It all started with Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, a novel I have never read and most likely never will. The year was 1999 and it appeared in my school library in hardback with pristine white sleeve as part of Everyman Library’s Millenium Classics series.
The foreword began by putting Pasternak in the same bracket as Shakespeare and Goethe as among the few writers in history who managed to achieve greatness in both prose and verse. As a 15-year-old inmate of an all-boy’s faith school desperate to somehow, someday feel significant, the idea of becoming a writer hooked me.
Through university, I focused my studies on literature, music, creative writing and film studies. These things seemed the most likely way of, like Pasternak, being considered a genius and staying above the rat race.
Upon graduation, I noticed there was a strange shortage of employers beating a path to my door. It was time for a change of plan. Maybe the safety of the rat race wasn’t so bad after all.
My twenties were a series of international misadventures. In Illinois, I had a job selling books door-to-door.
Our rather cultish Tennesseean employers filled us with an entirely new vocabulary to make sense of our experience. Getting the cops called on us was a BLA – a blue light award. Every morning, in the Denny’s car park, we were expected to perform EEs – executive exercises, similar to the New Zealand Hakka. The latter was aimed at helping us grow accustomed to receiving dirty looks.
After America, I spent two long stretches in China. There I learned the language well enough to write songs in it. I performed regularly, got mostly positive feedback and some mild notoriety. But being famous or thought of as a genius no longer interested me. What interested me now was the principle laid out in DH Lawrence’s “Self-Protection”:
A nightingale singing at the top of his voice
Is neither hiding himself nor preserving himself nor propagating his species;
He is giving himself away in every sense of the word;
And obviously, it is the culminating point of his existence.
On turning thirty, I decided that music was a young man’s game and I needed to finally knuckle-down with my career. Short story writing seemed like a grown-up and sensible thing to do.
In February 2014, I finally landed a very good job and devoted most free time to my fiction. For the first three years, I struggled to produce anything good, but learned a lot about literature and life in the process.
One of those was that fortunately, nobody who is motivated by such egotistical nonsense as being thought of as a genius gets very far in the writing game. The decade after my discovery of Pasternak’s novel saw the emergence of “Pop Idol”, “The X Factor” and countless viral sensations which showed that the people most keen on achieving fame are also those least mentally equipped to deal with it.
In struggling to write well and observing how all writer’s struggle I concluded that “genius” was an invention of the patriarchy. If there is even any such thing then it is okay not to be one.
In What Good Are the Arts, when arguing that literature is the greatest artform of all, John Carey explains that it is a deeply middle-class artform. Historically, it is hostile to any hint of pride, grandeur, or self-esteem.
To argue his point, he cites the last lines of George Eliot’s Middlemarch: “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Clearly, if my 15-year-old self were a character in a work of literature, he wouldn’t stand a chance.
By the end of 2017, I had received three acceptance letters and, upon being published, all three short stories were well received. Becoming a published author did not make a lick of difference to my income or social status.
Still, it was all worth it. Another piece of terminology from my time in America was that a zero-sales day (of which I had many) was known as a CBD – character-building day. I was reminded of this when I saw a quote from George Saunders in The Believer:
“The chances of a person breaking through their own habits and sloth and limited mind to actually write something that gets out there and matters to people are slim.” But it’s a mistake, he added, to think of writing programs in terms that are “too narrowly careerist…Even for those thousands of young people who don’t get something out there, the process is still a noble one-the process of trying to say something, of working through craft issues and the worldview issues and the ego issues – all of this is character-building, and, God forbid, everything we do should have concrete career results. I’ve seen time and time again the way the process of trying to say something dignifies and improves a person.”
Now I just need to figure out what to do with my life.
(c) Kevin McGeary