Thursday, March 5, 2015

Chuck Wendig and the Triforce of Professional Creative Ability

Every time Chuck Wendig pooh-poohs talent—the searing phosphor of innate writing ability—my cheeks flush a little and my elbow skin itches. My brow furrows and my butt wiggles in my chair.
Finally, inspired by an insufferable ex-MFA instructor, Wendig wrote "The Toxicity of Talent," and now my fingers have got in on the act.

"A lot of writers still believe that:
a) talent exists
b) talent matters.
Some of them think it matters a little, some of them think it matters a lot. The author of the MFA article seems to think it matters almost supremely — a factor significant above all others.
For my part, and your mileage may of course vary here, I think it’s irrelevant whether it exists — what I think matters is that for authors, it’s a very, very bad thing on which to focus. In fact, I’d argue you shouldn’t care about it.
At all."

Like him, I was an early reader. I was pronounced gifted. Countless adults certified me a talented writer, from my mother at a wee small age up to my editors today. When I finally put any kind of effort into writing (at age 27), I became a full-time pro within four years. Talent -> Application -> Success. Meritocracy!

But if talent doesn't exist, or doesn't matter, my brain uncomfortably wonders, where did my success come from?

As a sports analyst, it's part of my job to know talent when I see it. With the NFL draft coming up in a few months, I'm already watching college kids' film clips to see if they "have it" or not—, our national pro football slushpile.

A lot of times, I'm right. Sometimes, I'm wrong. Through the rightness and wrongness of media types like me, and NFL scouts and general managers around the NFL, football careers are made and un-made.

Not long after Wendig posted his deconstruction of the social and educational biases built into discerning one talented writer from another, Cleveland Browns wideout Andrew Hawkins wrote this stunning account of the draft-industrial complex systematically overlooking him—and how he repeatedly gamed that system to get the shot he deserved:

Before my Pro Day, I made a pit-stop at Michael’s — you know, the craft store — to pick up some clay. I bought clay that matched my skin tone, molded it to the heels of my feet and taped my feet up all the way past the ankle, like I would for a game. When it came time to measure me, it gave me about another inch and a half. Then, when I weighed in, I dropped a two-and-a-half pound weight in each of my pockets, which gave me an extra five pounds.

I could have never pulled those tricks at the combine. They’d strip me down to just underwear before measurements. But this was Pro Day, so it was way more relaxed. When all was said and done, I went on paper as 5’8’’ and 182 pounds. A huge step up from the 5’6’’, 161-pound guy that decided just a few months earlier to take a shot at the NFL.

One year later, when the draft-industrial complex looked at Justin Blackmon—6'1", 207-pound, major-program-attending, two-time-Biletnikoff-award-winning Justin Blackmon—they saw a kid with the talent to be one of the best in the business, red flags notwithstanding. When they looked at Hawkins... well, they still didn't look at Hawkins. Hawkins later discovered even his own coaches at Toledo hadn't recommended him to pro scouts. Only through extraordinary, nearly unethical hustle did Hawkins get a tryout, and another, and another, get signed, get signed again, and finally work his way into a starting lineup.

Today, Hawkins has matched or exceeded all of Blackmon's career stat totals; barring an unlikely comeback from repeated (now indefinite) suspension, Hawkins will stay ahead. Blackmon's struggle with substance abuse can't fairly be described as laziness, but it recalls the cliché nailed to every high school locker-room wall: "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard."

When I started blogging, part of sports blogging was blogging about sports blogging, about what it all meant, improving ourselves and our craft, the place of our work in the industry, and earning—or eschewing—the respect of the dreaded, beloved MSM. "Going meta" was a constant thing; there were even blogs just about sportswriting itself.
My favorite of these was Chris Jones' Son of Bold Venture. Named as a hat-tip to the seminal W.C. Heinz story "Death of a Racehorse," Jones did a lot of great writing about writing.

When I started this post, I dimly recalled a passage (from, I thought, that blog) about knowing talent within just a few paragraphs, even sentences, like a radar gun showing whether a pitcher has a live arm—much like the hoity-toity MFA writer could easily tell the small handful of students who were the Real Deal from those who could safely be written off.

I didn't find that line. Instead, I found this graf, from Jones' interview with Glenn Stout, about editing the annual Best American Sportswriting collection:

"What most impresses me in a story, no matter what the topic, is confidence. Writing that is assured and certain from the first word captures me. This tells me the writer knows the story, has done the work and knows who he or she is as a writer. The story starts fully realized without floundering around or requiring extra tugs on the starter to get the engine to turn over. That’s often the difference between a great story and simply a good one."

Oh dear.

I flashed back to sections of Wendig's post. Scouting writing talent, just like in sports, is deeply subjective, highly biased, and often elitist. Loudly affirming that talent with awards and scholarships and pats on the back from elementary school on up builds up a heady, sometimes heavy, sense of anointed destiny in these chosen few and tamps down the hopes and dreams of everybody else. I have confidence in no small part because I've always been told I'm good.

I'm not accusing Jones, Stout, or anyone else of being elitist or prejudiced. In the grafs immediately following, Stout credits Langston Hughes with knocking Stout "on his ass," and inspiring his love of words. Stout then says he thrills in discovering talent in unexpected places. But sometimes racehorses run fastest with blinders on, and a flip through Son of Bold Venture's archives reveals a relentless pursuit of a singular brand of excellence.

Who did Jones interview about writing? Charles P. Pierce. Drew Magary. Gregg Doyel. My Bleacher Report colleague Jeff Pearlman. Wright Thompson. Gene Weingarten. Jones had Kevin Van Valkenburg write a guest post about the closing of Elaine's, the legendary watering hole of Manhattan's creative élite.

