Antidote to the Myth of the Lone Genius

On Saturday, October 22, I heard Aaron Sorkin speak at the Niehoff Lecture for the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati. A week later, I drove to Lexington, Kentucky to hear Barbara Kingsolver speak. She is another author hero of mine, but more of a personal totem. The Poisonwood Bible was the book that opened my mind to the idea of dysfunctional families, those that pretend to be normal but are not.

Barbara Kingsolver was the perfect antidote to Sorkin’s myth of the lone genius.

Kingsolver is on book tour for her new novel, Demon Copperhead. Her urge to write this book was driven by the opioid crisis. Thirty to forty percent of the children in her local schools in the Appalachian region of western Virginia are essentially orphans, with parents dead, in prison, or lost to addiction.

Kingsolver wanted to tell the story but didn’t want to preach, didn’t want to “punish her readers.” She said the story was like a locked house. She circled, searching for a way in, but couldn’t find one.

On a work trip to London, Kingsolver and her husband extended the trip into the weekend, staying at a home in Broadstairs, Kent, England, where Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield—a story about orphans. There were no other guests and they had the run of the place. As her husband turned in for the evening, Kingsolver found herself drawn to the end of the hallway, and at the end of the hallway, to a room that turned out to be Dickens’ study.

In that room, sitting at Dickens’ desk, she dropped her forehead to the old wood and asked, “How do I tell this story?”

Kingsolver says she heard Dickens’ voice answer.

“You let the child tell the story.”

That is what Kingsolver did, and she depended on Dickens the whole way.

David Copperfield has sixty-six chapters. Hers would have sixty-six chapters. Kingsolver created a spreadsheet with two rows of sixty-six cells. In the top cell, she wrote whatever happened in David Copperfield in the chapter. In the cell beneath, she wrote what would happen in her book.

Kingsolver moved David Copperfield from 1850 to 2020. Dickens’ novel became the model for everything—characters, plot points, settings, chapter length, even names. An orphanage becomes a failing tobacco farm, with foster boys as free labor. A dangerous shoe black factory becomes a meth lab. David Copperfield becomes Demon Copperhead.

Thank you, Barbara Kingsolver, for not pretending to be a lone genius.

Nobody is.

Chewing the Cud of Good

Thankful for learning new things, and being okay with the things that make no sense—yet.

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