Friday, September 01, 2006

The Cult of the "Spontaneous Genius" Myth

"I can't write five words but that I change seven." - Dorothy Parker

I am taking a much-needed break from The Dissertation, Gentle Reader, on which I have worked all morning long. I believe, in fact, that I have made A Breakthrough on this chapter, which has been a long while in the making. I passed my preliminary exams in April 2005, but due to two very time-consuming professional obligations Fall 2005 (which, to be fair, were excellent and necessary and quite career-changing), I feel as if I am a semester behind in my personal writing schedule. There is a chapter in the docket, and another that *shall* be finished at the end of September. After that, there are three more chapters to go.

I am a Reader and a Writer, Friends, by profession, by degree, by career choice, and, most importantly, by personal desire. It sometimes baffles me that I will be *paid*, yes, *paid* to read and write about books for The Rest Of My Natural Life, granted, of course, that I get A Job when I am On The Market. If that fails, Mr. Reads and I will put the puppy to work and turn her into a bitter Puppy Star who will emancipate herself somewhere around her 16th birthday, and forever blame us for stealing her puppy childhood away.

Hopefully, we never have to resort to such tragic and traumatic circumstances.

But in rewriting and rewriting this current chapter, I began to consider the very act of writing in our lives. There was a time, pre-prelims, during which I wrote Every Day. I woke up, made iced coffee, sat down at the computer and churned out 1 page, or 4 pages, or, on very good days, 12-15 pages in an hour or two. Then I would break, work on school work or work work or any other thing I needed to work on in the world. I am trying, desperately, to return to that schedule, and this blog, this odd little blog, feels like my way back in.

The World Of Writing is not a mysterious and mystical realm although we often feel that way about it. It is, quite simply, the result of lots and lots of work. I often tell my students that there is no secret to writing well; all it takes is lots of practice to do it. My idea of practice includes both reading *and* writing and so often, we, the World At Large, want to do neither.

One of the greatest travesties ever perpetuated on the World At Large is the idea of spontaneous genius. This idea argues that if we sit back and wait, Genius, or Inspiration, will strike us and we will write A Masterpiece.

What utter balderdash.

Gentle Reader, who was it who said, "Yes, I only write when I'm inspired, and I make sure I'm inspired at 9:00 every morning"? Darling Google is offering me various authors for the same quote. Regardless of the author, we must look at the sentiment because the sentiment, yes, the sentiment is Absolutely True.

Let's look to the idea of spontaneous genius. I have heard people, have heard my *friends* argue again and again that they write "when inspired." That "inspiration has hit!" Dear Reader, I must confess to you that I, too, once expressed such naïve statements as well. But what is "inspiration" but the reiteration of thought, the plotting out of a problem over and over again until we work towards a viable resolution?

In short, inspiration is nothing but the sudden realization of hours and days and weeks of continuous thought about one problem.

The dissertation chapter I'm currently working on, as previously mentioned, has given me fits over the past two months. The previous chapter, if I may be less than modest for a moment, is actually Quite Good. No, no, Dear Reader, I am not the only one saying this. The Director has said such marvelous things Herself! If my first chapter can be so good, then the second chapter must be even better, and even easier to write, yes?

No. No, no, no, no, no.

I have stared at the computer screen for an hour at a time, typing only a few sentences. I have written five pages, but then changed seven (gratitude, Ms. Parker). I have, in fact, screamed, deleted, cried, whimpered and butted my head against a wall in response to this travesty of the written word.

Until today.

Did spontaneous genius strike? Am I a recipient of that very thing I scorned? Did My Muse glide down gracefully from the Heavens to bless me with An Idea?

Heck no.

I have slaved, yes *slaved* over this problem for weeks now. I have forced myself to write because I needed to produce something, anything, to drain the muck and gunk out of my brain and let the Smart Words Flow. And in the shower, that very place where spontaneous genius often rears its mythical little head, I finally came up with A Solution To My Problem.

Not because of inspiration. But because of work.

The World At Large still believes in the mythology of the writer brought on, I believe, by the cult of genius surrounding such peoples as Thoreau and Whitman. If we lock ourselves in a cabin near a lake, we will be Inspired. If we lock ourselves in a house, a la Emily Dickinson, we will produce such wonderful words that a hundred years after her death, we still marvel. It's simply Not True. Edgar Allan Poe was not the broody, tragic genius we picture him as. No, no, Friends, he was A Writer By Trade. And he wrote. All the damn time.

