Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Limits of Diligence

While writing about Shakespeare deniers (that odd lit-crit subset maintaining that the Bard of Avon didn't pen anything bearing his name), The Wall Street Journal's Terry Teachout offers an interesting aside about the nature of genius:
It doesn't surprise me that such lunacy has grown so popular in recent years. To deny that Shakespeare's plays could have been written by a man of relatively humble background is, after all, to deny the very possibility of genius itself -- a sentiment increasingly attractive in a democratic culture where few harsh realities are so unpalatable as that of human inequality. ...

If anything, Shakespeare's story reminds us of the existence of a different kind of democracy, the democracy of genius. Time and again, the world of art has been staggered by yet another "Mr. Nobody from Nowhere" (to borrow a phrase from "The Great Gatsby") who, like Michelangelo or Turner or Verdi, strides onto the stage of history, devoid of pedigree and seemingly lacking in culture, and proceeds to start churning out masterpieces. For mere mortals, especially those hard-working artistic craftsmen who long in vain to be touched by fire, few things are so depressing as to be reminded by such creatures of the limits of mere diligence.
Now, I agree with Teachout that genius exists, that a small number of people are marked out and set aside to create beautiful things. And who would deny that hard work can only get us so far in any pursuit? Though I may pour over texts about quantum physics, pound out endless laps at the pool or plunk away for hours on the piano, I am unlikely to become Stephen Hawking, Michael Phelps or Luiz de Moura Castro.

Ah, and yet here is the nub: I don't want to be any of those people. I want to write, to pour myself into fragment and phrase, character and concept. And (like most of us) I'm a remarkably poor judge of my own capabilities. Do I have in me the next Great American Novel or a New York Times bestseller or even a mediocre novella? Who knows? I don't. I didn't create myself, didn't marking the span of my aptitudes, setting them so that they stretch this far and no farther. But lacking that knowledge doesn't mean that one ought to cease striving.

Literary agent Nathan Bransford
recently concluded that willpower was the only way to succeed in the writing game, “powering through when you want to stop, blocking out days on the calendar when there are more fun things you could be doing, staring at the pad or screen early mornings and late nights, and most of all, setting aside your doubts along the way.” I'd only add that perseverance the only way to win in any game. Diligence may not necessarily grant genius, but even greatest brilliance fades without it.

(Picture: CC 2007 by
ReubenInStt)

9 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

Will power is not enough. There are too many other variables: talent, speaking to the time you live in; the marketplace, luck. But will power may come first.

Loren Eaton said...

I agree: Willpower is our first work. What's sad is that too many people decide they lack the other things and stop before they've even started. Sustained effort is our first work.

Ben-M said...

Thanks for the reminder Loren, I really need to stop slacking off.

Loren Eaton said...

Me too, sir. Me too.

Lady Glamis said...

This is beautiful! It's so important that we have the drive first. I've known people who lose that, and everything falls apart after it. It's definitely a foundation.

Loren Eaton said...

It's so depressing when someone simply gives up, isn't it? That bothers me to no end when it happens.

Timothy Hallinan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Timothy Hallinan said...

I agree completely, Loren. Willpower is more important than talent. I know lots of talented writers who have never lived up to their potential and lots of writers whose natural gifts weren't so lavish but who applied willpower and fingers to keys to become much, much better writers.

And thanks for the kind words about BREATHING WATER.

Loren Eaton said...

Thank you for writing a good book! It's always nice when a person whose blog you enjoy also pens novels that keep you reading past your bedtime.