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The Spark of Genius

In May, The Atlantic’s first Culture Issue explored the genesis of ideas, plumbing the thoughts and experiences of more than a dozen American artists.

I’m dismayed that your May 2011 Culture Issue failed to mention any of the important contributions that many men and women involved in science and technology have made to our evolving culture. It’s virtually impossible to think of the works of artists like Paul Simon, Chuck Close, Sarah Ruhl, Lupe Fiasco, Frank Gehry, or indeed many other creative geniuses, in the absence of cell phones, word processors, music synthesizers, or modern treatments for common diseases.

To imply that these “discoveries” are somehow different from creative acts in the arts is to miss the human dimension of scientific discovery that is akin to Michelangelo’s “discovering” the Pietà hidden in a slab of marble! The challenges, feelings, emotions, and rewards of those engaged in scientific research and technological advancement are as central to our work as they are to the characters in a Tom Stoppard play. We, as a society, need to realize that science and technology are human activities, done by humans, with human ambitions and desires and a commitment to human communication.

Our culture is made up of many forms of expression. Let’s celebrate all of them!

Peter R. Reczek, Ph.D.
Buffalo, N.Y.

Perhaps most interesting to me is the look at architect Frank Gehry’s first sketches of the (gorgeous) New World Symphony building in Miami. Gehry is probably the best living architect. But… how do I put this? These drawings are no good. If I saw them out of context, I’d think the first was an obsessive but arthritic bride’s dream wedding cake, and the second would, of course, be a child’s rendering of a UFO. How an idea starts out like this, as a jagged assortment of black lines, and becomes that building, is beyond me. But Gehry’s work speaks for itself.

Mike Mullen
Excerpt from a Minnesota Daily blog post

Paul Simon [said]: “I haven’t spoken to any of the other guys of my generation about how they do it. I’ve known Bob Dylan for a long time and I’ve known Paul McCartney for a long time, but we’ve never talked about songwriting.”

They’ve never talked about it?!? It has literally never come up?? What is it, like talking about having a crush on your sister? What exactly is the problem? Why would three of the greatest songwriters of the last 50 years, who are actually friends, never talk about the craft of songwriting with each other? Are they afraid that they’d jinx each other? Is every songwriter just living in mortal terror that the last song he wrote will be the last song he will ever write?

Nick Jaina
Excerpt from a Willamette Week blog post

With the release of “Project: First Drafts,” May’s special report on how genius works, The Atlantic asked readers to summarize their creative inspiration in 140 characters or fewer on Twitter. Gather experiences, process life, steep purposefully, trust intuition, create, repeat.
@DynamicInaction

giant block of ice. Waiting a drip-at-a-[t]ime for enough to melt to fill a glass. some days are warmer than others.
@romancandleband

Put aside what you’ve been taught and ignore all filters. Only the crazy ideas are worth chasing.
@RACINE

Tea & biscuits. List. Tea. Tidy up. Stare at list. Tea. Write. Supper. Cry. Read someone else. Moan. Tea. Write. Sleep deep.
@shonamain

Desire something that doesn’t exist. Work until it does. Refine. Refine. Refine. Repeat.
@CatChew

Dreams often drive my first drafts - ideas come through them - then lack of sleep drives the rest
@NettieHartsock

Absorb. Zone out. Epiphany.
@command_n

1. be in the grip of a devastating crush 2. 10pm run 3. pot of coffee 4. song on repeat 5. work until dawn
@amykate75

Literary Debate Is Still Alive

Stephen King’s short story in the May Atlantic, “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive,” sparked a vibrant online discussion about literature, class, and society. Some commenters criticized King for painting the story’s two poor, overweight mothers with too broad a brush; they insisted that authors should write only what they know. “If you haven’t been there,” said ravensNBNP, “you cannot understand it.” In response, King points out that he has been there.

Has Mr. King been rich too long, so that his eye and ear for the varieties of human nature have failed him? These are generic poor, fat, stupid people, not individuals. It was hard to tell the difference between Brenda and Jasmine.

llegault25

The reality is that real people exist behind the fiction, and it’s the (good) writer’s job to recognize this and seek to reflect this complexity in their writing. I’m not saying that writers cannot write from different perspectives, but perhaps King should stick to exploring the complexities of his own existence, before venturing to expose the complexities of other people’s existences—which he seems unable to comprehend.

Nichole Coates

The stereotypical depiction is necessary in short stories because with short stories, the writer must appeal to the reader (emotionally) with fewer words. These characters may have been fleshed out in a longer piece such as a novel, but with short fiction you must use all your resources, including stereotypical, less-than-admirable qualities in a human being.

That is not the intent of fiction—to draw on the character. It is the intent to draw on the ironies of life. King deserves credit for giving us some more of what we enjoy in his style and signature writing.

Fiction is truth in a made-up story.

Diane Carlisle

“The poor” are silenced by the stereotypes projected onto them from the dominant culture, and King doesn’t offer anything in the characters to counter these assumptions. Be sentimental about it if you like, but if he depends on clichés rather than seeking to depict people authentically, he’s perpetuating, rather than dismantling, these notions of the poor. King has proved that he understands the poor only as an observer.

Dieter Huneryager

Stephen King replies: These are people I’ve known and worked with all my life. One wonders if those crying “stereotype” have had the same opportunity. The idea that I am living in some sort of ivory tower and have no contact with the real world is a stereotype in itself. Those who want to meet my ladies need only to come to Bangor. Their counterparts live here, work here (or look for work here), go to AA meetings here, and live the life. I live it with them. Why would I not? I grew up with them.

The Short Story Returns

Atlantic readers happily welcomed the return of regularly scheduled fiction to our pages, marked by stories from Stephen King and Mary Morris in the May Culture Issue.

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