Saturday, May 17, 2014

Hobby, talent, genius, failure

This week we have been thinking of failure and success, affinity and talent. We recalled this exchange from Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’:
When do you begin your great work of art?, Laurie asks Amy while walking in Valrosa. 
"Never," she answered, with a despondent but decided air. "Rome took all the vanity out of me, for after seeing the wonders there, I felt too insignificant to live and gave up all my foolish hopes in despair."
"Why should you, with so much energy and talent?"
"That's just why, because talent isn't genius, and no amount of energy can make it so. I want to be great, or nothing. I won't be a common-place dauber, so I don't intend to try any more."
"And what are you going to do with yourself now, if I may ask?"
"Polish up my other talents, and be an ornament to society, if I get the chance."
We’ve thought a lot about that conversation here at CathyBlogs over the years (considering we first read this book when we were ten).

What do you think about what Amy says -- that she wants to be great, or nothing? That she doesn’t want to be a ‘common-place dauber’? Do you think she means she doesn’t want to be a hobbyist, or even an artisan? That if she isn’t Michelangelo, she doesn’t want to be anything? How many levels of competence are there, really? Student, professional, craftsperson, artisan … failure? Where does that fit in? Was Amy a failure because she blew her talent off so thoroughly?

For that matter, have you ever known anyone who was really talented at something -- art or music, for example -- but didn’t use that talent? They don’t love the thing they have talent for. That’s always curious to me. Maybe it's like having blue eyes and not caring that you have blue eyes?

And don’t we all know people who think they have talent for something (and why is it often music?) and don’t? Hello, karaoke bars everywhere.

Contrast that with this, by poet Jack Gilbert, his poem ‘Failing and Flying’:

... But anything / worth doing is worth doing badly.

Is it? Amy March might disagree.

Of course. Everybody defines ‘success’ and ‘failure’ for themselves -- or accepts some societal definition of them. Maybe ‘success’ is going to Karaoke Night at the corner bar and singing ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ to a cheering crowd. Maybe it’s making it to the finals of American Idol. Maybe it’s being named the lead soprano at the Metropolitan Opera.

And what’s ‘failure’? Getting booed off the karaoke stage? Being the person who gets make fun of at the San Francisco AI tryouts? Getting stuck in the opera chorus?

Hobby, talent, genius, failure?

One thing successful people have in common is, of course, failure. We sure don’t have to list them. They also have resilience and determination and drive and confidence. And love/obsession for what they're doing. And what's more important to the process? Their talent/genius at what they're doing, or their drive to succeed?

And what of hubris? Just throwing that out there.

We didn’t say we had any answers. We just ponder the questions.

We’ll leave the short last word to Ray, of course, who had his own muddy path to success, and who was pretty determined. And talented/genius:

… Suddenly, I find a new path / to the waterfall.

We love everything that’s going on in that line, from a short poem called 'Looking for Work': That there is a waterfall, that there was an old path, that a new path is not just found, but is found ‘suddenly.’ Maybe there’s even a new waterfall. We'd like to take that walk.

Black and white (faith and failure) day and night (faith and failure) / Heal to hurt (faith and failure) why won't you face the truth?

We should let this one die but it's hard to kill.

Driving with Dante, Revision 4

Driving to work with Dante
we never arrive, we drive in circles.
Landscape that freezes, greens,
golds, dies, freezes, greens,
golds, dies.
Always the same miles,
eighteen somnolent miles,
morning edition miles;
miles of roadkill and road rage,
time clock miles,
stick it to the man miles --
lost miles. We have no
Virgil, and we are not
Beatrice; what should we worship
during these daily mass miles,
our routine sacrifice?
Journeyed and jaded in
a casual purgatory, we
drive and drive and forget to pray:

God help us.

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