“Taken care of me. Mike, you’re my kid brother, and you take care of me? Did you ever think of that. Ever once? Send Fredo off to do this, send Fredo to take care of that… take care of some little unimportant night club here, and there; pick somebody up at the airport. I’m your older brother Mike and I was stepped over! … It ain’t the way I wanted it! I can handle things. I’m smart. Not like everybody says, like dumb. I’m smart and I want respect!” –Fredo from The Godfather II
“What happened?” we ask ourselves. “I thought I’d be one of the smart ones. I know I was a disinterested student in school, and I probably cared more about partying for far too long in the afterlife (the afterlife being the era of life that occurred immediately after we finished school), but I thought I would’ve gathered enough wisdom by this point that someone would consider me wise, but I have to face it. I have a mean case of dumb guy’s disease.”
Dumb guy’s disease doesn’t necessarily mean that the carrier is dumb, but that they are not as smart as they thought they would be at this point. We all know dumb guys, those men and women that by our calculations don’t know enough to enter into our league of intelligence. We never considered ourselves one of them, until someone far more intelligent than us gave us a condescending “you don’t know do you?” smile. We would love to dismiss that look with the notion that they had an agenda, but we know that we choked in crunch time, because we didn’t know. When enough of these moments happen, we conclude that we’re not half as bright as we thought we would be at this point in our lives.
To prove ourselves to us, we seek less structured forms of education. We might begin reading better websites and better books, we might watch more documentaries, and listen to a wide array of podcasts. No matter what venue we choose, we will focus our renewed thirst for knowledge on vanquishing the structured concepts we failed to learn in school. This is our way of putting all those poor grades behind us by rejecting traditional, accepted knowledge as a form of intellectual rebellion.
“Everything they taught you in school is wrong,” is popular click bait for dumb guys hoping to succeed beyond the fools in school that regurgitated accepted facts back to the teacher. We dumb guys learn the truth, but this version of the truth should not be confused with the truth, in most cases, but rather a subjective truth that an author spends decades writing in various forms and incarnations. This is one of the many attempts we make to rectify the past.
Literary agents and publishers provide prospective clients a preemptive list of ideas for books that they will accept and reject. These lists normally include a list of genres that they are interested in and some notes regarding what their institution is about for the interested writer. On occasion, they will provide a note to humiliate those that have poured their heart and soul into a book. “I do not want a book that seeks to rectify a past transgression committed against the author,” one agent’s note read. “Please, do not send me an idea fora book that puts your bully in his place, or one that suggests your parents were wrong all along.” This agent was alluding to the idea that anyone that attempts to write such a book is, by his estimation, a hack.
My initial reaction to this note was that a total upheaval of my writing might be necessary if I ever hoped to have a prestigious outlet consider one of my works for publications. It also caused me something of an artistic identity crisis, because I realized that most of my fictional stories focused on rectifying my past.
With this comprehensive condemnation in mind, I put everything I read, watched and heard though this agent’s funnel, and I thought, ‘Listen, Mortimer, this is kind of what we do.’ When I write the word we, in the context of describing rewriting the past to rectify it our mind, I don’t find this characteristic to be exclusive to writers. I consider it a comprehensive term that applies to all human beings, artists and otherwise. When that fella at the water cooler provides us a testimonial about his days in high school, and how bullies subjected him to cruel and inhumane levels of abuse, how much of his testimonial is 100% factual? He might say that bullies picked on him, a confession that we consider more acceptable in our anti-bully climate, but how many people delve into the specifics of the pain they experienced in those moments? I met the guy who did, and he was such an anomaly that he characterized for me, the 99.99% of the population who won’t. For the rest of us, our rewrites involve a main character of our story reacting to our bully in a manner equivalent to Indiana Jones shooting the Arab swordsman after his intricate displays of prowess with a scimitar. If this agent’s goal was to limit the number of authors vying for his services, I suspect this note accomplished that for him, and put the fear in a whole lot more.
Those that attempt to rewrite their past at the water cooler with fellow employees that no nothing of the man’s past, might be lying. When an author writes such a piece in a book, however, they do have a license to do so. It’s called an artistic license. Now, readers of this site should know by now that I consider nonfiction more compelling than fiction. They should also know that when I encounter an image, a story line, or a turn of a phrase that could make a retelling of an event better, I will err on the side of nonfiction. Nonfiction is simply more compelling to me, even when it is not as entertaining as a creative spin could be. The second rule concerns fiction, and that is there are no rules regarding truth, as I believe the reader and author have entered into an agreement that it’s likely that none of this is true in any way. I do have one rule with fiction, however, and this might fall under the agent’s note. It is that I do not exaggerate my main character’s prowess to the point that he is an Indiana Jones character with little in the way of vulnerabilities. My main characters do make mistakes, and they are wrong, but I don’t do this to follow some elitist agent’s guidelines, I just find flawed characters more interesting. It’s why I’ve always preferred Batman to Superman. Perhaps the agent should’ve included some variation of the word exaggeration. Without that word, the agent is condemning about 95% of the world of fiction.
To be considered a successful author, Truman Capote once said, “All an author needs to do is write one great book.” The initial thought, and that which informed much of what Capote said, was that he was saying that all an author has to do to achieve fame is write one great book. Capote, after all, appeared to enjoy the fruits of fame as much, if not more, than any other author did on the back of In Cold Blood. Capote’s brief quote might have also referred to the idea that greater sales result from one great book, for one could say that writing one great book puts an author on the radar, and any books that follow will achieve greater attention on the coattails of that one great book.
