Tag Archives: life

#Inktober and the Myth of Talent

I let myself be inspired by some friends on Instagram to participate in #Inktober: an ink drawing every day for the month of October, prompts provided. (What is it with October that lends itself so well to this “hashtag-something-tober” thing? #socktober, #inktober… For some reason we never do that with April or June. #sockril – hmm, yeah, maybe that’s why.)

I’m already late starting on #Inktober, so I definitely won’t do the “every day” thing, but regardless, it’s just for fun anyway. I do a little sketch, with a fountain pen with royal blue ink (i.e. ordinary German elementary school kids’ writing ink), and use my newly impulse-purchased waterbrush to blend it. And then I post it. 

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And boy, am I glad I didn’t actually look up the hashtag before I posted! Some people on there are ridiculously talented (like this, or this, or this). My little five- or ten-minute sketches look – urgh, so amateurish (I did a drawing of a wonky Lego brick for the prompt “build”, for crying out loud!). I don’t have that kind of talent, obviously. Had I looked at those highly accomplished drawings before I started, I never would have dared.

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But then – “talent”. What is talent, anyway?

The standard interpretation of the word is usually something like “ability”. “You’re so talented” means “You’re so good at this.” And I, for one, used to think that “talent” is inborn – you’ve either got it or you don’t. People like Mozart and Van Gogh and Goethe have it, and people like me don’t.

But I’m starting to think that that idea is nothing short of a myth.

I’m sure you know the story that Jesus tells of a man who goes travelling. He calls his employees and hands out some talents to them – five to one, two to another, one to the third. The first one does business with his five talents and earns five more; the second one makes two more talents; but the third guy just takes his talent, digs a hole in the ground and buries it. When the boss comes back, the first two guys give him back the talents with all the extra they earned, and he’s pleased with them, but when the third guy comes along with his freshly dug up dirt-covered bundle of unused talent, the boss is not impressed. “You could at least have put it in the bank,” he says, “then it would have earned some interest!”

Of course, the “talent” this story talks about was something a bit different than what we think of when we hear the word – it was a measure of weight and therefore of currency, i.e. weight of silver; Jesus is talking about money (and a great big whack of it, by all accounts). But as with any good story, there is more than one way to look at it. And in this case, you can take the word “talent” literally in its modern sense, and come to some interesting conclusions.

The worker who was given five talents went and used them, and at the end he’s got five more talents. The guy that only got one and was miffed because he got shortchanged never used his talent – he stuck it in the ground, left it to tarnish, didn’t do anything with it, and in the end, nothing came of it.

And that’s the thing about “talent” – yes, some are given more of it than others (some a lot more – see above re. Mozart, Van Gogh, Goethe etc.), but in the end, what matters is whether you use what you’ve got. I’ve heard it said that ability is 10% talent, 90% effort. Even the ones with big talent – the five lumps of silver – still need to put in the time practising it for the talent to grow. And even the ones with small talent can grow their gift by using it.

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Back to #Inktober, if I had seen the “talented” people’s posts first, I might have let myself be scared off. But that’s nonsense – it’s exactly contrary to what this event is meant for. It’s not a venue for showing off your gifts, but your efforts, which is meant to help you grow what you have. Whether that’s big or small doesn’t matter; what matters is doing it.

And anybody can do it. Well, okay, most people. You don’t think you’re one of them, at least where art is concerned? All right, there’s actually a test to see if you have what it takes. You didn’t know that? There is! You want to take it? Okay, here goes: 

First you need some equipment. Find a pencil and a piece of paper. Any paper will do – the back of an envelope or a grocery receipt, if you can’t find anything else. If you don’t have a pencil, use a pen or a marker.

Put the paper on a flat surface. Take the pencil in your dominant hand.

Put the tip of the pencil to the paper.

Now write your name.

Got that? Done it? 

Take a close look. Did you write your name? Yes? Not your next door neighbour’s name? Or your first-grade teacher’s poodle’s grandmother’s name?

Fantastic! Congratulations!

You have made purposeful marks on paper. Therefore, I can now tell you without a shadow of a doubt that you can learn to draw, and you are qualified to practise your gifts. You can even join #Inktober if you wish. 

Yes, okay, I’m being just a tad tongue-in-cheek here. But only a tad. You see, people have told me I’m talented. They’ve even said it about my #Inktober posts (yeah, I know). But it’s really a learned skill. Some twenty-five years ago, I started taking art lessons, after someone told me that you don’t go to art school because you’re good at art, but because you want to become good at art. That comment revolutionised my thinking, and allowed me to go after the dream I had of being able to paint. I took lessons, read library books*, watched videos, spent countless hours hanging out on sites like wetcanvas.com, generally obsessed on art, and this is where I ended up.

