I’m a Genius

On my mother’s side.  Probably dad’s too, but it’s a different type of genius.

Mom’s side of the family has the sort of genius that leads idiots to think that accomplishment is inate.

By and large, most of the smartest ones never accomplished anything.

It is not my intention to beat up on smart people, or even geniuses.

It is more to question the myth of genius.

What myth?  Oh, you know the one.  The one that says “unless you have talent for writing, you’ll never make it” or “unless you have that certain I don’t know what you’ll never make a living at writing.”  Or… “Unless your first book or at any rate your third takes off and is a wild success, you’ll never make it.”

Weirdly, this is the thing that takes most of my time, when I teach writing.  People come to me and ask “do I have it?”  “Do I have what it takes?”

Usually I want to answer “How in heck would I know?” Sometimes I want to explain that this whole thing isn’t as clear cut as it looks, but as you’ll see from this post, it takes time.  Usually, I concentrate on the strengths of the story, and explain the value of hard work.

Does that mean that there’s no such thing as natural talent for writing?

I don’t know.  Ask the magic eight ball.  I’ve seen what seems to be cases of spontaneously brilliant writing, now and then.  My younger kid is one of those.  However…  However…

Keep in mind my younger kid, practice or not, grew up in a house full of writers.  He sat through plotting discussions before he could speak.  He heard his father and I go over manuscripts line by line and discuss the effectiveness of wording before he could write (which since he learned to read BY writing – he’s odd, okay – circa three years of age, was very early indeed.)  Is it genius?  Or a lot of unconscious learning?  Ask the magic eight ball.

What I can tell you is that the natural cases, the “pure talent” cases are at far greater risk.  They’re at risk for one of never actually finishing anything.  If you didn’t have to work to make something good off the bat, you’re likely to quit when it’s no longer fun.  One of my friends is a brilliant natural writer.  He’ll never finish his novel because a) it bored him.  b) it’s not and (being a novel) cannot be perfect.  He doesn’t get that.

Then they’re at risk of being a one-trick pony.  I have seen tons of writers break into print with an astonishing novel, but they have no idea how they wrote it, or where it came from and they can’t repeat the feat.

I will confess that in Portugal I was considered to have “natural talent” – that is, when I came into elementary school, I was already writing essays, short stories and poems that made the teachers weep (and not because of the misspellings, though those too.) I got singled out for all the writing prizes, and had a (chap)book of poems published at fourteen.

Keep in mind, though, that like my kids, I came from an articulate, literate family, where my father and brother are published (amateur) poets, where dad read me Virgil when I was very young, and where mom’s idea of late night entertainment was lectures on mythology or history.

What part of it was innate at six or so?  Very little I’d say.  I remember those poems and stories.  They were mostly derivative tripe, notable only because they were written by a six year old.  (It’s not how well the dog mows the lawn.  It’s a wonder he does it at all.)

Even though my teachers thought I was writing at professional level and at least one accused me of plagiarizing, any real editor would have laughed himself sick over my bleatings.

In fact, I suspect most “natural” writers are just lucky that they learned before they knew they were learning for writing specifically.  And what makes them vulnerable is that they don’t KNOW they were learning and don’t know how to repeat the process.

I got very lucky, because I had to change languages, which to an extent wiped out some of my “natural talent” advantage.  I also had to change cultures which wiped out the “I know how stories are supposed to go.”

Which means I had to start from the beginning, as it were, naked.  That is, I had to learn the cadences of the words, and which sounded good and bad together, and which sounded SO good that they would distract you from a really good story. (THAT last was the hardest, though going back say fifteen years it’s amazing how un-colloquial my writing can sound.)

I also had to learn which plots work for Americans in America.

Okay, a lot of this involved reading and writing and listening to people talk in real life (fortunately I consider breakfast at a diner a treat.)  But I was doing it with the purpose of learning to write, so I was aware of where and how I acquired skills.

Looking back through my shorts – some of them professionally published – I now groan sometimes because it’s obvious I was working on “x” and to me it sticks out.  Doesn’t seem to for other people.

Now, you might think I have what it takes, or not, or that my books are lacking that undefinable “it.”  Maybe they are.  But I’ve made a living from writing (not fantastic, but as good as I’d do as a teaching assistant at college or a secretary which were my two other options) for over ten years.  So if your goal is to write well enough to be published/make a living, then I have “it” whatever it is.

“It” in the sense of some gods-given exceptionalness (shut up.  Totally a word) might or might not exist.  But I am living proof that you can make it without it.  (I totally lacked ‘it’ in English.  Don’t make me post proof.)

If you want to write – if you REALLY want to write – if you’re driven, if the bug is in you, if you’ve tried to give it up and sometimes managed one or two days without thinking up a new story, stop worrying about “it”.  Stop worrying about whether you have talent or are “worthy.”

And stop pursuing agents/publishers as validation that you have “it.”  Yes, they too believe in the talent myth, which is why, if your book doesn’t make it first time out, most of them will cut you off forever.  Because they assume that means you lack “it.”  (The exception is Baen, which BUILDS careers.  That’s something else.)

