Columns > Published on January 30th, 2020

The Myth of the Lone Genius Writer

Original image via Akshar Dave

I don’t know when this myth started, but it seems to be most prevalent amongst those in their late teens and early twenties. The myth of the lone genius writer, undiscovered, but pure and finding their voice in solitude. Blah-blah-bullshit. Myths are fun to make up in fiction, but this particular gem does much more harm than good.

This is not to say that being self-directed is a bad thing, only that it has a ceiling and that ceiling is rarely high. It is important that young writers seek out someone who will tell them, “Hey, you should read this,” or “Your writing has potential, this is how you can make certain aspects of it better.”

You can call it friendship, you can call it guidance, or use the sports term ‘the other guy/girl,’ but almost all writers need someone to help them improve. Writers need feedback. They need connections to a diverse and ever-changing literary world. They need someone pointing out blind spots and recommending writers they’d enjoy. They need someone pushing them out of their comfort zone.

I am not just talking about editors and agents, though many times they fulfil that purpose. Unfortunately, not everyone can acquire those right away, and a lot of writers' potential isn't always evident from the beginning. It’s hard for publishers in the small press world, or an agent to work with a writer they like who has written a book they don’t want to publish. The toughest thing in publishing is the lack of time, money, and energy to help develop new writers.

Great athletes or artists—they want to be as good as they can be, and that doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

If you want to talk shop and happen to know people irl, the solution is connecting with other writers or even work colleagues. I do think the publishing community is important, as is understanding your place in the eco-system, but I think it’s even more important to have fellow writers you can talk to about craft, submissions, what to read, and keeping up morale. People you can confide in and share the highs and lows with, writers who know about publishing and all its microcosms. These are writers who are submitting and/or publishing, thus getting real world feedback. They are in the game whether for fun, money, or whatever.    

Some people get community and writer friendships in an MFA program. While I’m not really pro or anti-MFA (I will say it’s not worth any amount of debt), they do offer a portion of what a writer needs: a few serious fellow writer friends, a mentor, a sense of community, recommended reading, and peer critique.

Don't have the cash? Luckily, we live in a digital age where you can find fellow writers with shared passions pretty much for free. While there is a lot of bullshit and scenester drama in all writing communities, there are always writers that care about the craft and are looking to fall in love with a book. Those are the writers you want to be friends with, and the more diverse your writing friends are, the better. A writer's range is stimulated by reading and befriending others they’d normally not associate with. Writers who will open their minds to new experiences.   

This happens in almost every art form. I’ve done a lot of open mics, which is where you see community being built for those starting out in music, comedy,  poetry, and yes, sometimes writing. Sadly, I think social media has replaced many open mics, but that is an essay for another time. For writers, there are a lot of places to build community and make friendships for all types of genres. Being a publisher and writing in multiple genres, I can tell you there is a community for everybody. And while a community itself can be good or bad, there are always individuals that are worth talking to and building friendships with.

So, don’t close yourself off. Don’t get a warped idea of being pure and uninfluenced—art rarely works well that way. Connect with others, ask for book recommendations (you already know what you like, find books you’d get something out of that you wouldn’t think to read yourself), learn about places to submit, learn about other new writers that are worth knowing and checking out.

My title is a little bit of a joke, but really, any “genius writer” is going to want learn how to get better. Great athletes or artists— they want to be as good as they can be, and that doesn’t’ happen in a vacuum. Writers need readers. It’s an artform that is all about exchange. Yes, it’s done by the individual, by reading and writing, but a writer needs others to know where to improve, how increase their range, and be inspired. It’s a give and exchange kind of craft, and many times, the muse is really just the words of a friend.

About the author

Christoph Paul is the Managing Editor and owner of CLASH Books, who have published over 60 books and have been covered by NPR, Poets & Writers, Rolling Stone, Believer Magazine, Oprah Magazine, The Observer, Fangoria, and Publisher's Weekly. The press has had books translated into Spanish, French, and Italian. He has been editing books in almost every genre for over a decade. As an author, he won a humor award and had viral cult success under a pen name. He is the lead singer and bass player of the rock band The Dionysus Effect, who have received positive reviews in Loudwire, EARMILK, and Red Rock Magazine. He sometimes writes songs about the books he publishes because even artists are inspired by their day jobs. Follow him on Twitter @christophpaul_ @clashbooks @dionysuseffect.

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