…It’s not only the geniuses who have the problem. They are the lucky ones—or, in some cases, the unlucky. At either end of the mass of us….
Stephen King wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times the other day, “Can a Novelist Be Too Productive?” My immediate response was, “No, but who cares?” My favorite writers are John le Carré and James Lee Burke, both rather prolific. But I wouldn’t like them less if they wrote less. Philip K. Dick, the subject of my doctoral dissertation, wrote quickly, often sloppily, and spent little time revising (in his early career, at least). That makes his books all the more fascinating. Though I liked The Confederacy of Dunces when I read it and feel that John Kennedy Toole’s suicide was a tragedy, I am just as happy that I don’t have other books by him to read.
But then I started thinking. King writes:
As a young man, my head was like a crowded movie theater where someone has just yelled “Fire!” and everyone scrambles for the exits at once. I had a thousand ideas but only 10 fingers and one typewriter. There were days — I’m not kidding about this, or exaggerating — when I thought all the clamoring voices in my mind would drive me insane. Back then, in my 20s and early 30s, I thought often of the John Keats poem that begins, “When I have fears that I may cease to be / Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain …”
It’s not only creative artists who feel this. Or have felt it. There are millions of us. For me, the line wasn’t from Keats but Dylan, “I’ve got a head full of ideas and they’re driving me insane.” Mine weren’t stories, or poems—or sketches or paintings—but they were enough to drive me to drink.
I think it’s the same for Donald Trump, even—though without the drink part.
When I was finally able to start writing seriously—that is, knowing that my work might see publication—I was a lot older than King was when he first published (and a lot less successful—but that’s not really relevant). Because I started my career in my fifties, I suspect I work harder and in a more panic-stricken manner than others who started their academic careers when I did. I don’t have the time that they have. Sometimes, that leads me to write too quickly and rewrite too little.
King’s thesis, “that prolificacy is sometimes inevitable, and has its place,” is one I agree with completely. Sometimes, you just have to get it all out there. It doesn’t matter what you do: these things build until you either express them or explode.
The trick—and something King doesn’t talk about—lies in learning what to do with that output. Philip K. Dick’s writing never did become the controlled output of the wordsmiths. Though that may make him fascinating, it also makes him flawed and extremely frustrating. There is often a marked lack of internal cohesion in his work; some of his books, to be candid, make no sense at all. Yet I have read them all at least three or four times—sometimes much more often. But I am unusual, part of the small and loyal body of devoted fans who see the cohesion behind the apparent confusion. For the general public, well, I know a number of people who have thrown his books across the room, promising never to pick one up again.
Which brings me back to Donald Trump. His prolificacy is probably inevitable, too—but I’m not sure it should be granted a place at the table (or anywhere). For Trump, like Philip K. Dick, has not taken the next step, the one that King takes with each of his works. His brain spews, and spews more. There may be a pattern to his thinking, a logic all of his own, but he doesn’t stop long enough to find it. I suspect he doesn’t even know how. But Trump, unlike Philip K. Dick, is dangerous as a result, a runaway horse down a crowded street.
And that brings me to my own point: it’s education that reins in the horse inside each of us, a horse only looking for a way of breaking out of the stable, its four feet wanting to carry our ideas in every which direction. Even brilliant minds need that at some point. Philip K. Dick did. Lord knows, he was smart and well-read, but he had never disciplined his intellect. Trump may even be as smart and, apparently, he’s well-read. But he’s completely lacking in discipline, at least intellectually. We all say stupid things, but most of us have learned how to go back and correct ourselves. Trump never has.
That fault would make him one hell of a dangerous president but it also makes him extremely interesting to the teacher, whose job it is to instill discipline in the student.
The question of King’s title shouldn’t concern productivity, but discipline. A great output can be a fine thing. The question is whether one knows what to throw away or revise and what to publish.
Trump, unfortunately, hasn’t a clue.
“Stephen King, Comicon” by “Pinguino” – “Pinguino’s” flickr account. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stephen_King,_Comicon.jpg#/media/File:Stephen_King,_Comicon.jpg