Monthly Archives: October 2009

What is Talent: which is a similar question to What is Truth

A. Leon Miler’s Hop Canyon New Mexico 1886

Nathan Bransford posted this blog rant on low literary aspirations yesterday, and it struck a definite chord with me. We are living in an enlightenment-run-amok world where expertise belongs to anyone, as well as the mighty pen, which is mightier than the sword, or so we’ve been told. It’s true. Information is out there. It’s cheap. In many cases, it’s even free. And we can arm ourselves with it, call ourselves experts on anything.

By the same token, almost anyone can be published, even if publishing means forking up the cash to use a vanity press. In school, our access to information and our ability to express ourselves in words have been likened to power (mightier than the sword, and all that). How powerful, though, are billions of voices all ranting different things? And through all the racket, nobody can be heard. Gone is the idolized expert and, in his place, stands the idol of the individual.

Talent is elusive. I know when I don’t have it. For example, I simply have no artistic abilities at all, and I can claim that with a fair amount of certainty. It’s more difficult, however, to pinpoint talent than to witness the extreme lack thereof. I believe that I’m still on firm ground when I claim that my father is a talented painter. For a start, he has well-honed skills. He mixes his own paint, rather than painting straight from the tube, and primes his own boards, rather than buying pre-stretched canvases. In his younger years, he apprenticed with a master painting restorer.

In addition to all of the above, he has style. The combination thereof, craft and style, must be talent. What a relief it is that I can spot talent! But, wait; in walks your aunt Maude, who wants to rent a space next to my dad’s in the gallery. You’ve told me she has talent; she’s always painting. She’s so creative! When I look at her paintings, though, I see right off that her pigments don’t match. Her painting of a mountain looks like a mountain, I suppose, and the other artist are oohing and aahing over a hummingbird she’s painted.

I shrug. I guess I don’t know what talent is, after all. Aunt Maude has more artistic talent than I have. She can paint things and actually make them look like what they’re supposed to, which I certainly can’t. In the style category, her talent points fall to zero in my opinion, but what do I know? Her execution just doesn’t seem to scream talent, either. Then I start wondering whether my dad is as talented as Rembrandt. Rembrandt clearly had talent. If I were to ask his opinion (my dad’s, not Rembrandt’s–I’m not in the habit of talking to dead artists), he would say it doesn’t matter; he has no idea; only time will tell.

But it does matter. Perhaps it doesn’t matter to my dad because he’s too busy painting, but it matters to our society, which is made up of persons who are stars in their own mini universes. Besides, we don’t want to be wrong. We want to hedge our bets, and so we ask the question, what is truth? Sadly, like Pilate, we don’t want to hear the answer.

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An Empty Desk

My desk may be empty, but if you look really closely, you’ll see that the netbook image is of me sitting at my desk. Yes, that is Mr. Darcy to the left (your left) and above the computer. Straight above, you will see a dingy church bulletin which only shines due to the sunlamp on my desk; it is rather a bad image of St. Paul, holding a quill aloft and writing on parchment by oil lamp. He has been writing an epistle, I believe, because, above his circular portrait, are the words, Able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think. On the desk sits my sea lion mug. By its side is Dr. Johnson’s London. My only bouquet is one of pencils and pens. The tape dispenser is empty, and so is my in-box! I’ve done some housecleaning, and now it is time to get back to work (the large basket is not my in-box, by the way. It’s a basket where I hide my 5-year-old’s artwork. It is never empty.)

p.s. I realized that if you enlarge this image, you can see everything clearly. Yes, that it is a broken ballerina waiting to be super-glued; my daughter’s artwork is behind the mug. The small image of the peregrine falcon is one of my dad’s smaller prints and, at that size, costs just 6 dollars. And if you think that you can actually find a pub where both a good brew and Mr. Darcy await you, then you are a bigger dreamer than I am. Cheers!

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Yellow is the Color of . . .

Writing is a way of living out fantasies that would either be improbable to truly experience, or complete letdowns when experienced on this side of the looking glass.

One of my long-time writing fantasies involves hot dogs. Hot dogs are lovely. They taste marvelous on a bun with mustard and chopped onions. For many years now, I have envisioned myself, or another blond heroine, walking through a park somewhere in Portland or another rainy city, while wearing a bright yellow raincoat. Mysteriously, as though this were a fantasy novel in the style of Eager, I happen upon a hot dog stand that appears out of nowhere. Where once an empty square of brick work had withstood the wet weather, a cart on wheels now awaits me, the pleasant aroma of food wafting out into the rain.

