Six impossible things

Talent and criticism

Last week, I kept stumbling across stories about the different responses people have to feedback.  The first couple came in the form of two versions of the old story about the violin maestro. He was approached by a young student who wanted the maestro’s judgement on his playing. The maestro agreed to hear him, and when he finished, the maestro shook his head and told him, “You lack the fire.” Years later, the student returned, and this is where the story splits.

In the first version, the student has become a businessman and wants to know how the maestro could tell, from the short passage he played, that he would be better off not attempting to become a professional violinist. In the second, the student has studied and worked and persevered and has finally become the first violinist for one of the finest orchestras in the country, and triumphantly tells the maestro he was wrong. In both cases, the maestro’s response is nearly the same.

To the first student, he says, “Oh, I tell everyone who asks my opinion that.” To the student’s horrified, “Why? I changed my whole life because of that!” the maestro replies, “But if you had had the fire, you would not have listened to me.” To the second student, the maestro says, “Oh, I tell everyone who asks my opinion that. Anyone who can be discouraged by a couple of words definitely does not have what it takes to become a professional.”

The short version of the maestro story is the advice, “If anything can keep you from writing…let it.” And there’s the one about the woman who gushed to the concert pianist, “I would give my life to play that well!” To which the pianist replied, “Madam, I did.”

The last pair came from currently-published professionals regarding their first rejection letters. The first had been told, “I might have taken a chance on this ten years ago, but in today’s market, I can’t.” She saw that as hugely encouraging and said it kept her at her keyboard for years until she made her first sale. The second got a letter that went something like, “This is completely crazy, and I can’t buy it, but it has energy. Please send me the next thing you write.” She couldn’t see anything after the second comma, and quit writing for years before finally coming back to it and, eventually, making that first sale.

Some of those stories, or ones very like them, have been circulating in writing communities (and, I assume, in other groups of artists) for decades, and there’s always been a dichotomy between those who take “You can’t” as a challenge and those who take it as gospel truth, between those who are horrified by the thought of discouraging potential artists/poets/writers/musicians and those who are horrified by the thought of encouraging people who will inevitably be crushed when they are faced with genuine, real-world criticism.

There’s truth on both sides, but I confess that my sympathies are with the maestro. I don’t think anyone should be handing his entire future over to someone else’s judgement based on five minutes of performance (or five pages of writing, or five sketches). More than that, though, is the fact that there is only one thing that anyone can judge based on that five minute performance (or pages, or whatever): talent.

But talent is only potential. And from personal experience, I can safely say that if the maestro had told that first student, “You have plenty of talent; now if you really want this and you work hard and improve your skills and keep at it long enough, you can become a professional violinist” all that student would hear was “You have plenty of talent; you can become a professional violinist.” And then when the student raced out to audition for the orchestra and was turned down, he’d have complained to everybody “But the maestro said I could be a professional!”

Raw talent will only get you so far. It’s not a get-into-publishing-free card. It has to be developed, and developing it takes hard work, persistence, motivation, and discipline. And even if you have all those (which are, let’s be real, a lot rarer than the basic level of talent a person needs to produce saleable art), if you can’t roll with criticism (or better yet, use it as fuel), you’re going to have a problem. Because if you offer your work to the public, you will sooner or later get some harsh comments along with the glowing reviews…and the harsh ones are the ones that stick with you. (I can still quote from memory some of the worst negative remarks from my very first review of my very first published novel. The nice things people said? Most of those, I have to look up.)

I’ve seen quite a few writers quit after having their first submission rejected by a professional editor. I’ve seen quite a few more publish one or two novels and then quit because they couldn’t handle the two nasty reviews that turned up along with the twenty enthusiastic ones. I’ve even seen a couple who stopped writing because a review wasn’t complementary enough – “This is a promising first novel and I look forward to seeing what the author will produce next” was apparently too hard on their fragile egos (or they had been built up to expect their first novel would get fulsome remarks about them being the next great shining light in whatever genre they’re in).

Persistence, hard work, discipline, and motivation are no guarantee of success. But realistically, nothing is. And a lot of hard work and persistence plus a little talent has a lot better chance of getting you a writing career than a mountain of talent that wimps out at the first hint of rough going. I think this quote from Tim Waggoner sums it up best:

You can’t succeed if you give up.”


  1. Decades ago, I had submitted a story to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It was rejected, but the handwritten note (this was in the days of paper submissions through snail mail) encouraged me to try them again. Being the neophyte that I was, I didn’t realize this was a VERY encouraging rejection. I never tried that market again and even gave up genre writing.

    I’ve since had more “literary” stories published, but I wonder now what direction (or volume) my writing might have taken had I seen that rejection for the encouragement it was at the time.

  2. Just today I was getting bent out of shape about my first nasty 1-star review on Amazon (and you’re right, you forget all the 5-star ones in favour of that one). So this was very timely – thank you so much!

