The Myth of the Writer Genius
Do you believe in Santa Claus? The Easter Bunny? The Tooth Fairy? How about the Writer Genius?
I believed in the Writer Genius for many years. He was this special, misunderstood person whose waters ran very deep. He was someone who had amazing novels and short stories swimming inside him like fish, just waiting to be caught and hauled up into the light of day. All he had to do was sit at the computer, cast the fishing line into his deepest depths, and type.
Oh, sure. He had to work to get those stories out, but it was his genius that created them. That genius was every bit as much a part of him as the color of his eyes, the shape of his hands, or the sound of his voice. That genius meant that story was something he didn’t have to worry about. All he had to do was find the words to embody that story.
And the really great thing was, in all possibility, I could be that writer genius. How many were the days that I sat down at my computer with an idea that seemed so full of potential? How many were the drafts I pumped out? How many were the critics who said, “Yeah, it’s fine.”
Fine? Obviously you don’t grasp what I’m doing here. Don’t you see the nuances? Can’t you catch the symbolism? Isn’t the story’s soul blindingly apparent?
I spent quite a few years trying to be the Writer Genius. Finally, I had to give up because it was evident to me that I had no natural storytelling talent. I was about as far from being the Writer Genius as it was possible to be. But I’m a stubborn cuss. I wanted to be a writer anyway, so I enrolled in a creative writing M.F.A. program.
I learned something during that time that opened an entirely new world to me, a world that made it possible for me to be a writer. That something is a single principle. And I’m going to give it to you free of charge, just because you’re you.
It is simply this: There is a craft to storytelling, just as there is a craft to engine design, or architecture, or artificial sweetener formulation.
This idea excited me so much that I spent the next five years studying it. The main text I used was Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. It may seem odd to focus on a screenwriting book when one wants to learn story craft, but, as I found out, screenplays are story skeletons. They’re the bones that the cast and crew hang flesh upon. You don’t have to cut through flowery language or extended metaphors or languorous description. You’re just looking at the beams and bones that make sure a building or body can stand. And there are ways to know if they will hold up, or if the art direction, costumes, actors, soundtrack and cinematography are just makeup on a cadaver.
Though I was obsessed with understanding the components that made a good story, it took me a while to learn to apply them. I look back on my M.F.A. thesis and cringe. Why in the world did they let me graduate?
But eventually, my work started to pay off. I could tell because the first time I submitted a screenplay to a film festival, they took my $20 entrance fee and never spoke to me again. The next time around, I revised that screenplay and won third place. The kicker was, I could tell what the problems with my screenplay were, and I could fix them. It was like fixing a toaster.
After that I got published and won writing contests on a regular basis. But it wasn’t because the Writer Genius in me had finally woken up, it was because I knew how stories work, just like an architect knows how buildings work, or an engine designer knows how engines work.
Learning the craft of storytelling has been great for my career. I can actually make a living with words. However, sharing my knowledge has proved to be very difficult.
As I think back on the majority of the fiction I have read, it all has one thing in common. It lacks story. Yes, those pieces of fiction may have lovely language, they may have sympathetic characters, they may have interesting ideas, but they don’t go anywhere.
I’ve written a lot of critiques to fiction writers focusing on their story’s structure, and with almost no exception I receive this response, “What in the world are you talking about? This is how the story GOES!”
That, gentle reader, is the voice of one who is under the thrall of the Writer Genius myth. It’s the voice of someone who believes that storytelling is an innate power they have. Like me many years ago, they don’t realize that there is a craft to storytelling.
As Robert McKee writes, “The novice plunges ahead, counting solely on experience, thinking that that life he’s lived and the films he’s seen give him something to say and the way to say it … What the novice mistakes for craft is simply his unconscious absorption of story elements from every novel, film, or plays he’s ever encountered. As he writes, he matches his work by trial and error against a model built up from accumulated reading and watching. The unschooled writer calls this “instinct,” but it’s merely habit and it’s rigidly limiting. He either imitates his mental prototype or imagines himself in the avant-garde and rebels against it. But the haphazard groping toward or revolt against the sum of unconsciously ingrained repetitions is not, in any sense, technique, and leads to screenplays clogged with clichés of either the commercial or the art house variety” (15-16).
Lack of story craft is the bane of Mormon fiction. In fact, I believe it is the main barrier that keeps Mormon writing from gaining the strength to compete in the national and international markets. Too many potential Mormon writers think that there’s a Writer Genius inside of them just waiting to get out. I figure that a Writer Genius pops up only once for every million people born. Possibly less often. But the Writer Genius myth is so powerful that a great many people who could be good writers, if only they learned the craft, spend their lives waiting for a fish that never bites.