Cynthia’s Column Feb. 2010
I love how reading Malcolm Gladwell makes me think of things in a new way. A chapter in his new book What the Dog Saw, collected essays from The New Yorker, made me understand an aspect of the creative process that I hadn’t before. His question is “Why do we associate genius with precocity?” Are all geniuses prodigies? Are most?
It turns out late bloomers, whom I have written about before, have a different type of creative mind than the wunderkinds. The kids who burst forth with great work in their twenties (your Mozarts, Picassos and Keats) just create their work. They don’t experiment, research, develop a talent as such. The late bloomers evolve in a completely different way. They tend to experiment and feel their way through a lot of bad work, which gradually improves and is eventually great.
What is interesting about this is that it’s impossible to tell the difference between these artists/writers in the process of working their way to great work and those others that will never become great, or even very good. So there is always the risk that someone along the path of these LBs could wipe them out. There are doubtless Cezannes and Grandma Moseses that never emerged due to lack of support. If their parents, spouses or children hadn’t believed in them, discouraged them, or insisted that they give up all this silliness and get a day job, it could well have been the end of a path that would have led to great work. To genius as real as those blazingly brilliant kids.
Late Bloomers often tend not to believe in themselves. They usually have a lot of doubt and self criticism. Cezanne threw away hundreds of paintings he thought worthless. Later an enterprising art dealer went through the village and bought up all the canvasses the locals had saved from the trash heap and stuffed into attics and cupboards.
The deciding factor that distinguishes the Late Bloomers who become geniuses and those potential geniuses who never blossom is the people around them. The support systems. The believers, the ones who love us enough to back our dreams, these are the real unsung heroes.
Stephen King’s wife Abbie believed in him and supported him. She was willing for them to be broke until he broke out and brought home the big bucks.
Gladwell talks about a new writer who recently broke onto the scene. Ben Fountain’s first book of stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, and was named Best Book of the Year by a string of top newspapers. He was a lawyer who quit work to write and take care of his baby. He and his wife Sharon decided to try the experiment. She was also an attorney in Dallas. He wrote every morning and in the afternoons took care of the baby (then the kids) and did the housework. And he broke in with a major splash and the word genius thrown around. And it only took him 18 years. He quit work at 30 and broke in at the age of 48. The real hero of his story is Sharon. She believed in him, and she backed him up. She gave him the opportunity. She was his patron.
The list of the people it took to create one Cezanne is longer. His friends believed in him and shepherded him through years of developing. They showed him how to live in Paris on very little money, how to paint, how to connect to the market. Even his father, who was not noticeably supportive of his son’s artistic endeavors, gave him financial support long after it would be expected of a parent. By the way, his friends who supported him included Zola, Pissarro, Renoir, Degas and Monet.
My own story would never have been possible if my parents hadn’t let me move home after college and write full time. It took three years for me to break in. If they had ever said “Get a real job” I would have had to do that and might never have made it.
So let us be grateful for those angels and patrons in our lives who indulge us, support us, encourage us or feed us as we work toward greatness.
I know there are some of you who have found yourselves suddenly out of work this past year. And I know it may have been a shock and even felt like a disaster.
My sister Laura the spectacular LB (spectacularly blooming, not spectacularly late) had to overcome some seemingly devastating hurdles along the way. She was program coordinator for the Head Start programs in Hawaii, madly in love in a five-year, serious relationship with a lovely man. When the relationship broke up she was devastated. She left that position, the islands and moved, eventually here to Portland. If that crisis had not occurred she would almost certainly still be working for Head Start in Hilo.
When she came here, she didn’t work toward a writing career at first. She worked on getting an MBA and had a bookkeeping job at a small business. When she got laid off from that job, it felt like a pretty bad turn of events. But if it hadn’t happened she might have still been working full time for someone else’s company today. When she moved to Portland and joined Willamette Writers, she started working on writing again in her spare time, but getting laid off actually gave her the time to write her breakout novel, A Certain Slant of Light.
These seemingly bad things turned out to be miraculously lucky events that have led Laura to her true calling. Being the author of five books beloved by readers, published in many languages and optioned for movies and more books in the works. Her inspiring career is the direct result of some real life crises.
So if you are coming up against events like these, lay offs, divorce, financial crisis, even a death in the family, try to see it from a higher perspective. Imagine looking back over your life from the age of 90. You may very well say, thank God I got fired from that job. (Or fill in the blank.) These could be the very turns in your path necessary to put you on the road to your true destiny and the chance for your own internal creative genius to blossom into greatness.
Whatever stage you are in, now is the time to invest your time and energy into your own creative expression. Be your own patron. Give time and money and love and friendship to the artist within you, who needs the opportunity to flower.