On Being Your Own Genius

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Magnus Carlsen

Recently I watched a profile of the World Chess Champion, 29-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen. He has a brain that can only be described as…singular. His is a Summit; most of us are operating with Kaypros. His noggin can run complex calculations in seconds at the same time we’re trying to remember to carry the 1 on a scratch pad. 

For example: it’s common for chess Grandmasters to play several amateurs simultaneously, going from board to board and making moves. This Carlsen kid—get this—played ten opponents this way, only he did it with his back to the boards! That means he couldn’t look at them. Someone called out the move so-and-so made on Board #1, and Carlsen then called out what his next move was. And so on down the line. 

He had to “see” ten different boards in his mind and calculate all the moves for each game. We have trouble remembering what color shirt we put on this morning. 

I was really into chess my first year of college. That was the summer of Bobby Fischer, who became the first—and still only—”rock star” American chess player. He was about to take on the Soviet world champ, Boris Spassky. The Soviets dominated chess. Between 1949 and 1972, every single world champion was a product of the Soviet chess system. In the USSR, gifted kids were nurtured by the state, coached and trained by chess masters for optimum performance. The best of these would go on to world tournaments, with a team of coaches who prepared them by poring over the games of opponents and working out strategies.

Bobby Fischer had none of this. He just got into chess as a kid and set aside everything (including an education) to give himself completely to the game. A full-on prodigy, Fischer attained Grandmaster status at age 15, the youngest in history (to that point). He also played, at age 13, what most experts dubbed “The Game of the Century” (with a brilliant Queen sacrifice, Fischer beat one of the strongest American players of the time, Robert Byrne.)

Bobby Fischer, 1960

Now he was poised to take on the Soviets single handed. And America jumped on board. Fischer was on the cover of Time and Life. He was profiled on 60 Minutes and interviewed on a plethora of talk shows. Fischer had one of those singular brains, too, which he used to win the World Championship. Unfortunately, that same brain became increasingly paranoid, and Fischer never again played big-time chess. 

But Fischer-mania got me into chess my Freshman year. My dad taught me the game when I was a kid and I knew the rudiments. Now I started studying books and chess magazines. I took lessons and played as many games as I could. I even won my dorm chess tournament. But once I got to playing in the upper levels, I realized, as Dirty Harry once put it, my limitations. 

What I knew was that I could study and study and play and play and give up all social relations for ten years…and I would never get close to having the gray matter of a Fischer, a Karpov, a Kasparov … let alone a Magnus Carlsen!

Did that mean I gave up chess? By no means! I continued to enjoy the game. When I was starting my acting career I was in a production of Hamlet and struck up a friendship with another cast member who also liked chess. We were at the same level, too, which makes the game much more enjoyable than playing a guy who can crush you in ten moves. I recall great pleasure that summer playing chess with Abraham at his place, with cool jazz in the background and a cold beer at the elbow. Games would take a leisurely two hours or more, which seems unheard of today in our manic-paced world.

To bring this around to writing, I know there are authors out there with more natural talent for language and storytelling than I. But should that stop me from playing the game? From studying the craft and enjoying what I do? 

When I play chess, I don’t have to be like Carlsen, because I can’t be. But I can certainly try out some opening moves I’ve studied and see where they lead. I know that doing this will make me a better player on my own terms.

With writing, I can also try things out, strive to be better. I may not attract the attention of the Nobel Prize committee, but I can grow my readership book by book. (Which reminds me that you can still pre-order my thriller, LONG LOST, at the special ebook deal price of 99¢!)

So be your own genius. Compare yourself not to others but to you. Look at where you were and where you are. Make a plan to be better tomorrow. Then you can truly enjoy what you write, because getting better is its own reward. 

So what person of mental prowess or natural talent do you admire? 

Do you ever find that you’re comparing yourself to others? What do you do about that? 

