GENIUS VS. OBSESSION: writing as a gift to yourself (a conversation with major jackson)

hello, typewriter

July Westhale talks with Major Jackson in the latest installment of hello, typewriter.

JULY WESTHALE: Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed, Major! We at Litseen are lucky to have you. Let’s get right down to it! Let’s talk about genius. My interest was sparked about this topic a few months ago by a Radiolab episode on Fate and Fortune, wherein the trajectory of one’s life was questioned and there was interplay between individual force of will, and fate. This got me thinking further into the dichotomy, or relationship between, genius versus obsession that I so frequently see in my own writing community — how they can sometimes inform one another. What creates people who are talented and what creates people who have talent as well as forward-moving drive? What creates that often gray and murky area of who and what decides ‘talent’? I’m interested in what you think about the differences between the two (often ambiguous, hard-to-pin) ideas.

MAJOR JACKSON: I’m in huge agreement with Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hour rule. Someone who puts in those hours will definitely emerge with some facility with their art or their sport or their instrument. I firmly believe in that. I don’t believe that nature has endowed just a small portion of mankind with superior ability. Ioutliers’m of the belief that hard work, and it is truly hard work, will ultimately develop individuals who are talented.

JW: It’s interesting that you mention Malcolm Gladwell. I was going to bring him up. He has a theory that he likes to call the “Matthew Effect” — “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Matthew 25:29. Or, to put it simpler: to him who has much, more will be given. The notion that a small, initial difference in the performance of any two people will inevitably grow because the person who was a little bit ahead will get so many more advantages that they will end up being far ahead. What are your thoughts about this theory?

MJ: I think it’s interesting, but I also think that a number of people have squandered their fortunes. I don’t mean monetarily, necessarily, but there are a number of people with talent who don’t invest their hours or invest their time — I don’t see that as necessarily some hard, fast rule. It’s a theory I would probably have to disagree with.

JW: I think it’s definitely complicated — I think about this a lot, especially in a society that is cultivating and creating more and more MFA programs, where we are turning out more professional artists. Don’t get me wrong, I am behind the importance and vitality of MFA programs (I’m in one myself), and I don’t necessarily agree with the argument that the professionalization of art is a bad thing. But I do find myself wondering about the fact that so many people go into MFA programs and so few people emerge and continue to write and flourish in their craft. Indeed the odds are against emerging artists, that they continue to invest themselves in the industry of writing. So what is it, then, that drives those who continue to write and continue to invest in their ten thousand hours, and those who never again pick up a pen?

MJ: Exactly, because I think that the end goal is not necessarily publication — I think that for those who continue to write, it is because writing is an essential act to their existence. That no amount of recognition, or lack thereof, will dictate their relationship to their art. I think that yes, there are moments at which one moves away but for some people writing is survival. Again, I want to believe that the order of the world is such that it will acknowledge all of those who are talented. I’m just sitting here thinking, well, what if there is that person who puts in their ten thousand, their twenty thousand, and doesn’t necessarily develop? What does that say about the natural order of the world? But I think we have enough consistent examples of individuals who flourish despite the obstacles thrown their way. hard workAs you and I both know, often times we are our own obstacle. So there is a certain kind of fierceness and will that I think is at play post-MFA (laughter). But you’re right. The odds are against you, against those entering a program. There’s no way in the world we can publish everyone. The opportunities are dwindling, in fact, at least in the traditional sense, in book publication. I think the proliferation of MFA programs will inevitably, interestingly enough, at the same time that it puts an emphasis on the technology of speech and human expression, the question becomes what is our sense of what is exceptional? (laughter) I want to believe that the bar is raised higher. Alexis de Tocqueville talks about this often — literature and art in a democracy and I think there’s some truthfulness to it.

JW: So are you a person for whom writing is an act of survival?

