The Talent Myth

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I don’t usually publish Daily Rumpus emails online but today I’m making an exception. This email was sent to subscribers on November 2, 2010.

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The Talent Myth

Yesterday I was talking about talent. I was with a dominatrix I’d met at the L.A. bookfair. She has a friend who likes my books and she said, I’m going to beat you and she’s going to make you muffins. We have plans to go to a movie premiere and she modeled the latex dress she was going to wear.

After, I made my way to Josh’s house in Echo Park. We met in late 2003 and traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire together for the caucuses and the primaries. He was the comic relief in my book, Looking Forward To It. I would put words in his mouth and have him showing up to political events dressed like a salmon.

I was on the road all of 2004, traveling the county in campaign busses. I was locked in a difficult relationship with Patty and I remember talking to her on the phone during a John Kerry rally in January. I was wearing cargo pants and it felt like I was being dragged across the floor.

Later that year I was sitting on her kitchen floor, home for  a week or two. She had taken my earrings out and they were sitting in a cap full of hydrogen peroxide while she scrubbed my ears, and she said, I’ve got to give my other relationship a chance.

Years later she would blame me for the man she almost married and lost. She said he made over a hundred thousand dollars a year.

I’ve never been in anything resembling a healthy romantic relationship. Like, one day you see the woman you loved most in the world holding hands with another guy on Bryant Street. You’re finishing up a burrito and they’re coming to the restaurant where you’re sitting outside alone. In fact, you introduced her to this restaurant and he’s shorter than you and clean shaven. His hair is cut to say that he’s nice, just walking through the world not looking for trouble and hoping for a promotion, like most of us. Your bike is locked to a wood pole protecting a small tree and you hug by leaning forward instead of pressing your stomachs together and resting your chins on one another’s collar bone. And the next day she calls. But she never calls. In the year and a half you were together she called maybe ten times. She likes talking on the phone but not as much as being pursued. But the day after you see her with the other man she calls, out of the blue. You haven’t spoken in months but now she’s near your house and she wants to know how you’re doing. And the subtext is she might have hurt you so you’re carrying something she wants.

Which is to say that nobody’s talented, not when it comes to prose, and if they are it wouldn’t matter. If you read a story by 100 beginning writers you would have no idea who was going to be a better writer in a year. If you encouraged one of them because they had promise, an odd sensibility, a skeptics view of their interior life, maybe even a hint of poetry as if they were listening to Pink Floyd while they wrote, then you are mistaken. A year later you would be shocked who was showing improvement. Still, nobody would be writing anything too advanced. But you might think you could see a trajectory with the ones who weren’t leaning so hard on adjectives, beginning to trust the reader. You’d still be wrong. Only after maybe five, probably ten years would you have any idea if any of them were going to write a great short story. Almost guaranteed the ones you thought had talent would be nowhere to be found, if they were writing at all, which is unlikely. Because what you thought was talent was actually promise, and promise isn’t an indicator of anything. Among the people that had spent ten years writing in their free time you might now see who has “talent”, but by then it’s a meaningless designation. They’ve already put in the time.

That’s why I don’t believe in talent.

It’s nine in the morning and I’m writing this listening to “10a.m.” by The Black Keys. It’s Los Angeles and you can hear the derivative twang of The White Stripes. “You got veins like an addict/I’m leaving you.” It’s one of the songs recommended by an undergraduate class I visited to talk about honesty.

Josh has become a movie producer, a TV show creator, since the tragic presidential campaign of 2004. He has two shows at HBO, studio deals, phone meetings. He has a hot tub he can sit in and read the paper with a view of downtown; a friend living on the property down the hill; a wife. I was talking about Josh with E. later in the evening, after we’d put the toys away and washed the latex and the San Francisco Giants had won the World Series. I explained that I’d come to stay with Josh in June 2007 while Paris Hilton was serving her sentence. Ostensibly I was in LA to report on celebrity culture, but in truth I was having a breakdown. It happens every year or two, some more serious than others. The most serious was when I was twenty-three and showed up at the hospital in Evanston at midnight. And the next, earlier this year when I had to sneak out of a psychiatrist’s office in New York while she phoned the police in the other room.

I came to stay with Josh that year because so many people had the key to his apartment and I could sleep on the couch and there would always be someone there watching television.

The night that Paris got out I was with a throng of paparazzi at the county jail. It was just after midnight and I thought she looked better in person. The bubble she’d lived in all her life was good for her skin. The walls came down, the cones overturned, the guards overwhelmed, as her ankle disappeared into the black truck. A photographer gripped the hood of the car during the stampede. I followed the spotlight from the helicopter blazing on the highway. Yes Yes Yes, I thought. This is being alive.

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Today The Rumpus goes meta with an article by Seth Fisher, our Sunday editor, about the state of The Rumpus.

Ted Wilson reviews Halloween.

Michelle Orange interviews Megan Stack, who spent six years in the Middle East reporting for the LA Times, about her new book Every Man In This Village Is A Liar.

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I tried to be faithful but they were playing The National on the radio.

Yours from Los Angeles,

Stephen Elliott


Stephen Elliott is the author of eight books, including The Adderall Diaries. Visit stephenelliott.com for more information. More from this author →