Ordinary Talent

I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrific, like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience, and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind.

                                                                                                            –Sylvia Plath

The other evening I had a conversation with a friend that went something like this: “How is your writing coming along—your memoir?” It was my question. My friend—I’ll call her Brenda—had had a career that took her around the world; she’d started a memoir and I’d read several chapters. She was a good observer of events and I’d told her so.

Brenda leaned against the wall of another’s friend’s living room. Almost shrank against it, really. She’s a small woman anyway and I noted the retreat.

“Oh, it’s not going well,” she said. I wasn’t sure if she wanted encouragement or was announcing that she was giving up on it and not to question her any more. Her eyes sought mine, beseechingly. “I don’t have the talent,” she said.

It was my turn to be uncomfortable. Her remark implied that I did, or at least that I thought I did and so had pursued such a project.

“Talent?” I wanted to set straight the notion that I’d assigned myself such a designation. “It doesn’t take talent.”

“Well, what then?” She drew herself up, not challenging, but eager to know. Maybe there was something she could grasp after all.

“Competence, I think,” I said. “And you’re competent. “ (She shrugged, but this time it was modesty.) “And perseverance. I’m not sure talent has much to do with it.”

She laughed, easing her way out. “Well, then, that’s what I don’t have at all: perseverance.” She looked across the room briefly at her husband who’s had several recent health problems and is getting frail. “Life keeps getting in the way.”

I resisted the temptation to say, Don’t write Life gets in the way; it’s too tiresome a phrase.

Last night I watched a documentary on Susan Sontag. Her name is almost a synonym for “Intellectual,” and I wanted to know how she worked her way through life to acquire such a title. The climb still wasn’t clear to me after an hour into the film, where I was told she’d written essays and articles and a novel and made a movie and become some sort of critic on “camp.” She lived in New York and in Paris, seemingly easily, so money must have been coming in from these things, and she was interviewed constantly on TV; she hung around and became lovers with people like Jasper Johns and Annie Liebovitz. Her confidence brimmed. She didn’t question what she had to say although in many cases I found what she had to say the sorts of things many people would say. She simply wrote them all down. That perseverance and thinking amazed me—that by stating her opinions she became the arbiter of opinions. There was an odd statement somewhere in the middle (by whom I’m not sure), that when Sontag had hooked up with a playwright named Maria Irene Fornes, Sontag discovered that there was a difference between intellect and genuine talent.

Another proclamation that didn’t need to be proclaimed.

However, I will certainly concede that there are degrees of intellect, as there are of talent, and the highest degree is Plath’s definition and Sontag’s ability to “manipulate experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind.”

But suppose one can’t? Or almost can? Or thinks one can, but cannot, really?

Did Sontag look around and say, These fools are taking me seriously? Or was her superiority of such a nature that she accepted her prominence in thinking?   And what about my friend Brenda? Does she just resign herself to “I can’t; I don’t think I can: I haven’t got it?” Or even me, who says I haven’t got much but onward I will push, surely it’s better than some.

I dated a man—a man I was in love with before I met my husband—who wanted to be thought extraordinary. I must have been a drain to him and maybe one of the reasons, which were probably many, that he ultimately let me go. I was always surprised and not impressed (although I tried to be a sport) about the great “discoveries” he made. He had sent several designs to the patent office in Washington D.C. of things that made me say, “Really? Isn’t that already out there?”

In less naked condemnations I’d simply say, “Oh,” about a “new” idea he was going to incorporate into his house, “that sounds nice,” when I wanted to say, “Hasn’t that already become a cliché?”

He was happy with himself, though. He took sculpture classes and made lumpy figurines. He wrote a textbook for high school chemistry that he got published years before I met him. He said it was used in a high school in West Virginia. He worked as a Marketing Manager and yet when I met him—and I continued to notice this when he introduced himself to others—he identified as a “Physicist” because he’d majored in physics in a small college. He looked like a Marketing Manager.

So: what’s so wrong with all that? Nothing. In fact, his confidence was admirable; he is—or was—the opposite of Brenda—who has the ability but thinks her experiences, vast and varied as they are, and her proficiency in writing—are not special enough.

Mediocrity doesn’t stop people from doing things. We can’t all be Sontags or Plaths, I guess is my point. And maybe the world can see the difference, can recognize the difference, “the world” being made up of previous intellectuals, those already anointed with talent, who bestow upon others, much like Tinker Bell waving a little wand, the pronouncement that here is a new somebody to be reckoned with, to be noticed. The rest of us simply forge on.


Featured image courtesy of the author and edits by Olivia Stephens.

1 Comment
  1. I really love this piece. I had recently watched the same doc on Sontag and asked myself similar questions. I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t her ideas that made Sontag great, but her ability to convey them, her patient labors were primary, her lively mind secondary. Forging on seems the key for all of us, the mediocre and brilliant alike. But secretly I admire the courage of dogged mediocrity the most!

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