MJ: As dramatic as that sounds, yes. I am drawn, inescapably, to my writing desk, my computer. Is it a daily practice? No. But I could never imagine a life where I’m not writing. I definitely have had, like everyone else, moments of silence and moments where I am unable to write anything that feels even remotely authentic. It’s interesting to me that I will experience those moments more frequently than not, more than I would like, but I definitely find myself going back to the desk, you know?

JW: Do you feel as though you have put in your ten thousand hours? Where are you at in terms of your hours?

MJ: (laughter) Let’s say I’ve put in a third of that. I still have many more hours.

JW: I’m also a huge believer of the ten thousand hour rule, not just in writing, but also in reading.

MJ: You’ve preempted something I was going to say, which is that that is a simplification of how we grow and develop as writers — there are many other factors that are important, and one of them is the fact that you just mentioned. I will say also that so much of our lives is so compartmentalized that I think it is still important for writers to have more than one interest. It’s important for writers to take an interest in any number of things that are going to feed the process, feed the machine that is your imagination. A lot of times that is reading. Sometimes it’s some sort of hobby or some sort of area of knowledge that you learned as a specialty. I think this is crucial.

JW: I agree with you. I think it is especially important for us to read as writers because we need to know our lineage and we need to know our peer groups and I also firmly believe in literary citizenship, but I also think you’re touching on a really important aspect of creativity, which is what Cate Marvin likes to call “cross-training”, wherein you practice another craft or hobby to strengthen your writing. It could be writing fiction. It could be water coloring, or building model boats. It could even be soccer, or botany.

MJ: I love that phrase, cross-training.

JW: It’s so great. So do you think that drive to write, that survival drive, is something that can be cultivated?

Major JacksonMJ: Yeah, I think it can be. I mean, that is the work that I do as an instructor at the University of Vermont on a daily basis. I try to endow my students with the habit of art-thinking and creation.

JW: As an instructor, how do you think MFA programs play into the cultivation of creation, the cultivation of a writerly life-style? How do they help to encourage a daily practice?

MJ: Well, if you don’t write, you don’t get your degree, so there’s a practical element to that. But I think also if it’s a traditional program, or even a low-residency program, you’re among peers, and there’s a certain kind of excitement and a dynamic (that can sometimes be destructive) that is often healthy, between one and one’s peers that leads to a sense of urgency and regard and respect around the art itself. So that’s one of the ways that I think MFA and Writing Programs help to cultivate that.

JW: I agree with you completely. So then what would be your advice to folks who are about to leave, or will eventually leave, MFA programs to continue that practice?

MJ: In the absence of that weekly or bi-weekly workshop, it would be wise to create their own communities post-MFA. But also know that ultimately writing happens in solitude and to carry that aspect, their routines around writing, long after. There’s something, in my mind — and this goes back to why I say that writing for me has been for survival — that so much of my life has been about others. Not that I’m some martyr to the world around me, but I look at writing as a gift to myself. The moment I get to discover some part of me that I didn’t know existed or wasn’t aware of. I will say, and sometimes I don’t like to play the authoritarian or the Moses on the Mountain, is that that passionate engagement with the writings of others or one’s own writing in the context of the contemporary as well as the canonical is invaluable, and to be continued.

July WesthaleJuly Westhale is a mixed race poet, activist, and radical archivist with a weakness for botany and hot air balloons. She has been awarded fellowships from the Lambda Literary Foundation, Tin House, and the Dairy Hollow Writers Colony. Her poetry has most recently been published in Barely South Review, Hinchas de Poesia, WordRiot580 SplitQuarterly WestMuzzle Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and So to Speak: A Feminist Literary Journal. Her poetry can also be found in the recently released anthologies: Conversations at the Wartime Café: a Decade of War 2001-2011, Women Write Resistance, and Contemporary Queer Poetry. She was recently nominated for the Best New Poets of 2012 anthology, an AWP Intro Award, and a Creative Writing Fulbright. july AT litseen DOT com