When I was fifteen, I attended an arty teenage summer camp, where I was cast as Hollow Man #2 in a musical based on the poems of T. S. Eliot. The three of us stumbled out onstage, attached by thick rubber bands, chanting, “Headpiece filled with straw, alas!” It was a thrilling moment for me, one of many in a vivid, indelible summer. That place changed me, making me aware of something I hadn’t thought much about before: talent. Who has it, who doesn’t, and what happens to it over time. Over the years, I followed the story lines of some of the people I met there, as they cast off their oboe-playing or acting selves and tried to find ways to be in the world that felt equally comfortable and compelling.
Whenever I write a novel, I reach a point at which I am reminded, through my characters, that there’s no perfect way to live. If you’re talented when you’re young, you can feel a sense of exuberant grandiosity, but of course this usually diminishes as reality rises up to meet it. The most brilliant actress at that camp was someone we were convinced was going to become a huge success. For a long time—well before the internet—she disappeared from my life, and I didn’t have any idea what had happened to her. But I assumed she hadn’t made it in theater, because I would have heard about it if she had. Then, some time ago, I found out she’d been floating around in various professions for a decade. And then, more recently, I learned she’d gone to medical school in her forties. Another person I knew at camp, a powerful modern dancer, also disappeared from my life, and reappeared many years later when I saw a sign advertising her chiropractic business.
What happened to the original, startling talents of these two girls? Did they simply transform into less showy but also worthwhile talents in the end? Can talent itself simply be transferred, like some glowing liquid, between beakers? When I think of young talent that doesn’t pan out, I tend to feel sad; but the truth, in this case, is that I have no idea how talented any of these people actually were to begin with. I’d never even seen much modern dance at fifteen; could I really say that that young dancer had a Martha Graham future? Or that that actress wasn’t just a combination of earnest, hammy, and beautiful? Perhaps what I saw in these people was, even more than their talent, their passion and possibilities—and sometimes that’s the one-two punch you need in order to have a life that, if not perfect, at least has meaning. —Meg Wolitzer
This piece comes from our free Best Books of 2013: Reader's Guide, which you can download now for your Kindle. It features interviews, essays, excerpts, and other fun extras about the year’s top 20 titles: Donna Tartt talks about her eating habits while writing The Goldfinch; David Finkel discusses the emotional impact following the 2-16 infantry battalion in Thank You for Your Service; and much more.