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And that’s why I’m being somewhat facetious about this “talent” thing. Don’t let yourself be scared off by the myth of “talent”. Do you want to draw, paint, write**, play the tin whistle, dance ballet in a tutu? Go for it!

It doesn’t matter how big the talent is that we’ve been handed, what matters is what we do with it. That way, even a small talent can grow into something big. And when it does – when a talent of any size grows up into something – it’s a joy to behold. Even if that “something” is only someone having fun with pen and ink on an October morning.

Life, the Universe, Inktober and Talent. What could you be having fun with today?

*My two favourite books for learning art were Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brainand Rudy De Reyna’s How to Draw What You See. I’m glad to see they’re both still in print; they’re well worth it.

**If drawing isn’t your thing, and you’re more into, say, writing, I have one word for you: NaNoWriMoIt’s coming up – just three more weeks!

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Life Is Better When You Like More Things

I read that quote somewhere fairly recently. And I can’t find the original article any more, so I can’t attribute it; and to boot, I’m probably mis-quoting it (if you remember where it came from, let me know). However, when I read it, I realised that that’s been one of my base principles for a long time. So let me repeat it:

Life is better when you like more things.

I have a master’s degree in liberal arts; to be specific, in literary studies. That means that by definition, I’m trained in critical thinking. No, critical thinking doesn’t mean “criticising”… Well, actually, in practice it often does. It means looking down one’s long nose (and I have quite a long one) at a lot of things, and feeling superior because of it.

I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling superior. Feeling “better than” because I belonged to a certain group of people, subscribed to a certain set of beliefs; because I was intelligent and could critically evaluate.

And you know what? Superiority is so much baloney. It doesn’t add one iota of joy to your life. In fact, it goes hand in hand with its shadow side: I’ve spent the very same time that I felt superior in being plagued by feelings of inferiority. As much judging as you do, you know (or strongly feel) that you’re being judged yourself. And the more critical you are of others, the more you feel criticised.

I’ve given up a lot of my criticism over the last decade or so. It’s not worth it. And in turn, I’ve discovered so much more joy. When you stop feeling superior, you can start to belong. It’s wonderful.

Life is better when you like more things.

Life is better when there are more things you can say “yes” to, instead of raising your pointy noise, pursing your thin lips, and going “Oh. Eew. No, thank yew, not for moi.”

I used to be quite a picky eater when I was a kid; now, there are few things that I don’t like to eat (unfortunately, a few things don’t like me, but that’s another topic). It makes for great fun in travelling, because you can try out all these cool foods that you can’t get at home. Of course, there is a vast difference between a McDonald’s burger and an expertly cooked Jägerschnitzel (hunter’s schnitzel, topped with mushrooms in cream sauce – oh yeah!), but I’ll eat either if that’s what’s available; I don’t go hungry; and my taste buds are not unhappy. I’ve known folks who needed to find a McDonald’s wherever they went, and there are others who couldn’t eat at McD’s even if that’s all there is – either one lives a very circumscribed life.

The trailer for the new live-action Aladdin movie just came out. “Eew, Disney!” You know what? I’m really looking forward to seeing that film. My enjoyment of Disney fairy tale movies doesn’t take away one jot from the quality of, say, Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel, or Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête. Reading and enjoying a Harlequin novel doesn’t mean that Jane Austen is one smidgen less of a genius.

You see, that’s the problem with criticism: somehow we have the idea that if we enjoy something, it impinges on what’s better, so therefore we shouldn’t take pleasure from something that’s less than stellar. We need to criticise everything, because if we don’t, it means that we are less than superior.

But take it from me: superiority takes a lot of effort, and it’s not worth it. Enjoyment, on the other hand, opens up your life and lets it blossom.

Things I like

Things I like: Louis the Cat, books, knitting, candles, fuzzy blankets, audiobooks, my corner of the couch…

There are a lot of things I like: Small stuffed bears, Jägerschnitzel, folk music, fuzzy blankets, Agatha Christie novels, sunshine on fresh snow, lemon balm plants, fairy tale films … Yes, all right, even raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Actually, I’ll take the whole kitten, thank you, and keep him until he’s a fat grown-up tabby cat, and get daily pleasure from petting him and laughing at his antics. So many things to enjoy. You can keep your critical superiority; I’m too busy with the things I like.

My blog’s tag line is “Life, the Universe, and a Few-Odd Other Things” – Amo Vitam, “I love life”. Because Life Is Better When You Like More Things.

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This, That, Jealousy and Herding Cats

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Steve guarding the old watering can (it’s a family heirloom)

I keep getting emails from WordPress these days: “Shenoptikus Caractacus [or whatever other name] is now following your blog. They will receive an email every time you publish a post. Congratulations.”

