Tuesday, September 30, 2008

What Every Writer Needs:
Some More Time to Think

'Basically, I am hoping for less chaos and more time to think.'
--New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, asked for his
reaction to winning the MacArthur Foundation's "genius grant." We've touched on this all-important subject of thinking time at least twice before. You can learn more about the foundation's uniquely inspiring fellows program here, and sample some of Alex's work at his website.


At 11:20 AM, Blogger Geoff Schutt said...

John -- There's no question that the money from the Foundation allows for (most often times) much needed freedom. I wonder, however, if the title "genius" also places a certain amount of pressure to live up to the title. I'm thinking David Foster Wallace, who probably would be the last person in the world to call himself a genius, and yet, here he was, put ever higher on a pedestal, with perhaps too much time to think, or too much freedom(?) for the demons within to take over.

I may be reaching a bit here, but it's what comes to mind this morning.

All GOOD thoughts -- Geoff
(and Eleanor, who has thoughts of her own today at "This Side of Paradise" that have nothing to do with genius)
(maybe she begs to differ, I don't know)

At 11:37 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

GREAT point, Geoff. I never thought about that, but now that you mention it, that surely would be an issue in many cases. As I think you know, and as I tried to allude to by linking to the foundation's description of the fellowships, the "genius" designation is in no way a formal part of the program or their language at all. Instead, it's the nickname that's been given to this most sought-after of all awards for creatives. It's come to have a unique aura, owing in part to the fact that the nominations are done in secret by a group that remains anonymous, and in part because the awardees over the years have been such a diverse group of highly accomplished, but usually less than famous, people. That mix of attributes has left probably millions of accomplished people feeling that they might just have the slightest chance of getting such a call one of these days. Here's hoping one or two of our readers are eventually among them.

At 1:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Geoff. I've personally found that being a writer comes with a lot of pressure to produce. Though necessary, it's hard not to feel guilty about taking time to think. I imagine that no amount of grant money or writing-house-by-the-sea could relieve this pressure.

At 1:45 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Okay, CMR: we promise not to label you a genius and thus add more pressure. In a more serious vein, though, does anyone have any thoughts about the positive side (if any) of that pressure to produce? Does anyone see that as a glass half full?

At 2:11 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I'll take on the glass half full side of the argument. One thing I always feel I lack is the financial wherewithal to do nothing. A writer's job is often to just sit and think, and wait. Writers often don't look like they're "producing" anything, and in our culture that emphasizes doing over being, that can become a subconscious pusher a writer might feel to get out there and DO more. But writing is not about doing, although it is a kind of doing. I for one, even when I'm more or less financially secure, always feel like there's less free time than I need. I come to dislike having to deal with mundane tasks like paying bills, buying groceries, etc.—until I turn that around, Zen-like, and turn those acts into moving meditations. I do best when I turn everything into a meditation.

Why? Partly because that keeps the hamster-wheels of the inner monologue down. It keeps the monkey-mind from chattering off in quite so many distracting directions. "Focus" is not a four-letter word even though our entertainment-addled society seems to believe it is.

So, despite the risks of having too much time on my hands that might get me thinking about myself too much—my lot in life always being a mildly depressive subject—I am willing to take the risk. I for one would welcome the Grant as an archetype of abundance, to be wisely invested towards all such future abundance. Give me the time to catch up on even the current clutch of projects demanding my time, and who knows what I'd be freed up to do?

I'd choose abundance over fear, given this opportunity.

At 2:18 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Wow, a dazzling riff, Art, even for you. I don't want to even try to add anything to that, other than to recommend everyone read this riff of yours slowly, perhaps twice, to drink in all its loveliness.

Okay, so I lie, I do want to add something quick: I would indeed second the motion for an archetype of abundance. And for me, writing is indeed VERY MUCH about doing, doubly so when I'm on deadline with a piece that's due shortly. But of course you were making a less linear point than that.

At 9:35 AM, Blogger Geoff Schutt said...

Lots of great commentary here. I don't think any of us would turn down a grant of this size (or most any size, for that matter).
I wonder if any studies have been done examining how the "genius grant" recipients "do" after receiving both the money and the "title?" Have they been more productive (as the grant is encouraging them to be -- or at least, to relieve financial pressures so the recipients can work toward an even higher level of achievement)? I'm guessing there's probably a mix of answers here.

For me, an ongoing goal with my writing is to produce one work during my lifetime that will last beyond my lifetime -- that's high ambition to be sure, and I make no claim to greatness or genius because it isn't for me to decide, ultimately.

To take this idea one step further, I believe that each of us has at least one work of "genius" within us, if we go at it long enough, hard enough, dig to the necessary depths, etc.. And that said, again -- we're not the ones to designate the work "genius," and probably wouldn't realize its significance at the moment anyway (a good thing). One could even argue about the very word "genius."

So, the question then remains .... What happens when someone or some entity, with entirely good intentions, places the heavy crown of "genius" upon the head ... perhaps, and most likely, before the time has arrived, with the hope that the time WILL arrive?

At 9:40 AM, Blogger Geoff Schutt said...

One more comment .... As John points out, the Foundation doesn't term the recipients as "genius." But the very fact that the grants have taken on this "aura" probably feels pretty good to the secret group of people making the nominations and selections. A grant automatically elevates the recipients to a different plateau, which I'm sure is pleasing to the Foundation. Its money, then, is well "invested."

At 10:03 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

No, Geoff, I'm fairly sure that no one would turn this down. It's what one does with the money that matters. While most extremely accomplished people in creative disciplines (and I would use that in the widest possible sense of the term, including scientists and many other disciplines) tend to be inner directed and thus less in need of external praise than the average person, the unique kind of external validation that comes from these grants must have a genuinely salutary effect on most of them, I would think.

At the same time, there has been research that follows the life of lottery winners over several years, and that has shown them to have had generally negative consequences as a result of suddenly coming into great wealth. Whether there's any direct correlation here, I couldn't say. But I suspect that since this population (the MacArthur grantees) isn't exactly a random sample of the population, it probably doesn't. By the very nature of the awards, they're given to people who have organized their entire life around striving for excellence, so I'm fairly sure that the money tends not to be wasted, but instead is put to those very purposes.

Anyway, like you, Geoff, I'm energized by the quality of this commentary, including of course yours. It's an incredible privilege to be able to host a conversation joined by so many smart, articulate people. It's often the best part of my day.

At 11:59 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

I believe Cynthia Ozick wrote a book, or at least a long essay, on how the MacArthur impacted her life and career. That might be worth seeking out.

At 1:56 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks, Art. That would be an interesting read. I'll try to google to find it later today. If anyone beats me to it and wants to post it, so much the better.


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