S2E08 Talents

Joe considers neighbors, aspirations, and fear. He attempts to be inspirational.


On Saturday, my neighbor stopped me in the street. I was dumping compost from dinner, and he was wandering, a little stir crazy. My first feeling was that newly-gained dread: the terror of people: all of them are like zombies, carrying the plague and walking, standing, or running too close. There was, too, the introvert’s terror of having to engage. I knew he expected me to turn on, which is to say, my neighbor needed me to be neighborly.

Fortunately, he didn’t need me to talk much. The wind shifted, and I caught the scent. He was buzzed. He just wanted to ramble. And if it wasn’t me, it would’ve been a dog or a tree.

He had an idea for a book. For ten minutes, he described it, though it morphed and took on new forms as he talked. He asked questions, but never waited for the answers. By the end, I had no idea what his book was about. Only that an idea had occurred to him. He could write a book. It would be interactive. It would be a best seller. He wanted to print locally, not in China. He thought about Portland. “Does Powell’s publish books or just sell books?” he said. I said I didn’t know. I started to say I knew of a Powell’s employee who was a publisher. But my neighbor didn’t hear this. His idea was so great that Powell’s would begin publishing and make his their first book.

The book’s title was a secret. It was a hilarious title, he said. It made his kids and his wife laugh, he said. He couldn’t tell me. He didn’t want to give it away. He had that paranoia people have when they get book ideas. It’s like having a map to gold in the Yukon. Keep it secret. Keep it safe. If someone gets the idea, they’ll steal it. The step from great idea to New York Times bestseller is a simple matter of typing the thing out.

I’ve been writing, and getting rejected, for nearly twenty-five years. At this point, I don’t even feel rejections. I barely feel acceptances. So, I envied the neighbor’s enthusiasm. But like the middle-aged man that I am, I also thought it naive. He still believed that the most important part of a book was the concept. And it did me no good to tell him that concept doesn’t matter. An idea is the easy part. It’s the discipline to sit and write that matters. I was pretty sure, given how squirrel-like he was, bouncing from concept to concept, he wouldn’t be able to do that part.

Long ago, I stopped caring about the ideas people had. I only cared about their follow-through. My neighbor would need to learn how to move from enthusiasm to tedium. Writing is tedious. From what I know of people who build businesses, that work is tedious, too.

At dinner, my wife’s daughter asked why I get up early to write. I said fear—this fear that if I don’t, I will die having wasted some gift I had.

I’m not proud of that answer. It goes back to a bad understanding of gifts, nurtured by a bad understanding of a parable Jesus told. I learned this parable in the King James translation, which uses an old word—“talents”—that some translations render as “bag of gold”—an old Roman and Greek unit of measure. But to me, the word is “talents,” and the idea of the parable is talents—our aptitudes and skills.

The gist of the parable is that a master allots each of three servants talents. It’s not even. One gets ten, one gets five, one gets one. Each servant’s responsibility is to do something with those talents. Then the master leaves.

The servant given one talent buries his, afraid he will lose the little he has. He fears the master and figures that it’s better to not use a talent rather than to risk losing it and falling into the master’s wrath. The other servants use their talents. Each doubles the original amount.

The twist in the parable is that the master, once returning, is outraged by cowardice, not by risk. He takes the one talent the man has, gives it to the person who now has twenty. Then he casts out the talent-less servant.

I am afraid of being the servant who buried his talent. I’m afraid that the master will return and look at a life that squandered its talents.

Of course, writing from a place of fear may not be the best way to write—or to do anything. I’ve tried switching my motivations to something else: love, enthusiasm, joy, affection, envy, money. But all of these ideas—except envy—pass. Instead, I work because I’m afraid of failure, of coming up empty. Though here I am, twenty-five years later, mostly anonymous.

Sometimes my view of success—publishing, money, notoriety—is hardly healthy. It can make me miss all I do have—which is more than anyone has a right to have, in terms of possessions and relationships. Perhaps a good therapist might be able to fix this.

But I think, though, of the trade-off: how if this motivation goes away, I might simply stop working or caring. Maybe, in some way, this kind of fear is a talent.

Had my neighbor asked me or cared, I could have told him anything he wanted to know about writing, self-publishing, editing, rejection, and persistence. I know the venues, the technologies, the techniques. But he didn’t need that. He was excited, and whether that was the concept of writing or the bliss of marijuana isn’t really the point. He had an excitement that does not come from fear or from obligation or discipline. Perhaps it was naive. And next time he sees me, he will likely tell me about some new idea: a face mask business or a laser system that filters air particles.

But my envy for my neighbor and his freshness about writing turned toward pity—that as quickly as his idea came, it will fade. That once the actual work of realizing his dream begins, the dream will seem less compelling. It won’t be enough. Soon, he will lose both the enthusiasm and the possibility. Because the work to realize a dream is tedious. Though, in fairness, perhaps he has some other area in which he knows the difference between idea and execution. He likely has something that is tedious and that he continues.

I don’t really know why I write, or why I do anything that requires discipline. I know that enthusiasm is a great beginner, but discipline is the finisher. I am thankful for discipline, even though it is often tedious.

But I know that if I don’t do the thing, it never comes into being. And maybe this is part of the gift of the parable: not that the master is a tyrant, but that in the compulsion to use our talents, we multiply them and find that they always return something. They never really are at risk of being lost.

Sometimes, after the fear and the sense of duty—after the relentlessness of being worried that my opportunity will come and I will be unprepared for it—there are moments of joy. I forget the fear. Sometimes I write a sentence that reveals the world to me in a new way. Maybe the sentence helps someone else. And then, sometimes, I find a project that pulls me through a difficult period of life—a book or question that I need to see through, and in the seeing through, sustains me, makes me more engaged with the people around me. I only find these joys, these moments of revelations, if I show up and put in the time. On those occasions, when it all comes together, the fear and the discipline seem like talents in themselves, little gifts that multiply whatever wealth I started out with.

Perhaps, when it comes to talent or dreams or ideas, the only risk is burying them. Only in the use of them—exposing them to ridicule, rejection, inadequacy, loss—do we multiply them. It is not wrath or anger that we have to fear. It is, instead, the loss of opportunity, the missed chance at the simple pleasures of discipline itself—and the work that the discipline produces. Maybe the master in the parable knows that we will find reward as we risk what little we have.

By Joe Johnson

Joe lives in Portland. He writes. Some of it is good. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing through the Rainier Writing Workshop (at Pacific Lutheran University).

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