At a party several years back, I sat next to two people discussing the Novel Without A Hero and its recent film version. Understand, Gentle Reader, that Vanity Fair is one of my Favorite Books Of All Time. Understand that I am writing an entire chapter of The Dissertation on it, that The Dissertation Itself was inspired (how I hesitate to use that word!) by the very novel of which I speak.

To wit, I know it, Friends. Backwards and forwards.

Victorian novels are quite long. So long, in fact, that This Humble Author jokes that instead of Victorian Novels, she should have specialized in, say, Modernist Poetry. The Penguin Edition of Vanity Fair itself is 797 pages. As Thackeray was a Professional Writer, he wrote, I'm sure, every day. He wrote, and revised, and crafted, and sweated, and perhaps cried and hit *his* head on the wall, repeatedly, in an effort to get rid of that idea of inspiration and make something else come out.

But still, despite all of these examples of which some *have* to be true, This Humble Author heard those two partygoers say, paraphrased, "I dunno. I read it, but it seemed like he just gave up at the end. That he just tacked on some ending just to finish the book."

Dear Reader, I fell on the floor in shock.

First came anger. How *dare* they? How *dare they* desecrate a beautiful and funny and wonderful book with such an asinine, bizarre statement? Then came self-righteousness. I wanted to smack Said Partygoers in their big, fat heads. Then came restraint helped mostly by My Dear Friend MGB over at Separation of Spheres, who held me back from doing that very thing to their big, fat heads.

Then came sadness. And finally acceptance.

There are people in this world who are so ignorant of the writing process that they believe, actually *believe* that a wonderful writer like Thackeray would just "give up" at the end of his beautifully crafted novel because he got tired. Or hit a deadline. Or, perhaps, was bleeding from the head after hitting said head against the wall repeatedly. How did this *happen*? How have we divorced ourselves so much from the very act of writing that we could actually consider a writer would just give up at the end?

Mr. Reads, who is a Degree-Carting and Published Poet and therefore An Honest To God Writer, reminds me, and reminds me often, that works are never finished; they are just abandoned. Gentle Reader, you see the difference, yes? How a writer can revise and revise and revise until she is bleeding both from the head and the heart, but the novel, or poem, or dissertation, will never be perfect? Not once in that statement is the idea of giving up because of deadline or boredom or hospital visit to fix said head. No, it's more the suggestion that we parents of works let our babies go off in the world, alone and exposed, and we sit back in the car and cry over the loss of something innocent and pure. It's the suggestion that eventually there comes a time when we just have to let go.

I have let go of my work again and again. I have exposed it to the harsh, ugly light of judgment. Sometimes, it has been found worthy; more often than not, it has been found wanting. But each time is a heartbreak. Each attempted selling of The Novel or each revelation of The Dissertation is a loss of a little piece of me. Each poem read at a slam, each blog entry posted to the internet, is not a window but a peephole into the very processes of me. I am a Writer, and therefore my job requires heartbreak on a daily basis.

But mostly, and most importantly, it requires work. Lots and lots of work. And it is time, Friends, to return to that very thing.

I bid you adieu for now, Gentle Reader, for I must continue to sort out this dissertation quandary. But as I am not only a Reader and Writer but also a Teacher Of Reading And Writing, I leave you with a homework assignment:

Write something this weekend. Write anything at all, and then let it go somewhere to be Read. Hopefully, you will find it in your heartbreak to let it come to me.

Because despite the heartbreak, despite the anxiety and the bills and the tiny little holes in me, I absolutely love what I do.


At 1:24 PM, Blogger Matthew E said...

There are a lot of people who say that, when they're working on a difficult problem, the best thing to do is to stop thinking about it for a while, to go and relax, and suddenly the solution will just come to them. And maybe this does work for them.

But not for me. I remember this one problem I had when I was doing my final paper for my math degree. I couldn't get it, I couldn't get it, but I kept hammering at it, and eventually I got it. Not to say that I didn't take any breaks, because I did, and probably benefited from them, but the answer didn't come during a break. It came because I kept hammering at the problem. Similarly for writing, at least (again) in my case.

At 3:17 PM, Blogger Amy Reads said...

Hi Matt,
I feel the exact same way. I usually can't take a break from something. I'm a bit OCD when it comes to working out problems! (or a bit OCD when it comes to life in general, etc.) I've got to hash it out over and over again before the solution presents itself.


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