The Myth of the Writer as Genius

Mary Elizabeth Pope
Mary Elizabeth

One of the first things students considering a major in writing need to understand is that they do not have to be geniuses to be good writers. The myth of the writer as genius is probably the single greatest obstacle that otherwise interested, talented and hardworking students have to overcome to pursue a career path in writing. 

It doesn’t help that actual geniuses like James Baldwin have given talks like “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” in which he says:  “It would seem to me . . . that the poets . . . are finally the only people who know the truth. Soldiers don’t, statesmen don’t, priests don’t, union leaders don’t. Only the poets.” 

And the fact is, there are a few geniuses like James Baldwin out there who do seem to be channeling truth from the ethers. It is this handful of writers like Jonathan Safran Foer (whose college thesis became the novel Everything is Illuminated) or Joyce Carol Oates (who once admitted she cannot recall how many books she has published) or Sherman Alexie (who is said to have read The Grapes of Wrath at age five) that make my writing students believe they cannot possibly be real writers, because real writers’ prose flows effortlessly and gets published instantly, and does not return to them littered with my comments about comma splices.

“You don’t have to be a genius to be a good writer. Like most things we get good at over time, you simply have to be willing to work hard and stay with it.”

Mary Elizabeth Pope, Professor of English

But this myth of genius persists because we generally don’t hear about the struggle most writers face on their path to publishing their work, like Louisa May Alcott, who was told to stick to teaching because she couldn’t write. Rudyard Kipling was informed that he didn’t know how to use the English language. Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms 47 times. Kurt Vonnegut custom-built a box large enough to hold the sheer volume of his rejections. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time was rejected 22 times before winning a Newbury Medal, and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was rejected 38 times before eventually winning the Pulitzer Prize.

We don’t hear these stories much, because who wants to believe that writing isn’t simply flights of fancy, joyous sparks of inspiration, brilliant ideas editors instantly recognize as such? We want to believe our first drafts will always be perfect, certainly not that they almost always require revision and editing and studying the intricacies of the publishing market to give our writing an edge. That’s not very glamorous. In fact, it looks suspiciously like a lot of hard work.

Which is really the good news here: you don’t have to be a genius to be a good writer. Like most things we get good at over time, you simply have to be willing to work hard and stay with it and learn to take rejection in stride, just like Louisa May Alcott, Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Madeleine L’Engle, and Margaret Mitchell. Not bad company to keep, when you think about it.

Mary Elizabeth Pope
Mary Elizabeth Pope

Mary Elizabeth Pope is Professor of English at Emmanuel College. She holds a B.S. and M.A. in English from Central Michigan University, a Post-Graduate Diploma in African Studies from University of Cape Town in South Africa, and a Ph.D. in. English and Creative Writing from University of Iowa. She has written a book of short fiction, Divining Venus: Stories (Waywiser Press) and her short stories and essays have appeared in Florida Review, Bellingham Review, Fugue, Ascent, Sycamore Review and many others. She lives in Needham with her husband, Matt Elliott, who also teaches English at Emmanuel College when he is not turning off the oven she left on, finding keys she lost, or teaching her to use the remote control for the 125th time, and who knows better than anyone else that his wife is not a genius.