Wednesday, 2 September 2009


Certain readers have dared to say that I've lost my crabbit touch. (Catherine, are you quaking?) Feedback is all very well, but that's plain insulting.

Well, see if you say the same after this one. (Not to mention the fact that I am very very close to spilling the beans on some SHOCKING covering letters I've just seen. But that's for another time. You don't believe the direness of the slush pile? Hang around.)

Back to the point. Thing about being crabbit is I need people to be crabbit AT. Deluded idiots, for example. Unpublished authors who display inexcusable ignorance. People who write to publishers or agents while they (the writers, not publishers/agents) are on hallucinogenic drugs or in the throes of untreated mania or have just been dumped by their psychotherapists. But none of these people seem to read my blog.

Where have all the deluded idiots gone? Surely I haven't scared them off? That was my original intention but I never intended it to be so easy. There were NONE in my audiences at the Edinburgh Bk Fest either. This is plain weird. There are always deluded idiots and fruitcakes in my audiences. Well, not any more, apparently. In fact, I put a status thingy up on Facebook, saying "I did a workshop today and there were no nutters." No one believed me. The fact that the conversation degenerated into a discussion as to whether I have ever worn lurex flares kind of suggests that all the nutters have followed me to FB, but there we go.

So, since there are no nutters, deluded idiots or inexcusably ignorant readers left on this blog, I must ask you to go out and find them. Seek them here and seek them there. You must know some. They may lurk in your writing groups or something. And when you find them, please tell them this:

On the subject of whether you deserve to have your voice heard, NO, you freaking well don't.
Or, more precisely, you may use your flimsy, boring, inexpert voice if you wish but the rest of the world is entitled to refuse to hear it. In other words:

No, not everyone deserves to be published.

Let me elucidate.

Things that really bug me - No 1:
"But I didn't have the chance of a good education / I have dyslexia / no one taught me grammar / I'm from a family that doesn't read / blahdy blah ... so it's not fair that I'm not allowed to be a published writer like you people with your university degrees / middle-class education / natural talent. You're just lucky."

Things that really bug me - No 2:
"Everyone has the potential to be a writer if they're just given the opportunity. The publishing industry conspires to keep such potential hidden."

Lest I be accused of seeming "elitist" (that frequently mis-used word), I'm not being elitist, but life is. We're all born and/or grow up with different advantages and disadvantages; we're all dealt different cards, and some hands are easier to play than others. But this (ie whether all people who put pen to paper have a right to be "heard") is about who deserves publication; this is about merit. This is about readers. And the real world. Yep, we're lucky if we have the talent, and so in that sense success is elitist because it's not just down to hard work - but elitist is too often used to say something about class, about conspiracy, about unfair oppression by one group of people of another. And this is not what's happening.

All writers, all readers, celebrate good writing in all its forms, wherever it comes from. What do we mean by good writing? Overall, taking all readers into the equation, we mean "writing that we like to read enough to invest time and/or money into reading it."

Frankly, if you can't write well enough, you don't have the right to publication. The act of publication is not a free psychotherapy session. You have the right to write, but not the right to be read because you do not have the right to require anyone to read your words or listen to your voice. This may seem self-evident to many of you, but you would not believe how often I've seen comments on blogs (and occasionally, in the early days, on this one) about how it's not fair that people who didn't have the advantage of a good education and "therefore" [sic] can't use grammar can't become published. (And, btw, if you self-publish your crappy writing, it won't be read. It's got to be damned good to sell, as many hard-working and good self-publishers know.)

Being able to use grammar is being able to use language. If you can't use it, you will be used by it. You will not be able to express yourself clearly or beautifully; you will not be able to say what you mean. This is not about whether you write in a modern style which sometimes breaks rules - oh, I'm all for breaking grammatical rules and I regularly do it, as you may have noticed. "Sentences" without finite verbs, for example. This is about being in control of your tools. And your tools are words and how they work together. You have no other tools worth using.

I couldn't give a flying frig what your educational background was. The writing world is more democratic than many people trying to get into it think: it doesn't actually care whether you learnt latin and ancient Greek (though that helps many, including me), or whether you went to private school or state; it doesn't care about you being dyslexic - I know several successful writers who are; it doesn't care whether you were brought up in a booky family - I know successful writers who weren't. The writing world cares only if you can write, connect, inspire, and if you have something to say. The writing world cares only if you might have enough readers to be worth the shelf-space.

