A couple weeks ago, I discovered Lisa Peet’s essay on David Abrams, the most recent installment of The Millions monthly “Post-40 Bloomer” feature. Coming on the heels of a very disappointing rejection from an unpaid literary internship with a well-regarded magazine of politics and the arts – Holy of Holies! – finding this series of essays was reassuring, to say the least.
Much has been made of the ‘cult of youth,’ as it were, in our society. I had a professor in college who told us that the Ancient Greeks considered it dangerous to teach philosophy to young people because we haven’t lived enough to really understand anything at all. (This somehow also explained why English majors are all nihilists.)
The modern myth of genius – that is, the idea that there are people who are simply better, fundamentally smarter or more talented on some natural, intangible level – is related to this cult of youth, I think. And there is a very interesting cognitive dissonance that all of this creates when set against the backdrop of the traditional, Protestant values upon which capitalism generally and American society more specifically is founded. On the one hand, we prize hard work and effort: having a good work ethic is one of our highest virtues – Weber’s “ghost of dead religious beliefs” prowling about our lives. On the other, we look upon grace and ease with a reverence that approaches fetishization. In this latter formulation, skill is rendered innate, even biological. It is some kind of gift from God or the gods: you either have it, or you don’t. We might even say that there are two ways of speaking about labor in our culture: one that celebrates it, and one that effaces it altogether.
Now, I want to be a writer. I’m not entirely sure what sort of writer I want to be, what kind of stories I want to tell, or what I want to write about. I don’t think I really have a ‘voice.’ F. Scott Fitzgerald published his first novel when he was 24. I’m 23 and surely should have at least a draft by now so, you know, maybe it’s time to give up the dream.
At the end of my junior year, after my college ultimate frisbee team had finished playing at Regionals, our last tournament of the season, I told the captain of the team that I hadn’t been happy with my playing time at the tournament. He looked me straight in the eye and told me that I wasn’t given that much playing time in big games because athletically, physically, I couldn’t be relied upon.
He was, of course, completely right. After three years of playing, I had a pretty good understanding of the game intellectually. But for one reason or another, I simply was not self-aware enough to see my own limitations. Humbling, to say the least. So I spent the next summer, fall, and winter working my ass off in the gym and a year later I was a captain of the team.
Getting rejected from that internship – Holy of Holies! – was the best thing that could have happened to me, because it made me realize that not only is this – the world of stories and words – the world that I want to be a part of, but it’s the world I have to be a part of. I don’t have a choice. There simply isn’t anything else for me to do. But, because I’m not one of these rare geniuses — is anyone? — I’m going to have to put in the work.
Peet writes of Adams,
Once in a while it’s refreshing to hear from a writer — one who’s still writing, and not yet the stuff of legend — that sometimes those extra ten or twenty years are just how long it takes. There doesn’t always need to be a dramatic story to later-life publication — sometimes a writer may just be spending a couple of decades reading, writing, working, and living enough to know what it is he’s writing about. Often those intervening years are simply about showing up.
If you have the privilege to choose what you want to do with your life – if you are not forced by circumstance into one job, one industry, one career or another – then you have the responsibility to try your damndest to do the thing that makes you happiest. After all — not to get too gooey about it — the ancient myth of genius was of a divine spirit that resided not in particular individuals but in everyone. Which is a rather different thing than what we usually think about when we think about “genius.”
So I guess all of this is simply to say, not everyone is F. Scott Fitzgerald. And that’s, you know, OK.