Why Every Writer is Smart Enough
When I was a freshman in college I took my first philosophy class. Before I took this class I thought philosophy was more akin to math – a discipline that, lacking a savant’s inherited genius, could not be understood without a teacher’s guidance. After all, I could teach myself to hit a Whiffle ball, but I certainly couldn’t teach myself geometry. But after studying Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Henri Bergson, I thought to myself, “All these guys are doing is looking around at life and saying: Here’s what I think reality is. Why should I look to them to answer that question? I’m just as alive as they were. Why can’t I just do that myself?” I dropped out of college a year later. It was the right choice at that time, but it left the athlete in me, the achiever in me, the guy who enjoyed a little empirical evidence of his worthiness, questioning my intelligence. This was a particularly problematic perception given my ambition, which at that time was to write what we call Literary Fiction, a genre Chris Cleave succinctly described as, “Stories for smart people.”
I had toyed with Cleave’s distinction myself, dividing people up the way bookstores segregate genres. Some people certainly seemed to know things that other people didn’t know – like geometry, quantum physics, and what subprime mortgages were. But the amateur philosopher in me didn’t like this segregation. I still considered myself Aristotle’s equal, not because my brain was bigger or better than anyone else’s, but simply because I was alive. And writing, I eventually noticed, was not like school, where my job was to have the right answers to a teacher’s question. Writing was about having the right question to which an answer always, always, always arrived.
It is impossible for me now to view anyone’s intelligence the way I view computers, with their bigger and smaller hard drives and faster and slower processors. All I have ever done is asked questions. In this way, intelligence is more like Google and the Internet. Everyone has access to everything. What we access depends upon the questions we ask. The questions we ask depend upon our curiosity, and our curiosities are as unique as we are.
There are certain questions, however, that always lead me nowhere. “What if no one else likes this?” is one question to which I never receive a useful answer. I have often mistaken the radio silence that follows that question for the echo of my writing career’s death knell. At the end of that lonely conclusion, I can’t decide whom I detest more: myself for ever believing in this idiotic idea, or the rest of the world for not perceiving what is so interesting about what is so clearly interesting to me.
I have known such misery often enough to have understood that my curiosity, and by extension what we call intelligence, is limited only by my compassion. The intelligence of life cannot answer the question, “What if I am better or worse?” anymore than Google can answer, “What if 2 + 2 doesn’t equal 4?” Life loves life unconditionally. The best answers I have received always came when I asked to see others and myself more clearly, to see us as we actually are, as the same, a connection I cannot perceive without the brilliance of love.
"A book to keep nearby whenever your writer's spirit needs feeding." Deb Caletti.
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com