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46 thoughts on “On Being Your Own Genius

  1. Hmmm… Wonder if this post was triggered by Queen’s Gambit (which the Hubster gave up on after 2 episodes, because great writing, great acting, great story mean nothing if there are no dead bodies or explosions.)
    My dad taught me to play chess. We both sucked, but we had fun. Once I moved out, I never played again.

    As far as writing — I enjoy the process, I enjoy creating the best work I can put out there, but I’m satisfied knowing my books might give readers a few hours of escape.

    The only time I get frustrated is when I read books that are selling like crazy, getting great reviews, and I know mine are better. But those books aren’t written by the grand masters; I know I’ll never soar to those ranks.

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    • Oh yeah, Terry, that’s a writerly feeling we all get from time to time, isn’t it. Are you kidding? THAT book?

      But that’s just another form of comparison which we need to avoid. Let’s forget all that and, as you say, keep on enjoying the process.

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      • Enjoying the process is the main thing. And yet, with the advent of self-publishing came the advent of millions of “writers” churning out millions of books. How, when your efforts are lost in that sea of publications, do you continue finding paths (publishers) that will allow you to keep on enjoying the process? I agree with Terry here whose comment brings to mind a quote by Dorothy Parker: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” (I have felt this way more than a few times recently.) So here I am, a new novelist whose book was recently published, and wondering how it will ever find readers, and some small measure of success, amid the noise. Meanwhile, I struggle with the second as I also wonder whether I am one of those imposters adding to the flotsam. Playing chess is one thing (I do), but being a master is quite another. Still, I persist.

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        • And persistence is really the key to it all, when you get right (write) down to it. Anyone now can be a writer; it’s staying writer that counts. Keep producing. Carpe Typem. Then you’ll prove you’re no “imposter.”

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  2. I have many mentors I admire, you included because I feel you are mentoring me as I read your blogs and craft books.

    It’s my personal opinion that writers are not so much envious of others successes but feel a sting of “why not me, too?” when another writer gets a great contract or movie deal.

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    • Thanks for the kind word, Patricia. Anne Lamott has a great chapter on envy in Bird by Bird:

      You are going to have a number of days in a row where you hate everyone and don’t believe in anything. If you do know the author whose turn it is, he or she will inevitably say that it will be your turn next, which is what the bride always says to you at each successive wedding, while you grow older and more decayed. It can wreak just the tiniest bit of havoc with your self-esteem to find that you are hoping for small bad things to happen to this friend –for, say, her head to blow up.

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  3. My only exposure to chess comes from watching Spock and Kirk play on the Enterprise (the original series). LOL! Chess is something I was never able to get into. At this point, I doubt I even remember how to play checkers. 😎

    As far as mentors of natural talent–I’m very fortunate to say there have been too many to mention–someone for every interest of mine. But I will mention one because it came up this weekend. The days of the old west will always be my favorite, & I love listening to cowboy music. This weekend, I came across someone who is a relative of the famous Gail Gardner of Prescott. His poem “Sierry Petes” (probably more commonly known by the title Tying Knots in the Devil’s Tail) has been adapted and sung by numerous people, including Michael Martin Murphy, and is published in Mr. Gardner’s book of poems “Orejana Bull”. Whether a person likes cowboy music or not, this is a song I recommend to anyone, because it is such fun and a way to sing out your never-say-die spirit when you’re struggling with something.

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  4. I haven’t played chess for years, but I did love the game at one time.

    Writing: Last week I found 192 pages of a novel on my hard drive. Unfinished. I can’t recall when I wrote it, but it had to be years ago. Breezing through the manuscript made me cringe. It’s a cool measuring stick, though. It also has a pretty good plot. The characterization and on-the-nose dialogue are garbage but fixable. I’ve been toying with the idea of rewriting it. Could be a cool thriller. Have you ever revamped an old manuscript? Part of me wonders if it’ll be more work than starting from scratch.

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    • Hi, Sue. I think your instinct is correct. You’re a much better writer now. Take what is good and filter it through a new project. As Ray Bradbury used to counsel, don’t rewrite it. Re-live it.