Being able to write well comes from many things: innate talent, hard work, thinking the right thoughts, dreaming the right dreams, reading, reading, reading, loving books, immersion in words, practice. And then all those things over and over and over. And desperation, passion, need. You can't buy it.

"But I want to write; I'd love to see my book in a bookshop; and I've worked really really hard; I've been to writing classes and all that. And I love writing."

Yeah, well, if you're not good enough, or you don't write what someone wants to read, you'll have to carry on loving writing, for yourself. Personally, I love singing; I'd love to sing in the Albert Hall; and I sing a lot, in the shower; I've practised Faure's Requiem and sometimes it sounds quite good; if I'd had singing lessons at school I could have been a singer but I wasn't lucky enough to have them. It's not fair that I can't have my voice heard.

Thing is, it wouldn't be fair for the rest of the world to have to listen to me. I'm not good enough. Yeah, it's bad luck that I don't have a good enough voice to be a singer (that and the fact that professional singers have usually spent years practising - like professional writers). It's also bad luck that I'll never run in the Olympics - though wouldn't that be lovely? I was a fast runner at school - hey, if I'd had the advantage of good training, and keen coaches, and a club, and if my parents had pushed me and if I'd been BETTER, I could have been an Olympic runner too. Life's so unfair, isn't it?

If life was fair, I'd be famous, beautiful, two inches taller, an inch or so thinner. My legs would be straighter. My hair wouldn't require to be blown dry every morning, which takes a lot of time which I could be using to practise my singing. Or my drawing - because I'd love to be an artist. Just wasn't allowed to do art at school because I did latin and Greek. I was so unlucky that way.

If life was fair, I'd have great hand-eye-foot-anything co-ordination - then I could be a professional dancer. And I wouldn't be crap at tennis. It's not fair that those Williams sisters have all that talent and I have none. I'd have a good memory too, if life was fair. Oh, and if I'd been lucky enough to have a good maths teacher, I'd be brilliant at maths and then I could have had a job in a merchant bank and I'd have a lovely salary now. I'd live in a bigger house and have staff and a swimming-pool and sparkly wine every day.

Life's a bitch, eh? And I'm a crabbit old bat instead of a cuddly teddy bear. But bitch or not, you still don't have the right to be published or have your "voice" heard. None of us does. We've got to be good enough, see?

If that's not crabbit enough for you, you perhaps need to know that I decided to resign as a tester for the Brownies' Writer's Badge, because I insisted on failing someone and the head Brownie people (owls or vultures or something) didn't like it ... Yay for standards!

(Added on Nov 30th - PS after a lengthy and excellent comment thread, I have now got to stop comments after a sudden series of spam  -  no idea what it was about as it was in Chinese, which I do not read!)


Flixton Mum said...

Wow, I'm feeling beaten into submission and I'm quaking now.

Did I send you a covering letter? I bloody well hope not.

Nicola Morgan said...

Flixton Mum - hooray! (No, you didn't. Actually, i should probably make clear that the covering letters weren't sent to me, thank goodness. But I have ways and means of seeing the crappy covering letters that publishers and agents get sent...)

csmith said...


I have had the dubious privileged of a ridiculously good education. Unfortunately one of the tenants of this was that grammar was something that "other people did for you". You can imagine just how useful that is now that I am attempting to write.

Luckily I have an extremely patient editor friend who is schooling me thoroughly on commas, semicolons, hyphens, random capitalization - the works. One day I hope to be au fait with these strange beasties.

It does not matter a fig about your level of education, poor or fantastic. What can be of some use is what you were taught. And if you were not taught grammar, punctuation, or spelling, invest in primers, in dictionaries. Work at it. If you're not willing to work at it, you don't deserve to get published.

I'll stop ranting now - I get terribly annoyed at the idea of some vast elitist conspiracy (normally because people presume that I am in some way part of it because I "speak posh" and had a public school education). The fact is this, in the real world, you work your arse off. If you're lucky, with a LOT of hard work, you will achieve. If you're not lucky, or you do not work, you'll subsist, or you'll fail. That's life.

Sorry once more for the diatribe.


Daniel Blythe said...

The Brownie thing is scary... quite right, of course, but imagine being that Brownie!

