Prodigies vs. Late Bloomers


A great article in the New Yorker called “Late Bloomers” concerning artistic genius.

Genius, in the popular conception, is inextricably tied up with precocity—doing something truly creative, we’re inclined to think, requires the freshness and exuberance and energy of youth. Orson Welles made his masterpiece, “Citizen Kane,” at twenty-five. Herman Melville wrote a book a year through his late twenties, culminating, at age thirty-two, with “Moby-Dick.” Mozart wrote his breakthrough Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-Flat-Major at the age of twenty-one.

It goes on to explore that assumption, using examples such as Picasso, who came charging out of the gate fully formed, contrasted against Cezanne, who took an extraordinary amount of support and time before he came into his own, and it turns out that there seem to be at least a couple different models for “genius” to blossom, one of which involves a horrifying number of dead-end turns.

On Mark Twain:

Galenson quotes the literary critic Franklin Rogers on Twain’s trial-and-error method: “His routine procedure seems to have been to start a novel with some structural plan which ordinarily soon proved defective, whereupon he would cast about for a new plot which would overcome the difficulty, rewrite what he had already written, and then push on until some new defect forced him to repeat the process once again.” Twain fiddled and despaired and revised and gave up on “Huckleberry Finn” so many times that the book took him nearly a decade to complete.

I actually read this article because my wife pointed it out to me, comparing it to my own incredibly torturous writing process. The writing, the rewriting, the throwing away whole sections, the acceptance that ultimately the project feels like a failure, the feelings of despair.

At root, I think the thing I find comforting about the different paths to artistic success is the recognition of the necessity of doggedness and a whole lot of support from the people around you, and the fact that sometimes a late bloomer’s skill will not be particularly apparent to the outside world, because a late bloomer, will, in fact, suck.

This is the vexing lesson of Fountain’s long attempt to get noticed by the literary world. On the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all. Prodigies are easy. They advertise their genius from the get-go. Late bloomers are hard. They require forbearance and blind faith. (Let’s just be thankful that Cézanne didn’t have a guidance counsellor in high school who looked at his primitive sketches and told him to try accounting.) Whenever we find a late bloomer, we can’t but wonder how many others like him or her we have thwarted because we prematurely judged their talents. But we also have to acccept that there’s nothing we can do about it. How can we ever know which of the failures will end up blooming?

When I started writing at 24, I wanted to be like a Picasso. I wanted to have a novel sold by the time I was 25. I look back at my embarrassingly massive ego (which was mighty handy in terms of keeping me at the grindstone, but not much good for anything else) and I just laugh. When I turned 30, I cried because everything that I was trying to do was failing. By that time, I had written three novels, none of which had sold. I had already quit my job twice to write full time, living off my wife’s work while I basically failed to produce any successes, and I still had a fourth novel to go, one that also wouldn’t sell. It’s been a painful process, full of dead ends.

Here’s the final bit that struck me, and it regards the support of the people around you. Blind faith support because you’re not showing any money, any recognition or any success along the way. You’re just floundering and failing again and again and again:

Late bloomers’ stories are invariably love stories, and this may be why we have such difficulty with them. We’d like to think that mundane matters like loyalty, steadfastness, and the willingness to keep writing checks to support what looks like failure have nothing to do with something as rarefied as genius. But sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table.

“Sharie never once brought up money, not once—never,” Fountain said. She was sitting next to him, and he looked at her in a way that made it plain that he understood how much of the credit for “Brief Encounters” belonged to his wife. His eyes welled up with tears. “I never felt any pressure from her,” he said. “Not even covert, not even implied.”

Read the whole New Yorker article here. There’s a lot more than what I’ve touched on, and it’s well worth the read.