I can see him: the genius writer.
He’s holed up somewhere with the kind of light that makes your eyes go bad and the kind of weather that makes you crave a good knit cardigan: oversized, of course. Outside, the wet clouds clap as he crushes out another stodgy cigarette. He hasn’t left his room in four days, save for a quick restock of black coffee and a loaf of baker’s bread, which is currently turning stale under an untied bag. As he takes a breath, the Damask wallpaper lining his crummy little room seems to tuck in close, and listen.
There is genius brewing. Over a typewriter, to be exact.
Maybe it’s Faulkner. Maybe it’s Hemingway. Or King, or Plath, or Vonnegut.
Whoever it is, one thing is for sure: he’s alone.
That’s how we picture the genius– Sisyphus hard at work. After all, it’s their name alone that gets embossed on the spine.
The Truth We Forget to be True
But it simply isn’t, is it? And that’s the truth that we forget to be true: Behind that glorious spine, somewhere in the whitespace between all those lines, is the long list of people who helped the author–the work, even–become what it became. Fellow authors, wives and husbands, editors and mothers, each spending countless hours reading, scratching out, reorganizing. Or, as is equally important, cooking, rearing, cleaning, and paving the way for the genius to work. Whichever, it certainly counts for something, some credit that’s due. A small piece of the glittering spine, even if it’s just a fraction of a fraction somewhere between all those binding fibers.
We’ll never really see them (as it often is with the work of true heroes). We just see all that perfect genius, bound together by a force so powerful we become undone by it. One glance at his pages and…we knew it–our mustard doesn’t cut. Next to his, our words pale on the page until they’re illegible. We sift around in all our word fluff and hold our half-wit hands up to the sky, pleading with God or the devil if the price is right to make us as good as the Greats.
If only we’d stop shaking our shakers at the heavens long enough to remember that truth we forget to be true.
He’s an invention.
We curse ourselves at his comparison as we try to conjure up stories. Meanwhile he is the greatest work of make-believe we’ve ever accomplished. Can’t we remember that without The Inklings, there is no Lewis? Or Tolkien? Without Maxwell Perkins, there is no Hemingway? No Zelda means no F. Scott? You get the picture.
It’s no wonder our hearts shrink three sizes when we crack our favorite work in search of inspiration. In our hands we hold many things: collective brainpower, an editor’s 30 years experience, fourth-fifth-and-sixth drafts, a wife’s intuition, and a million other leg-ups we can’t see.
The answer isn’t to feel sorry for ourselves. The answer is:
-Do your work.
-Seek the company of people smarter than you.
-Show them your work.
-Listen when they talk.
That is how we become Great. Besides, there’s nothing romantic about bad eyesight and lung cancer.