We need to make a stand against the "all shall have prizes" mentality, but it isn't easy.

The old "everyone's got a novel in them" cliche has a lot to answer for. I have had students who patently don't have a clue, or a hope. I have had some, on the other hand, who could get published if they persevere and are ready to rewrite, work hard, rewrite again... and plug away literally for years. Possibly decades. Too many people think writing is a dilettante occupation - that a novel is something you can knock out in a few months after you retire.

I heard a statistic once, which I often quote to my students - I can't recall the source, though. Apparently there are about as many people in the UK making their living from full-time writing of fiction as there are people in the UK making their living from full time competitive athletics. So you need to be a Phillips Idowu, a Paula Radcliffe, a Steve Backley of writing before you can expect it to be your job.

Catherine Hughes said...

Quaking? In my (only slightly pointy) velvet boots, Nicola!!

You've reminded me of a blog post I was sort-of planning (it's crystallised now) on the subject of how grateful I am that I can express myself. Maybe, one day, I will be published, maybe not. But it is a gift that I can make myself understood using the written word and it's come in mighty handy.

As for education - I attended a mixture of private and state schools - I think it is the teachers you come across who make the difference. My grammar skills are fairly (no-one's perfect) good because I had grammar drummed into me by an avenging angel of an English teacher who saw a spark in me and nurtured it.

And reading - on that note I'll just say that I write this sitting at my desk in an office that doubles as a small library with floor to ceiling books on each wall - and that's after I just donated several large boxes of them to charity!

Taking pleasure and satisfaction in reading and writing is a gift, not a right, and if it leads to eventually having my own books on other people's shelves then that will be the icing on the cake.

That's how I see it, anyway. Which isn't to say that I am not positively desperate to be published, only that I agree with you that there is no automatic right to be heard.

Although... some of these vanity-published, spend-their-days-writing-their-own-reviews-on-Amazon-using-equally-bad-writing types are, in fact, bloody good entertainment!

Thomas Taylor said...

Aha, so that's what crabbit means! Great post.

Children's publishing seems particularly attractive to those who feel they must have a book in them. Somewhere. Any book will do. I know of people who think that writing for kids will be a nice little earner during maternity leave, for example.

Sarah said...

Well said.

It's interesting to me that the sense of entitlement is mainly applied to the arts. We don't see it so much in other areas. People don't declare that they have a right to be a doctor or a pilot. (Because then, of course, we'd open a can of crabbit and tell them exactly how ridiculous they are.)

The general public doesn't want to be operated on by a doctor who couldn't pass all his exams but has a right to be a doctor because he wanted it so darn bad.

The problem is that reading a book by an author who had a right to be published is about as fun as a root canal performed by an individual who had a right to be a dentist.

Heidi Colthup said...

Yes, yes and yes again!

Writing is no different from becoming a concert pianist or an athlete - practise, practise, practise. Writers write - every day, all the time in order to get better. Writers read in order to get better.
Who ever heard of a would-be rock star who never listened to The Beatles, The Who, Elvis Presley or what was currently popular?

So why do so many would-be writers have no awareness of Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen or the latest Booker prize winner?

A great post - I'm following you now!

Nicola Morgan said...

DanielB and anyone else who's concerned about that poor Brownie - don't worry, she didn't even know. We contacted her parents and I said they could maybe help her choose another badge to do and that maybe one day she could do her writer's one. They hit the roof and complained. The Brownie organisation asked me to reconsider, to keep the parents happy. I refused and resigned instead. Well out of it - it was a massive case of All Must Have Prizes. My older daughter had left the Brownies (aged 8) because she was so fed up of working really hard to achieve a badge or certificate and then finding that others either did sod all, were crap (she didn't use those words, of COURSE) or got their parents to do everything, and that they all got the same badges as her. Younger daughter never joined. You can see why! (See, I've always been crabbit)

Jenna Wallace said...


Thank you Nicola for a big dose of much needed honesty. I got SO tired of people not saying these things because it isn't PC.

Hooray for the crabbit old bat!

Catherine Hughes said...

@Sarah - I love the dentist analogy. Having had several root canals (me and my teeth don't really get on) I am now wincing in contemplation of that book!

Jenzarina said...

Great rant!
I'm going to shuffle off and do my day's writing in the most humble and contrite manner now.