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  5. Nice article for a Sunday morning, Jim. Thanks. That must be some kind of processor running inside young Mr. Carlsen’s head. I can’t even fathom it nor was I ever much for the game. My greatest chess moment came one night under a campsite light when I beat a self-appointed chess master with my blood alcohol level three times the legal driving limit. But, that’s for another story.

    I guess we all compare ourselves to others. Yesterday, my WIP research took me down the rabbit hole of high status people, and I quickly realized I wasn’t part of the crowd. I will admit, though, that about once every two weeks or so I surf the AZ BS lists and do a look inside of what high status authors are putting out. It gives me comfort to know that being a bestseller doesn’t necessarily prove they know how to write well. Happy T-Day tomorrow to you and the US Kill Zone group. Stay well!

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  6. I never could get interested in chess. When I was young, my father tried to teach me, but he would win quickly, and I couldn’t enjoy the game enough to stay with it.

    In terms of comparing myself to others: In med school the lectures were done by subspecialists who knew everything in their niche of medicine. As a perfectionist, I came away feeling inadequate and constantly anxious for not knowing enough. It wasn’t until I worked in the “real world” that I discovered I knew as much as the next doc. I reached a point where I was comfortable with myself, and let go of pretense. If the patient wasn’t happy with me, he could easily find someone else. At that point, life became a lot more enjoyable, and patient loyalty actually increased.

    Years later I discovered a book that is one of my favorites – BREAKING THE RULES – by Fil Anderson. One of the themes of the book is celebrating brokenness. We’re not perfect. We’re never going to be perfect. But we’re still precious in someone’s sight. And it gives new meaning to “Get real.”

    On a less serious note, I enjoyed your latest Patreon story, xxx Savannah. I promise to never sell any of your books that I own at a yard sale, including two that are autographed.

    Have wonderful Thanksgiving!

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    • Haha, Steve. You’ll be interested to know this actually happened to me! I was at my local L.A. library branch and was thrilled to see a hardcover of Try Dying on the shelf. I took it out to look and, opened it…and saw my inscription to a person to whom I’d gifted the book. Talk about a gut punch to the ego….and a good lesson in humility!

      Happy Thanksgiving to you. Looking forward to your TKZ debut.

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  7. I love Louise Penny’s way with words – how she weaves poetry into descriptive sentences that make them profound and interesting. Poetry has never been my thing, but I tried. I got a few books on poetry – summations of the great masters and listened to them for perhaps 6 weeks….And nothing. My brain is not wired to write murder mysteries with a dose of poetry. So I just admire her work and know that my books will never be accused of plagiarism of Louise Penny, lol.

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    • Alec, Ray Bradbury used to read poetry every day, just to get a different sound in his brain. His descriptive power is party because of that. I think you’ve soaked some of that in, too. It will show up without you noticing, which is a good thing, IMO.

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  8. Great post, Jim. While I played chess with family as a kid, what caught my interest at age 14 was discovering Avalon Hill war-games at the local toy store– “Midway”, “Gettysburg” and “Panzer Leader” fired my imagination, giving me a “paper time machine.” I became an avid player. I still play, having forged a number of friendships over the years pushing die cut counters on hex grid maps. Board games in general are a passion of mine.

    I suffered from “comparisonitis” for many years, both in writing and publishing. What cured it was studying craft and practicing, and coming to realize that the world didn’t need another copy of [insert famous best selling author here] since it already had them, besides, even given understanding markets, reader preferences etc, at the end of the day, I needed to be myself and offer my voice and take on story-telling.

    Now, comparing myself to myself–that’s a different matter 🙂 I’ll always be improving, and when I don’t, I’ll figure out why and work on it.

    Very thought-provoking post. Thank you! Have a fine Sunday.

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    • I needed to be myself and offer my voice and take on story-telling.

      That’s precisely it, Dale. Well said.

      Re: Board games. In college my roommates and I were really into RISK. Part of that may have been due to our added rule: Whenever anyone took over Alaska or Afghanistan they had to take a shot of Stoli. Some wild battles took place.

