The Onus Is On Us

I’ve been reading POP! by Mark Polanzak. It’s his “fictional memoir” about his life after his father died from a heart attack when he was seventeen years old. He calls it a fictional memoir because he says fictionalizing the events seemed to be the only way he could satisfyingly express the fear, rage, grief over his father’s sudden passing.

It’s a great book. I’ll probably post a review once I finish it. But one thing I wanted to share since it hit me pretty hard when I read it a few days ago was a short chapter on writing. (Like the author, the narrator of POP! is a writing teacher. There are several chapters discussing the process of teaching and writing.) In the chapter titled “Genius [Developing Without]” Polanzak writes :

We like genius in fiction. We like to think that it’s all chance…We know that it’s divine intervention on the page. This makes us happy. We can go on, because we’re mediocre. Because it was all chance, and we were not selected. Phew. We can go about our business. Leave it to the madmen, the brilliants. Then we meet a genius, get to be in the same room, office, lodge, hallway, courtyard, bar, Ping-Pong basement with a genius…We learn of their writing habits. Rigid, just not divine. We piece together that the genius has been writing forever, all the time. Not godstruck with inspiration, but just real practice and dedication. Some talent, sure. But that wasn’t exactly what moved the pen over the pages every day for a lifetime. We get nervous that the onus is on us…We hate to learn that they all work way harder than us at this thing of fiction. Wait, it was all supposed to be chance. We get scared that we like our friends too much, like abandoning the practice for parties, for weekends, for television. We like tennis more than sitting alone working on fiction that no one will read. Maybe it is chance. It skipped us, bestowing the talent of dedication on another, whom we call brilliant. We satisfy ourselves. We wait for the date to pass. We call a friend for a three-setter. We run away from the story that needs too much work.

The sentiment rang true, especially having read accounts by established writers — those geniuses – about how they work. It made me think about when and how often I write. I’ve always tried to keep a schedule, writing at the same time everyday so that it became a habit rather than something I have to force myself to do. It’s not always easy to maintain and often I arrive at my desk discouraged that I’ll write anything at all. Sometimes I surprise myself and come up with a good bit, a scene or character or merely a line I hadn’t thought of when earlier I was mulling what should happen in the story. It only emerged when my brain engaged its fiction mode.

I think this is what Polanzak means by genius coming out of practice and dedication. I’m not claiming genius status! Rather, we see genius only after someone has spent hours upon hours writing drafts, significantly revising them, letting them sit, revising them again, perhaps even throwing out entire scenes, chapters, stories and even novels and starting over.

I can’t count how many times I’ve read a work of GENIUS and thought how futile my own writing appears compared to it.  The completed work seems spontaneous, un-imitable. I’ll never even get close I moan, usually to myself, sometimes out loud if no one’s around. But that’s not the point we should take from prose or poetry we admire. We have to remember that writing is an effort. Genius shouldn’t discourage us from writing. It should make us believe in our own power as writers.

About Stefen Styrsky

Stefen Styrsky's fiction has appeared in The Offing, Number Eleven Magazine, Inch, and the Tahoma Literary Review. A few years ago he earned an MA degree in fiction writing from the Johns Hopkins University. Stefen lives in Washington, DC.
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2 Responses to The Onus Is On Us

  1. jeannepeller says:

    This was wonderful and just what I needed to read today. Thank you. I can’t wait to read your full review.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. jeannepeller says:

    PS You ARE a genius.


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