Saturday, April 1, 2017

Can A Writer Have Too Many Talents and Interests?

Many people in the arts have numerous talents and interests. In addition to writing, you might enjoy quilting, or playing an instrument, or you might be a good painter or dancer. In some ways it’s a blessing to enjoy numerous arts, in some ways it’s a problem.

In my early twenties I studied many different arts and crafts. I took classes and learned some skills from friends. I enrolled in a pottery class where I tried to master the skill of knowing how a glaze would look after it was fired. I sketched models from life endlessly, trying to perfect my technique with a charcoal crayon. I even had a business with my friend Flip tying macramé purses and chokers.

I was also writing and at the same time translating French poets during this period, but my role models were artists who did not specialize in one art. I admired William Blake, who created engravings to go with his poems, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite artist who wrote poems to accompany his paintings.

Rossetti's poem, "The Blessed Damozel," illustration by Kenneth Cox
Even though writing and literature excited me, like many people in the arts, I didn’t want to be strapped down to one discipline. In my case, this was partly because my father had been a widely published writer of short stories and reviews, and I didn’t want to be measured against the yardstick of his success.

At this time I was also taking classes in modern dance and ballet at the gym of my college, working at the barre in not weather with sweat gushing down my brow. (Some ballet teachers can be tougher than marine drill sergeants!). I was making pretty decent progress, and being the only male in most classes, I got a lot of attention.

Then one day, a new person entered the dance classes: Berat. He was an engineering student from Turkey, and he had never had much formal instruction in dance. Berat’s progress was amazing. He took every possible class he could fit into the schedule of his engineering studies, always arriving early or staying late to work in the mirror to check his form on the pliés. In a few months, Berat had surpassed all the other students. He was a natural. One day, Berat was gone. I asked the teacher what had happened to him. She said Berat had moved to New York, where he had auditioned for a dance company that was interested in hiring him, if he took a few more classes.

That made me pause. Yes, I was fairly good at modern dance, pottery, macramé, life drawing. But was I progressing at a pace that would allow me to make an original and professional contribution to the art, the kind of pace Berat had set? In every case, I had to answer no. Except possibly in writing.

Writing was the one art I was trying to avoid. But writing came naturally to me. I had to work at it, and work incredibly hard, but I was continually moving forward in my practice of the craft. I couldn’t say that about the other arts I was dabbling in. I was spreading myself thin, and as a result, nothing I was doing in any art or craft had much depth. 

I realized that I wanted to be an artist not just for fun—though it was great fun when it went well, more fun than anything else I’d done. I wanted to be an artist to make a contribution to the river of culture, and even if that contribution was only a few drops, I wanted it to be the best I could give. I saw that I would have to specialize to get good enough to make an original contribution that might have a chance of mattering to others, not just to myself and a few friends.

Even within the literary arts, a writer has to specialize. Yes, there are some authors who can write plays, poems, short stories, novels, libretti, and more. But not many. Most of us have to specialize in order to get good at a genre. Again, it’s partly what comes naturally, and partly what you want to work at. 

I don’t know if Berat ever became a professional dancer in New York. But I admire that he tried to make the grade, that he knew right away that dance was the discipline he needed to focus on. That type of single-minded focus doesn’t come easy to many creative people, who by nature like to experiment,. But that kind of focus often makes the difference between a dilettante and an artist.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

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