For several hundred years now, Western culture has been saturated by the rather stupid notion of the writer as solitary artistic genius. The writer, according to this model, progresses from an initial feeling of shining difference through lots of suffering and being misunderstood, before receiving sudden inspiration from on high or within and then–eventually, perhaps posthumously–becoming widely and wildly adored for his/her brilliance.
The story lives on because parts of it are true. Most people do suffer, and are misunderstood–writers are no exception. And though years of work on craft count for something, moments of insight and inspiration do happen and matter. Also: we live in a society that honors writers better than it compensates them, so fantasies of future fame can play an important motivating role when obstacles come.
The part I find stupid is the idea of the writer who works absolutely alone. That is pure, counter-productive garbage. I mean, yes, obviously writers spend some time composing by themselves. But if you take a look at the larger process of developing ideas, shaping them, setting them in language, and sharing them with others, there are almost invariably a number of different people involved. Heck, Moroni was the only person in his cultural group left alive when he drafted his book–and even it is basically a collaboration with his deceased father and a promised future translator and publishing team.
When it comes to literary production, we are in it together. But thanks to Rousseau and Whitman and some other talented egoists, it’s easy to forget that. In the Mormon Lit community, I’ve seen the stupid notion of the writer as solitary artistic genius cause all kinds of problems. All too often, hard-working writers finish their books and expect the world to rally around and admire them for it. When that doesn’t happen (and believe me, it doesn’t), they sometimes lash out. I’ve heard solitary artistic geniuses call Deseret Book “the whore of all the earth” for having a marketing model. And when anger fails, I’ve heard them spout despair over the lack of support and recognition worthy endeavors and organizations get.
I am bored with all that. Bored with the anger, the despair, and the Romantic sense of entitlement it’s all wrapped up in. I am bored with the wait for the great, misunderstood Mormon writer–and excited instead by recent opportunities for people to just get together and make Lit happen.
I’m excited by this year’s Mormon Lit Blitz, where $100 in prize money, a little organizational effort, and a respectable base of audience support led to some great shared poems, essays, and stories.
I enjoyed this year’s AML conference, which resembled an intellectual jam session as much as an academic conference, and was put together with a modest investment of time by a handful of volunteers just for the joy of it.
I’ve been sort of obsessively excited about Ardis Parshall’s literary and historical project She Shall Be an Ensign, which is currently less than $1,000 away from its $30,000 Kickstarter goal.
And it was tons of fun to watch a flashmob of readers from social media carry my poetry collection, Let Me Drown With Moses, to the #1 spot on a few different Amazon bestseller category lists last month.
There’s a lot more we could do. And it would be great to have standing institutions as well as energetic individuals leaning in to make a difference (although to be honest, standing institutions aren’t all that helpful without a critical mass of energetic individuals pushing hard inside them). We don’t have to wait for that “more” to get good work done together, though. If we can shake off certain stupid notions we’ve inherited and rally together, we can make Lit happen.
And though no one counts literary assists the way they tally them in basketball, I can testify that the moments I’ve been able to help other people make and share good stories have come with their own inner bursts of glory.