All You Need is….Work?

This past spring my crime fiction class at Michigan State University was devoted to books by women authors featuring women sleuths, whether amateur or professional. We started with Baroness Orczy and ended with Lia Matera, after some foundational discussion of Poe, Conan Doyle, and the sadly neglected Anna Katharine Greene.

We read Christie, of course and as almost always happens to me, no matter how many times I’ve read one of her books before–unless it’s one I’ve seen a movie version of the book–I forget the plot.  Or more accurately, Christie fools me all over again because her plots are so fiendishly clever.  That’s was one of her gifts as a writer.  Depth of characterization?  Not so much.  Other writers we read were far more talented along those lines, Laurie King for one.  When it came to setting, for example, Lia Matera was exceptional.  And P.D. James’s lyrical prose won special praise from my class.

So moving from author to author, I didn’t just point students to what each one was doing with the genre, but helped them focus on what she accomplished as a writer, what her gifts were.

These days, however, as the Chair of Psychology at Boston College Ellen Winner has written, our culture seems happy to dismiss talent and inborn capacity.  It’s permeated with the populist view that “hard work is all that is required for genius or even expert level performance….with sufficient energy and dedication on the parents’ part, it is possible that it may not be all that difficult to produce a child prodigy.”

Think about: if you’re truly dedicated parents, your kids could write symphonies like Mozart, paint portraits like John Singer Sargent, produce sculptures like Rodin, design buildings like Calatrava, create fashion to match Dior or Chanel–the list is endless because you can get your kids to do anything.  It’s all about work.  Yours.  Theirs.  Everybody has to want it enough.  That’s all.

As Hemingway wrote: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

I come from a family of mathematically gifted people.  My mother’s father was a statistician; my mother tutored her peers in mathematics; my older brother aced every math class he ever took–and yet from kindergarten on, I had trouble with the simplest computations involving “pennies, nickels and dimes” as my first report card said.  I wanted to succeed.  I was desperate to please my teachers and my mothers. I was a good little student in everything else except this one area, and it was a torment to me that no matter what I did, no matter how anyone tried to help me, I just could not succeed.

By the time I reached high school, I was often drowning in a fog of incomprehension, barely keeping my head above water in my math classes no matter how much tutoring I got.  Except for Geometry, which is visual, math did not make sense to me; it might as well have been Klingon.

There’s nothing I wanted more than to be a normal kid who understood math as well as my peers.  I wanted to erase the shame of all those failed exams with blaring grades in red.  I wanted to never live in fear of pop quizzes.  I wanted to wipe out the humiliation of having to move my seat every day in fifth grade to sit in The Dumb Row during math lessons.  I’m not making that up.  It really happened.

Winner says that psychologists and educators widely observe “very young children showing signs of extraordinary ability prior to any training” which provides “evidence of nature before nurture.” I would also argue the opposite is likely. The innate lack of talent in certain areas is probably observable early on, too. It sure was in my house.

I may have been miserable at arithmetic and math, yes–but I was gifted at language arts from the get-go: I could read the LIFE Magazine in second grade.  I was reading Isaac Asimov short stories a year later. By seventh grade, I was even annoying an English teacher by using words in my book reports that he deemed beyond my reading level.

Popular writers like Malcom Gladwell have helped spread a kind of perversely seductive, populist belief that work trumps talent.  But it’s not really either/or, as Winner points out.  The reality is much more complicated:

“The best systematic evidence disentangling nature from nurture comes from studies of chess masters by Fernand Gobet, Guillermo Campitelli and Robert Howard. These researchers found wide individual variation in the number of hours needed to reach grandmaster level. They also found players who put in huge amounts of chess time (from childhood) yet never attained master level. Thus, sheer hard work is simply not sufficient to become a master. What is true of chess is bound to be true of all kinds of great achievers, whether in the arts, the sciences or athletics.”

Luckily for me, I married someone intensely logical who helps me work out the plots of my mysteries, since that aspect often strikes me as something close to Algebra.  Luckily for my spouse, though, I don’t need help with anything else when I write, because I was writing short stories in second grade, already in love with the world of story-telling, and already good at it.


6 Responses

  1. A terrific blog, Lev, and oh, how I can relate to this! I was a complete dud in arithmetic/math from elementary school forward–relieved to be in college where I could skip calculus et al., and spend my days reading books, writing poems & stories This seems to be the way some of us writers are born to be. And there are mathematical whizzes who can’t write a sentence without a cliche. So go figure, as they say!

  2. Thanks, Nancy, and I love the pun. I, too, was relieved there was no math requirement in college, just science, and could be filled by taking environmental science, which was not a hard course. I loved my language, history, theater, social sciences, and of course English classes in college–and the absence of math. The blessed absence of tormenting, grueling math.

  3. Count me in as another math dud, Lev. It’s all I can do to balance my checkbook each month. But I was writing stories in the second grade, what I called a novel in the fifth grade, and in the sixth I wrote a play that my teacher was so impressed with that we performed it.I’ve always been a storyteller. Wouldn’t have it any other way. Of course, I did take a math refresher course so I could pass the GRE. Math made more sense, just barely, when I was older.

  4. We’re not duds, Janet. We’re math-challenged. 🙂

  5. Thank you, Lev! This is very freeing–as long as I’m doing my best and striving to grow I don’t actually have to feel that if I just put in *more* hours yet I could be P D James.

    • You’re welcome! It’s in some ways uniquely American snake oil to tell people that they can accomplish anything if they just work hard enough. Well, no we can’t. Forget fate and the fates of others around us, and history and the environment–natural talents play a unique role in all our lives, like it or not.

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