The rhetorical question I would’ve asked Capote is one solely concerned with artistic integrity. Such a question might not concern anyone outside the literary world, but I would ask him if an author writes one great book, how many other self-sustaining works can one author create based on his or her experiences in life? How many creative plotlines, varied characters, and philosophical chunks of exposition can one writer develop before treading upon the familiar ground exposed in that one great book? They will try, of course, because the competitive drive of every artist compels them to try to write two self-sustaining books to differentiate them from the well-traveled idea that everyone has one good book in them. On a side note, some cultural critics have argued, “Everyone has a book in them, but in most cases that’s where it should stay.”
For most authors that aspire to write two great books, to four, to so much more, the astute reader can spot their formula. The author’s formula encapsulates their worldview, the imprint the world has made on them, and that which they hope to leave on their readers. There is also, within the artist, the drive to escape the imprint left on them, but most human beings, artists or otherwise, have a difficult time escaping their philosophical DNA. We are creatures of habit that can’t help giving our bad guy the characteristics that terrified us most in our friend’s dad. We can’t avoid the urge to harm him, or kill him off in the creative ways fictional outlets provide, and we can’t avoid telling him, in all the ways our creative minds have at our disposal, that he isn’t as terrifying to us as he was when we were young.
On that note, writing can be therapeutic. I was well into rewriting my past when it dawned on me how therapeutic it was. My main character could come up with the witty retort that I didn’t when his bully confronted him, and the main character forced the bully to confront the main character’s attributes. I had a number of plots, subplots, and asides built on this premise, and they were all pretty awful, but they provided seeds for the better material that would follow, and it helped me get over some of the psychological bumps I have experienced in life. It was my formula, and my drive to right the wrongs done to me in life by rewriting my past in such a way that I could live, vicariously, through my main character. I discovered, soon after reading that agent’s post that I could not escape this route, as it was part of my artistic DNA.
The faults of my imprint, as it pertained to what I was writing, dawned on me when an interviewer asked one of my favorite musicians why his lyrics were subpar. (The interviewer’s question was more artful than that, but that was the gist of the question.) “Too many lyricists attempt to write a song, as if it’s a college thesis,” is a rough synopsis of the musician’s answer. “I just write lyrics that fit the music.”
The dumb guy’s disease involves the author of a book, or song, informing the world that they’re not as dumb as they were in school or in the immediate aftermath where the focus of their life was partying. The quote informed me that when I injected politics and music appreciation into my fiction, I was writing my college thesis. Some big name fiction authors make political overtures to enlighten their readers, and they attempt to woo us into listening to their favorite groups with forays into music appreciation. I used to write about my main character’s appreciation for my favorite group of the moment, in the manner that big name author does. My modus operandi was if he can do it, why can’t I? I hit a realization that he could do it, because he was a big name in the fiction world, and I wasn’t. I finally realized, under the guise of a dumb guy writing a college thesis, that this big name author didn’t introduce his political, or music, preferences as well as I thought he had when blinded by the awe I had of his big name.
In the years I spent trying to prove that I was not a dumb guy, I never heard the notion that intelligence and brilliance could be considered different strains of intellect. (I realize that in the strictest sense of the terms, some might consider another so intelligent, in a structured manner, that they consider them brilliant, but for the sake of argument let’s say that brilliance and intelligence are two parallel roads.) The two strains of intellect could be broken down to left-brain versus right brain, as in that one type of brain has an almost natural aptitude for math and science, while the other is more of a creative type. One could also say that the intelligent person knows how to fix a saxophone while the other knows how to play it brilliantly, and while both can learn how to accomplish the other’s feat, neither will ever do it as well as the other, for their brains work in decidedly different ways.
This idea applies to dumb guy’s disease, because some creative types do not discover their aptitude for creativity, until the afterlife. (Again, this term refers to the life after school.) We recognize some forms of artistic expression, such as an ability to draw or play an instrument, early on, while an aptitude for creative writing usually occurs later in life. The math and science types discover an aptitude for the structured learning, memorization, and problem solving that occurs in school, and it puts them in the upper echelon of learners, whereas the young, creative types live outside the bubble, looking in with jealousy. Screaming, as Fredo did in The Godfather II, “I’m smart. Not like everybody says, like dumb. I’m smart and I want respect!”
If I had one piece of advice that I could give myself twenty years prior it would be to try harder to succeed within the system. Do whatever it is you do to the best of your ability and quit thinking your above such structured knowledge, or that some subjects are pointless. I would also ask myself to work harder to acknowledge that there’s nothing special about me, but hold onto the idea that I could be. I know this sounds confusing, I would add, but it’s the key to prosperity and happiness. The reason you’re experiencing an individual strain of dumb guy’s disease is that you focused too much energy on the idea that there was something special about you. It’s the reason you were so frustrated that you weren’t a better athlete, student and employee. You got ahead of yourself in other words. Slow down and capture the moments better.
If there were an antidote to dumb guy’s disease, I would say it involves an unhealthy dose of self-reflection coupled with a dose of self-actualization. As our grandmother’s told us, there is always going to be someone stronger, more attractive, and smarter. There is always going to be some that have their areas, and we might know little to nothing about that area, but we have our areas too. Unfortunately, when someone backs us into a corner, intellectually, there is a tendency to panic. If we were able to sit back and say, hey, you have your areas and I have mine, we might be able to avoid the fear that we’re not as dumb as we think we are.