Essay Talent By Annie Dillard

Twenty consistently fine, persistently challenging essays in the third volume of this annual collection. Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood) notes in her introduction the essay's long history of experimentation and invention, from DeFoe to Swift, and seems to have selected here with an eye to political and formal daring. Genteel traditionalists with pleasant intentions--represented here by Elizabeth Hardwick and The New Yorker's E.J. Kahn, Jr. --take a back seat to alternative voices, more contemporary minds. Richard Selzer's "A Mask on the Face of Death" is chilling reportage on AIDS in Haiti: "Walls: A Journey to Auburn," by black teacher Kenneth McClane, is an unflinching meditation on the meaning of justice in America; Kimberly Wozencraft, a former undercover narcotics agent busted for drug use, makes prison life uncomfortably familiar in "Notes from the Country Club." Less confrontational but no less surprising is Susan Mitchell's essay on Provincetown--the collection's boldest and most spectacular language performance, simply gorgeous. Comedy and tragedy are duly represented by, respectively, Bernard Cooper's "Beacon's Burning Down," a Salingeresque idyll on life's eccentricities, and William Manchester's moving commemoration of the battle of Okinawa. Finally there are brisk, engaging reports on history--Mary Settle on WW II and Arthur C. Danto on Gettysburg. Balanced, inventive and often dazzling, this collection shows off American writing at its deepest and best: feeling, thinking, in love with its own possibilities.

People often ask me if I discipline myself to write, if I work a certain number of hours a day on a schedule. They ask this question with envy in their voices and awe on their faces and a sense of alienation all over them, as if they were addressing an armored tank or a talking giraffe or Niagara Falls. We want to believe that other people are natural wonders; it gets us off the hook…People can lift cars when they want to. People can recite the Koran too, and run in marathons. These things aren’t ways of life; they are merely possibilities for everyone on certain occasions of life. You don’t lift cars around the clock or write books every year. But when you do, it’s not so hard. It’s not superhuman. It’s very human. You do it for love. You do it for love and respect for your own life; you do it for love and respect for the world; and you do it for love and respect for the task itself.

Annie Dillard, It’s Not Talent; It’s Just Work, Seventeen Magazine, 1979

Crafting a life worth respecting is hard work. There is not some kind of natural aptitude that blesses the worthy and talent isn’t gifted equally to everyone. What is it that sets apart the people we hold up as examples of brilliance, goodness, or grace? They are not somehow better or more than us, they just did the hard work. Maybe it makes us feel better to think our heroes and inspirations are supernaturally gifted so we can assure ourselves we are somehow less. Thinking we aren’t capable makes us easy targets for all the predators who want to sell us a shortcut, as if their product will magically erase years of effort and experience.

Every one of us has the capacity for greatness.  It does not take talent, an expensive class or degree, to be born under a lucky star, or anything at all but our own willingness to make something of our lives from the raw material we are given.

Do you ever confuse hard work for talent? 

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