Flickrs of talent

One of the reasons I stopped playing in a band (other than the obvious ones: geography, a face only a mother could love and the increasing feeling that once you’re over 30, you’re too old to rock) was frustration: while a lot of the stuff we did was really, really good, I never felt it was good enough.

To me, there was always a yawning chasm between the stuff I was writing and the stuff I was listening to, so while I could easily write a 1,000 word forensic analysis of, say, Red Dress by Sugababes, There There by Radiohead or (yes!) Biology by Girls Aloud that tells you exactly why they’re great, what sneaky musical tricks they use and what particular moments elevate them from ordinary tunes into something special (in Red Dress it’s the chaotic “woah woah woah” bit before the second part of the chorus; in There There it’s the chord change underneath the line “just ’cause you feel it / doesn’t mean it’s there”; in Biology it’s the spooky backing vocals that come in halfway through the chorus), no matter how hard I tried (or how talented my fellow band members) I could never reach the same heights myself.

I feel the same thing on Flickr when I browse other people’s photos. Sure, I know a bit about composition and photography so I can tell a good pic from a bad one; I can also tell when a pic’s benefited from professional lighting or from sneaky Photoshopping. But the really good ones aren’t just about technique: the really good stuff comes from people who could take better shots on a crappy cameraphone than I could ever manage with ten grand of camera kit. There’s things I can do – I can (and did) upgrade from a basic compact camera to a pseudo-SLR, I could learn about shutter speeds and other technical stuff (if anyone can recommend a good book for digital camera owners who’ve no idea beyond autofocus and pre-defined picture modes, I’m all ears)… but while those things would certainly help me take better photographs, they can only help with the technical stuff. What differentiates the really good pics from the quite good ones isn’t equipment or technique, but talent.

The best example I can think of is in my day job. I’m not suggesting I’m some literary giant, but I do think that there’s something going on that means unlike many people, I find writing easy. The something is this: 99% of the time I have absolutely no recollection of writing an article. One day it’s a blank page and I’m howling with frustration, then something clicks in my head and the words start flowing. Before I know it I’ve got a finished piece, but my involvement is a bit like when you drive somewhere and arrive with no recollection of actually driving.

I’m reminded of a comment by a musician (I can’t remember who): the songs are just floating through the air, and it’s your job to catch them before some bastard like Mick Hucknall gets his hands on them. But that’s not just the case in music; I reckon it’s the case with writing and photography too.

Writing, then: there’s technique in there – planning out a structure, editing and refining, editing again, particular word choices, deciding the whole thing’s shite and starting again from a different angle – but the bit that matters to me, the process of turning a bunch of ideas or facts into a feature, or story, or book, happens on a subconscious level. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using Notepad, Word or some amazingly clever document editor: if you don’t have that subconscious thing going on, then no matter how good your software (or your pen and paper) the process of writing is bloody hard work. The tools you use can make things easier, but they can’t write the words for you.

And that’s the big lie behind a lot of tech marketing at the moment. Sure, programs such as GarageBand put amazing power in the hands of would-be musicians (when I started playing in bands, the only way to get even a crappy recording was to spend hundreds on kit and then hundreds or even thousands of pounds on studio time), but if you want to create a Red Dress, There There or Biology you’ll need to bring the same alchemy to GarageBand that those songs’ creators brought to the studio. Yes, upgrading from a crappy cameraphone to a digital SLR will enable you to take better photographs, but it won’t make you a better photographer. And using a state-of-the-art word processor or blogging system will make the nuts and bolts easier, but it can’t help with the actual writing. Technology firms can sell you the tools, but they can’t sell you the talent.