Sarah said...

Ouch, Catherine! Multiple root canals? You have my sympathy.

Nicola, I think the way that Brownie's parents reacted to your decision might explain why her work was so poor in the first place. Her parents seemed far more comfortable blasting you than encouraging their daughter to do a project well.

Bren said...

I am dyslexic, was never allowed to read as a child and expelled from school at eighteen.

A reputable agent has just offered representation on my first novel.

Butt to chair. No excuses.

Catherine Hughes said...

Congratulations Brenda. I bet the past circumstances make it all the sweeter. I have a daughter with learning difficulties (not dyslexia but processing issues) and I tell her the same thing. It helps that she loves books and reads voraciously.

Keep us posted as to how you get on. Better yet, why don't you blog about the 'got an agent now what?' journey?? I'd follow...

Donna Gambale said...

It's lovely to know that there are other people in the world who believe that simply wanting something (i.e. publication, fame, a winning lottery ticket) badly enough doesn't entitle someone to get it. (If that makes me crabbit, then I accept the adjective with pride!)

And I have to say, I completely agree with you on the Brownie incident! How else do kids learn that they won't win at everything? Failure, or at least a lack of success, is a part of life. If we don't teach them young, they grow up into those deluded idiots we all love so much.

Jane Smith said...

Oh, Nicola. A brilliant post, and one which every aspiring writer should read.

I've been told that I have advantages over other people because I "talk posh" (even my children accuse me of this), and I went to a grammar school: but my father was a very un-posh London cabbie, and I worked like stink to do well at school because I have dyslexic tendencies and really struggled to learn to read and write, and to spell, and to understand punctuation and grammar and all those little skills that are so essential to writers.

Writing is easy: writing well is not. It's hard work, and it's not something that you can pick up when you've got a spare few weeks. And getting a few thousand words down on paper doesn't entitle anyone to anything other than RSI.

I've seen so many self-published books over this last year that are just awful, in the saddest of ways: for every one that I've reviewed I've received a couple more that were so bad I couldn't decently review them. That their writers thought they were good enough to go out into the world amazes me: I can only imagine they were members of that same Brownies group that you resigned from. Lord.

Rebecca Knight said...


The thing is, the kind of "I'm entitled because I have a novel in me, and it's not fair" attitude is actually very insulting for those who do get published.

That's like me telling Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that if only the man hadn't been keeping me down, I'd be just as good at basketball as he is. How rude! And crazy, to boot!

The published writers make it through natural gifts, and then a ton of blood, sweat, whiskey, and tears. It's like you said--not everyone can get to the Olympics, and that's not the judges' problem. It's LIFE. Everyone has different gifts--don't insult people who are using theirs simply because you don't have them.

Go rock something you're gifted at, work harder at it, and stop blaming others for what you can't have. You make your own success.

*steps off soapbox*

Nicola Morgan said...

Thomas - "people who think that writing for kids will be a nice little earner during maternity leave" God, that's a new one on me! And you're right about the worst writers being attracted to writing for children - children's publishers get the direst submissions.

Sarah - oooch, I winced at the root canal idea!

To all of you (cos you have all agreed - so far ...) - thank you for weighing in with such strong voices.

However, the biggest hooray for Brenda - who has just signed with an agent! Hooray many times over! I feel as though I'm going to be a grandmother (but better, because no baby-sitting) - PLEASE keep me / all of us posted. (And yes, butt on seat ...)

steeleweed said...

:-) :-) :-) :-)
I don't know if you're someone I'd love to hate or someone I'd hate to love, but I suspect the latter

Unknown said...

Beautifully crabbit. Thank you!

Daniel Blythe said...

I don't know about maternity leave, but I read an article in a reputable newspaper some time in the last decade (sorry I can't be more specific, and I have tried and failed to find a link) about the rise of chick-lit which made me steam with rage.

The first paragraph suggested that more thirtysomething women are writing novels because they find themselves with time on their hands and - get this - "that the skiing holiday needs to be paid for, or the school fees."

Chick-lit is not my bag, but to suggest that you can dash one off in a a couple of months because you need to fund these luxury lifestyle items is insulting in the extreme to the professional writers who produce them!

Clare said...

Welcome back Mrs Crabbit!
I needed this post to remind me why I'm here. I was getting way too cosy with dreams of Yak blankets and turquoise boots - forgot I actually had to finish the book ....

