Cultivating a talent


I have a friend who discovered last year that he could paint. I don’t mean he can draw cute stick figures, I mean the dude can paint beautiful, awe inspiring paintings. I admit to being a bit envious. I have other friends who are beautiful singers and musicians, as well as talented and successful music producers. I know others who are wonderful designers and craftsmen.

Creatives are fascinating to me. Whether they are painters, musicians, actors, dancers, singers, or writers, I am in awe of anyone who discovers their talent, hones it through sacrificial practice and increases the beauty in the world.

I wish I had such a talent. In my teens I was a dancer and a magician. Later I was an actor and eventually discovered I was a decent writer (my first college diploma is in Corporate Communication). If I had one creative talent, it might be writing. I’m told I’m decent at it, but I don’t know. If I have any skill it’s because I’ve learned by ear. Until I took Koiné Greek last year, I barely knew a verb from a noun and almost always need to look up what an adverb is). The problem is that writing takes time to read and therefore it takes time to have an impact. You can hear music without effort, or see a painting without needing much time (except perhaps to absorb it fully). You can see a beautiful dance in as short as a few minutes or as long as a few hours; the same for acting.

Writing takes more effort to consume. Yes, there are beautiful short poems, or even wonderfully written blog posts (though very few I think are written with beautiful writing being on the list of priorities), but truly excellent writing is difficult. I don’t just mean the message being conveyed, but the words chosen. I’ve read inspiring tales of old school newspaper editorialists agonizing for an afternoon over one word and still not being satisfied). Most blogs, including mine, have a tendency to devolve into depositories for mental dumps. You don’t always see careful planning and execution like you would (or should) expect from a long form essay. Listening to bloggers on podcasts they simply deal with this reality by not caring. Since blogging is a more immediate medium, they think typ-o’s and grammar matter less.

But it does. I hate reading through a post and finding a typ-o, it can ruin the whole flow of the piece. Worse yet, sometimes you can’t tell if it’s a typ-o because it actually is a word – just not the word you intended!!! (In a church bulletin once, I typed Jesus’ Pubic Ministry, instead of public).

So, instead of wishing I was a musician, a painter, or an actor, I’m trying to focus on becoming a better writer. The prevailing wisdom these days says we have to practice for 10 000 hours to really master a skill. I don’t know if this is true and I’m not about to keep track of hours, but it seems reasonable. Mind you, practice doesn’t make perfect, imperfect practice simply reinforces imperfection. You need to know what “perfect” looks like, or at least have an example of what “better than me” looks like. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote that “A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line”. While he was discussing apologetics, the concept holds true for cultivating talents.

So, over the next many months there are a few books I want to read or re-read. Top of the list of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, Zinsser’s On Writing Well, Trenga’s The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier, Adler’s How to Read a Book, Booth’s The Craft of Research and WIlson’s Wordsmithy . Also, as boring as it sounds, I’d like to read Turbian’s A Manual for Writers (I love style guides). I also want to keep reading a variety of fiction and non-fiction across multiple genres to keep me fresh and to broaden my exposure to different styles of writing.

Some of these books are focussed on writing as a whole, while others are focussed on properly formatting a single sentence. I want to be really good at writing. I want to be able to point to something and say that’s mine and be able to see how’s it’s improved over what I did the month or year before.

Good writing matters and just because my primary outlet is a blog, is no excuse not to steadily improve the quality of the writing.

What talent are you cultivating in your life? What are you doing to practice and improve as time goes on?

2 thoughts on “Cultivating a talent

  1. We are a not-for-profit educational organization, founded by Mortimer Adler and we have recently made an exciting discovery–three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos–lively discussing the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

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