Hamlet is not rock stratum. It was not produced by external forces of culture, education, politics, and family upon William Shakespeare. No, Shakespeare was a dazzling individual genius who forged Hamlet in the smithy of his imagination.
Scrutinize the lives of great writers, and you will notice certain patterns (what I call “ingredients”). They tend to live in cities; they tend to live near wealth; they often have role models. Think you have the makings of a great writer? How many of these ingredients do you have?
10. Live in a great city. Some retire to the country to concentrate. But most of the greats find a way to concentrate despite the buzz of a great city. In fact, most of the greats associated with a great city:
- Shakespeare, Dickens, Milton: London
- Ovid, Cicero, Virgil: Rome
- Fitzgerald, Joyce, Proust: Paris
- Dreiser, Wright, Bellow: Chicago
Great cities offer the traffic for great stories—human beings at their most accomplished and most depraved.
9. Live near wealth. The starving artist is a romantic ideal. But for every penniless Rimbaud and Du Fu, there are twenty writers funded by rich patrons or a wealthy public. If you can keep your integrity, take the money.
8. Find a role model. Genius imitates. Just ask the nineteenth century Russians novelists and the Athenian tragedians. The great Russians—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev—emulated Nikolai Gogol. “We all came out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’,” said Dostoevsky, nodding to Gogol’s famous story. The great Athenian playwrights—Sophocles, Aristophones, Euripides—imitated one another, prompting Velleius Paterculus, in the first study of the genius of ancient Athens, to say, “Genius is fostered by emulation.”
7. and 6. Have an absent/weak father and/or an overbearing mother. How to explain the scads of great authors with these parents? Did they write to fill the hole in the heart? To fix a world that seemed fundamentally cracked?
5. Get exiled. Scan any collection of great books. About one in four authors were exiled. Here’s a quick sampling: Ovid, the Apostle Paul, Athanasius, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Boethius, Molière, Voltaire, Thomas Hobbes, Victor Hugo, Karl Marx, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Henrik Ibsen, Dante Aligheri, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, and Albert Einstein. Each volunteered or was forced into exile. Although this begs a question: Did exile help their writing or did their writings cause their exile? Probably both.
4. Live in a politically free state. Wait, I just proposed exile as an ingredient for literary success. Now I’m advocating for political freedom? Yes. Think of freedom and exile as two edges of a sword. Freedom encourages creativity and truth-telling. Exile is the penalty for both.
3. and 2. Believe in a Higher Purpose and a Higher Power. Most important writers of the twentieth century tended toward atheism or agnosticism (think Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Franz Kafka). But within the overall scope of literary accomplishment, irreligion is rare. Charles Murray, historian and sociologist, researched the cultural factors that lead to human accomplishment. It’s worth quoting him here at length:
Imagine two cultures with exactly equal numbers of potentially brilliant artists. One is a culture in which those potentially brilliant artists have a strong sense of “this is what I was put on this earth to do,” and in the other, nihilism reigns. In both cultures, the potentially brilliant artists can come to enjoy the exercise of their capabilities. But the nihilists are at a disadvantage in two respects.
The first disadvantage is in the motivation to take on the intense and unremitting effort that is typically required to do great things. This is one of the most overlooked aspects of great accomplishment. Fame can come easily and overnight, but excellence is almost always accompanied by a crushing workload. Psychologists have put specific dimensions to this aspect of accomplishment. One thread of this literature, inaugurated in the early 1970s by Herbert Simon, argues that expertise in a subject requires a person to assimilate about 50,000 “chunks” of information about the subject over about ten years of experience—simple expertise, not the mastery that is associated with great accomplishment. Once expertise is achieved, it is followed by thousands of hours of practice, study, and labor.
The willingness to engage in such monomaniacal levels of effort in the arts is related to a sense of vocation. By vocation, I have in mind the dictionary definition of “a function or station in life to which one is called by God.”
1. Pursue an education in the classics. You think I’m plugging for Gutenberg? Maybe a little. But there simply is no better education for a writer than an education in the classics. Said John Updike: “Read the classics until you are excited by them. The basic teaching tool writers must use are other people’s books; the classics.”
These top ten lists were inspired by the occasional debates among Gutenberg students about their favorite great books. Which is a better novel, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamzov? Which is Shakespeare’s best play, Hamlet or King Lear? Whom do you more identify with, Plato or Aristotle?
Yes, we have such debates. We are bookish, nerdy, and classicist. Just like others who studied the classics—folks like Winston Churchill, James Madison, Dorothy Sayers, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hannah Moore, C.S. Lewis, John Milton, Søren Kierkegaard, William Gladstone, and …