  3. Raw talent will only get you so far… It has to be developed, and developing it takes hard work, persistence, motivation, and discipline.

    I agree with all that, but I’m still horrified by the maestro.

    A person who possesses drive and persistence and determination can easily also possess self-doubt or low self-esteem or some other qualities (perhaps simply naivete or inexperience) which causes them to place far too much importance on some “expert’s” opinion of them.

    I’d prefer the maestro to simply refuse to evaluate wannabes unless he is willing to give the evaluation his full attention and to tell the applicant the full truth: 1) your willingness to practice and learn and work will the most important element in your success; 2) if you are very, very talented, you will need to work very hard; while if you are not particularly talented, you will have to work gut-wrenchingly hard, but success can still be achieved; 3) the true degree of talent you possess cannot be accurately assessed in 5 minutes or across 5 pages; 4) my perception of your degree of talent (which may be mistaken) is “X”; 5) now, if you truly love this, go work hard!

    If the maestro doesn’t want to have that involved interaction (and there is no reason he should; he owes the applicant nothing), then he should decline the assessment. Any lackadaisical assessment or a pretense at such with the intention of simply getting rid of the wannabe seems irresponsible and unkind. IMO.

    • I tend to agree with that. Again, not that the maestro owes prospective students anything, but telling someone nothing but discouraging words after so little time will weed out people that maybe shouldn’t be weeded out yet. I’m looking back on my favorite hobbies as well as my career and on all of them that I can think of right now I had someone tell me something encouraging at the beginning. Being able to deal with rejection and criticism is needed in any field (and life in general), but if you get it right at the beginning it can really push you away from something you might otherwise love. I’ve recently taken up singing, and had to get used to all sorts of feedback, including negative feedback after I’d worked my butt off and thought I’d done well. It was hard, but at the beginning the person in charge let me know she believed in me, and so I could make it through all of the hard bits with the confidence I gained from that.

      • …telling someone nothing but discouraging words after so little time will weed out people that maybe shouldn’t be weeded out yet.


        Also…life is plenty hard. Most of us encounter oodles of obstacles and losses over a lifetime. Why make oneself (this addressed rhetorically to the maestro) into yet one more of the hard things?

    • A person who possesses drive and persistence and determination can easily also possess self-doubt or low self-esteem … which causes them to place far too much importance on some “expert’s” opinion of them.

      Apologies for the random tangent, but I can’t resist noting that this is a perfect description of one of the main characters in my favorite webcomic, Widdershins by Kate Ashwin. He believes he’s worthless because he doesn’t have as strong a talent for magic as his older siblings, but his fierce determination keeps him going anyway (and he’s considerably more capable than he thinks he is).

    • I could not agree more about the maestro stories. If one is in a position of power, using that power to hurt and mislead someone who trusts one is cruel, and actively *trying* to discourage someone who is still finding their way is counter-productive.

      The other pair of stories may contain another point: success does not happen in a vacuum. So one person took longer than the other to come back from the criticism – we do not know anything else about them or what was going on in each of their lives. There are people who can’t take criticism because they’re brimming with the confidence that anything they do is amazing, and clearly anyone who doesn’t see that is foolish in the extreme, but there are also people who can’t take criticism because they have insufficient encouragement and support, or because they’ve had a lifetime of being told that their endeavor is foolish or that they will never be good enough, so don’t bother trying (a surprisingly difficult lesson to unlearn, if you learn it at a young enough age). Treating those two issues the same way seems pointless to me.

      You can succeed if you give up, as long as you don’t give up permanently.

  4. My reaction is to be annoyed at the Maestro for a different reason. I don’t know if his policy on net does good or bad, but one ought not to lie to people, which is what he is doing.

    • That’s exactly my problem, too, if I take the story as an actual incident involving real people, rather than as an illustrative-but-fictional-anecdote.

      The thing is, even then I’m still sympathetic, though I really think the maestro should have just said “I’m sorry, but I never do the sort of thing you’re asking for.” You get enough would-be artistes expecting you to respond to their work with a laudatory cover letter, an introduction to your agent, and a recommendation as to which six editors will obviously want to start a bidding war for their first novel, and you start wanting to take the next one down a peg, even if they don’t deserve it.

      • The Maestro is lying only if he doesn’t believe something along the lines of: anyone who wants him to judge whether they are currently at the level of a professional violinist based on a five minute performance doesn’t have what it takes to be one.

        One performance is only a judge of how well a person performs for that particular performance, and anyone can be having a bad (or beginner’s luck) day. A probably inaccurate guess as to the amount of potential can be made based on a comparison with others who can be categorized similarly (e.g. by age or amount of time studied) However, learning curves are not straight lines nor do they progress at a constant rate over time. People who do well at the beginning can hit insurmountable walls later on and vice versa.

