Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Question of Talent

I read a bio of Edith Piaf recently. The book itself was only so-so, but it led to me going Youtube to watch some of Piaf's clips. Which led me to this, from a movie Piaf made in 1941 (in German-occupied Paris, actually):

The best part is the way the people in the nightclub just stare at her, absolutely mesmerized.
If you ever look at the Youtube comments for Piaf, people say over and over, the voice, the voice, the voice...

Which leads me to think about talent. A couple months ago we had a speaker at work who mentioned a recent book called Talent is Overrated. The idea behind the book is that there's no such thing, really, as exceptional talent or genius. What distinguishes the person who succeeds in a given field is what the author calls "deliberate practice." This is hard work plus feedback, and the resulting modification of good/bad habits, etc. (And a lot of other stuff...I guess you have to read the book, which I didn't, just heard a precis from the speaker.) Over time, according to the author, this is what produces success.

Well, I'm a professional skeptic, particularly of speakers and self-help books, but the idea does make sense. Hard work is a given. Feedback is crucial, particularly for a writer. Belief is crucial.

But then I think about a voice like Edith Piaf's... And she just had that voice. She didn't have to develop it. (And where did it come from? Her mother was a minor nightclub singer, her father an acrobat. Her grandmother ran a flea circus.)

I suppose it's one of the nature/nuture debates that will never be resolved. In the meantime I'm going to go download "L'Accordianiste."

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

None but the Brave Deserve the Fair

Yes, it's been awhile since I posted. I can blame it (partly) on being on vacation -- first Sequoia National Park (we stayed in Visalia, which is hot and full of flies, though there were a lot of fruitstands as compensation) and then in San Diego (I - I don't understand it. It's 9 a.m. and the sky is still grey!) The medical school where I work starts its classes in August so I've been busy there. We've gotten new computer programs which are supposed to make everyone's lives easier and lead to a paperless world. Hmm. I suspect things will be hairy for awhile but ultimately the brave will prevail.

And through all this I've been writing, writing, writing. Sometimes it amazes me. One part of the brain is dissatisfied, sees only disaster ahead, has to meditate 20 minutes a day to stay calm. The other part is saying, sit down, sit down, I've got this great idea on how to re-write this scene.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Mockingbird Summer

A couple of posts back I mentioned The Anti-Romantic Child by Priscilla Gilpin. The reason this book resonated with me so much is that it's partly about what it's like to love books and yet raise a child who, in spite of all encouragement, not much of a reader. My son and I have shared a lot of books, many of them the traditional children's classics, but it's mainly been me reading to him. As much as he loves the books, he'd like to keep it that way. He shows no interest in stretching out and finding his own favorites. Much like his actual diet, his book diet is quite restricted. Hates fantasy. Can't stand the supernatural. When his Reading class last year assigned a book by Mary Downing Hahn (think Lois Duncan for a younger set), he informed me that he liked the book but he didn't believe the ending because "ghosts aren't real." (Something about the solemn way he said that gives me hope for the younger generation.)

Until this summer. For the past few weeks he's been reading, on his own, To Kill A Mockingbird.

It was our idea that he do some reading over the summer, but he picked the book, which he had read excerpts from in his Kumon packets. He raced through the first part of it, swept in by the small-town characters and curiousity over Boo Radley. The second part of the book, about the trial, went a little more slowly. Over and over again I sat down and tried to answer questions -- about black men and white women and lynch law and the way the various characters accomodate the racism around them. Should I see it as a hopeful sign that I had to explain all this as past history? It strikes me that Harper Lee never questioned that this particular context of the novel would be understood. And in spite of all these explanations my son, like Jem, was confident that Tom Robinson would be acquitted. I bit my lip and did my best not to utter any spoilers, but I did hint, "you know, the novel's not really about Tom...it's about Scout and Jem." The next day there was a cry of outrage from his room. He was dancing around in rage, swearing he wasn't going to read any more of the book. When we got him calmed down, he said "But they can appeal to the Supreme Court, right? I think they should appeal to the Supreme Court!"

I don't remember the first time I read To Kill a Mockingbird, though I think I was a teenager. The thing was, I read so much, and so quickly, that it was just another book to me -- a worthy book, but not a real favorite. Going through this experience with my son has given me a different perspective on reading. Instead of being an indiscriminate reader of good, bad and ugly, he reads a little, slowly, but he likes what he reads. And by reading it slowly he lives the book in a way I rarely do. It's given me an appreciation, too, of what works in Mockingbird (and what doesn't -- there are certain parts that make me squirm) and why.