Anonymous said...

God, you do go on a bit don't you?
You want to know where all the nutters have gone? They're here:
I recognise all the faults you mention and much more - the drivel is unbelievable (apart from mine, of course). Twice I've failed the test questions the nutters have applied to their pieces - they're supposed to check that you've read the piece submitted not to test whether you can read their befuddled minds.
If I can be arsed to, I might even come back to read more from you - you sound 'healthily' sour to me.

Emma said...

I've had poetry readings spoilt by people pouncing on me, shoving a thick band of handwritten pieces under my nose and demanding to know where they can get published before I've even had chance to decipher the title let alone read the first line. Even worse are the ones who've fallen into the vanity press trap and think they're "real poets".

More articles like this please!

M said...

This absolutely cracked me up - in a good way.
I study creative writing at university, and there are so many people (including one of my tutors!) who think that if something is written, then it deserves to be read by thousands of people.
The value of hard work and constant practice is not taught enough.
As Brenda says, butt to seat. No excuses. You can always do better.

Anonymous said...

I think I love you.

Daniel Blythe said...

I must have been lucky in my classes and readings - my nutter ratio has been quite low.

The one memorable one I have had was quite disturbing and stalkerish, though, and I eventually had to report him for being abusive. He had a real thing for hard-boiled American detective fiction and lesbian vampires, and wrote stuff in which nasty things happened to women. In gory detail. English wasn't his first language, so points to him for trying, but... why?! Why not write in his own language? There seemed no logic to it... In a memorable workshop session, he treated us to a piece in which a woman who worked in a shop "enjoyed lubricating her clients." To this day I still wonder what he *thought* he was saying.

catdownunder said...

My whiskers are quivering with fear. I think I will slink back to my blog - or should that be bog? Do you know what a bedrangled cat looks like Ms Morgan? (So, I had to make up a word. I could not think of one to describe my feline feelings.)

Nicola Morgan said...

DanielB - too much info!!!

Anonymous said...

No, not everyone deserves to be published.
[falling to knees and shedding grateful tears] Nicola...thank you. I feel I just got slammed with a writer [I refuse to call them authors] who took issue with my rejection letter, telling me that she deserves to be published, only I was to fecking stupid to see her talent. Yah. Uh huh.

Anonymous said...

Jane sez:
I've seen so many self-published books over this last year that are just awful

That's the main problem with vanity publishers - or those who decide to become their own publishers; there isn't anyone telling them their writing isn't worth a rotten Twinkie.

Mame said...

I was ousted at sixteen and I have a 9th grade education. You will NEVER hear me say it isn't faaaaair. If anyone knows life isn't fair, it's me. Tough sh*t, right? I love writing, and I'll keep going until I am good enough. Good post.

Ebony McKenna. said...

People are told 'you can do anything' and that then morphs into 'you deserve to have everything you want'. It's all ambition no talent.

How are we supposed to create resilient people if we fix our children's problems for them? It starts early - just today, I had to restrain myself from helping the kidlet get something done faster. It's very hard to step back.

Sometimes an agent or editor rejection is the first time a person experiences rejection in their life. They have no idea how to handle it. The agent or editor must be WRONG because the writer has never been wrong before.

The earlier we get a taste of failure (not on a massive scale I must add, but small things not working out) the earlier we learn to deal with setbacks. Because there are plenty of setbacks in life.

Yay for crabbitiness. I think it's catching. crabbit, crabbit, crabbit. scuttle.

Ebony McKenna. said...

I'm obviously speaking in broad brush-strokes. But yes, I agree with Nicola. Not everyone has a right to be published.

Everyone in school should be given the opportunity to access their language and get the most out of it - I'll all for encouraging education. But I'm also all for encouraging realistic expectations.

Think I'd better shut up now. I'm supposed to be one of those nice authors.

catdownunder said...

Poking a whisker out to say, there are things I cannot do. There are things I have never been able to do and will never be able to do. The answer for me is, "Accept it but do not let it beat you. Try something else."

none said...

I'm going to disagree.

Not with the complaints about entitlement. But with the idea of gifts or innate talent.

I don't believe in either. Just about everyone does have the potential to be a writer (musician, artist, what have you), if they apply themselves. Most don't.

End of.

