Let’s get humble.
Up until recently, I held the unshakable belief that I was born to write. That some as-yet-unidentified higher power had chosen me as the 6’3″ long instrument through which to trumpet its message. If I did my part, surrounded myself with the right influences, and hammered away at my craft, I could create an unobstructed airway through which these words could be blown across oceans, translated into 50 languages, shouted from atop the peak of the New York Times Bestseller list. I’ve felt this since high school.
So I went back to what I wrote in high school, and unearthed a gem: an anthology project from my senior year, sealed in a black notebook titled “Steps in the Twilight.”
Surely, this collection of my poetry, fiction, and essays would be the keystone in my claim to divinely-ordained natural ability. Who would this young, unpolished intellectual remind me of? Shades of Dave Eggers, perhaps? Jonathan Safran Foer? Jonathan Lethem? Pshaw. Stop. No, no. Not a young Mr. Lethem . . . yet perhaps.
A firm no. I read it twice, just to be sure.
Nothing in this black book screamed “GENIUS.” It didn’t even whisper. Compared to student work I’ve read at the high school level, the material only excelled in using an excessive vocabulary and being distinctly pompous. But don’t take my word for it.
Strap on a pair of rubber boots, and prepare to take a few STEPS IN THE TWILIGHT:
Excerpt from “A Lack of Interest” by Jeff Geiger (age 18)
Michael Davey slumped in his seat and prepared to endure eternity. He glanced furtively around him, observing his helpless brethren who, like him, had been saddled with the unavoidable situation. He saw his emotions mirrored in many around him, but was only able to hold their attention momentarily before they darted off again to desperately hunt for a pair of orbs that showed less desperation, apprehension, and dread. Micheal tilted his head slowly backward and felt the muscles in his throat pull taut under his unshaved shadow of a beard. The humidity seemed to shackle the unfortunate in the room, and Michael continued to lean his head backward. A small rivulet of sweat slid from his nose and plopped in his eye.
I’ve cashed in “orbs,” “unshaved shadow of a beard,” and “rivulet,” and this is only the first half of my first paragraph. It’s twenty-six pages long, and someone had to read all twenty-six pages. Think about that before you malign a language arts teacher.
Excerpt from “Democracy: Above and Beyond” by Jeff Geiger (age 17)
It can be argued that nearly every American citizen that gives commentary on the U.S. government is being a bullcrit. A bullcrit is someone who criticizes something that he or she isn’t familiar with; giving commentary on a topic on which he or she severely lacks knowledge or understanding. I, for one, do not want to be a bullcrit. You see, I am fully aware that America is the best, the brightest, and the happiest country in the world today.
I won an award for this essay. It was ranked the third best essay in the tri-county area. They were pretty small counties.
What have I learned?
Lesson one: High school language arts teachers should be required to use Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style in every creative writing course.
Lesson two: I am a beautiful and unique snowflake. But not the way I thought I was.
Lesson three: We need to redefine creative potential.
I wasn’t born to write. I was born with a lot to say: creative thoughts, voice, and persistence. But it was the writing that made the difference. Work, not genius. Not even a little. And this realization doesn’t depress me. It gives me hope. For me, and students I’ve taught and will continue to teach. Being a genius is something you’re either born with or not. The work is something you can control.
So let me step up to the lectern for the shortest and most effective creative writing lecture I’ve ever given:
Want to be writer? Listen up. Sure, natural born geniuses are out there. But most of them suffer from psychotic breaks or die tragically before they’re 30. So if you’re not uncommonly talented, don’t sweat it. Time is on your side.
Here’s what you do. Read one book a week. Don’t use adverbs. Find someone who can tolerate you, and read your work to them out loud before you send it off to strangers. Revise and write more. Do this for about 10,000 hours.
If you can pull it off, you might get mistaken for a genius at a dinner party. And you’ll probably live to be 30. If you’re 18 now, you’ll need to clock about 16 hours a week until then. That’s what you get for not being a genius. Stop complaining. You’ll need the energy.
Now get the hell out there and start writing.