Are Writers Born or Made? Jack Kerouac on the Crucial Difference Between Talent and Genius

jackkerouac_tompalumboOriginal Article at Brain Pickings

I will quote from Brain Pickings directly, but please go read the whole article, and perhaps the original piece by my Lowell native hometown hero, Jack Kerouac.

Kerouac begins with bombast:

Writers are made, for anybody who isn’t illiterate can write; but geniuses of the writing art like Melville, Whitman or Thoreau are born.

He turns to the word “genius” itself — the history of which has a played a powerful role in shaping creative culture — and examines its meaning:

[Genius] doesn’t mean screwiness or eccentricity or excessive “talent.” It is derived from the Latin word gignere (to beget) and a genius is simply a person who originates something never known before. Nobody but Melville could have written Moby-Dick, not even Whitman or Shakespeare. Nobody but Whitman could have written Leaves of Grass; Whitman was born to write Leaves of Grass and Melville was born to write Moby-Dick.

Kerouac takes particular issue with the conflation of “talent” and “genius”:

Some perfect virtuoso who can interpret Brahms on the violin is called a “genius,” but the genius, the originating force, really belongs to Brahms; the violin virtuoso is simply a talented interpreter — in other words, a “Talent.” Or you’ll hear people say that so-and-so is a “major writer” because of his “talent.” There can be no major writers without original genius. Artists of genius, like Jackson Pollock, have painted things that have never been seen before… Take the case of James Joyce: people say he “wasted” his “talent” on the stream-of-consciousness style, when in fact he was simply born to originate it.

As my fellow writer and friend Matt informed me, originality is his most trying pursuit when it comes to writing. Here I was thinking the biggest crux was trying to avoid Facebook distraction. There is an old saying that all stories have been told. The Seven Stories notion that all plot can be returned to the same seven conflicts –

  1. man against man
  2. man against nature
  3. man against himself
  4. man against God
  5. man against society
  6. man caught in the middle
  7. man and woman

This may very well be true, but it is HOW a writer delves into the conflict that we find the originality. It is in the power to make us feel that true mastery comes through.

I would venture to say that the Geniuses that were creating new and wild things were completely oblivious to the fact that they were doing so as it occured. Those hell bent on being new and original often become the pretentious gits no one wants at their dinner parties, but those who HAVE to write, who feel compelled to do so, will most times bring something forward that only they can. It is inevitable.


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