No Royal Road

Before I was a writer, I was (and still am) a visual artist. I could draw before I could talk; in fact, my parents were more than a little worried because that began very late, between three and four. (“And then it was complete paragraphs,” my mother says, “and that was the end of our peace and quiet.”)

My mother bought me my first watercolor set when I was two, because of the early Murals in Crayon on the kitchen walls. When I was three, my as-yet-undiagnosed hyperactivity convinced her to have my eyes checked. I was buzzing around the house at excessive speed and slamming into furniture I couldn’t see (yes, that aspect of Annie Brown is based on me). At age three-to-four, I was wandering around like a hippie on an acid trip going, “Wow, man, look at all the edges.” My mother tells me I used to stare out the window at the trees, watching the edges of the leaves. My clearest memory of that time is looking at my baby sister who was just standing up in her crib, and looking at the edge where her profile met empty space, the line-that-really-isn’t-there between her and the air.

I followed that line with my pencil, on paper, and the rest is history.

From age three to seven, I was obsessed with the way things really look, and how that changed depending on where I stood. (I was all too aware of two-dimensional appearance vs. three-dimensional reality, because my lack of depth perception reminded me daily.) I remember very well just how ugly those drawings were, and I still remember how none of them ever got pinned up on the bulletin board in second grade, because they weren’t pretty or cute enough. They were striving toward something as yet unreached, and they were messy. (In particular, I’m remembering the portraits with the Rather Excessive Nostrils.)

Between seven and eight, all of the effort paid off, and suddenly my people started looking like people, instead of collections of toes and eyeballs and nostrils. And then the teachers started talking about “natural talent” or (if of a theistic turn) “God-given gifts.” It didn’t matter that I told them that I practiced like a demon, drawing every chance I got. I told them, but they brushed it off as false modesty.

Later, I learned that they did that to everybody: Bach and Einstein, Newton and Napoleon got the same treatment in popular biography. (By way of aside, of course, genius is a white guy thing: absent from this list were Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Emily Dickinson, and others as extraordinary.) “Natural talent” or “genius” is a very important mystification: it tells the Great Unwashed that only very special people can create art or make strides in science.

My partner, He Without Whom, has a great definition of genius: “Obsession plus opportunity.”

The corollary of that is the two-and-a-half-millennia-old observation of Euclid, “There is no royal road to geometry.” Interestingly enough, in a supposed republic, American culture is obsessed by “overnight success” and “natural talent” and other aristocratic notions, all of them moving in lockstep with a pernicious and sloppy biological determinism that ignores social history and the real mechanisms of selection. I’d venture that this disdain for work is part of the long historical echo-shock of chattel slavery: only inferior folk work, and if you work, if you break a sweat, then you’re clearly inferior.

Dig into the biography of any working artist, writer, general, revolutionary, and you find persistent practice. Overnight success takes decades.

There is no royal road, for geometers or anyone else. (Not even for kings and queens: the long and disgraceful record of monarchy gives ample case studies of what happens to those who believe the hype.)

Only work gets work done.


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