much of "American Idol," I had seen most of the finals and without a doubt, every single person in the finals has talent--a lot of it. And from what I've seen, every single person who makes it to the top 24 has a tremendous amount of talent.

And what the winner is going to face is a possible 6 month to 12 month concert tour where you perform 5 or 6 or 7 nights a week in dozens of different types of venues under all sorts of conditions. And the "American Idol" show structure is designed to weed out the people who just aren't ready for that kind of grueling schedule. If you're going to phone in a performance you had a week to prepare, how are you going to act when you've been on a bus or a plane all day and have to do a show at 8:00, then hit the hotel and be back on the road at 7:00 the next morning in order to get to your next show?

Doing a movie where you're allowed take after take to get it right is a very different gig.

Anyway, I was thinking about talent and writers. Aspiring novelists often get the sense that the industry thinks they have no talent. Undoubtedly in some cases they don't. What I've tended to see in bad manuscripts by unpublished authors is a lack of skill and craft; talent is almost impossible for me to determine at that level. If they work harder and persist, persist, persist and are willing to stay open-minded and learn and take feedback, then it's possible they might get published in the future.

Talented writers are a dime a dozen.

Talented writers who have really learned their craft are much rarer.

Talented writers who have learned their craft and persisted until they succeed are even rarer still.

And talented writers who have learned their craft, persisted and then had a little luck? Hey, you figure that out. Rare of the rare.

I also think the Jennifer Hudson story might be an example of something else I believe. Sometimes we're talented, but not necessarily in the areas where we are striving.

Lawrence Block wrote a column once about a friend of his who desperately wanted to be a novelist but kept getting rejected. Somewhere along the way the gent wrote a travel article, which got picked up and turned into a wonderful career as a travel writer, being sent by numerous magazines all over the world to write about all these exotic locales. Block said he was pretty jealous of the man. But the man only wanted to write novels and couldn't be happy with just being a wildly successful travel writer.

I also remember reading an article by a couple of literary agents who told a story about a client of theirs, a woman who was a PhD in biology, who had written a novel. They sold it and it did okay, but they suggested she try writing popular science books, which she was resistant to doing. Eventually they convinced her to give it a try and she was very, very successful at it.

This sometimes hits me where I live. Had I put the energy into nonfiction that I put into fiction when I was in my twenties, I would have been freelancing for a living by the time I was 30. By the standards of almost all freelance writers, I am very successful (if success is defined by money). Yet a part of me will only view myself as successful if I make a living just writing novels. (Is there a medication for this? Sign me up.)

I also think I have found a certain kind of niche with thrillers, which suits my worldview and my writing style better than straight mysteries. And if what my gut is telling me about my nearly completed children's fantasy adventure is correct, I may have found another area I can write well in that I never would have considered writing in even three or four years ago, let alone fifteen or twenty.

The point is, I think, that most of us that write are talented. Some are undoubtedly more talented than others, but we may have talents for different things. That isn't to say that if something really appeals to us we shouldn't try to develop our talents in that area. In fact, I think we should--that's part of the creative journey, which is an important part of life for us creative types. But I think it's safe to say that having a sense of your talent's strengths and weaknesses and working very hard are more important to eventual success.

Mark Terry

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