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Are Writers Born or Made? Jack Kerouac on the Crucial Difference Between Talent and Genius

“Genius gives birth, talent delivers.”

“All of us, we’re links in a chain,” Pete Seeger observed in pondering the nature of creative work. Mark Twain put it much less mildly in his lively letter of solidarity to Helen Keller: “Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them.” Indeed, there is compelling evidence that we as a culture are allergic to originality.

But count on Jack Kerouac to offer a provocative counterpoint in a 1962 essay for Writer’s Digest titled “Are Writers Made or Born?,” later included in The Portable Jack Kerouac (public library) — the same treasure trove of stories, poems, letters, and essays on Buddhism that gave us Kerouac on kindness, the self illusion and the “Golden Eternity.”

Portrait of Jack Kerouac by Tom Palumbo

Kerouac begins with bombast:

Writers are made, for anybody who isn’t illiterate can write; but geniuses of the writing art like Melville, Whitman or Thoreau are born.

He turns to the word “genius” itself — the history of which has a played a powerful role in shaping creative culture — and examines its meaning:

[Genius] doesn’t mean screwiness or eccentricity or excessive “talent.” It is derived from the Latin word gignere (to beget) and a genius is simply a person who originates something never known before. Nobody but Melville could have written Moby-Dick, not even Whitman or Shakespeare. Nobody but Whitman could have written Leaves of Grass; Whitman was born to write Leaves of Grass and Melville was born to write Moby-Dick.

Kerouac takes particular issue with the conflation of “talent” and “genius”:

Some perfect virtuoso who can interpret Brahms on the violin is called a “genius,” but the genius, the originating force, really belongs to Brahms; the violin virtuoso is simply a talented interpreter — in other words, a “Talent.” Or you’ll hear people say that so-and-so is a “major writer” because of his “talent.” There can be no major writers without original genius. Artists of genius, like Jackson Pollock, have painted things that have never been seen before… Take the case of James Joyce: people say he “wasted” his “talent” on the stream-of-consciousness style, when in fact he was simply born to originate it.

In a sentiment that Joni Mitchell would later come to echo in asserting that “an artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion,” Kerouac adds:

Some geniuses come with heavy feet and march solemnly forward… Geniuses can be scintillating and geniuses can be somber, but it’s that unescapable sorrowful depth that shines through — originality.

But because originality, by definition, requires breaking out of the common canon, “geniuses” — as Kierkegaard so eloquently lamented — are often subjected to ridicule and rejection before they come to be revered. Kerouac returns to Joyce, who endured his share of derogatory attacks:

Joyce was insulted all his life by practically all of Ireland and the world for being a genius. Some Celtic Twilight idiots even conceded he had some talent. What else were they going to say, since they were all going to start imitating him? But five thousand university-trained writers could put their hand to a day in June in Dublin in 1904, or one night’s dreams, and never do with it what Joyce did with it: he was simply born to do it.


When the question is therefore asked, “Are writers born or made?” one should first ask, “Do you mean writers of talent or writers of originality?” Because everybody can write but not everybody invents new forms of writing. Gertrude Stein invented new forms of writing and her imitators are just “talents.”

Half a century later, in our age of bringing “genius” to the psychology lab and quantifying the cultivation of talent, Kerouac’s concluding words ring with double poignancy:

The criterion for judging talent or genius is ephemeral, speaking rationally in this world of graphs, but one gets the feeling definitely when a writer of genius amazes him by strokes of force never seen before and yet hauntingly familiar…

The main thing to remember is that talent imitates genius, because there’s nothing else to imitate. Since talent can’t originate, it has to imitate, or interpret…

Genius gives birth, talent delivers. What Rembrandt or Van Gogh saw in the night sky can never be seen again… Born writers of the future are amazed already at what they’re seeing now, what we’ll all see in time for the first time, and see many times imitated by made writers.

Speaking to the jealousy behind all mockery, Kerouac signs off with a remark particularly prescient in our age of quick, loud, widely trumpeted judgments, riffing Sy Oliver and James Young’s 1950s performance of the jazz tune “Tain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That Cha Do It)”:

Oftentimes the originator of new language forms is called “pretentious” by jealous talents. But it ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.

More of Kerouac’s enduring opinionation can be found in The Portable Jack Kerouac. For a modern-day counterpoint to Kerouac’s counterpoint, see Steven Pinker on how and why great writers can be made, then revisit this growing library of acclaimed writers’ advice on the craft.

Published October 17, 2014




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