May Sarton on How to Cultivate Your Talent
“A talent grows by being used, and withers if it is not used.”
By Maria Popova
“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins,” James Baldwin bellowed in his advice on writing. “Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but most of all, endurance.”
There is a reason we call our creative endowments gifts — they come to us unbidden from an impartial universe, dealt by the unfeeling hand of chance. The degree to which we are able to rise to our gifts, the passionate doggedness with which we show up for them day in and day out, is what transmutes talent into greatness. It is the responsibility that earns us the right of our own creative force.
That is what the great poet, novelist, and playwright May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores in an entry from her altogether magnificent journal The House by the Sea (public library).
With an eye to a young writer she was mentoring, Sarton reflects:
One must believe in one’s talent to take the long hard push and pull ahead, but a talent is like a plant… It may simply wither if it is not given enough food, sun, tender care. And to give it those things means working at it every day.
Echoing Mary Oliver’s admonition that “the most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time,” Sarton adds:
A talent grows by being used, and withers if it is not used. Closing the gap between expectation and reality can be painful, but it has to be done sooner or later. The fact is that millions of young people would like to write, but what they dream of is the published book, often skipping over the months and years of very hard work necessary to achieve that end — all that, and luck too. We tend to forget about luck.
Complement this fragment of The House by the Sea (public library) — which also gave us Sarton on how to live openheartedly in a harsh world — with poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s advice on writing, discipline, and the two driving forces of creative work, Jennifer Egan on the most important discipline in creative work, and Maria Konnikova on the psychology of luck, then revisit Sarton’s spare, splendid poem about the relationship between presence, solitude, and love, her ode to the art of being alone, and her cure for despair.
Published March 17, 2023