Monday, February 10, 2014

Steven Barthelme: Talent and Fifty Cents

When you are a writer and a teacher, people, students mostly, sometimes ask you if you think that they are writers, the question, obviously, they have been asking themselves.  They want to know if they have within themselves whatever it takes, some essential, mysterious talent.  They think that makes a difference.  Some think that makes all the difference.

I have been happy to know an awful lot of people with talent, a large number of writers and painters, people who won NEA fellowships and National Book Awards and a MacArthur grant, a gifted singer, a number of skilled but minor academic politicians, not such likeable folks but undeniably talented, as well as a sports car mechanic with the perfect name of Galen Lyons, an artist of an electrician who I lucked onto after other electricians had failed, and probably the most imaginative guy I have ever known, who is a hugely successful marketing professor.  Still, when I think about talent, the first thing that comes to mind is the exquisitely talented people I have known whose work in the arts in the end was never professionally recognized or rewarded, and came to nothing, remarkable, gifted people whose talent went idle.    

Forty years ago at Boston College I went to see a play and one of the actors in a secondary role, a guy I had recently met on campus, gave a performance that you literally couldn’t take your eyes from.  The other actors struggled through the play, displaying mostly the amateurishness characteristic of college productions; while he did have a good role for it, small but showy, this guy was doing a star turn and doing it flawlessly. 

We became friends later, and later still I left Boston College and went back to the University of Texas.  I was pleased to see six or so years later that Jim got a small non-speaking part in Serpico, and then guest starred on a Kojak episode.  He probably did some stage acting, too, as he was living in New York at that time.  I thought he had it made, a career, major films, Academy Awards eventually.  But then I never saw anything else. 

Googling him now yields two or three subsequent parts in movies and TV shows listed on the IMDb, as well as his current gig—as a hypno-therapist in LA.  It’s acting of a kind, I guess.

A month ago an accident set me thinking about this.  The cat knocked over some envelopes of old photographs and negatives from film cameras, and in reshelving them I browsed through a couple.  One had a half dozen photographs of some jewelry that my one-time girlfriend had made a long time ago, maybe in the 1970s.  It was stunning stuff.  Rings, earrings, bracelets, two other pieces mostly of semi-precious stones and silver because she couldn’t afford to work in gold, they were astonishing work of the sort of brutalist style to which (I remembered) she was inclined.  I thought, Jesus Christ she was good.  I remembered cold afternoons before Christmases, trying to sell the stuff sitting on a blanket on the sidewalk in Austin. 

She gave it up later, largely I would guess because she could see no clear avenue forward, no way to turn it into a trade.  It wasn’t a lack of talent.

A few years after that I was in John Barth’s writing workshop at Johns Hopkins, with ten other prose writers chosen from a hundred or so applicants.  I was average, got in on a legacy deal, but the others were talented and at a point in their lives where they had already invested considerable time and energy in their art.

I remember looking around the room thinking, two of these people are going to be writers; one of them better be me.  They were good-looking and funny, intelligent and in some cases, well-schooled, and very good with words.  They were awash in talent, and intensely serious about their work.  One of the best writers among them, a woman with a stunning imaginative range, would have a story in Granta and a poem in the New Yorker in the two or three years after she left Hopkins. 

Cut to thirty years later and it turns out we weren’t the future of American letters.  Or so says an incomplete but telling list of publishing history.  One guy, a wonderfully droll man who grew up in Chicago, did publish a book about his hometown jazz as well as a number of essays and stories.  A woman, not the Granta woman, co-edited a book of stories by regional writers and wrote a great story herself that appeared in Missouri Review and was reprinted in the Best American Short Stories.  Another woman, not the Granta woman, has co-edited a book about mathematics and science learning.  One of the most talented among them went on to four years of another fancy graduate writing program after that one.  He is now a lawyer, in Florida. 

After Hopkins I got teaching jobs, and for twenty-five years or so I have watched with increasing (is it horror?  no, horror is too strong) sadness as young people and a few older people with genuine abilities and often a remarkably reflective quality of mind wander through my classrooms, hoping to make a go of writing.  Many win one’s private affection, for idealism that one sees or doesn’t see but believes is there anyway.  A guy who had been successful as a student a dozen years ago later wrote me a long note asking “how you keep at it when your confidence is gone?”  Blessedly he has subsequently published two novels.  Thank you, Jesus.  

Some have gone on to success in publishing their work, gotten work in journalism or become university professors.  But a hundred others, equally and often more gifted, have become librarians or salesmen or gypsy instructors.  Most just disappear.  These are people who while students have written some of the most elegant and affecting pieces I have ever read.   The stuff that takes your breath away.  The stuff one takes into the other room and reads to one’s spouse.  “Listen to this!”

Are they “writers”?   Yes.  And no.  After a while one adds to the classroom routine the suggestion that they temper their thinking by considering the high school basketball star who then goes on to college and dreams of the NBA, and the nasty mathematics of all that.

What differentiates those who stay in the business is that they stay in the business— “Talent is long patience,” Flaubert is said to have said (Maupassant said Flaubert attributed the remark to Chateaubriand).  But that’s a too simple answer.  There’s no certain way to count other factors such as drive, timing, friends in the business, chance, and luck, but those things are the larger share of the explanation. 

I didn’t start teaching until I was in my thirties, and I should’ve known better, but I was a slow boy, at first shocked and pleased by how talented the students were.  Some were amazing.  With some hard work and good luck, they were headed for glory, I was certain of it.  I entered them in competitions and routinely they won prizes.  It took me a long while to understand. 

When they ask you if they have talent, the answer is always yes, although you can vary the enthusiasm with which you say it.  Yes, you have talent.  Teachers learn, slowly but we do.  Some years after that I started writing in the margins of gifted students a note, “You have talent. You poor fuck.”  Yes, you have talent, and that matters a little.


Steven Barthelme's most recent books are miscellaneous non-fiction from the New York Times, Texas Observer, Washington Post, L A Times, Oxford American and elsewhere collected in The Early Posthumous Work, 2010, and Hush Hush, a book of short stories issued last year.

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