LIKE THE TIDES, THE SEASONS, and the Bandera branch of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Texas Book Festival is coming around again, allowing us to meet authors we love, hate, or very possibly, find a little ho-hum. I always look forward to the book festival because it provides me with the spiritual soapbox to give advice to other authors, an audience that, predictably, has never learned to listen. Conversely, I’ve never learned to pull my lips together, so the system works. My advice to authors, and the misguided multitudes who want to be authors, is a variation on a truthful if sometimes tedious theme. “Talent,” I tell them in stentorian tones, “is its own reward. If you’re unlucky enough to have it, don’t expect anything else.” These wise words, of course, come from a man who’s spent his entire professional career trying to eclipse Leon Redbone.
My theory is that in all areas of creative human endeavor, the presence of true talent is almost always the kiss of death. It’s no accident that three people who were tragically forced into bankruptcy late in their lives were Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, and Mark Twain. It’s no fluke of fate that Schubert died shortly after giving the world the Unfinished Symphony. You probably wouldn’t have finished it either if you had syphilis and twelve cents in your pocket. Or how would you like to have died at age 29 in the back seat of a Cadillac? If you’re Hank Williams, that’s what talent got you. But what is talent? And why would anyone in his right mind want it? As Albert Einstein often said, “I don’t know.”
In fact, talent is such a difficult quality to identify or define that we frequently end up losing it in the lights, relegating it at last to the trash bin, the cheap motel, the highway, the gutter, or the cross. My editor says I’m one of the most talented writers he knows. The problem is that even if I have talent, I don’t know what it is—and if I did, I’d get rid of it immediately. Then I’d be on my way to vast commercial success. Talent, however, is a bit like God; you never see it, but there are moments when you’re pretty sure it’s there. So because I can’t clinically isolate it, I’m stuck with all my wonderful talent, and the most practical thing I can do is start looking for a sturdy bridge to sleep under or a gutter in a good neighborhood.
If you have a little talent, you’re probably all right. Let’s say you’re good at building birdhouses or you play the bagpipes or, like my fairy godmother, Edythe Kruger, you do an almost uncanny impression of the duck on the AFLAC commercials. These kinds of narrow little talents have never harmed a soul nor kept anyone from living a successful, happy life. It’s when you’re afflicted with that raw, shimmering, innate talent—talent with a big T—that you can really get into trouble. Remember that Judy Garland died broke on the toilet. Lenny Bruce died broke on the toilet. Jim Morrison, just to be perverse, died fairly well financially fixed at the age of 27 in a Paris bathtub. Elvis also died on the toilet, though he definitely wasn’t broke. Along with a vast fortune, he had well over a million dollars in a checking account that drew no interest. Who cares about money, he figured, when you’ve got talent? I myself was a chess prodigy, playing a match with world grand master Samuel Reshevsky when I was only seven years old. It’s been downhill from there.
They say it takes more talent to spot talent than it does to have talent. Conversely, it’s easy to know when it isn’t there, although someone without talent rarely notices its absence. Some friends of mine had a band once, and they went to audition for a talent scout in his office. The talent scout said, “Okay, let’s see what you can do.” The leader of the band began to pick his nose while playing the French horn. Another guy started beating out the rhythm on his own buttocks while projectile vomiting on the man’s desk. The other two members of the band jumped simultaneously onto the desk and began unabashedly engaging in an act too graphic to describe in this magazine. “I’ve seen enough,” shouted the talent scout in disgust. “What do you call this act, anyway?” The French-horn player stopped playing the instrument and stopped picking his nose. “We call ourselves,” he said, “the Aristocrats.”
Another example of what might help define talent takes us back to Polyclitus, the famous sculptor in ancient Greece. Polyclitus, it is said, once sculpted two statues at the same time: one in his living room, in public view, and one in his bedroom, which he worked on privately and kept wrapped in a tarpaulin. When visitors came by, they would comment on the public work, saying, “The eyes aren’t quite right” or “That thigh is too long,” and Polyclitus would incorporate their suggestions. All the while, however, he kept the other statue a secret. Both works were completed at about the same time and were mounted in the city square in Athens. The statue that had been designed by committee was openly mocked and ridiculed. The statue he’d done by himself was immediately proclaimed a transcendental work of art. People asked Polyclitus, “How can one statue be so good and the other so bad?” And Polyclitus answered, “Because I did this one and you did that one.”
So what can you do if you don’t have talent? To paraphrase Claytie Williams, you can relax and enjoy it. Any no-talent fat boy can make it to the top of the charts, but it takes real talent, like that of the brilliant American composer Stephen Foster, to die penniless in a cheap hotel on the Bowery. But with or without talent, you might ask, how can hard work and perseverance pay off in the creative field? Why are you asking me? Who the hell knows? In this day and age, just as the tortoise is finally crossing the finish line to win the race, he’ll very likely see three men in suits and ties, standing there with their briefcases. “Hello,” they’ll say. “We’re the attorneys for the hare.”