Oliver Sacks recently passed away. I was not one of the lucky few who were able to study with him at Columbia, but I have long admired him and his work. In the wake of his passing, I have found myself thinking a great deal about what makes certain individuals exceptional, or masters, in their chosen fields. This obsession has resulted in many hours spent staring at the photograph of Denali on my wall, at the East River passing by, and at my ceiling, thinking about how children become the adults they become and how adults are able or are not able to accomplish their goals. I have heard different advice about greatness and about following dreams over the years. An old friend, now acquaintance, told me once that it takes seven years to go from nobody to somebody, give or take a few legs up, some luck, a lot of work. Seven years of publicly grinding out the music, the writing, the business, the experiment, the open mics, you name it. Seven years (at least) of surrendering to the beast. She said that most people quit in year five and move on. She said the grind is exhausting, but worth it. I believe her.
It occurs to me that the skills of any given profession or endeavor can be taught, but that that intangible quality of the best—so often treated as elusive and indescribable—is in fact a combination of ruthless individuality and deep dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction keeps a certain kind of person curious and focused, while the former quality, individuality, is often called voice or genius without any further investigation. That’s too bad, but I understand why. It is seductive to believe that greatness is destiny or the byproduct of prodigy. We want to believe that the best among us were always that way, because it means we are, perhaps, our best already. And maybe we are—maybe the potentiality of what gets called virtuoso in someone is not in all of us, or at least, not in all of us plus the circumstances in which we find ourselves. But maybe, too, there is more out there than gets recognized. Maybe talent is the word we use to gloss over a more interesting combination of propensity, opportunity, and dedication.
I think, then, it might be best to think of being a master as a path or journey rather than as a thing one can be. There are traps along the way. Amateurs often mistake the taboo for uniqueness, because they have not yet realized that the taboo is as common as the socially-acceptable; both are components of the status quo. Unfortunately, the majority of practitioners in every field become stuck here. They are like alligators that only go backwards or forwards, and never in an oblique direction. In the comedy world, these comedians are known as hacks. But eventually, the masters break free of these habits and find the new and unarticulated in the ordinary. Pick any professional: scientists, entrepreneurs, mathematicians, artists, writers, comedians, parents, musicians, chefs, and others. The process is the same. While many become expert at what they do, only the great are able to become experts in who they are.
This is not a sexy or saleable idea. But I am not writing for a publication that has banner ads or sponsors. Besides, I am tired of what passes for insight these days. Most of it is much closer to observation—sans why, sans context, sans cause. I suspect this has something to do with ease—understanding is more difficult than cataloguing. Listicles that claim to have answers for how to be creative, or how to be like [insert admired figure here] are just clickbait preying on the insecurities of the ambitious and unsure. They offer effect without cause and hope without honesty. They are designed to provide simple formulas for those who fear the uncertainty and groundlessness of the void within, and they assuage the momentary hunger for a graspable and concrete answer from the outside. But an individual can never become great by echoing another life or following a formula; he or she must get comfortable with that formless place inside, from which all anxiety and creativity springs. The best among us know where they stand and learn how to pick and choose from the din of cultural noise—all of it more connected than each field or discipline or medium would have you or I believe—and in doing so, they subsume the known to create what might be.
I have no explanation or advice for how exactly to do this. Many have become alcoholics or 100% sober in the process. In myself, I live daily with a vacillating surety and nervousness, always wondering if I could be doing better, or if I am progressing fast enough—or hell, even if there is such a thing as progress. In my experience, one’s questions about the self and the world and the relationship between the two do not cease with more understanding. Every answer is just another door leading to a new, heretofore unknown realm. Knowledge can be overwhelming, self-knowledge even more so.
Once, when my father was a pastor, some of his parishioners asked him point blank if he could just tell them what to believe. He evaded them with sermons and stories in the style of Jesus and Fred Craddock. What his parishioners wanted was a captain in the storm. What he gave them was a lifeboat. While it is scary to row, alone, amidst the waves, I am convinced that the great among us are not great because they were born that way, but because they faced the roiling waters and took the oars. Like any of us, they, too, were afraid; they, too, had limitations, but they trusted themselves and tried, anyway.
Laura Jean Moore is the 2014 winner of the Cobalt Review’s Zora Neale Hurston Fiction Prize. Her poetry, essays, and stories have been featured or are forthcoming in FLUX WEEKLY, VICE, [PANK], the EEEL, the Brooklyn Rail, ENTROPY, Corium, and Change Seven, where she is a monthly columnist. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Reed College. She is suspicious of most things.
Read All Columns by Laura Jean Moore
- On Greatness
- Whiteness, A Study
- New York
- American Dreams
- Body Talk
- Habits, Simple and Austere
- On Love