Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Farewell to Genius

'Writers form themselves into the pyramid we see in all areas of human talent and human creativity.  At the bottom are the bad ones.  Above them is a group which is slightly smaller but still large and welcoming; these are the competent writers. [...] The next level is much smaller.  These are the really good writers.  Above them - above all of us - are the Shakespeares, the Faulkners, the Yeatses, Shaws, and Eudora Weltys. They are geniuses, divine accidents, gifted in a way which is beyond our ability to understand, let alone attain.'

-Stephen King, On Writing (2000)

I have spent the first half of my life rather blithely (and ridiculously - yes, I see that now) assuming I was a member of the final tier:  in with the geniuses.  It's mortifying to admit, but it's the naked truth.  I have actually been assuming that's just the sort I am by birth and that I haven't given notice to the world of this fact only because I just can't be bothered to really try.  I spun out lyrics in several bands for the better part of two decades and considered myself a gifted under-achiever.  Now that I'm really, really trying to write fiction (what I've assumed I was put here to do since I was a little kid), I know better.  I am not a genius.  I am not even in with the 'really good writers'.  I do have a gift and capacity for writing.  I am competent.  The sober self-assessment stops there.

King says his book is premised on the idea that competent writers can, with much effort, be trained to be good writers (even though good writers can never be trained to be great).  I consider myself on that training programme and no more.

Farewell to genius.  You were one of my more pleasant and comforting delusions and I will miss you.  But good riddance too.  For here's hoping you'll hold me back no longer from what I can really, by grace, achieve in this short bewildering life.


  1. I too have always entertained the same assumption. I am safe from realizing how untrue it is by not actually having written anything (outside of technical manuals, which I do for a living in a necessarily boring and unimaginative fashion).

    Of course Bradbury once said that the only way to become a writer is to sit down and write 2000 words a day every day, and after the first few years, you will write the junk out of your system and start coming out with the really good stuff.

    Congratulations on casting aside the shackles of genius. Now you can start really producing, and your non-genius writing will probably be good enough to fool the rest of us.

  2. Kevin, thanks so much for this comment! I'd forgotten all about it. I think I read it back when you made it and was too busy to reply right at that second and then forgot to get back to it. I really appreciate your kind and encouraging words here. I think I'm *still* writing the junk out of my system, but it feels a little more purified these days...