The Greatness Myth

Writers like to hold up the myth of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as a paradigm of possibility: He wrote it in three weeks! It was perfect! It’s a great American novel! Kerouac thought so too when he rushed into Robert Giroux’s office in 1955. When Giroux told him the manuscript needed editing, Kerouac insisted it was dictated “by the Holy Ghost” and stormed out. Then he spent six years revising, polishing, and shopping it around before On the Road found a home with Viking.

Why do we have collective amnesia about those six years? We want to slide down a shimmering writing rainbow to the pot of gold. We want to be told we’re a genius; we want to knock an editor’s socks off with a first draft. We’re attached to the idea of Kerouac typing in an ecstatic rush and hitting the writer’s jackpot because that means such ease, inspiration, and recognition are possible for us. Six years of revision tarnish the myth, as do the three years Kerouac spent taking notes and formulating his story before he began composing. Three weeks of fun appeal to us more than nine years of effort.

The myth of On the Road does a disservice to writers everywhere. Good stories rise up from inspiration and labor, over great lengths of time. Your draft, however brilliant, can mature and likely must mature before it engages an audience. That your writing will benefit from more work says nothing about your value as a human being or your skills as a writer.

Every writer needs a healthy, ambitious ego. You need chutzpah to generate an idea and consider it worthy, to get your butt into the chair, to plow through initial and many consequent drafts, and to seek publication. But the desire for greatness to come easily is the ego in hyperdrive. The ego is necessary to write; the ego’s attachments interfere with life-giving creativity. No one can serve two masters.

“The impulse to improve is . . . a sign of humility, of bowing one’s neck before the humbling undertaking of learning how to be worth one’s salt as a writer,” writes Richard Tillingast. In religious traditions, humility is the awareness of oneself as one really is. This direct, honest gaze does not come easily, as any writer who’s experienced the highs of inspiration and the crashing lows of denigration can attest. But an ongoing practice of gazing at what is supports both our stories’ growth and our own. “In humility is the greatest freedom,” Thomas Merton writes in New Seeds of Contemplation. “As long as you have to defend the imaginary self that you think is important, you lose your peace of heart.” The greatest potential for our creative work comes when we’ve humbly acknowledged our limitations, stopped feeding the ego, and applied our energy to the story. Only then is growth possible.


from “Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice” by @Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew @Skinner House