Nicola Morgan said...

BuffyS - I could write a book on this subject, and have sometimes been tempted to! I've heard the arguments, but they don't hold up, none of them. If you take the tabula rasa viewpoint, it could only hold water (and in my view doesn't even then, or else only meaninglessly so) if you say that the tabula is the unborn baby (at which point in development?? Not possible to say, which is where one of those args falls down). Even IF that holds water, by the time the kid is born into the environment it must/will grow up in, and by the time its genes have "decided" which to activate, the idea of "innate" potential has become meaningless and powerless. So, no, I utterly and fundamentally do not agree that "everyone" could be a musician / artist etc, unless you mean that we could all learn to write some words / play an instrument. Which is not at all the same. The tabula rasa argument is interesting to discuss but it has no relevance to this discussion as to whether any person has the right to be published / ability to become publishable. Neither science nor logic supports it and when occasionally the science can be used to support it it does so only weakly. We're all born different. I DO accept (of course) that with different early teaching / environment, we could all have different strengths and weaknesses from the ones we have, but that's as far as I'll go. Oh, and certainly talented people tend to apply themselves with hours and hours and hours of practice - i know that and agree with that. the Mozart argument. But it's not enough. Not by the time we're old enough to choose our paths. I could go on, but I need to stop. So much to do, so little time ...

Daniel Blythe said...

We see it on "The X-Factor", don't we? Some writers are just like the tuneless warblers who Simon Cowell tells are simply not going to be singers, and that they should give it up and do something else.

At which point they get hugely defensive, and start to beg, pleading to be given the chance to do the thing which they have "always wanted to do". Even though they have no discernible talent in this area. And the families come in and start berating Simon for being cruel and heartless, whereas actually he is the first person who has ever been honest with them about their lack of singing talent. And they all have to be dragged off by the burly bouncers.

Daniel Blythe said...

And I've just remembered you said exactly the same thing a while ago when talking about mountains. So ignore me!!

Nicola Morgan said...

PS - but really, BuffyS, my point is/was that "being a writer / musician" etc is not the point - it's about whether you can be a good enough one to deserve publication / a career, which means people have to pay to read/hear you. And not everyone can be good enough, however hard they apply themselves.

none said...

You're right, Nicola--it has little to nothing to do with the question under discussion. It's just my hackles go up when the idea of talent gets dragged out from under the carpet.

The difference between the person 'with talent' and the person without is about ten years of regular practice. That's it.

steeleweed said...

There is such a thing a talent, but talent alone does not make the grade. You need to work hard (and intelligently) to bring that talent to fruition. With some exceptions, modern schools and parents talk about developing the children but seldom really to so. They demand much too little, far less than the children a capable of doing, and they lavish undeserved praise. The bottom line is that children are not taught to push themselves to the point of failure (which is how you really learn), yet are given to believe their accomplishments are 1st class when in fact they are still at the beginner level. A whole generation has grown up which has never failed (to their knowledge) but has simply never done anything meaningful.

steeleweed said...

BTW: This thread has really gotten an amazing response, hasn't it?
There seems to be a general consensus (and a lot of resentment) over the mindset and expectations of a large (mostly younger) part of the population....

And while we're at it, can we make them Get Off My Lawn?

none said...

So, what is 'talent' then? Is it genetic?

Catherine Hughes said...

Talent is the seed. You nurture it with sunlight (exposure to books and other reading materials; education). You supply it with plentiful water (practise, practise, practise). You talk to the burgeoning plant (because very writer has to be just a little bit nuts to believe that they above others will make it)!

And then - but only if you are also quite lucky - it blooms into a published work.

Of course there is such a thing as talent. No matter how hard I might practise, I'm never going to be able to play the drums. Or dance. Or write music.

But I can write (and I can sing, too, actually, which is a fabulous ability to be given). Because I have a talent for it.

Everybody has a talent for something, but if we were all good at the same things, life would be interminably boring. No amount of hard work can make you a writer if you haven't that feel for the way words fit together; for the beauty of language; for the satisfaction that comes with expressing yourself in exactly the right way, with exactly the right words.

Sorry. I'm all for the egalitarian approach in most things, but there are areas of life where you've either got it or you haven't. Writing is definitely one of them. You may be able to learn the technique but if you don't have a writer's soul there will be no passion in what you create, and therefore no point.