BUT if they could tell if you have “it” or not, 90% of the people they represent/buy wouldn’t end up failing.  They have no clue.  They just believe in an oracle of the market, and like most fake shamans, they stack the odds then piously believe in the results.  (If your book has one million in publicity, genius or not, you’re going to do better than the book with no publicity.  To view your success as a proof of genius is… idiotic.  Or in other words “big publishing.”)

They don’t know anymore than you do.  If you choose to enter in a partnership with a publisher do it advisedly and not from the position of “needing validation.”

You don’t need validation.  The only thing you need is wanting to write.  Really, really, really wanting to write and sell what you writes.

The rest – fluency in word, good characters, world-accuracy, plotting – can be acquired with three magical tools: work, persistence and strength.

If your first efforts don’t sell well, keep trying.  If you’re aware of a weakness in your writing, keep plugging at it.  Read how to books, certainly, but mostly read and analyze the writers you like (which reminds me I need to teach you to diagram a novel.  Maybe I’ll make it a series of posts, and then “publish” it.)

And keep on trying.  Whether you have talent or not doesn’t matter.  I saw Van Gogh’s early paintings, and he might have been bristling with talent, but I (who am in many ways a raw beginner) do better NOW.  Now, it’s unlikely I’ll put forth the EFFORT and the sheer work to ever be as good as he was.

In the same way, I might never be as good as Heinlein.  Our minds work differently.

But you know what?  I’m willing to try.  And the one thing going back and reading/revising stories for publication has shown me is that in writing at least relentless practice makes a huge difference.

So go forth.  Read.  Write.  Failure is just what happens on the way to success.  It doesn’t mean anything about your long-term chances.  Yes, you can get stuck at some point, but only if you refuse to admit there might be something wrong with your output, and refuse to learn.  And that mostly comes from the talent myth.

Repeat after me: With every tale, through every fail, I’m getting better and better.

 

20 comments

  1. Reading back over some early non-fiction, I wonder why any editor even thought about accepting it for publication. But with practice it has improved, especially after said editor(s) pointed out certain habits I had developed over the years. The same with my fiction work. Colleagues claim that I’m a natural writer (whatever that means), not seeing over twenty years of wordplay, fan-fic, short pieces for small-town history museums, aviation stories, and other verbal flotsam. Talent? No. Stubbornness? In spades.

    1. Exactly. I NEED to do an article tomorrow for my blog about “bad habits” — not just in writing, in life. you become blind to them, you know, and they can kill you.

  2. If you don’t have “it” your work will never amount to anything. But people sometimes forget “it” is the ability to work hard and smart. Competence covers a multitude of sins and faults.

  3. Thing I’ve never been able to learn is how do I know when my stuff is “good enough”? Nobody I could ever trust would answer that to my satisfaction. I’m finally going “M’eh!” on that score. When I read old stuff of mine I haven’t looked at in awhile I wonder whether I really wrote that. It seems channeled through a better writer. So I’ve stopped worrying about it. It is or it isn’t. It is what it is and that’s the that about that. But sometimes the question still bugs me.

    M

    1. I know I’m not the friend you are referring to. I’ll never get close enough to finishing a book to worry about whether or not it is perfect 😀

    2. Yep. No one CAN tell you. Hey I owe you a guest post, do you want it on that? (I’m trying to do four or so today. Contra-cat who is sitting on my keyboard and biting my hands…)

  4. A lot of life is about work. And that’s a good thing.

    I read about a study of children, and the effects of being told they were smart. Researchers had one group of kids work on a project, and told the ones who did well that the results were very good and that the child was very smart. They told another group that their results were very good and showed that they must have worked hard. When each group was set to the next task, the ones who thought of their accomplishments as the result of hard work set to with a will. The other group froze up. The study speculated that the kids who were told they were smart were anxious because they didn’t know what produced the good results, and fretted they couldn’t replicate them.

    The same may be true of your one-hit wonders. They didn’t know what they did and got neurotic about doing it again.

    Once I started trying to write fiction, I started analyzing everything I read. I’ve also re-written large portions of stories to make them work. The good thing is, I’ve seen improvement, and I know why.

      1. Never give up, never surrender? By commander Nesmith… Seems to have gotten a life as an abbreviation too, nguns. Well, it’s a good principle in many situations. Not all, but many (occasionally tactical retreat, also known as running as fast as you can, can be better).

  5. “It” usually boils down to “some sufficient combination of motivation, knowledge, experience, work-ethic, and native talent”. Of course you have “it”…if you didn’t, you’d have failed. (“Failure”, in this case, would be something like not being able to finish a novel, or having only one novel “in you”, or being unable to find a paying market for your work, or for that matter getting so frustrated or bored with being a novelist that you just gave it up and went and did something else instead. The extent that you’re a “natural” is probably exactly the same as the extent to which all of those possibilities seem insanely implausible to you.)

    I sometimes get asked by people whether they think they’d succeed in _my_ profession. My answer? “I don’t know. Go do it for a living for ten years, and come back to ask again then. Or don’t, since by the time you’re two years in you’ll already know for yourself.”

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