On Teaching and Talent

On Teaching and Talent


Over a decade ago, I decided to get my teaching license. Poetry was great and all, but I wanted a job with benefits. I wanted health insurance. I wanted to earn more than five bucks a poem. I wanted to have a skill that the marketplace would reward…by at least more than 5 bucks a poem.

So I got licensed to teach Spanish to grades 7-12. That license has lapsed, of course. I will never teach Spanish again, which is fine with me. Goodbye, verb conjugation. Goodbye, weekly vocabulary quizzes. Goodbye, reading ‘culture reports’ on students’ visits to Chevy’s Fresh Mex. I will never miss any of that shit.

Thankfully, all the same pedagogy applies to teaching writing; organizing a class, deciding how download information, planning activities, assessing student needs.

I teach at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. At the Loft, they call us Teaching Artists. This embarrasses me. I think of ‘artists’ as primarily visual. And I don’t think of teaching as artistic, really. Though it is, I guess. There’s an art to it, but mostly it’s an art assembled of knowledge of brain science, psychology, public speaking, etc.

The ‘art’ I use in writing a story is very different than the ‘art’ of creating a class.

ANYWAY. The point of this post is to address the issue of talent. My students are all teenagers. And they are preoccupied with talent. Do they have it? Will they have it? If they have it, will they get published? How do they get published? How soon do I think they’ll get published?

All this anxiety. It makes me sad. I want to say, Wait. Sit down. Relax. Life is not all about grades and judgments. 

I want to say, Go learn other stuff. Go fall in love. Go get your heart broken. Go fail at something in a spectacular way. Become an expert in something weird, like mycology or stardust. Go meet a bunch of strange fucked-up people. Go travel to someplace you’ve never visited.

I want to say, Talent, Schmalent. Would you write even if no one read your writing? Would you write even if you never published anything?

I write because it’s the one thing I do that makes me feel like myself. Like time is stopping. Like time doesn’t matter. I have written since I was able to, in diaries and journals. I wrote zillions of unfinished stories when I was young. I tore them up. I have tons of unseen poems on my hard-drive. I wrote lots of hand-written-and-mailed-letters; now I write lots of emails. I write blog posts. I write essays that no one ever sees. I can’t stop doing this. I never want to, either.

In the face of such preoccupation and obsession, who really gives one fuck about talent?

The question shouldn’t be about talent. The question should be, Am I obsessed enough with writing to do it for the rest of my life, regardless of kudos, acclaim or recognition?


  • Matthew MacNish on Jun 19, 2013 Reply

    Sometimes I feel bad for not writing for a decade. Well, not “feel bad” so much as “be hard on myself.” But then I remember, even though I did a lot of stupid shit as a twentysomething. A. LOT. I needed to figure out who I was. It takes making a lot of mistakes to do that, I think, especially if your childhood was mostly about learning how to endure suffering.

    So anyway, yeah. Now I write. Even though I have no education after high school, even though I have no MFA, I write. It remains to be seen whether I have any talent for it, but yeah – fuck talent anyway.

  • Sarah Ahiers on Jun 18, 2013 Reply

    AND! The best thing about that determination to sit your ass down and just get to work, is, if you do it long enough, you’ll get better at it, and your talent will shine through.

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