Dumb Guy’s Disease


“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 was going to 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 now 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 who by social calculations don’t know enough to enter into the 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 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 defeating 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 who 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 various authors spend decades writing in various forms and incarnations. This is one of the many attempts dumb guys make to rectify the past.

***

Literary agents and publishers provide prospective clients a preemptive list of ideas for books they will accept and reject for publication. These lists normally include a list of genres the agents and publishers 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 who 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 for a 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 who 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 in one way or another most of my 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 we meet that fella at the water cooler who provides us a testimonial about his days in high school, and how bullies subjected him to cruel and inhumane levels of abuse, we ask ourselves how much of this narrative 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? How many of us gloss over the specifics that make us look bad, how many of us dress up our retorts to make us look better. I met the guy who didn’t do any of that. His testimonial was full of incriminating details, and he left us waiting for a triumphant response. 

“What happened?” we asked after a lengthy pause.

“Nothing happened,” he said. “I didn’t do anything. I’m not a fighter, and I’m guessing those guys were stronger than me.”

This guy was such an anomaly for me that he defined, for me, the other 99.9999% of the population who tells this story. Our rewrites involve the main character of our story reacting to a bully in a manner equivalent to Indiana Jones shooting the Arab swordsman after his intricate displays of prowess with a scimitar. If that agent’s goal was to limit the 99.9999% of of authors vying for his services, I suspect this note accomplished that for him, and put the fear in a whole lot more.

Those who attempt to rewrite their past at the water cooler with fellow employees who know nothing of the our past, might be lying. When an author writes such a piece in a book, however, they do have a literary license to do so. We call it 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 might make a retelling of an event better, I err on the side of nonfiction. Nonfiction is simply more compelling to me. Even though the artistic license inherent in creative nonfiction allows me some wiggle room, I find hardcore nonfiction more entertaining than the creative spin. 

The second rule concerns fiction, and that is there are no rules regarding truth, as I believe when a reader purchases a fiction book, or reads a short fictional story, they enter into an agreement with the author 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 make mistakes, and they are wrong. 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. The males characters I write about are as flawed as the females. Some might consider the latter a violation of current cultural edicts to the point of being a political statement, but if said flaws are honest and integral to the character, who is being more political the author or those who oppose the idea that an individual might have flaws? Perhaps the agent should’ve included some variation of the word exaggeration. Without that word, the agent is condemning about 99.9999% 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 plot lines, 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 those authors who aspire to write two great books, to four, to so much more, be forewarned an astute reader will spot your 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 who 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 would come up with witty retorts that I couldn’t when my bully confronted me. The main character also forces 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,” the musician replied. “I just write lyrics that fit the music.”

Dumb guy’s disease involves the author of a book, or song, informing the world that they’re not as dumb as everybody thought they were in school or in the immediate aftermath where the focus of their life was partying. The musician’s quote informed me that when I injected politics and music appreciation into my fiction, I was writing my college thesis to inform my peers in school that I was not as dumb as they thought I was. 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 one big name author often does. My modus operandi was if he can do it, why can’t I? I realized 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 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 parallel roads.) The two strains of intellect could be broken down to left-brain versus right brain, as in one type of brain has a natural aptitude for math and science, while the other is more of a creative type. One could also say that the intelligent person knows the machinations of a saxophone that they can fix it and tune it 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 often occurs later in life. The math and science types discover an aptitude for the structured learning, memorization, and problem solving 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 you’re above such structured knowledge, or that some subjects are pointless. When I heard someone say that learning Geometry was useless, I loved that line so much that I used it. I also began, perhaps less consciously, began applying to structured learning in general. I would advise myself to drop that whole line of thinking. Studying Geometry might not be useful to a person who seeks a career in Business Management, but it leads a person to use their brain in ways they might not otherwise. Thus, it might pay long term dividends to use your brain in as many ways as you can, while you’re young, to gauge your capabilities. 

