Sunday, September 04, 2011

Writing in a Different Direction

This good English essay was submitted by Roger McKnight. He is married with four kids - two in college and two in high school. He owns an Electrical Contracting business in Colorado. You can submit your essay and get it published on this blog too!

Many people are capable of writing well, but to be a quality writer – say, in the league with Robert Louis Stevenson or Herman Melville – you just have to start young. It also doesn’t hurt if you are born with a certain gift for words and for story-telling. Or, maybe that’s not quite the whole story. Although the statement just made may reflect a certain bias held by some academics or even the average college student, it does not really hold up under close scrutiny.

The fact is, one of Robert Louis Stevenson’s most memorable works – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – was written in his early thirties. True, depending on which side of thirty you are, this may seem young, but it does give hope to those who are awestruck by such authors as Mary Shelly, who was twenty-one when she published Frankenstein. I like to look at more recent writers, such as the late Michael Crichton, who was 48 years old when he wrote Jurassic Park or Ernest Hemingway, who wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls when he was forty –one.

There was an interesting article from the New Yorker entitled: “Late Bloomers”. It was written by Malcolm Gladwell on October 20th 2008. Below the title of the article is a question: “Why do we equate genius with precocity?” It is preceded by a cartoon depicting an old man in front of a painting easel and drawing what appears to be a nude figure on a beach. Below and separate from this cartoon sits a baby in diapers with a paintbrush in his hand. He too is painting, but this portrait is obviously intended to be from Picasso. There is a quote below these cartoons; “Picasso’s greatest works came early; C├ęzanne’s came late”

Mr. Gladwell begins his article by focusing on a man by the name of Ben Fountain. Fountain was a lawyer who decided one day that he would change careers and quit his law practice to become a writer. He was fairly young – it would appear about thirty years old – and he began a very disciplined life-style as he commenced with this new venture. He had not written anything other than professional pieces before in his life, yet he began working on creating fiction stories.

Ben Fountain averaged about thirty rejections for even one of his submissions to be accepted, but still he persevered. He went through a “dark” period in his life soon after this, yet continued to write. Periodically, he would sell a story, which encouraged him to maintain his daily disciplines. After spending four years writing a novel that he decided not to submit, he put together a collection of short stories about Che Guevara. A publisher printed them and he quickly became a respected and sought-after author.

So, there are now two themes that come to mind on this subject of quality writing: what age does one have to be to produce something special, and, can anyone do as Ben Fountain did, and successfully change careers after a decade of practicing something completely unrelated? Looking again at some well-known authors, I found that Alexander Dumas was forty eight when he wrote The Count of Monte Cristo. John Steinbeck was thirty-seven when he published The Grapes of Wrath. And speaking of Steinbeck, he is another case for my second point: before he succeeded as a writer, he was a handyman working on a resort in South Lake Tahoe. That certainly makes the case that, at least in America, an individual is not bound in life to one career or another.

Returning to the article in the New Yorker -- after using the story of Ben Fountain as an anecdote, Mr. Gladwell then continues on with his article examining whether there is truth in the thought that “genius equates to precocity”. In other words, the true genius’ of the past expressed their special gifts or talents very early in life. They were precocious.

He then looks at some known geniuses, such as Herman Melville and T.S. Eliot and Mozart and their significant accomplishments made at a very young age. These seem to make the case that the freshness of youth is necessary for genius material and lyrical creativity. However, he then looks at a study published by an economist from the University of Chicago which analyzed forty-seven major poetry anthologies. The conclusion was that many “masterpieces” were written well after the poet or writers prime of life.

The thesis of this article clearly is that older writers still have an opportunity to make some contribution to the world of literature and poetry. To support this idea, he uses the real life story of the lawyer –turned - writer, Ben Fountain. He concludes with the results of the economist from the University of Chicago’s study which reinforces this conclusion.

Mr. Gladwell’s argument is, for me at least, very persuasive. The point he makes is that genius is not necessarily linked to precocity, or precociousness. What he means by those terms is simply “youthfulness”. He begins by admitting that there are many examples of youthful genius’ throughout the arts, but after acknowledging this, he makes the case that this is not the whole story. To make his case even more compelling, he ends with the examples of Frost, Williams, and Bishop – persons who contributed significantly to their chosen professions long after the spring of youth.

The narrative of the life of Ben Fountain is appealing to anyone who has studied for and even invested several years in a career, only to find out it was not what they expected and decide they would like to try something else. For anyone who has held an interest in writing, it is good encouragement at the very least.

I found myself particularly tuned into this topic as I have had something of a similar experience in my life. I spent eight years learning and practicing a trade, after which I took another related but very different employment for twelve years. When my oldest children were almost grown, we moved to a different country for a little over a year. When I returned, I could have gone back to my old, “safe” job but instead took a risk and opened up my own business.

That was three years ago, and now I won’t try to guess what the next chapter will be in my life. So, the story of Ben Fountain is something I can relate to. It also appeals to me. Having experienced the fear and uncertainty of leaving a steady paycheck, I respect anyone who attempts to “follow their dream”, if, I might add, it does not destroy the dreams of those who are close to you in the process, for I have seen that happen also. But fear and indecision are some of our greatest adversaries in life. I believe Malcolm Gladwell makes the case well that these doubts can be successfully challenged and defeated, no matter how old you are.

Quality, it seems, knows no age limits. We do indeed need the fresh inspiration of youth as we also need the experience and perspective of age. Each author I mentioned had his or her unique contribution to the world of writing and each one of us may have some epiphany locked within our own souls waiting for release. The key that opens that lock, perhaps, may be something as simple as a choice.

Works Cited

  • Gladwell , Malcolm October 20, 2008 Late Bloomers
  • Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia 6-8 Nov., 2008
  • Crichton, Michael,
  • Dumas, Alexander,
  • Hemingway, Ernest,
  • Melville, Herman,
  • Shelly, Mary,
  • Steinbeck, John,
  • Stevenson, Robert Louis

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