These guys are Titans of our industry. They do astonishing, brilliant, powerful, award-winning work, in columns and features and bestselling books. They're the guys I want to be when I grow up. They're also, I can't help but notice, guys who generally look like older versions of the man I see in the mirror.

When Jones wanted to teach the world more about great sportswriting, he asked a Murderer's Row of holy-shit talented white guys of one certain age or another to talk about themselves.

The broader Internet lashed back against some of Jones' occasionally-too-honest posts, especially the one about being "crushed" his profile of Roger Ebert for Esquire wasn't nominated for what would have been Jones' third National Magazine Award. On social media, Jones often seems confused and upset when uproar surrounds some of his more self-absorbed work, in the itchy-elbows way I get upset when Chuck Wendig says talent is baloney. Today, save for the interview posts, Son of Bold Venture's archives have been entirely deleted, which is too bad; there was some great stuff in there.

Of course, there are obvious reasons why many of the great old sportswriters (and writer-writers) were talented white guys. And just as obviously, even the most hallowed sporting wordsmiths of yesteryear were also ink-stained wretches who had to work like demons to not only turn out their assigned number of copy inches fast enough to Dictaphone it to Western Union, or whatever, but do it so well their work would resonate for generations.

Even so, Bleacher Report was founded on the idea that there were fans in the stands who could cover their teams in a more personally invested, more resonant way than the pros in the press box were; today, B/R's monthly readership of over 40 million validates that idea.

I started writing in the midst of a sports media Brigadoon, a magical time when it seemed anyone good could get noticed, and anyone who got noticed got hired. Of course, I had to work for it. I spent 20-30 hours a week writing The Lions in Winter—not to mention editing, designing, building backlinks, SEO-ing, social-media-ing, etc—for nothing, or next to it. I did more than my fair share of waking up at 3:30 am with drool on my face and the screen saver running. It's not like I didn't earn my shot at doing this for a living, and it's not like I didn't make the most of my shot when I got it.

But I don't know how much of that I would have done if I didn't have the confidence—I mean, deep-down, really believe—that if I hustled, I'd succeed. And while I was hustling, I had a supportive partner taking care of homestead business and urging me on. I had family and friends supporting, advising, and cheering for me. I had a day-job boss who couldn't have been more cool with it, letting me take time off to do things like cover athletes' PR events. I had unmonitored Internet at work, and work was sitting at my computer all day. I had a host of advantages and privileges the vast majority of people don't have.

That's even true at B/R, the No. 1 example of the People Formerly Known as the Audience taking over an industry—I mean, just look at the Top 100 most-read writers. I think there might be more white guys with both a beard and glasses than women and people of color combined (and yes, I'm in the former category). If the no-boundaries, best-of-all-comers, talent-based meritocratic Brigadoon revolution comes out looking nearly as white and male as the Elaine's set before them, maybe we really do need to re-evaluate what we mean when we say talent—or maybe we need to find another word.

Now, of course, the revolution has transitioned into governance. Many of the independent sports blogs doing outstanding work were either acquired by a blog network, or had their authors hired by MSM entities. Even B/R itself has been acquired, built out an amazing video production side, and hired away big names from prestige outlets.

Turns out, when a subject has to be covered, there's an audience to be served, and mortgages must be paid, everybody involved has to work like a professional.

Talent, I believe, is real. I think some people really truly are born with surpassing natural aptitude. Quentin Tarantino dropped out of high school after freshman year and became one of the best directors of his generation. Maybe any 15-year-old of those days could have spent all their waking time working in a video store and watching movies and gone on to win a couple Oscars...but I suspect not.

Ability, though? The capacity to reliably and repeatedly do stuff for money? That requires a whole lot more than talent. In professional writing, professional football, professional creative anything, Wendig is absolutely right: All that matters is the work you do when it's working time.

For the handful of Tarantinos out there in any industry, there are a hell of a lot of Blackmons who, for one reason or another, had talent to spare but zero effective ability.

This is my conception of what you need to "make it" in any creative endeavor: the Triforce of Professional Creative Ability.

If I've done my job with the illustration, it's more-or-less self-explanatory: Your aptitude is somewhere on the spectrum of blazing talent and exhaustive education. Your opportunities come from some combination of social networking and butt-naked luck. Your effort can be spent inward, improving yourself, or outwards, towards getting stuff done.
These can and do affect each other: Putting effort towards improving yourself improves your aptitude. Doing good work and putting it out there leads to opportunities. Pursuing formal training forges connections, with both your mentors and fellow pupils.

Any combination of the above can get you there—but that that ineffable Gift of Talent, that Silmaril of burning light within? It's worthless without effort. Even wild-eyed genius and monklike dedication won't get you paid if nobody ever sees your work.

What really makes me itchy, though, is that besides shaking what your mama gave you, everything else on that triangle is impacted by the society in which we live. Access to training and mentorship, time to invest in your craft or your projects, knowing the right people or being in the right place at the right time? Yeah, all greatly impacted by how much of your time and effort you have to spend just to get over the barriers our society has placed in front of you.

As a white, straight, married. cisgender, land-owning thirtyish father of three with two pairs of supportive middle-class, university-educated parents and the best in-laws ever, my path to creative success wasn't just barrier-free, but downhill with a tailwind. Even so, the success I've achieved is well short of some of the amazing people I'm blessed to share a masthead with.

Talent is real—and yeah, I'd like to think I have some. But I'm not nearly as special as my shoebox full of Student of the Week buttons led me to believe.

Now if you'll pardon me, I have to go work my ass off.

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