Literary Quotes: Ambrose Bierce

Reading. Writing. Literature History.

“A popular author is one who writes what the people think. Genius invites them to think something else. “

Ambrose Bierce (2012). “The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume 8 Epigrams, On With the Dance, Negligible Tales”, p.249, tredition

Today’s quote comes from author of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” Ambrose Bierce. The quote discusses the nuances of writing intent, from those who Bierce perceives as simply writing to the people versus those writers that write for the people

What I think Bierce means more exactly is that “genius” isn’t taking the same ole humdrum conventions of a genre and using them time and time again. That is to say, in the mystery genre we’ve all heard about the case of the woman who was murdered by a jilted lover. It’s a story as old as time. But, truly genius writers, Bierce might imagine, would approach that story in a more unique fashion. Genius’s ask themselves, how can I tell this story different from my predecessors?

Genius, then, is uniqueness.

However, the above quote from Bierce highlights an interesting problem in the writing community: a problem with genius. As such, and while I like this quote, I also think it unintentionally perpetuates more myths about writing, which I find unhelpful.

Genius is the most important thing to aspire to (YOU HAVE TO BE UNIQUE), and if you aren’t a genius then why are you even writing?

That might sound silly, but unfortunately many writers (and frankly many Americans in other pursuits) are struck by the idea of genius on the road to writing success and are killed outright. My writing isn’t genius, thus I am not a good writer. Obviously, this line of thinking is a problem because “genius” is an arbitrary concept and does not help writers focus on the practical application of writing strategies, such as prewriting, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing. Instead, it forces writers to live in a fantasy world where their ego is tied to their ability to generate ideas and commit to the craft.

So, I’m not too hip to the “genius” part of that quote.

Nonetheless, Bierce’s quote does provide fledgling writers an opportunity to think about their own craft through reflection (and through the recursive process). Essentially, rethinking your writing (and genres) can help you write something more interesting than what you have as a first draft (that mystery novel you’re working on, perhaps? And, the nice thing is that you don’t need to be a “genius” to do find new approaches to stories or articles–you just need to have the ability to practice your skills.