Late-blooming geniuses

Have you ever known a bonafide genius? Have you ever aspired to be one?

I’ve been reading a book by Malcolm Gladwell—one of the most innovative writers I’veScreen Shot 2019-07-17 at 11.47.28 AM ever come across. The book, What the Dog Saw, is a compilation of essays Gladwell wrote for the New Yorker. In one essay, he asks the question of whether prodigy is a requisite for genius—or whether genius can be a slower emergence of talent, something that can be cultivated, acquired, and nurtured.

Gladwell, a master of counterintuitive thought, got me thinking.

Gladwell points out rightly that throughout history we’ve seen geniuses of the ordinary kind. People like Mozart who composed at age five and Picasso whose talent was recognized as early as 13. Chopin. Lang Lang. The list of young geniuses is long and impressive.

But what about people like Helen Hooven Santmyer. She spent her life as a writer, yet itScreen Shot 2019-07-17 at 11.36.11 AM wasn’t until she was in her 90s, living in a nursing home, battling age and emphysema, that she found acclaim with the publication of her epic—and bestselling—novel And Ladies of the Club. All this work, a lifetime of practice, became a palimpsest for genius.

So is genius prodigy or the product of a hard, lifelong slog? I like to think it can be some of both. Every writer knows the lonely, laborious path required for success. It is a path fraught with doubt, discouragement, rejection—yet despite the obstacles, there is something irrepressible about the desire to write. Real writers can’t shake it any more than they can step out of their own skin. So they slog.

As a longtime, long-practiced writer, I must hope that Gladwell is on to something—that some measure of genius emerges through dogged work, patience, determination, unadulterated perseverance, and unending practice. That would make it all worth it in the end.

Perhaps a little talent and a whole lot of desire and perseverance, along with years of life experience, can turn ordinary writers into late-blooming geniuses. 

Illustration of Santmyer originally appeared in the Edmonton Journal (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada); Jan. 20, 1985, p. 21. 

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