David Brooks recently wrote a Times Op-Ed column about modern genius which praised the discipline of intense long-term practice over the subjective merits of the divine spark of "genius". Months earlier, Malcolm Gladwell penned a New Yorker essay called "Late Bloomers" which compared precocious literary prodigies, like Jonathan Safran Foer, with authors who first "made it" in middle age, like Ben Fountain. The former piece inspired a hissy fit of Letters to the Editor from writers who felt their genius was being insulted, while the latter piece garnered cheers of approval from my undergrad students at NYU for the hot, young prodigies who just sat down and did it, no sweat!  (Full disclosure: several kids in the hall banged out novels on their cell phones during a break in class.)


You don't need to be a genius to know that most worthwhile things in life tend to take longer, and need much more work than we wish. (Pool hustling and s'mores-making being the obvious exceptions.)


Thanks to the scholarship of John Leland we now know that there was a great deal more labor involved in On the Road than the scroll myth would have us believe. And more recently, Junot Diaz's breakthrough novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, may have wowed us with its wit and verve, but it actually took sixteen years of sweat for Diaz to write a book which was so effortless to read.


So, how about channeling Flannery O'Connor who wrote this letter to a young writer back in 1957: "I'm a full-time believer in writing habits, pedestrian as it all may sound. You may be able to do without them, but most of us only have talent and this is something that simply has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away."


This Week's Exercise for Key-Bangers:

"Writing Hours" 

More glamorous exercises to come later, but first ...come up with three two-hour blocks of time, or two three-hour blocks as your weekly "writing hours". Make every effort to show up, just like you would for a class, or your own book party, dagnabbit! Good luck, scribes, and report in to all of us on how it's going. Remember we're writers; we're a gang not a club.


Editor's Note: Jill is a writing coach, a freelance editor and teaches writing and editing at New York University. Her forthcoming book, Bang the Keys: Four Steps to a Lifelong Writing Practice will be published this August. For more: www.bangthekeys.com.

Message Edited by PaulH on 06-22-2009 01:30 PM
by RHCombs on ‎05-18-2009 01:39 PM
The myth of "effortless inspiration" dies hard.  Thanks for a pithy reminder that commitment and discipline are essential in order to generate those exhilarating moments when inspiration truly takes over and guides the creative process.
by Blogger Jill_Dearman on ‎05-18-2009 01:42 PM
Thanks for the mention of this myth and for the kind use of the word pith(y)!
by Zoola on ‎05-18-2009 01:52 PM
Read that Malcolm Gladwell article when it came out and found it truly inspiring.  It is easy to feel discouraged when confronted with tales (whether true or not) of wunderkinder who spin out works of "genius" in a week or two, but the reality is that for most of us it is more a matter of self discipline and persistence.  Hard work really does pay off, and with time comes more opportunities for discovery and re-examination which are what can really make your work deeper and more meaningful in the long run.
by -Michelle on ‎05-18-2009 04:04 PM
I always say it takes at least 10 years of hard work to become an "overnight sensation."  You suddenly notice hot, "new" actors in bit parts from when they were younger and breakout authors with hit books have often written one or more before under a different name or not.  There's no substitution for plain old hard work. Thanks for the (pithy indeed!) reminder.
by Shotmonster on ‎05-18-2009 06:51 PM
You may think you're that young hot genius who can sit down and rattle off a masterpiece at age 22, but I'm going to tell you you're not. And I hate to break it to you, but the odds are on my side. Too many "writers" (as well as filmmakers) are poser phonies who blather on about art and truth but never actually produce anything of merit or meaning. So listen carefully: YOU ARE NOT A GENIUS. Thus all you have left is what the rest of us have, hard work.  There is no substitute for practicing your art. If you want to be a writer, then you had damn well better be writing on a regular basis. Don't chase inspiration. Inspiration is not a magical powder that falls form the sky, inspiration is a muscle. Force yourself to write and you will force your brain to come up with things to write about. Get to it.
by -Genevieve on ‎05-18-2009 07:54 PM