Just my humble opinion, of course.

catdownunder said...

Buffy S I cannot sing in tune. (Some would say I cannot even caterwaul.) I like music but I cannot play an instrument either. I would love to be part of a choir or an orchestra but I am never going to have the ability - however hard I work at it.
Yes, that is genetic in part. People do have different abilities. It is just as well they do. If we all had the same ability at all things the world would be a very dull place. It is differences, and the ability to observe those differences, that allow people like Ms Morgan to be heard and others not to be heard.
You can overcome some things but not others however hard you try. Failing to accept that can lead to a lifetime of disappointment. That does not mean giving up on a dream but it can mean finding a different way of achieving it or diverting your dream along a different path.
I can fool around here and drive you all crazy pretending to be a cat but writing is a serious part of my life. Singing is not. I have learned to differentiate between what I may be able to do something about and what I know I can do nothing about. Nicola is right. We can try but we do not have a right to be heard. No choir for me but, if I was that way inclined I could try writing the words for the opera.

Nicola Morgan said...

47 comments - crikey. Hmmm.

Talent, where does it come from? You know how they talk about the "conflict between nature and nurture"? There is no conflict. Nature and nurture have got it totally sussed. They are the paradigmatic coupling. There's a beautiful and invisible blurry line and they basically fornicate passionately on it. Bet you wanted to know that.

So, yes, it's genes, and environment, and stuff. It's the breath of wind on their first day at primary school when the teacher says Hooray, or Shut up at the back. It's every little thing that makes then think they can do something, or not, that makes then pledge their life away in practice and desperation. It's just life, immeasurable (thank god) and unfathomable (ditto) and unpredictable and wonderful. each and every one of us starts different and we end up differnt. Thank goodness. Because if it was only about effort, i'd be good at a whole load more things. And if it was only about genes I'd be sitting in devon reading the Telegraph for 16 hours a day and hating cities. Instead of which I read the Times and hate the country.

Anonymous said...

Nature vs. Nurture? Hmm...I recommend that we all watch Trading Places this weekend.

none said...

Of course if you're convinced you 'can't' do something, you won't be able to. You probably won't even try. But I would actually like to see a claim that 'I've spent ten years practising x three hours a day and I still can't do it' in evidence. Which I'm not seeing. Anyone can learn to sing in tune given appropriate training and if they're prepared to put the work in. We all have vocal cords. There aren't talented vocal cords and untalented ones....

'Talent' is just a justification for the disproportionate allocation of resources.

catdownunder said...

Miaou - I like you all over again for those comments Ms Morgan!

Buffy, it takes more than vocal chords to be able to sing. What's wrong with settling to write the words for the opera?

Nancy Coffelt said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post.

True, all true.

I've worked very hard to get to at least a foothold (sorry) in this biz but still - sob! I can't seem to get my shoe act together.

I've heard mutterings of an intervention.

Anonymous said...

To return to the origin of this post, I think we need to be careful here. It may be just semantics but I feel that Nicola's assertion - "You do not have a right to be heard" - is a little incautious. It should be an absolute, inalienable right for anyone to be heard - in their local pub, at Speakers Corner, in their MP's letterbox, on their private blog or in a published book, however incompetently they may implement it. It is, quite simply, the keystone of a free and civilised society.

Which is not to say we have the right to be listened to: that is different. I know that is what Nicola meant, and that she was just trying to regain some old crabbit street cred, but it does seriously behove us not to get the two muddled. We could find ourselves sharing a stage with the sorts of people we fight wars to protect our children from. Freedom of speech may have faults, but not as many as the alternative.

So yes, we do 'have a right to be heard', even if no-one listens, And yes, 'everyone does have a book in them', even if no-one wants it. How could they not have a story to tell after living on this planet for more than a few minutes? Whether they should let the book out, of course, is another matter. But is it right for us to damn them if they do?

none said...

Aussiecat--yes, it takes training and practice. But we all have the basic equipment. Which is my point.


csmith said...


Okay - you want examples.

I have "Absolute Pitch" commonly known as perfect pitch. ( If you give me a piece of music, I can play it by ear. I can pick out what note is what.

What I cannot do, even after 10 years of singing practise for 2-3 hours a day is sing. I cannot (and I've had some GOOD teachers) get the notes to come out infallibility each time. I know what they are supposed to sound like, I've been trained on how to modulate my voice, but it still does not happen.

