The Greatest Writer Who Ever Lived

Recently a friend of mine was telling me how he strives to be the best at what he does professionally. “I don’t just want to be good, I want to be the best,” he said. Then he asked if I strive for the same thing. I was a little confused.

“Don’t you want to be the greatest writer who ever lived?” my friend asked.

I couldn’t help but laugh. Now he was the one who was confused. He couldn’t understand why I didn’t set my sights higher.

The truth is, the whole “being the greatest writer who ever lived” thing? I’ll pass. And here’s why.

Whenever I start thinking of the greatest writers of all time, I think of Faulkner. Hemingway. TS Eliot. (Feel free to keep listing here, but I’m a sucker for 20th century American writers.) I truly think they were all geniuses.

But genius, I fear, comes at great personal cost for artists.

In one of my favorite lines from poetry, Keats sums up what it means to think too much when you live in a fallen world. We live in a world, Keats says, “Where but to think is to be full of sorrow.”

If you’re going to be the greatest writer who ever lived, you’re going to have to think. A lot. And the price is profound sorrow. Are you willing to do that?

I’m not suggesting that we stop thinking. As a society, I worry that we don’t think enough. But at what point do you as a writer stop plunging the depths of the human condition and just do your laundry or play with your kids or go make some biscuits for supper?

TS Eliot, who knew a lot of sorrow and did a lot of thinking in his time, was asked towards the end of his life about how his personal suffering had produced such great art. (And wow, did it ever.) He was asked if it was all worth it.

Eliot’s response? “Are you kidding me? No way!”

I’m paraphrasing, of course. Eliot said everything in the most beautiful of ways because he was one of the greatest writers who ever lived. But you get my point.

If it was the suffering that birthed the art, then if Eliot had had a happier life, we wouldn’t now have his incredible literature. But all things considered, he might have just rather made some really good biscuits for supper than to have wound up in lots of anthologies.

I recall when I was an undergraduate, some classmates of mine were sitting around and talking about how “cool” Sylvia Plath’s suicide was.

And all I could think was that I bet Plath’s children would disagree.

I’m exceedingly grateful for the amazing literature such geniuses have given us. Their work has so enriched my life. But when I consider the personal cost to the writer, well….

I kind of feel like maybe I ought to go make some biscuits.

How about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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