Oh dear, I think to myself, I wonder what Shenoptikus Caractacus thinks he’s getting into. Perhaps he started following because of the advertising on Enchanted Conversations’ newsletter, and expects regular erudite Editorial Pontifications. Or he picked up my blog because of a fairy tale story post, or a cooking one, or a “Wordless Wednesday” snapshot, and he thinks that’s what there is going to be on a bi-weekly basis – writing, recipes, photography.

Instead, Shenoptikus, what you’ll get is a hodgepodge of topics (not unlike the hodgepodge of my house), posted with less-than-perfect-regularity. Sometimes I drop out of the blogosphere for weeks or months at a time, then there’ll be a flurry of posts and blog engagement for a bit. And every once in a while, there are posts involving a small stuffed bear – his name is Steve. You’ll see him in the photo above.

So I apologise in advance if my blog doesn’t meet your expectations. But it’s not like I asked you to follow my blog, is it?

Aaagh, yes – yes, it is like that. I did ask; I want people to follow my blog. I’m jealous of bloggers who have a huge following, who get dozens of “likes” on their posts and lots of comments. Truth is, I have a jealously problem. I’m jealous of others who’ve achieved what seems so far out of reach for me – for example, writers who have traditionally published books, or an actual income from their self-published ones. Or editors who have a large clientele of gifted writers lining up and clamouring for their expert services.

For that matter, I’m also jealous of people who have clean and tidy houses and neatly weeded and trimmed yards with thriving plants and beautiful cosy patio nooks (yes, I’m looking at you!), and whose ducks are all nicely lined up in a row, doing synchronised swimming.

Mine – well, I don’t even have ducks. I have cats, and you know what they say about herding them.

However, cats are also far more comfortable to cuddle than ducks (I think – I’ve never tried cuddling a duck). And, sure, they shed fur (Louis currently exists in The Cloud, i.e. he raises a fur cloud every time you pet him), and they bring in dead things (or even worse, live ones), and they claw the furniture (my dining room door post is completely shredded). But they’re soft, and cute, and such personalities; and it makes me happy to have them around. They’re part of my life, in all its messiness.

So I think I’d rather have my cats than someone else’s tidy, cold, quacking ducks, even if they’ll never neatly line up in a row. Like my blog posts – they don’t line up neatly under one topic, either. Which might mean I won’t ever get that really large blog following, and once Shenoptikus figures out what an eclectic mess this page is, he might unsubscribe again. Oh well, too bad.

Then again, if Shenoptikus Caractacus is a spam bot, I don’t care about him anyway. Steve and I don’t need him; we’ve got all of you.

Life, the Universe, and Herding Cats. Jealousy is a waste of time, isn’t it?

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Thoughts on Social Media

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Another one of my friends announced on Facebook today his intention to delete his account, so as to no longer feed his time and emotional energy into the social media monster. Well, when I say “friend”, I really mean “acquaintance”. I’ve met him only once in real life – he was one of my grad school profs, and as the school in question is an online university, all of our contacts happened in the cyber world. I was sorry to see him leave Facebook – there goes any further opportunity to get to know him a little better.

However, I also very much understand where he’s coming from. I’ve just come off a six-week hiatus from the FB world myself – I didn’t cut it all altogether, but restricted my facebooking to checking in on specific messages, and tried to avoid browsing and scrolling through my feed, let alone actually posting status updates or engaging in conversations.

Unfortunately, with the kind of work I do, I can’t really avoid Facebook and other social media altogether. I write books and try to sell them online. I write for an online magazine. I edit the work of writers who work online and I get new clients and professional contacts online. Getting off the cyber merry-go-round isn’t really an option – much as I sometimes want to.

But you know what? For all that I hate the amount of time and energy suck that social media generates, there are some real benefits I’ve derived from it. Apart from my professional contacts, I have made real friends through the Internet, and have rediscovered old friends and deepened existing real-life friendships. I have a network of connections all over the world.

Granted, the kind of relationships you form through social media is of a peculiar type. “Facebook is so terribly fake!” I’ve heard people say more than once. “I don’t want to see pictures of your lunch or your kittycat!” In fact, one of the several reasons my abovementioned friend gave for cutting the Facebook strings was the triviality of so many posts.

Yes, I agree – there is a lot of idle chatter, a lot of fakeness, a lot of posing. But, at the risk of sounding judgemental, the kind of person from whom I’ve most often heard comments of this kind is male and of the Baby Boomer generation. I don’t know what he (this generic middle-aged man) expects from social contact. In my experience as a slightly younger (i.e. GenX) middle-aged woman, trivialities are the very stuff relationships take their beginnings in.

