Is creative genius a gift that only some people are lucky enough to have, or can we all remake ourselves into creative geniuses?
For the word genius to have any meaning, it must denote something special. And as Dash told his mother in The Incredibles, if everyone is special, that’s “another way of saying no one is.” I would suspect, however, that just as most Christians came to reject the Calvinist notion that our actions on Earth have no bearing on our predetermined post-life fate, most of us most likely reject predeterminism in creativity as well. Furthermore, it seems reasonable that natural selection would have favored the creative, and thus given each of us a taste of it within ourselves.
Some people clearly are gifted. Take sixteen-year-old Olympic swimming hopeful Missy Franklin. She says her success is due to her unique physiology, which maximizes movement in the water, and doctors agree. Her parents told The Washington Post that they knew she was special when, as a two-year-old, she took off into the ocean after a fish with her feet moving like a fish’s fins. But Missy’s coach, Todd Schmitz, said “[i]t’s not all physical. I think that there is definitely a mental aspect of what makes Missy special.” She has a gift, but has learned how to maximize it.
Consider this observation by A.J.A. Symons in his 1934 biography of novelist Frederick Rolfe:
There is no easy explanation of genius or talent: they exist and we accept them as facets of creative force. Some measure of artistic power or sensibility is inherent in all humanity; “genius” is as good a word as any other to denote those exceptional beings in whom, unaccountably, it rises to full force.
Rolfe was, by all accounts, a literary genius plagued with all manner of psychoses. Even if you didn’t chronicle the many moments of paranoia, megalomania, delusion, and schizophrenia in Rolfe’s life as Symons did, you could see it in Rolfe’s novel Hadrian the Seventh, in which he simultaneously creates entirely new English words while telling a story that essentially involves the world being put right when the protagonist, based on Rolfe, is named Pope.
Symons applies the word “genius” to Rolfe, suggesting he rises above that “measure of artistic power” inherent in all of us. But Symons also tracks the lifelong dedication Rolfe applies to improving himself first as a painter and then as a writer, at the expense of income, his health and his personal relationships. Are Rolfe’s sacrifices for his art responsible for his genius? Must we all pursue such an extreme path to reach creative heights? As someone who values a steady income, a good meal, and my wife and children, I would hope not.
Part of my personal mission in promoting creativity and an art-committed life is the belief that we all harbor inherent creativity, as Symons suggests, and that we can all harness that creativity in ways we never imagined.
I do believe, however, that not all of our growth curves have an equal slope. By that I mean that some with more inherent talent will see quicker yields on their investment of time and energy. Not every two-year-old shoots forth with the grace of a dolphin when spotting a beautiful fish. Missy’s upward curve starts off steeper.
Our creative growth curves may flatline at different places along the axis of time as well. When I was in the 6th grade I was “discovered” by the director of a chorus of singing talents from across metropolitan Phoenix. Soon I was the youngest member of a traveling audition choir, and for the next ten years I applied myself to singing, winning awards and singing in top choirs. I had, at 11, a steep start to my creative curve in music. I also, after a decade had passed, found myself no longer seeing growth in return for further investment at the craft. My curve’s slope had flattened.
I have been writing professionally now for more than 20 years, and remain startled at my continuing growth. I am far from what anyone would label “genius,” but as my growth curve still has a positive slope, I see no reason not to continue aspiring for great heights. It is that belief in my potential for further growth that keeps me on the path of an art-committed life.
Where do you fall in this debate on creative genius? If we all accept that some element of nature and nurture is at play, I’d love to know where you are on that spectrum. Are some of us better disposed to some fields more than others? Do all of us possess some element of genius within us, waiting to be discovered and developed?