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  9. You may enjoy “Chess: The Musical” which is totally and absolutely not based on Bobby Fisher and Boris Spassky’s games and the Cold War. Snort. Sadly, it’s not been filmed but the albums are available. Wikipedia also has the plot details.

    I learned chess in my early teens, and I thought I was okay at it. I have a much younger brother I taught it to. After the first game, this kid in elementary school creamed me at every game in less than a dozen moves. That’s when I realized that chess was fun, but my brain didn’t work like that. I went on to be an English major with a Sherlock-level understanding of words and structure which I turned into writing and teaching careers. He has a doctorate in artifical intelligence and brain science.

    And of course I compare myself to others in their careers, but at my age with such a long perspective, I’ve realized those comparisons mean very little because most of them have dead careers, too, mostly through no fault of their own. A writing career is brutal, kids, and it’s not for sissies.

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  10. My dad taught my bro and I chess when we were in middle school. I was never very good, not having one of those brains that could calculate ten moves ahead and predict what move my opponent would make. But, still, I enjoyed it, because as a young girl I just wanted to be accepted by “the boys”. And chess didn’t require muscles. These days, I enjoy getting beat by my middle school grandsons…

    Mentors? Too many to count. All y’all, my editor, every teacher at every writers conference I’ve attended, to name a few. The best part of the mentors I’ve had, including here at TKZ, is encouragement. Not craft teaching, although that’s important, not tips and tricks, but just the encouragement of a tribe of folks who remind me that I’m my only competitor.

    Jim, also when I was middle school, we lived in a neighborhood of mostly young families with similar-aged kids. There were several summers in a row when we’d gather, some 10-12 of us, in our neighbor’s basement and have Risk tournaments. Some continued for several weeks. My brother particularly was addicted to it. I still say that Risk was the best game ever invented. We had one, and it was used and abused. I inherited our original game, found it when my mother passed away.

    A couple of years ago, my bro, his wife, and two college-aged boys were visiting from Atlanta, and I drug out that game, complete with replacement cards (hand-crafted by my mother, who was an artist) for cards that had been lost over the years. That game rode to Atlanta in my brother’s suitcase.

    Sweet memory…thanks, Jim! 🙂

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  11. My husband was a very good chess player (ranked just below “expert” level at one time) and also a huge fan of Bobby Fischer. Fischer was a remarkable man but such a sad story. If I remember correctly, American grandmasters stood aside in order to let him play Spassky in the world championship because Fischer had arrogantly refused to play some of the preliminaries. Is that right? There was a West German movie entitled “Black and White like Day and Night” that loosely followed Fischer’s life, his remarkable victory, and his descent into paranoia.

    I guess we all compare ourselves to others. Maybe there’s a positive side to that when we can up our game by learning from the masters. Some of us may not have jumped on the express train to fame and fortune, but you miss so much of the landscape when you travel fast. 😊

    I’m looking forward to reading Long Lost.

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    • Fischer was a demanding diva for sure. But he was the legit US Champion and rightful opponent for Spassky. He qualified for the match by winning six games in a row, with no draws, against Mark Taimanov, a Soviet player, and six games in a row against Bent Larsen, a Danish grand master regarded as the best non-Soviet player after Fischer, and then beating former World Champ Tigran Petrosian, winning five of the nine games they played (three were draws). Fischer had lost one game in three matches against the strongest players in the world. It was called by many the greatest run in the history of chess.

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      • No doubt about it — Fischer deserved his rock star status.

        I’m not sure where I got the idea that some American grandmasters had stepped aside. I think it was from the biography “Endgame,” but memory can be tricky. I’ll look it up.

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      • Here’s what I was thinking of. It’s from an article in The Atlantic in September 2019 on the death of grandmaster Pal Benko.
        “But his singular contribution to American chess wasn’t at the board. Without Benko, there might not have been Bobby Fischer—at least not the Fischer who delivered the U.S. perhaps its greatest cultural victory of the Cold War. His competitive career fading, Benko stepped aside in 1970 and let the younger, more talented Fischer take his place in the competition to determine a challenger for the reigning world champion, Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union. Fischer, who had been playing sporadically throughout the 1960s and who seemed on the brink of quitting the game altogether, tore through the qualifying tournaments before dethroning Spassky in a 1972 match that riveted America.”

