On my mother’s side. Unfortunately it’s not one of those characteristics that breeds true.
More seriously I wonder how many people were raised with the myth of genius, whether that’s normal, whether it’s something that only happens to those of us in artistic families where the members gave up on it.
I was raised with the genius myth and in retrospect, my parents cannot possibly have meant what I thought they meant – or perhaps they could. Perhaps they were raised with the myth too – but I thought what they were telling me was if you were a genius you wouldn’t need to learn, you’d never do anything mediocre, you’d just start working in your chosen field and it would be perfect and marketable, and success would be instant.
From what I understood – and I swear that’s what my mom told me, probably because she watched a movie that gave her that idea – Mozart was a genius because the first time he saw a piano, at five, he could play it perfectly. It took me till I was an adult to find out how wrong that myth was, and how much Mozart’s precociousness reflected a crazy family. (Even if he was – also – a genius.)
In retrospect I do wonder if, given all the creative talent in the family, of which I am a very minor spark, the fact that I am the only one with a career in the “arts” (even if an odd art) comes from my having left home, gone to another country and changed language and culture to such an extent that I had to reexamine most of the wisdom received so early that some of it is pre-verbal. And I wonder how many other people have it.
I run up against the “talent” myth now and then and I wonder how far deep in the genius myth other people are.
It took a while for the myth to die. When I first sent a story out, I didn’t bother seeing if the magazine published stuff like what I wanted to sell them because, well, if it was good enough they would publish it regardless. And when I got back what can only be classified as an enthusiastic rejection, where the publisher – from ENGLAND – sent me a copy of their (pro) magazine so I could see what they published and submit targeted stories, I was UPSET because they didn’t accept my story… Clearly this meant I wasn’t a genius, and so the story – and any attempts at submitting – went in a drawer while I tried to write a novel, to see if I was a genius in that.
For those of you who have tried to sell writing, or who even have spouses, friends, neighbors, acquaintances who’ve tried and who are readying the pitchforks and torches to come to my house, please, please, please remember I’m sick. Also, I’ve been punished enough. By my estimation my belief in the “genius” myth cost me about ten years on the way to publication.
Because, you see, even after I stopped believing that a genius could just produce a masterpiece without trying, I still believed the… ah… penumbraas and emanations of the genius myth. I believed you had to have a certain amount of inborn talent to start (kind of like the ‘you must be this tall to ride’ bar at the amusement park); I believed language was the most important part of writing (guys, I was born to a family of poets); I believed you couldn’t learn; I believed other people could tell on site that I didn’t have enough native talent.
What this meant was that I’d try for a year, get discouraged, get a job for a year or two, then try again – rinse, repeat… Until I HAD to stay home as a combination of being very ill for a year after giving birth and, frankly, not having spent six years in infertility treatments to give my kid to hired hands to raise.
Since I was home, I might as well write and… the process itself and joining my first writers’ group and hearing others’ stories, I eventually figured out while “talent” exists it is not a necessity, beyond a certain minimum.
Talent exists? Yep, it does. And you don’t want it.
Talent in writing, genius level talent, is producing a readable, cogent, fully functional novel the first time you try WITHOUT having consciously studied techniques or thought about how to do it at all. (Novel because a short you might be able to fake. And without studying, because some people just learn differently. My husband is like that. He can learn passively, by STUDYING books without needing to practice for years. For the record I can’t, but these are just different types of minds.)
But I want it Sarah! I DO.
Okay, maybe you do, but you shouldn’t. Why not? Because if you do it by genius you won’t know how to do it again.
I grant you the geniuses I’ve known might have done fine with Indie – the woman whose first novel got published, and who couldn’t then write anything approaching a publishable second; the woman whose first novel was brilliant but when it failed to get published outright, got stuck in an endless cycle of rewrites that each time made the thing worse; the friend whose career was stuck at a certain level and who had no idea how to improve it, because she doesn’t write her easy, breazy brilliant prose CONSCIOUSLY.
In indie all of them – probably – could have made a living. But one day, sooner or later, they’d get sick, or tired, or out of it. And they don’t know how to whistle by ear or paint by numbers.
The years you spend creeping to competency leave behind the ability to perform when you’re less than optimal.
And now, because I’m sick and think this is less than coherent, I’m just going to do a series of bullet points, contrasting the myth and the reality:
The myth: You must have a certain level of talent to even try to write.
The truth: or speak. Or walk. You must be homo sapiens of normal intelligence. That’s the talent needed.
The myth: everyone who makes it, can write effortlessly
The truth: after years and years and years of practice, sometimes. Provided they’re not sick, tired, worried about other stuff.
The myth: if your stuff is good everyone knows it immediately
The truth: do you even like exactly the same books/movies as your best friends? I don’t. Oh, sure, there’s overlap, but a lot of the things these people think are brilliant get thrown against the wall on page two.
The myth: if your stuff is bad everyone knows it immediately
The truth: one of my books because a – very discerning – friend’s favorite (one of top four or five books ever in his estimation) the first time he read it. This same book earned a review saying the characters are too stupid to live. One man’s meat is another’s poison.
The myth: if your stuff is good you’ll be an instant success
The truth: Poppycock. Even in indie, it takes time, effort and a certain amount of luck. Sure, you might win the lottery and become Amanda Hocking (or in traditional J. K. Rowling) but chances are you’ll have to write a few books (Amanda wrote ten?) and work assiduously before you see results. That’s one of those ‘human condition’ things.
The myth: good writing can’t be learned or taught
The truth: don’t make me show you my juvenilia which, even beyond the fact it’s in Portuguese and possibly only Mr. Oyster (the commenter) could read it, sucked so badly it might start a black hole. Not only did I learn, you can trace the progress and what I was learning at the time.
The myth: there are people so untalented they’ll never be published
The truth: Care to place a small bet? Also, the ones who can’t or won’t are not failures of talent, they’re failures of learning, possibly because they believe the genius myths.
The truth is this, and let’s pretend I just came down from the mountain and have secured the ultimate advice for your career:
If you are willing to work hard; if you treat it like any other craft and study the masters and the instruction books; if you put in your time and write enough to practice it – you can succeed at writing.
And if you don’t have any natural talent, no one will EVER know.