How about another example - tennis?

For the first 10 years of my life, I had tennis lessons for 2 hours a go 4 times a week. I am still absolutely hopeless and can't hit a ball. Appaling hand-eye co-ordination, you see.

Another example - Art and the human form.

My mother is an artist and I'm an architect. I draw every single day and can see perspective drawings in my head and get buildings down on paper with no bother. People? They look like mutants. Had years of lessons on form drawing, understand the mathematical proportions, and I can draw well. What I can't do is draw people.

Thing is - I don't really worry that I can't do these things. I can swim bloody well, I can play musical instruments, I enjoy my job, and I'm damn good at it. I love mathematics and especially love the simplicity of higher mathematics where it blends with physics - you know, things like space-time. I love to write, and do treat it as a discipline and work damn hard at it. I have no idea if I'm any good yet, if I have any innate talent, but I enjoy it, and am filling in gaps in my education (grammar and punctuation mainly) as I go along.

Those are the things that matter to me. I've always been told to play to my strengths, and I choose to embrace the things I'm good at. That does not mean I don't give the things I'm not innately talented at a try, it just means that at some point I've had to turn around and say "Look, enough is enough." I still keep the skills I learnt, and the discipline that comes with truly applying yourself to something, but I move those skills and that discipline onto something else. Something new.

I hope that that helps to clarify what people mean by "talent". Talent is that ability that lets you DO something so well that people want to hear you do it. The constant learning and application of that learning of it is technique. You can have all the technique in the world (and I'm sure after all those years of singing, piano, and art lesson I have that) but if you don't have that spark that makes it come together in a cohesive whole, it just doesn't end up quite making the grade.

All the best,


Catherine Hughes said...

For me, singing and writing come from the same source. When I sing, something that is indefinably me goes into my song. The same thing goes into my novels. I suspect that the nearest word we have for this is 'soul' and I would define talent as the ability to convey your soul to others through what you do.

It's not overt - on the contrary it is incredibly subtle - but it is the difference between a talented rendition of a song or composition of a piece of writing, and 'just' singing or 'just' writing.

Buffy Squirrel - you insist that 'talent' doesn't exist, but we humans rarely develop a word for something that isn't there. Surely talent is the difference between 'writing' and 'writing? I'm afraid I lack the talent to expres it better - it's a visceral thing.

And I think that Nicola's words are being taken deliberately out-of-context when you say that we do indeed all have the right to be heard. Of course we should, although some of us are not so fortunate. But I read her post as saying that we do not all have the right to be agented and/or published.

Of course we don't.

Nicola Morgan said...

Oooh so much I want to say but am on the road and keep losing signal. Briefly - buffys, the argument that we all have vocal chords and so can learn to sing is quite off the mark. You surely can't mean that we all have identical vocal chords??? Just as we don't have identical legs, nor would we even if we exercised them identically. You're making a very outdated error if you think that nurture provides all or most of the results. Talent comes from a whole mix of things, some of which start before birth. Practice is hugely important but not everything.

Also you are confusing being able to sing a tune with being a "singer". And being able to construct a grammatical sentence with being a "writer". What I'm saying is that a) not everyone can become a writer ( ie without a talent which is at least partly determined before an age of choice) and b) no one has the right to expect anyone ( agent or publisher or book-buyer) to invest time or money to enable their voice to be heard. You have to be good enough. And not everyone can be, even with 100000s of hours of practice

Sally Zigmond said...

Here I am, Nicola, late to the party again. (I've been away)

I agree with everything you say about the fallacy of 'deserving' to be published or to be 'given a chance.'

It is true that hard work and practise will make a big difference BUT an innate talent must be there first. Sometimes you don't discover it until you do practise.

Many people can write something passably interesting. Even with practise and dedication it won't make them a writer people love to read without that initial spark of talent.

It was clear from my earliest childhood that I was awkward and clumsy, couldn't catch a ball or jump over anything without stumbling and I never saw the point of running. (Run for a bus? I'd rather wait for the next and be late for school.)Now I know if I'd practised all these things from an early age I would be more athletic and less uncoordinated than I am now. But I wouldn't ever have made even a fourth-rate sportswoman.

There is also such a thing as flogging a dead horse.