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        • Yes, this was a spot to represent the US in the “interzonal” qualifying tournaments. That’s where Fischer went on his amazing run. Benko was a gentleman, recognizing that Fischer was the superior player and deserved the chance to face Spassky.

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  12. Decades ago I read something that made a similar argument. I can’t recall the details, but it was along the lines of early/new writers getting discouraged because their writing wasn’t up to Hemingway’s snuff. They didn’t write as well as Hemingway, they didn’t sell like Hemingway, and they would never be the towering giant that Hemingway was. But to expect to be like that, to have that sort of writing career, is unrealistic for the overwhelming majority of writers. This doesn’t mean your writing lacks quality or value. You can still be the best “you” you can be. There are many thousands of books and authors out there that are wonderful, but will never be best sellers or win the Nobel prize. Dream, work hard at being the best you can, but have some sense of realism. Be careful about measuring yourself against some else’s yardstick.

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  13. Nice. I assumed you’re aware of the new Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit, which tells a similar fictionalized story with a high level of cinematic and narrative art. It’s Netflix’s #1 download. Highly recommended!

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  14. I was a crew member on the USS Albany. On a cruise in ‘76 a world ranked chess player, also a member of the crew, offered to take on all challengers who showed up with a board on the after mess deck from 1700-1900.

    I don’t trust my memory after all this time about all the details, including where he was ranked, but he played all two dozen or so of us seated at tables simultaneously, walking from board to board to board, and moving his piece on each mere moments after taking in each situation. There were maybe 4 players at each table, and he probably needed three minutes tops to finish a round at each one.

    I was defeated in maybe half a dozen moves and gone long before 1800, along with well over half of all who began. I didn’t linger watching after I lost, but I remember finding out the next day that the last person hanging on lost his king before 1830.

    Watching that guy in action was like nothing I’d ever seen a human do before. It was before PC experience, of course, but a machine-like process is a very apt description of how he operated that evening. It was impressive as hell but also disconcerting, almost scary.

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  15. Great posts and questions, Jim. To answer in reverse order:

    1) I don’t compare myself to anyone. There’s no point. Someone is always better at something. I just try to do my best and occasionally succeed. If I’ve succeeded at the end of the day it’s a good day. If I don’t can can learn from my mistakes it’s a great one.

    2) I don’t know if they have natural talent but I admire, collectively, the members of The Chronos Quartet for their desire and ability to find common ground between classical music and other genres. Even when they fail they are always breathtakingly interesting.

    Happy Thanksgiving, Jim!

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  16. Thank you so much for this post Jim! I needed it (and the resulting comments.)
    I admire the ability to write well effortlessly.
    Of course, over the years, I’ve learned that it was rarely effortless for that author! Some just make it look effortless.
    Yes, I compare my writing to that of others every single day. And, nine days out of ten, I find mine lacking. I realize it’s a writerly form of body dysmorphia. My writing is fine. My readers enjoy it. Reading is, after all, incredibly subjective!
    But I will forever hold myself up to that “mirror” and feel less than talented.
    Especially when I come across one of those writerly unicorns, the true “effortless writer.” There’s one in my local writers’ group. She’s surprisingly young yet SO talented!
    And then there is the reverse, on which others have already touched: the self-pub’d author who, let’s be honest, was in no way ready to have words in print. *sigh*
    I don’t envy them. I pity them. But I’m also irritated because, while they’re certainly not Fischers or Carlsens (to borrow your analogy), they’re nonetheless clogging the system through which prospective readers are searching for new titles!
    It’s not quite the same scenario, but I feel the same as in what you said to Terry, “Are you kidding? THAT book?”
    I just have to keep in mind the idea on which catfriend touched (above.) No matter how good or bad other writers are, I can still be the best “me.”

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