I'm blessed to have Jill as my writing coach. Her sense of humor helps put the challenges and rewards of the writing life in perspective. Her love of language inspires my own use of words. Most of all, her firm insistence that a writer writes is testament to her devotion to the craft. She's a modern day Dorothy Parker: wise, witty, and never afraid to speak the truth. Following Jill's advice won't make you a member of the Algonquin table--Who wants to be dead, anyway?--but it will put you on the writer's journey. So turn on the laptop, and bang the keys!


by isabellarosePS on ‎05-19-2009 07:54 AM

Hi everyone.  I'm an exciting new writing talent sponsored by the arts council at the age of 73 for To Catch a Thief an intriguing mystery romance. isbn9781849230063

After selling adults and childrens stories for over 40 years I'm an overnight success as they say.

My first book Dady's Little Spy - Isabella Rose's amazing survival against witchcraft in WW2 has accolade on back cover from Jude Morgan author of Passion in U.S.A.


And my video which lasts 5 minutes is apparently inspiring all mature writers to keep going.


So your never too late to follow your dream.


by rayriggs on ‎05-19-2009 09:18 PM

No worthwhile achievement ever happens overnight.  Talent must be applied, and having a writing coach like Jill is an excellent way to help you realize your genius.  Genius will remain hidden unless you dligently coax it out.


 That's a great first-week exercise.  Can't wait to see what else Jill has in store for us.

by starrXX on ‎05-19-2009 09:21 PM
Being good at pool hustling might take while.  Why should we be surprised that writing is complex- using both sides of our brains- free flowing content of right brain and structure from the left.
by DebsterNYC on ‎05-19-2009 10:19 PM

Thanks for posting on the Brooks article. I hadn't seen it. It seems, as with everything, the answer is a little bit of both positions. There's certainly no replacing having a writing practice as a way of improving, but I know I have read material in workshops written by people who are hardworking and turn out page after page of the exact same unreadable prose.


Genius, on the other hand, isn't in being 25 and sexy. Instead I would define it as the ability to reframe. We are all always telling the same story over and over again and genius as a trait looks for what is working and not working and is brutally honest about it. Genius tells you not just to kill your darlings, but to knock it off with your ego too. At least in the work. After you've got your genius mojo down, then its 25 year old sexy people fetching you your coffee day and night. Or so I've read.

by naomi12 on ‎05-20-2009 09:15 PM

After hearing Gladwell on MSNBC or Jon Stewart (maybe both) and reading his essay, and THEN reading that wonderful inspirational note from the "overnight" sensation of the 70 something, I realize I no longer have to be the self-punisher I labelled myself.


Practice IS the key, and talent will out.


Great essay on a topic that should always be in the zeitgeist.

by GSimmons on ‎05-20-2009 09:49 PM
The book Building Talent in Young People researched talented kids who became world class artists, athletes and scientists in adulthood.  By the time they entered high school, many were thought to possess "natural" talent.  The researchers discovered that by the time these kids were 16 years old they'd already had a good ten years of practice on their instrument, sport, etc.  Parents of Olympic gymnasts moved the whole family thousands of miles from home to study with a world class trainer.  The myth of easy success persists despite evidence showing there is no substitute for years of hard work.
by Queenslogicohmy on ‎05-20-2009 11:14 PM

I'm of the opinion that whether you're a hot young writer or a seasoned and well-published Harvard English Lit professor, you've got to write from a central core truth that is universally understood.  Because everybody, no matter where they come from, can spot a cliche, a borrowed sentiment, a fake poseur.  So in that instance, I have to agree that the only way to become a good writer is to write, every day, with discipline, whether or not you're in the mood, whether or not you're inspired.


