There was an interesting post on the Brain Pickings blog with a lengthy quote from Virginia Woolf, in which Woolf, after many words devoted to describing the back-and-forth struggle of our inner writing lives—that push and pull between “this is pretty good” and “oh, this is awful”—declares the writer to be the one who “could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.”
Those of you who know me understand that I identify very well with this quote. Those of you I personally know are prone to struggle with this, too, and I will bet anyone reading this blog has those same self-doubts and moments of surprising genius.
“Are you a genius, or a fool?”
I would answer, “Yes. Both. Sometimes, simultaneously.”
Shooting Par on the Back Nine
Sometimes I compare writing to golf, especially in the area of receiving direct instruction. Like golf, you can learn the basics of writing on your own, but with some direct instruction, you can really excel quickly.
There is another way I think writing is like golf, and that is in those moments of surprise genius.
I’m not a regular golfer, but even when I was (there were a couple of summers, back in Indiana when a friend talked me into joining a golf league and playing as his partner) I was never very good. My round of golf would look like this: short drive, crooked approach, overshoot, three putt. Repeat this, mostly, though with a few little changes (the short drive might become a long, but crooked, drive, or instead of overshooting the green, I put the ball in the sand trap) eighteen times and you have my scorecard.
Except, every once in a while, I’d make a good shot. A REALLY good shot. I would drive straight and true and with good distance. I’d arc a wedge shot up over a stand of trees and plunk the ball onto the green. I’d tee off on a par three and roll the ball to within six inches of the cup.
This sort of thing would happen once or twice out of eighteen holes. A one- or two-percent “success” rate. A genius shot.
And I’d be hooked all over again.
Writing can be the same way. When a sentence is just right—when it surprises even me—it is enough to keep me slogging away at the story.
It is a little foolish. Why keep doing it? I know the odds are certainly NOT in my favor.
I believe I have more natural ability to write than play golf, thank goodness, but I also know that I miss more than I hit. It can be discouraging to write for two hours, knowing the entire time the words I’m laying down are not up to par. And then, out of nowhere, a golden nugget appears. Suddenly, there is a line or an image or a phrase that makes the ugly stuff worth it.
And You, Sir? Ma’am?
Are you stuck? Have you lost the passion for a piece of writing? Have you talked yourself into being a fool?
You may be. But, I bet you’re also a genius.
Pull out that manuscript that you’ve lost faith in, grab a green or blue highlighter, and re-read the words you wrote. Highlight the ones that surprised you when you wrote them, or that surprise you now, when you re-read them.
And take heart. Those are your genius moments, singing through, despite the inner critic trying to convince you all of your work is for nothing. Squash down that voice that’s calling you a fool by embracing your fool status.
Yes. I’m a fool. And I’m also, every once in a while, a genius. I’d rather struggle ahead and try to capture a few more of those genius moments than to surrender forever to being a fool.