The Mark Blog

The Genius Dilemma

Sad to say, but it seems I was not born a genius. At least, not according to my accomplishments thus far. Whether it’s my genes, upbringing, motivation, discipline, or some kind of mystical selection process, I have not been bestowed with a brilliant mind or the kind of prodigious talent that made Mozart begin composing at the age of five, Michael Jackson a super-star by 10, and Bob Dylan write some of his best songs before he hit 25.

This begs the question: not being a genius, should I bother? Does the world need more decent writers when it already has so many great ones?

According to the book Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, the answer is a definitive yes, especially if I want the human race to survive. Stories are what ignites the brain, teaches it how to function and live. Essentially, without stories, the human race would be doomed.

Ms. Cron offers helpful advice for writers based on how the brain processes stories and how that can tell us a lot about what makes a story successful. She’s a proponent of the traditional narrative: the protagonist with a definable goal, a clear intention behind it, vast obstacles in the way, building and leading to a climax and a resolution. Oh, and all of it should say something about the human condition.

She also argues that the vast majority of successful writers aren’t genius-like rule-breakers forging new literary paths like James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Djuna Barnes, etc. Writers shouldn’t be worrying about striving for genius, we should be worrying about telling a good story, which can be hard enough as it is. If we were geniuses like them, she argues, “we’d long have since been published, and universities would offer graduate seminars on our work.”

I could quibble with her investigation of this phenomenon; she sums up their genius as something “in their DNA,” which seems a little simplistic given the fact that the book is about brain science. And I don’t think it’s wrong to want to emulate some great writers, to strive for new ways of telling stories. Though in truth, even experimental writing often follows some of the basic rules of narrative storytelling.

Earlier in the book she explains why The DaVinci Code, horribly written as it is, sold millions of copies. It was the story that made people want to keep flipping pages. While this may be true, anyone who really cares about writing wants it all to shine from the sentence level to the larger mechanics of the plot. Flouting the traditional story conventions just to be different can lead to messy, non-specific, and non-compelling writing. But, to a discerning reader, so can clinging to them too tightly. Smart readers don’t want to feel they’re being manipulated by formula. They want to lose themselves in the story, and not think about the form at all.

More attractive and perhaps accessible than the geniuses are the writers who toil for years, and who only improve over time. The New Yorker did a study a few years back found that there was no definitive correlation between writer’s ages and their most highly regarded work. For every Rimbaud, who quit at 20, there’s a Dostoevsky, who wrote his magnum opus The Brothers Karamazov on his deathbed. Of course, he was exiled to a Siberian work camp for many years, so he had a pretty good excuse as to why his 30s weren’t so productive. Better, I guess, than “too much partying.”