Life is stingy enough with handing out inspiration - you've got to get it where you find it.  Even harder is getting to the truth - finding those words that make the reader nod and say, "Yeah, that's right.  I get that.  Of course." 


I think it's easier to find truth than to find inspiration.  But if you find truth, you're more likely to find inspiration as well.  So you've got to start somewhere - even from a position of boredom or apathy.  


You are so right, Jill.  We all have to get out there, somehow, and just try.  Thanks for the words of wisdom.

by Victoria_Earle on ‎05-21-2009 02:12 PM
I have two three-hour dialysis sessions per week, and I take my laptop with me every time. Good article Jill!
by Blogger Jill_Dearman on ‎05-21-2009 03:02 PM
Victoria, my Dad was on dialysis in the old days of dialysis; I can only imagine what a challenge it can be. Your comment is inpiring. There's something called "fire in the belly" Victoria, that can't be taught or bought (though practice helps!) Anyway; you've got it. Nice to meet you and keep us posted on how it goes! Jill www.bangthekeys.com
by AnnieAS on ‎05-21-2009 05:29 PM
Good post, Jill. Just a note on your exercise - Do you think two or three hour blocks of writing hours will really help? Why I am asking is because I feel that writing comes naturally, it can't be forced. You can produce great pieces in just an hour of irregular writing, and not produce anything worthwhile in your "blocks" if the flow of ideas or words is not there at the time.
by Blogger Jill_Dearman on ‎05-21-2009 08:24 PM
Nice to meet you Annie. I think the 6 hrs are minimum. A place to start. Think of it like walking 6 hrs a week. It's great to walk more, but you wouldn't start by assigning yourself 50 hrs. If you show up the muse will find you is my philosophy. The more consistent you are, the more consistent the muse. Sometimes assigning oneself 500 words a day is good. Sure, some days will be uninspired, but you may get one great idea or sentence. Other days -- magic. Definitely interested in hearing from writers: how do you manage your writing schedules? Going back to mine now!
by LFeeney on ‎05-29-2009 07:18 AM

Thank you Jill,


This is very inspiring for me and I can see from your feedback here everyone is getting it. I have an index card taped to the refridgerator that says "Practice Stendhal's 20 lines a day."

  And thanks for all the good feedback with our last lesson.   It took a day to wrap my mind around it but who needs 18 desserts? I'm on it.


by WarrenBerger on ‎09-28-2009 03:38 PM

I'm four months late to this discussion, but having just finished a 350-page nonfiction book I can testify to the Butt in Chair school of writing. You just have to sit down everyday and do it. The good moments only come after all the rust has been cleared out of the pipes. The topic of my own book provided plenty of insight into this. Here are two short sections from it:


"NEVER MIND THE BOOKSHELF: In discussing the Begin Anywhere principle, designer Bruce Mau likes to tell the story of a writer he knew who was determined to write an ambitious book on a big subject. The writer, Mau recalls, 'was always preparing to get started—always arranging his bookshelves, and organizing his office' so that he would have everything he needed, right where he needed it, as he began this very challenging and daunting task. But somehow, Mau says, he never did begin, and still hasn't to this day."




"FINALLY: HOW TO DESIGN HAPPINESS: According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (director of the Quality of Life Research Center in Claremont, California), the condition of "flow" is characterized by being totally immersed and completely engaged in what you are doing, to the extent that time seems to stop. People who are in a state of flow 'experience intense concentration and enjoyment, coupled with peak performance,' he says. The kinds of activites that can bring us into this state are ones that involve a challenge—and there is a delicate balance involved, in that the challenge should be difficult, but also one that we 'feel confident we can handle with our existing skills.'"


Writing for me is that balanced blend of challenge and confidence that I need to get into the flow, a wonderful feeling which brought me back to my desk day after day (once I stopped rearranging the bookshelves). My book is not about writing per se but I found much of what I learned applied to the writer's life. If you're curious about my book GLIMMER, check out GlimmerSite.com for more about the book and its themes.

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