You want to show me the snazzy lunch you had on your business trip? Please do! You like posting pictures of your funny cat? Bring it on! You think your kid’s jumping on the furniture is worth broadcasting on the Internet? Yes, I agree! Because to see how your children are growing, or that you love your cat, or that your favourite food is sushi, tells me things about you. You become more of a person to me. And what, may I ask, is a relationship but a connection from person to person?

If you’re the kind of person who has lived in one place their whole life, whose birth, education, career, friendships, and family life have all taken place in a 20 km radius, then what I’m saying might not apply to you. You know that your friend loves their dog because they live next door to you; that your buddy from Grade 2 just had another baby because you’ve run into her at the grocery store when you picked up milk; and that the guy you met at a professional development seminar is an arch-conservative because he has political placards all over his front lawn at every election.

But that kind of relationship circle has become very, very rare today. A Facebook friend (another grad school prof, as it happens) recently posted a quote that said something like this: “When future generations look back on us, the thing that they will find most puzzling is that we thought our online life was separate from our real-life existence.”

Just this morning, I was enjoying the stunning landscape photography of a childhood friend who now lives in Switzerland. I saw that an online friend whom I’ve never met in real life is having a great time on a trip to New York. I watched, in slow motion, as a friend’s small grandson leaped off the bed, his floppy blond hair flying, and it brought a smile to my face.

All these things are real. I know that if my online friend’s travels ever take her out my way or mine hers, we’ll meet for coffee and spend hours talking about everything under the sun – I know, because it wouldn’t be the first time that happened. Seeing the pictures of the sun gloriously glinting on the Alps means I’ve shared in a small piece of my now-Swiss friend’s life – before Instagram, I had no idea she was such a great photographer; in fact, I hadn’t spoken to her in decades. As for my other friend’s grandchildren, they are growing up so fast, I would never be able to enjoy the exuberance of their little lives in even such a small way as I do now if it wasn’t for Facebook.

This might all sound kind of Polly-Anna-ish. “Aren’t social media great? Don’t they give you the warm fuzzies? Isn’t getting the warm fuzzies the best thing ever?” Blah blah blah. Yes, I know that most of what scrolls by in a social media feed is sludge. I hate the politics, the mud-slinging, the preaching, the arrant nonsense, the sheer volume of all the jabber and beak-clacking. It eats into my sanity, drags my mind down into the muck of arguments and darkness. And that’s not even considering the big-picture societal problems that the social media phenomenon is implicated in.

There have been times when I’ve wanted nothing more than to hit the “delete” button on that Facebook account, be rid of its drag on my life. But I never did, because – see above.

I wonder if 15th-century Europeans felt about books and newspapers the way we do about the Internet. “Oh, I wish I could be rid of all this print! Shelves full of clutter, of people’s opinions, of paper! Let’s just go back to the day when people actually talked to each other!” But, of course, they didn’t go back. They learned to live with it, live with the new reality their world had evolved into. Yes, the invention of print brought problems – enormous upheavals, in many ways – but it also brought so much good.

And that’s the place we’re in right now. We need to learn to live with social media, learn to use it, instead of letting it use us. Oh, good grief – what am I using the “royal we” for? I need to learn it, need to get a handle on social media.

Sometimes, I think, that could mean pulling the plug entirely, like my friend is doing. I’ve never chosen to do that yet, although that’s not to say I might not do so sometime if the sludge threatens to overwhelm the joy. Or sometimes, it requires taking a step back – staying away from social media for a few weeks just to prove to myself that I can, and to build new habits.

“It’s not you, Internet, it’s me…” – and that’s the thing to keep in mind: I don’t have a relationship with social media, but with the people on the other end of social media. The Baby Boomer’s lament that “Kids today are always glued to their phones!” completely overlooks the fact that it’s not the phones the kids are interacting with, it’s their friends on the other end of the phone.

The word “social” in “social media”? It’s there for a reason. Social media isn’t good or bad – it’s what we make of it. I for one want to learn to use it, not be used.

Life, the Universe, and Social Media. Oh, in case you’re wondering – even my stuffed bear has Facebook.

 

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#WordlessWednesday: Still Life With Laundry, or: There’s Stories Buried Under There

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10 January 2018 · 14:00

Dear Internet, It’s Not You, It’s Me

Then again, actually it is you. I can’t handle your constant demands on me any more; it’s stressing me out when you’re staring at me with that hurt look if I don’t show up exactly at the moment that you expect me to; the negativity that hangs around you is dragging me down. And the time – you want so much time from me!

So I think we need to take a step back, evaluate our relationship. I don’t mean exactly break up, but, you know, maybe just be friends for a while.

Take care of yourself, Internet, eh? I gotta go now, I’ve got stuff to do.

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