Friday, August 9, 2013

I Hear Better With Hands Over My Ears

Greatest compliment I’ve ever received – “You have natural talent.” 

Graciously given to me throughout my career, those four words get me through a lot. 

They are a gift like a key to a friend’s apartment.  When the chill of rejection (or frustration or self-doubt) turns my lips blue, I slip that key in the lock and hide out under some blankets.  I drink in them in – I have natural talent. – like hot cocoa until I come out stronger, flushed and with a plan.

It is a statement that encompasses so much:  This pursuit is a valuable use of time.  I was made to do this.  Straight out of the gate, I’m ahead of some. 

Talent is intrinsic and forever whereas failure is a mere moment until I try again, smarter, wiser, better. 

No one can take away our innate gifts, but are they enough?  Some say writing is like comedic timing – It can’t be taught.  (shhh… Don’t repeat that to any MFA administrators.)

When Liv Tyler was a young girl – twelve, I think – she appeared in one of her first film roles, and the director, somebody big time I can’t recall, famously told her not to step foot near an acting class.  He said that instruction would ruin what was unique and natural about her.  Someone very close to me fears the same thing about voice lessons.

It’s all the same.  Writing, singing, acting, comedy, architecture, design, art, education... police work.  I am the proud daughter of a cop.  In his thirty years on the force, my father has survived many unthinkable, dangerous situations, not without injury, and solved who knows how many crimes.  His training was continuous, expensive, and valuable, but what saved his life and the lives of others many times over was his inborn gift of reading situations and people.  My father was born with good instincts.
(Personal note - Now you know where my affection for writing dark characters and situations comes from.  All my life, I've been surrounded by rough-talking cops and their stories.  Daughters can go on as many "ride-a-longs" as they like.  A writer too, my father prized his reports.  He kept immaculate records of his cases - in duplicate.  As a child, I maintained his home files, reading every terrifying folder before I slid it down into the metal drawer.) 

The Civil Wars' (Possibly their last ever album dropped this week.  So sad.) Joy Williams does things on “The Tip Of My Tongue” track that were not taught.  I’m quite certain that they are not even on the sheet music.  Her stylings are from her soul.  Her instincts told her what sound to make and how and when to make it.

That said, someone taught her to read sheet music.  Someone taught her to play instruments.  If they also told her to be quiet until it was her turn or not to sing over her partner, she wisely ignored them.

She kept her “voice” sacrosanct.  So did my dad.  So must we.

Like you, I try to keep up with the news and climate of my chosen industry.  I accept advice and ask for guidance about my career.  I workshop my work and chose the most honest critique partners.  For anyone counting, that is three levels of “in.”  But if I don’t measure the inflows, I won’t have any “outs.”  A friend of mine hasn’t written in two years.  She is paralyzed by all the inflows – blogs she follows, discussions she participates in, etc.  I believe that she simply needs to sit at the computer and turn on the faucet, and I believe that when she’s ready she will.  But what she is going through I have felt whispers of too, like its own suffocating chill.

[Insert big “However” here.] 
However, if we want to see farther than our talents can show us, we must stand on the shoulders of giants. *

There is no question that without the likes of Sol Stein and John Truby, I would not have evolved from my first novel.  I may have had talent but I had no training.  The best thing I ever did for my career was to stop trying to make that manuscript better.  The words “ad nauseum” were invented for what I was ineffectually doing.  I desperately needed some expert inflows

I read books, took classes, sought advice, participated in workshops, and attended writers’ conferences.  I listened to every word every published author I knew said.  When I went back to writing, I had the tools to use my talent.  I still use this pattern.  After every major deadline or draft, I take a break from writing to study craft.  I suppose that someday, I won’t anymore, but for the foreseeable future I will.  I am reminded of things I’ve forgotten and internalize new techniques and perspectives.  While I’m busy learning, the other side of my brain is free to hear my next (and sometimes most recent) story.  Doors swing open that were hidden from me before. 

Give me the tools, dear Craftsman, and I will do the work.  Make no mistake, I have my fair share of discipline, but that isn’t what drives me.  I love the work of my passion.  I hope you do too.  Plus, I am and always will be a detail dork.  Different profession, same tendencies. J The technical stuff, the vocabulary, the acronyms, the catch phrases – the language of my second life – it all makes me giddy.  I want to be a brilliant storyteller.  I never want to stop getting better. 

But sometimes I need noise-cancelling headphones.  Even with writers I like and respect, I actually have to cover my ears to our discussion!  Or rush to the x-out button!  Or close the cover on the trade journal!  Inside of me my inflow-meter is rising and rising until all of a sudden my eyes squeeze shut and my hands slam over my ears.  Too much inflow messes with my own “voice.”  I have to shut everything else out.  It’s a good thing my hair is long enough to cover my odd little spectacle until I can excuse myself for tea.  J

The sweet spot – the one I speculate the best writers (artists, singers, teachers, etc.) have found – is the three-headed yin yang of natural talent, training, and experience.  

This example is from my friend and one of my favorites, Caroline Leavitt, from her bestselling novel Pictures of You

It is a father looking at his sleeping son.

"Without him, he might dissolve into a thousand pieces.  You breathe, I breathe, he thought."

Caroline keeps going from the father’s girlfriend’s perspective.

“Charlie reached over and stroked Sam's hair, so gently that it made Isabelle swallow hard.”

Caroline has been writing for a long time and is a huge student (and teacher) of story structure.  But structure doesn’t lead someone to articulate “You breathe, I breathe” or to choose the beat of swallowing hard when witnessing a gentle touch.  That is natural talent, ladies and gentlemen.

Whatever your talent is – macramé, pastels, singing, teaching, parenting, policework – give yourself the gift of tools and practice.  If you don't think you have natural talent at something, you are wrong.  Soul search.  You will find it, I promise.  What a ride it will be.  Sometimes heartrending, sometimes rapture, always electrifying.  Just don’t forget your ear plugs.  Protect what is yours.  Your talent is intrinsic and forever.  J

Enjoy the last hot days of summer! 

* “If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Sir Isaac Newton


  1. MM Finck, I like your blog. Talent is certainly intrinsic and forever. Unfortunately, the intangible quality that makes something unique can be warped and potentially lost. That must be frightening for all artists. I'd be reluctant to take instruction from anyone. However, if the work created isn't yielding the results desired, what choice does the artist have? They have to show some flexibility and openness to change; as you have. I've always had the most respect and admiration for professors who taught after having a successful career in their field. In your blog you mention listening to every "published author" you know. Seems like a good source of inflow to me.

    Nice, positive, uplifting final paragraph.

    I look forward to your next post.

    1. I'm so glad my experience resonated with you. Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment! :)

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