Don’t get me wrong, I like Lin. But don’t geniuses make you want to crawl under your bed and die some of the time? Admit it. Like the sun, human brilliance is painful to behold.
I feel that way now, as I read the bio for Lin Manuel Miranda, who apparently wrote the first version of In the Heights while a sophomore in college. The man has literally won the MacArthur “Genius” award. And certainly his work is phenomenal—I saw In the Heights in London and teared up half a dozen times, though I’d already heard all the songs and even performed some of them. I think the people behind Hamilton must have laughed when they heard that people were threatening to boycott the show after the Mike Pence affair.
How to emulate an artist who has achieved so much, when you barely even know what you want to achieve in the first place? How not to waste your own shot?
And yes, I know Lin Manuel Miranda isn’t perfect. But I envy that he has come so far, the focus that must have driven that momentum. I think of my former class president, a girl in my high school who was nominated for the Junior Nobel Peace Prize. I can’t help asking, how do they do it? My only concrete dreams are to publish fantasy novels and travel, and even those little ones seem far out of reach.
I think of Margaret Atwood, who started writing stories at six and realized she wanted to be a writer at sixteen. I was planning on being a dolphin trainer at six, and gave up the dream when I visited Sea World and realized that they had really very many teeth. At sixteen, I didn’t consider writing a career choice, and while I wrote more often than I do now, I did so only because it delighted me. Funny, how admitting you care about a thing can make doing it so much harder.
I respond to the question of how do they do it not, at first, with an answer—I know the answer—but with the bios of my favorite role models. Neil Gaiman, who started as a journalist. Theodora Goss, who accidentally went to law school. N. K. Jemisin, who after years of work has just begun to see the glimmers of success. I write down some of the places they have published, some of the steps they took along the way. Perhaps I will learn something.
I write down the successful people I do not like, too, and try to decide why.
I lean on the idea of the late bloomer, too, thinking of Toni Morrison, one of the greatest writers of our generation, who, if I am not mistaken, didn’t start publishing novels until she hit her forties.
Will these reminders make me what I want to be? No, but they do do great things for my blood pressure.
Neil Gaiman always talks about writing as “the work.” The work of his life? The good work? The phrase is reassuring both in its mysterious, mythical edge, and in its sheer practicality. All he means by it is sitting down at a computer or notebook and putting words on a page. Am I doing the work right now? Why does it so rarely feel as though we are making progress?
I will consider the late bloomers and the morning stars, and I will think too of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Nina Rosario, who in a major plot point of In the Heights drops out of Stanford. If the brilliant ones can occasionally dip down into normalcy—or even lower climes, as they tend to do—perhaps you and I can move slowly and steadily towards creating works of brilliance, or, at any rate, of elegant expertise. There is a reason that artists beg the muses for inspiration, and it is because genius is undependable, not Apollo’s sun at all but the weak and perishable flicker of candlelight beside the writing table.
But “the work?” Work won’t leave you. It will haunt you to the end of your life, arriving with the faithful regularity of the waxing and waning moon.
And who knows? Perhaps Lin feels the same way.