There were two things I watched on TV last night which made me wonder how genius in writing comes about. The first program was Shakespeare’s ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, easily my favourite of his plays; and ‘The Gambler’, an average film in which the main character attempts to teach what I’m asking at one point. What did make Shakespeare such a genius? I did a little reading last night, and my personal favourite of the theories was Jack Kerouac’s explanation – that it is divided by those who create original work – ‘geniuses’ – and those who imitate, even brilliantly imitate – ‘talent’.
He stated, in an essay for Writer’s Digest titled Are Writers Made or Born?, written in 1962, which was also later on included in The Portable Jack Kerouac, that he thought this was the case. He started the essay by stating, “Writers are made, for anybody who isn’t illiterate can write; but geniuses of the writing art like Melville, Whitman or Thoreau are born.” He went on to say that no one else could have written Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, or any of Shakespeare’s plays – that the writers of these works of literature had something they were born with, something that couldn’t be taught. To explain the difference to talent, Kerouac used the following example; “Some perfect virtuoso who can interpret Brahms on the violin is called a “genius,” but the genius, the originating force, really belongs to Brahms; the violin virtuoso is simply a talented interpreter — in other words, a “Talent.” Or you’ll hear people say that so-and-so is a “major writer” because of his “talent.” There can be no major writers without original genius. Artists of genius, like Jackson Pollock, have painted things that have never been seen before… Take the case of James Joyce: people say he “wasted” his “talent” on the stream-of-consciousness style, when in fact he was simply born to originate it.”
On the other side of the argument, there was Mark Twain, with his famous quote; “…all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them…” This was from a letter written to his friend Helen Keller, after she was accused, and later acquitted, of plagiarism. This is the most common theory of originality most of us know – I even remember a teacher from school saying something very similar, something that upset me at the time. As a child, I’d unconsciously remembered a story (I can’t even remember which one anymore!) and elements of it ran parallel to the short story I’d written. They noted, delightedly, as a child had took on reading something they hadn’t expected, that it reminded them of this other story. I hated the story I’d written after that, glaring down at my pudgy little hands, holding the sheet of paper with childish disgust. I’d thought my story was unlike all others! Once I grew up, and read a lot more books, I realised that it was near impossible to write something that truly is original, something that uses no other elements any other book has. The very fact my own books fit neatly in genre categories shows that there are many of us in the same boat – most of us, I expect. That feeling I had as a child stayed with me though, and it made me not want to write anything for a long time. As Salvador Dalí even said, “Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”
But I think there’s some common ground between these two ways of thinking. On the one hand, I agree whole-heartedly with Jack Kerouac. I think genius is born, not made, and most of us – including me, haha – can merely hope to fall into the ‘talent’ category. But I also agree with Mark Twain. Whatever we think is original, may have been created a long time before those stories were written down. Who knows? Having said that, I have a hard time imagining the way Shakespeare spun words together, or the way Herman Melville brought a raw accuracy to the characters of his book, could ever have been repeated before. But I think while we’re imitating genius and trying to hone our stories as well as we can, we can always aim for that elusive ‘original story’. Because without aiming for genius, talent can never be as good as possible. 🙂
What are your thoughts, guys? Which side of the argument do you lie on?