I would also ask myself to work harder to acknowledge that there’s nothing special about me. I wasted far too much time thinking I was special, and I turned down a number of opportunities that might have made me special in lieu of what I already thought about myself. I would remind myself that I suffer from my individual strain of dumb guy’s disease and that thinking I was special was the root cause. The idea that you aren’t a better athlete, student and employee, and the resulting frustrations are directly tied to this idea that you think you’re already there or you should be. Remember those times when you failed to achieve in various athletic moments? Remember the temper tantrums you threw? Those moments were partially due to the idea that you wanted to show others you were better than that, but some of it was internal. Some of the frustration was borne of the fact that you weren’t already better, but you never did much, before or after, to get better. You get out in front of yourself at times. You didn’t slow your roll long enough to work within the confines of what you are to succeed within them. If I could advise myself, I would say slow down, realize what you are when you are it, tackle the inane minutiae before you, and prove yourself more than once. Don’t be a one-timer. A one-timer in hockey, involves a player hitting the puck as hard as he can and watching it travel down the ice. In youth soccer, participants kick the ball one time, as hard as they can, and they watch it travel down the field. If the play calls for a long kick, as opposed to the more strategic dribble, kick the ball, and then follow it up. When you achieve good stats in one quarter, don’t consider yourself a stat guy, you have to follow that up establish a long record of achievement.  

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 are 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.

How to Succeed in Writing III: Are you Intelligent Enough to Write a Novel?


I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of (poor fiction),” –Hemingway confided to F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934. “I try to put the (poor fiction) in the wastebasket.”

The key to writing great fiction is streamlining your story. Cut the fat! Some of the greatest authors of all time have admitted that the best additions they made to their novel were the parts they deleted. Somewhere along the line, in their writing career, they achieved objectivity. Somewhere along the line, they arrived at the idea that not all of their words were golden. Somewhere along the line, they realized that some of their words, sentences, paragraphs, and even some of their chapters were quite simply self-indulgent, wastebasket material. These self-indulgent portions, or the “ninety-one pages of (poor fiction),” of any novel are usually found in the asides.

There are asides, and then there are asides. Some asides are what we enjoy in a novel. Some provide setting, pace, and drama. Some also build suspense by taking us away from the train barreling down on the main character to form a cliff hanger. Some fortify the characteristics of a character, and kill a novel. Most asides are unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. As anyone who has read a novel can attest, most novels could be written in forty pages, but that’s a short story, and short stories don’t sell as well as novels. They don’t sell as well, because readers want involvement. Readers don’t fall in love with snapshot stories. They want a world. They not only want to know the humans that they are reading about, they want to be involved with them. They want to see them breathe, they want to hear them talk to an employee at a Kwik Shop, and they want to feel the steps these characters take from place to place. They want to know these people, so when something happens to them, they can care about them. They want to know the minutiae of the human they’re reading about, but they don’t want to get so caught up in the minutiae that they’re taken off pace, and they don’t want to read a self-absorbed writer who thinks it’s all about them. Cut the fat! Get to the point already!

“I’ve met a number of intelligent people throughout my life, and I’ve met a number of people I consider brilliant. I’ve met very few that were able to combine the two.” –Unknown.

One such aside involved the author trying to prove how intelligent they are. The desire to be perceived as intelligent is a strong, driving force in all of us. How many stupid and overly analytical things do we say in one day to try to get one person to think that we’re not a total idiot? This desire to prove intelligence is right up there with the drive to be perceived as beautiful and likeable. It’s right up there with the desire to be seen as strong, athletic, independent, and mechanically inclined. We spend our whole lives trying to impress people. Even those who say that they don’t care what others think are trying to impress us with the fact that they don’t care.

In my first era of writing, I wrote a lot of these self-indulgent asides that contributed little to the story. I was a new student to the world of politics, and I was anxious to prove to the world that I was one smart cookie. I also wanted to show that half of the world that disagreed with my politics how wrong they were. So, I put my main character through an incident, and he came out of it enlightened by a political philosophy that agreed with mine. In various other pieces, I wanted to inform the world of all of this great underground music I was experiencing. My thought process at the time was: “Hey, if Stephen King can get away with telling us about tired rockers that we’ve all heard a thousand times. Why can’t I tell a few readers about a group they’ve never heard before?” Copy the masters right? I wanted the world to know both sides of my brain in the same artistic piece. After taking a step back, I reread the novel, and I achieved enough objectivity to realize that it was all a big ball of mess.

