talent versus hard work

Over the last week I’ve heard the word “talent” twice, in contexts that got me thinking about its meaning and how we apply it for good or ill:

1. There’s a young filmmaker at my school whose first work has met with success.  Her films are edgy and whimsical, typically involving a simple storyline seen through an impressionistic, melancholy lens.  “An incredibly talented young woman,” I’ve heard her described.  “She’s got the gift.”

2. I was describing to an acquaintance the grueling spring schedule of a writer friend who has self-published a novel and is now being invited to participate in more festivals, conferences, readings, forums and book clubs than he can handle.  Recently his book was nominated for an award, and now he’s busier than ever.  My acquaintance sniffed and said, “That’s not talent. That’s just hard work.”

So what’s the difference, I wonder?  There is  a difference, of course.  A truly untalented artist could work as hard as s/he wanted without achieving recognition; on the other hand, we all know how many highly talented artists died in obscurity.

Last night my friend Mary stayed up late and made this movie to celebrate her mother’s wedding.  It took longer than she thought it would, she said; she’d wanted to get the details just right.  When I watched it, I was astounded at her talent.  Not just, Where did she learn to do this? but also, How did she think to do this?  Where did she get these great ideas?

When the student filmmaker I mentioned earlier made a promo video for our program, I discovered just what makes her talent so talented:

a) she’s a highly organized, adept communicator; b) she listens astutely to what her client wants and what her audiences needs to take away; c) she collaborates with other talented artists; d) she works within a consistent yet evolving aesthetic, perfecting her technique and developing a coherent, recognizable body of work; e) she delivers on time and follows up to make sure everything works for everybody.

Sounds like good work habits, doesn’t it?  I’m not saying creativity has nothing to do with talent.  On the contrary, I think creativity feeds into each aspect listed above.  Is it too much to claim there’s as much artistry in how you work as in what you produce?

According to T.S. Eliot, talent is measured by its relationship to artistic tradition, from which an artist needs to break (=novelty), but to which s/he also needs to respond (=”historical sense”).  How does an artist access tradition?  “If you want it,” says Eliot, “you must obtain it by great labour.”

In other words, according to one of the 20th century’s most talented poets, talent is hard work.

Eliot, Thomas Stearns. The Sacred Wood. London: Methune, [1920]; Bartleby.com, 1996. www.bartleby.com/200/.

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