  5. More contentious quotations:

    “Everywhere I go, I’m asked if the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.”
    ―Flannery O’Connor

    “You cannot discourage a writer. If someone can talk you out of being a writer, you’re not a writer. If I can talk you out of being a writer, I’ve done you a favor, because now you’ll be free to pursue your real talent, whatever that may be.”
    ―Josh Olson

  6. The story of the maestro assumes that “being a violinist” (and “being a writer”) is some kind of super special state which is different from everything else in the world. I.e. “being a violinist” is special, but “being a businessman or businesswoman” is some default state that everyone everywhere could easily fall back on. It clearly requires no skills or “fire” or dedication or anything at all, because it’s not treated as a thing in itself, it’s just “failing to make the cut for the really special thing which is being a violinist/writer”.

    I.e. this story only works, if it works at all, because it’s assuming on some level that being an artist is special and being anything else is just smooth sailing.

    If you don’t make that assumption, and then you imagine the whole world and every profession is filled with maestro-equivalents who go around discouraging everyone indiscriminately because they think it’s “realistic”, then what? Do you really think that there is no place anywhere at all for anyone who has self doubts and can be discouraged by people further along a certain path than they are saying that they don’t have what it takes? Because so far as I can see, that’s where sympathizing with the maestro leads you.

    If the maestro isn’t capable of telling the truth, he shouldn’t say anything at all. It’s not his responsibility to save other people from their dreams.

    (And the story seems to be blaming the student who was discouraged for taking the maestro seriously, which is just mean. You go to someone you admire for advice, they agree to give you advice, it turns out they weren’t giving you advice in good faith, and yet it’s your fault for listening to them? What?)

    • Actually, I think its that the student (and a lot of the people who hear the anecdote) assume that you need super-special talent to become a violinist, which only a maestro can evaluate properly (and which, because it is super-special and rare, must be encouraged and nurtured lest this valuable, seldom-seen thing be forever lost). Whereas in actual fact, the thing that’s rare and special is the dedication and persistence that is necessary if one wants to do anything at all to a high level of quality.

      I do agree about telling the truth. It is, however, sometimes impossible to convince a wannabe that no, one really does not read and comment on the work of any and every would-be writer who has lugged his/her 700-page manuscript to your cousin’s wedding in order to corner a Real Publishing Professional and get True Honest Feedback. Or worse yet, convince the mother of the wannabe that no, one is not going to read and comment on said manuscript while everyone else is enjoying the reception. There is a part of me that feels that anyone who won’t take a polite “No, I’m sorry, but I really can’t do that” for an answer deserves what they get.

      • When I was a young violinist, my orchestra participated in a side by side concert with a professional orchestra. The professionals were very kind and a lot of them talked to their student stand-mates or other members of the orchestra about being a professional musician and answered questions. Not all of the professionals were equally open, but some of them did seem to enjoy talking about their job and about what it took, and seemed very open to giving some amount of advice to students who were considering attempting to become professional musicians. I was on the lower edge of good and didn’t plan on taking it further than that, but I’m pretty sure some of the more proficient and serious students had some serious conversations with some of the professionals. I don’t think anyone who did this was discouraged simply on principle.

        The story of the maestro doesn’t specify whether the situation was one where the maestro might have been reasonably assumed to be at least potentially open to giving advice, nor how the student approached, whether they ascertained whether it would be okay to ask this or not. So I guess any interpretation is fair, but I was imagining a situation where the student wasn’t completely out of line, and I do think such a situation might exist.

        I agree that approaching someone at a wedding would be totally inappropriate, and I’m sorry that this has been your experience.

        • The wedding wasn’t my personal experience; I simply happened to ask the editor in question “So, how was that family thing you were at last weekend?” at the wrong time, and got an earful. I’ve been in similar enough situations, I admit, but not that exact one.

  7. A further consideration – and this discussion is much more interesting than the original story – is that there’s a strictly limited market for violinists. So many orchestras, so many violin seats, so many lead violinist slots. Like athletics or crime, you have to dedicate yourself to doing it full-time before you know whether you’re going to make a decent living at it, and chances are you won’t.

    Meanwhile, writing by someone who’s doing another job isn’t distinctively less good than writing by someone who’s doing it full-time. And I think there’s probably still more room for middle-ranking writers to get by than there is for middle-ranking violinists, though not as much as there used to be.

  8. What one person finds encouraging, another person can find discouraging, and another person can take as an empty answer that means whoever they asked was just trying to get rid of them. Giving criticism can be even more complicated than receiving it. Hence the “this is a form letter” line that shows up from time to time in query replies.

    “You lack the fire” can mean “You’ll never be any good” but it can also mean “It’s going to take a lot of work for you to make it” with the possible addition of “Like it will for anyone.”

    I have a harder time interpreting it as “Sure, you’ll do fine. Now go away. I have better things to do.” which is the type of answer that would bother me a lot more.

    • That came out a bit garbled: “Sure, you’ll do fine” meaning “go away” etc….

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