If I was going to clean this mess up and start writing decent stories, I was going to have to divide my desires up. I was going to have to cut the fat. I was going to have to discipline myself to the creed that should be recited nightly by all aspiring storytellers: Story is sacred. I was going to have to learn to channel my desire to be perceived as smart into political and philosophical blogs. I was going to have to channel my desires to have people listen to my “discovered” music into Amazon.com reviews, and my stories, my novels, and my short stories would be left pure, untarnished stories with no agendas. By dividing these desires up, I would be able to proselytize on the role of the Puggle in our society today, and the absolute beauty of Mr. Bungle’s music, without damaging my stories or boring the readers of my stories. I learned the principle the esteemed rock band Offspring tried to teach the world when they sang: “You gotta keep ‘em separated.”

There’s one writer, he-who-must-not-be-named, who never learned this principle. This author presumably got tired of being viewed as nothing more than a storyteller. This author knew he was intelligent, and all of his friends and family knew he was intelligent, but the world didn’t know. The world only knew that he was a gifted storyteller, and they proved this by purchasing his books by the millions, but they didn’t know that he was so much more. This author achieved as much in the industry, if not more, as any other writer alive or dead (It’s Not King!), but he remained unsatisfied with that status. He needed the world to know that he wasn’t just a master of fiction. He needed the world to know he was as intelligent as he was brilliant, and he wrote the book that he hoped would prove it. It resulted in him ticking off 50% of his audience. 50% of his audience disagreed with him, and his politics, and they (we!) vowed to never read another one of his novels again. This is the risk you run when you seek to be perceived as intelligent and brilliant in the same work.

thomas-mannBut politics makes for such great filler, and to quote the great Thomas Mann: “Everything is political.” Well, there’s politics, and then there’s politics. If you’re one of those who doesn’t know the difference, and you don’t think your politics is politics, you should probably be writing something political. If you’re one of those who wants to write politics into your novel simply because it makes for such great filler, however, then you should try to avoid the self-indulgent conceit that ticks off that half of the population that disagrees with your politics. You’ll anger some with this, you’ll bore others, and the rest of us won’t care that you think it’s vital that your main character expresses something in some way that validates your way of thinking. We will just think it’s boring proselytizing from an insecure writer who needs validation from their peers. Stick to the story, we will scream, as we skip those passages or put your book down to never read anything you’ve ever written again.

You will need to be somewhat intelligent though. You’ll need enough to know your punctuation and grammar rules, you will need to know when and where to make paragraph breaks, and you will need to know how to edit your story for pace, but these aspects of storytelling can be learned.

“I am not adept at using punctuation and/or grammar in general…” A caller to a radio show once informed author Clive Barker. She said that she enjoyed writing, but it was the mechanics of writing that prevented her from delving into it whole hog. “Are you a clever story teller?” Clive asked her. “Do you enjoy telling stories, and do you entertain your friends with your tales?” The woman said yes to all of the above. “Well, you can learn the mechanics, and I strongly encourage you to do so, but you cannot learn the art of storytelling. This ability to tell a story is, largely, a gift. Either you have it or you don’t.”

Be brilliant first, in other words, and if you can achieve brilliance, you can learn the rest. You can gain the intelligence necessary to get a thumbs up from a publisher, an agent, and eventually a reader, but you cannot learn brilliance. You cannot gain artistic creativity, and it’s hard enough to prove artistic brilliance. Why would you want to further burden yourself by going overboard in trying to also prove intelligence, and thus be everything to all people?

Let the people see how brilliant you are first! Gain a following. Once you have achieved that pied piper Wildeplateau, you can then attend to the self-indulgent effort of proving your intelligence. I don’t understand why that is so important to those who achieve artistic brilliance, but if I could understand their mindset better, I would probably be one of them. The preferred method of achieving all of your goals is to ‘keep ‘em separated’, but there are always going to be some who need to prove their intelligence and brilliance in the same Great American Novel. Those people are going to say Stephen King is a much better example to follow to the best-seller list than I am, and he achieved his plateau with a little bit of this and a little bit of that sprinkled in his prose. The question you have to ask yourself is, is he the rule or the exception to the rule? If Stephen King’s model is your preferred model, and these political and music parts are so germane, so golden, and so uniquely special to your story, keep them in. As Oscar Wilde once said, “You might as well be yourself, everyone else is taken.”