Pinned Beneath the Boulder
Ithink society did a great disservice to artists when we started saying that certain people were geniuses, instead of saying they had geniuses. That happened around the Renaissance, with the rise of a more rational and human-centered view of life. The gods and the mysteries fell away, and suddenly we put all the credit and blame for creativity on the artists themselves—making the all-too-fragile humans completely responsible for the vagaries of inspiration.
In the process, we also venerated art and artists beyond their appropriate stations. The distinction of “being a genius” (and the rewards and status often associated with it) elevated creators into something like a priestly caste—perhaps even into minor deities—which I think is a bit too much pressure for mere mortals, no matter how talented. That’s when artists start to really crack, driven mad and broken in half by the weight and weirdness of their gifts.
When artists are burdened with the label of “genius,” I think they lose the ability to take themselves lightly, or to create freely. Consider Harper Lee, for instance, who wrote nothing for decades after the phenomenonal success of To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1962, when Lee was asked how she felt about the possibility of ever writing another book, she replied, “I’m scared.” She also said, “When you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go.”
Because Lee never elaborated more definitively on her situation, we will never know why this wildly successful author didn’t go on to write dozens more books in her lifetime. But I wonder if perhaps she had become pinned beneath the boulder of her own reputation. Maybe it all got too heavy, too freighted with responsibility, and her artistry died of fear—or worse, self-competition. (What was there for Harper Lee to be afraid of, after all? Possibly just this: That she could not outdo Harper Lee.)
As for having reached the top, with only one way to go from there, Lee had a point, no? I mean, if you cannot repeat a once-in-a-lifetime miracle—if you can never again reach the top—then why bother creating at all? Well, I can actually speak about this predicament from personal experience, because I myself was once “at the top”—with a book that sat on the bestseller list for more than three years. I can’t tell you how many people said to me during those years, “How are you ever going to top that?” They’d speak of my great good fortune as though it were a curse, not a blessing, and would speculate about how terrified I must feel at the prospect of not being able to reach such phenomenal heights again.
But such thinking assumes there is a “top”—and that reaching that top (and staying there) is the only motive one has to create. Such thinking assumes that the mysteries of inspiration operate on the same scale that we do—on a limited human scale of success and failure, of winning and losing, of comparison and competition, of commerce and reputation, of units sold and influence wielded. Such thinking assumes that you must be constantly victorious—not only against your peers, but also against an earlier version of your own poor self. Most dangerously of all, such thinking assumes that if you cannot win, then you must not continue to play.
But what does any of that have to do with vocation? What does any of that have to do with the pursuit of love? What does any of that have to do with the strange communion between the human and the magical? What does any of that have to do with faith? What does any of that have to do with the quiet glory of merely making things, and then sharing those things with an open heart and no expectations?
I wish that Harper Lee had kept writing. I wish that, right after Mockingbird and her Pulitzer Prize, she had churned out five cheap and easy books in a row—a light romance, a police procedural, a children’s story, a cookbook, some kind of pulpy action-adventure story, anything. You might think I’m kidding, but I’m not. Imagine what she might have created, even accidentally, with such an approach. At the very least, she could have tricked everyone into forgetting that she’d once been Harper Lee. She could have tricked herself into forgetting that she’d once been Harper Lee, which might have been artistically liberating.
Fortunately, after so many decades of silence, we do get to hear more of Lee’s voice. Recently, a lost early manuscript of hers was discovered—a novel that she wrote before To Kill a Mockingbird (in other words: a book that she wrote before the entire world was watching and waiting for what she would do next, hovering with expectation). But I wish someone had been able to convince Lee to keep writing for the entirety of her life, and to keep publishing all along. It would have been a gift to the world. And it would have been a gift to her, as well—to have been able to remain a writer, and to have enjoyed the pleasures and satisfactions of that work for herself (because in the end, creativity is a gift to the creator, not just a gift to the audience).
I wish somebody had given Ralph Ellison the same sort of advice. Just write anything and put it out there with reckless abandon. And F. Scott Fitzgerald, too. And any other creator, famous or obscure, who ever vanished beneath the shadow of their own real or imagined reputation. I wish somebody had told them all to go fill up a bunch of pages with blah-blah-blah and just publish it, for heaven’s sake, and ignore the outcome.
Does it seem sacrilegious even to suggest this?
Just because creativity is mystical doesn’t mean it shouldn’t also be demystified—especially if it means liberating artists from the confines of their own grandiosity, panic, and ego.