I can’t resist, of course; I’m pulled, as if by force, to the chubby vendor, with his green cap pulled over his graying black hair, and his neat white apron tied around his girth. I nearly tell him I want to buy two, but, instead, hand over a $1.50 for one regular all-beef dog. I then carefully add the requisite fixings: the mustard, the chopped onions, the relish, and the peperoncinis.

“You sure know how to make a hot dog,” says the vendor with a wink.

I smile demurely and walk away, trying to find shelter from the rain that is now pouring down on the grass, the brick walkway, and all of the oak leaves blown around the trees. There really isn’t any shelter. With mock desperation, I dart under the thick branches of one of the gnarly oaks, and eat the hot dog in a few bites. Its steaminess fills my cold belly. It really is magic, you see. Now I’m warm and filled and happy, and the rain can continue to fall all day–undoubtedly, it will–but I am safe from the dreary cold.

I wipe the vestiges of mustard on my yellow raincoat, where it won’t show and will be washed away, anyway, and throw away the empty paper carton. Then, I shove my hands in my coat pockets, searching for more spare change. I feel a few quarters; I just might have enough for another! Gleefully, I run back toward the brick square, but the cart is gone. There’s no sign of it, not in any direction.

Shall I ruin my story with the reality of the endless, cold rain of the Pacific Northwest, the kind of rain that seeps right into the bones and can’t be touched with one small hot dog? Shall I ruin it by diving into a full explanation of why nobody should eat hot dogs due to the dubious nature of the animal parts encased therein, the MSG, the corn syrup, and the preservatives?

No, I suppose I shouldn’t. Tampering with the magic of fantasy and story-land could be destructive. It could blow the reality of the physical world sky high, or out into space, or somewhere . . .

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NaNoWriMo and The Great Automatic Grammatizator


If you haven’t read Roald Dahl’s book of short stories, entitled The Umbrella Man, you should. You should, especially, read The Great Automatic Grammatizator. I’ve been considering NaNoWriMo, but I keep feeling this little niggle of desperation inside. What happens if, year after year, thousands upon thousands of would-be writers crank out entire novels in a month’s time? Well, it’s got to be a little like Knipe’s machine.

For those who haven’t read the above-mentioned story, the brilliant Knipe (a would-be writer, himself) invents a machine that automatically creates custom-made short stories and novels. These days, with all of the online writing classes available, the rules available in a-b-c order, and the methods drawn into neat little diagrams, writing novels could easily be programmed into a machine.

If I didn’t appreciate the enthusiasm involved in numerous writers frantically cranking out page after page of text, almost in a communal sense, I wouldn’t bother with it. I’d shrug in disgust (in attempt at masking that niggling feeling of desperation).

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Half Magic is Full Magic to Me

Half Magic, by Edward Eager, was one my favorite books as a child. I rediscovered it recently–or, my children discovered it–at a library book sell, nearly lost to eager book searchers (forgive my pun) in the numerous dusty boxes of books spread across the community gym floor. I had to wait, of course, for both my eldest daughters to read it, but finally, finally, they left it for me on my desk. If they want me to read a book, they leave it on my desk, where I might push it aside if I can’t immediately read it. I did not push Half Magic aside.

Have you ever wondered why people seem to have different attractions to books, almost in the same way that they are biologically attracted to other people? As an adult, Alexander McCall Smith is one of my favorite authors, and I immediately began to wonder, when reading Eager’s book, if McCall Smith read this author as a child, also. For a start, there is the fencing scene in Half Magic, in which one knight lops off the tip of the other knight’s nose. Could it be a coincidence that this happens in a Dr. von Igelfeld Entertainment? Perhaps it is; perhaps so, but what of the strange mother–who becomes Jane’s mother near the end of the story–who is a spitting image of Bertie’s mother from the Scotland Street series?

I’m not even half suggesting that Alexander McCall Smith ripped of Edward Eager. On the contrary, McCall Smith’s books are clearly unique and wonderful. I’m simply wondering if authors subconsciously hold onto the details from books, as if they were buried childhood memories that then work themselves out here and there in their texts.

If that were the case, then I suppose details from Nancy Drew books would find themselves in my books (not to mention Half Magic, but no nose-lopping for me, thanks. I couldn’t possibly make it as unique as Igelfeld, and his poor friend who has his nose stitched on upside-down.)

What books would it be for you?

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