Genius (Not Required)

For a long time I’ve known you don’t have to be a genius in order to write, but I still get caught in that assumption, like a fox in a set of those nasty steel jaws that trappers use in the North Woods. My ankle snaps and I limp around for a while, disheartened. Unlike a fox, however, my pelt is not sold and I don’t starve to death – a small consolation.

The reality is harsh: I will probably never have David Sedaris’s humor, or the quiet, informed outrage of George Packer. I just won’t. I have to accept that and keep scribbling.

I am comforted, however, by the fact that I’m not incompetant. There are a lot of stupid people out there publishing How-To books about writing. Look in the writing/publishing section of any Barnes & Nobles and you’ll fine dozens of volumes of irredeemable shit that give vague, faulty advice. Who are these master writers? I’ve never heard of Jerry B. Jenkins. Screw Jerry B. Jenkins. 

Then there is the industry that taps into the vanity and insecurity of new writers (or old, talentless writers) by offering publishing services and workshops that will magically, and instantly, bestow authorship and fulfillment. It’s a sham. In the same way that donating to a televangelist won’t get you a VIP ticket to Heaven, there is no shortcut, formula, or service that can make a good writer. The worst thing is, many of these businesses wrap themselves in a cloak of Supportive Feel Good Bullshit. Don’t be fooled, and don’t give them money. There should be a circle of hell reserved for people who make money by exploiting the insecurity of beginning writers.

I don’t remember the moment when I realized genius wasn’t a requisite for writership (writerBeing? Wrizardliness?). A lightbulb moment came a couple of years ago while I was reading the first few chapters of “The Bourne Identity” by Robert Ludlum. The characters were wooden, the plot full of shallow turns, and the description haphazard. I thought, “I can do better than this, and I suck.” It was startling. Here was a bestselling author who wrote bad, cliqued prose – the kind of thing that would get torn to pieces if I submitted it to a college workshop.

Perhaps the lesson I discovered is this: there is a difference between being a Writer, as imagined by media and culture, and being a writer, i.e., someone who writes. Robert Ludlum is a Writer, because media and society says he is. He’s popular. His books get made into movies starring the incomparable Matt Damon. But he’s not a writer in terms of tradecraft, and he’s not a Writer in the historical sense.

As I learned in high school, Earnest Hemingway and Faulkner are Writers. Society has given them a kind of sage status – they are the storytellers around the collective national campfire. Even minor writers who teach undergraduate creative writing courses have their own following. Writers are, in the popular imagination, very special people and this can be seductive for a beginning scribbler.

I remember saying to a writing professor my sophomore year of college, “Writers…just see deeper,” and then adjusting my beret. He replied, “Writers are just people who write.” I felt an inner structure collapse in my brain as I realized he was right – I am not special, and neither is David Sedaris (actually, David Sedaris is special). In his own time, Hemingway wasn’t a mythical genius, but a successful, celebrity writer, much like Salman Rushdie is today. It can be difficult to remember that these people aren’t demigods. With all due respect to their importance (and Hemingway and Rushdie are important) they are simply smart, interesting people who also happened/happen to write. Writers (both kinds) are artists, but also craftsmen, as much cabinetmaker as Picasso.

I wholeheartedly believe that one needs only three things to be a writer: 1. Talent, which seems to be innate, 2. Desire, which arises or doesn’t, and, most importantly, 3. Discipline, which I don’t have. Discipline encompasses: reading excellent books, observing the world closely, and writing. That’s it. If I ever publish a How-To book on writing that includes more than this, please beat me with my own ego.

So! I exhort you – go scribble. And be sure to avoid traps.

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2 responses to “Genius (Not Required)

  1. truth. i personally had this realization with mary higgins clark, who you probably never read and i grew out of quickly. ever story is the same, with the same elements. seriously. i can predict the plot of one from miles away. writer.

    i think stephen king also says it somewhere in on writing, a writer writes.

  2. i’ve not read mh clark. another “ah, i can do better” is Bernard Cornwall, the historical fiction writer. so formula! and he mades assloads of money doing it…

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