“It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”
The Honorless Prophet
About fifty years ago, there was a running joke in movies and books and television about the unfinished Great American Novel. The punch line was usually an image of a half-written book in the bottom drawer of a businessman’s desk.
The joke was supposed to illustrate how empty the man’s life was and how he dreams of something greater. It is sad, isn’t it? Many people believe that they have a novel in them, if they just could do it. That great story that changes people’s lives and changes the person who wrote it; an impact on society.
I’m an old man now and I was fooling around with my past with a lot of musings if things had been different. I’ve had a wonderful life, so there is no regret or bitterness of past decisions. One thought was a question of what if I had written a novel in high school? It was possible, I had a lot of free time. This can be fun idea to think about.
The first thought would be the reactions from my family. With delight they would say, “David, I can’t believe you wrote a novel!”. And that is the crux of it, the musing hits a dead end. I never could do this great thing because those around me don’t believe that I can.
In the Bible, there is a verse that is so profound that it is staggering. It is in the Gospel According to Mark and goes like this, “But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”
Jesus had some great things to do and he knew that he could not do them in his home town around his family. He had to leave his country and go to a new place where he would be new and people could believe that he’d do great things. And he did just that.
You can’t say to your mom, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”. It doesn’t work. She’d smile and pat your shoulder and say, “I believe you, honey. Now take out the garbage.”
The idea that anyone has a chance at greatness becomes a very narrow chance. Those around you know you and remember when you were a fool. You might be able to do some good things but not a great thing.
Yet, when you arrive at a new place as a stranger, the possibilities are endless but only for a very short while; maybe until they see you sneeze and sniff. It is in that narrow window that you could do a deed of greatness.
I have plenty of examples that I’ve seen in my life. When I first arrived at grad school, I thought that everyone must be so much better than me. It is when I got to know them that it settled down. When I was on the faculty, there was a new hire for a job much like mine and I thought that this guy must have a lot than me to offer. These were not insecurities but rather the assumptions one puts on new things.
My drawing teacher in college had work in the Smithsonian Museum. Imagine how open I was to someone who’d done a great thing. It lasted about two weeks and then she was just another teacher.
One choice, that I don’t buy, is isolation. We can imagine the writer who has moved to that cabin on the lake with his typewriter and those long walks in the woods thinking lofty thoughts. He still has to go home.
Maybe if, in his isolation, he submitted his work to a new agent and that book was read by new eyes and the author was anonymous and stayed reclusive. Then, maybe, his work could be received as a great work. Maybe those books would spread across the country and everyone would say, “what a great thing”. This would work until he went on a talk show and everyone could see that he was as mundane as the next guy.
There are very few great things in the world. Acts of greatness or books or inventions or innovations are too rare to think of many. And people are hungry for greatness, think of the popularity of the Celestine Prophecy that raced into every home. People want greatness.
I am a mundane man but there is a chance for greatness within me. The same goes for you. You can be great and do a great thing. That chance is narrow but it is there, the perfect thing at the perfect time. But you know now that it won’t be sitting next to your wife and kids.
You could do what Hemingway did. He told everyone that his work was great. The guy was self-promoting to the point where his unwritten stuff would be great, he assured everyone. Then people said, “Wow, The Old Man and the Sea is a great work”. He built his image up until he was a lot more than he really was. Kind of a sham, isn’t it?
I wonder if Ben Franklin’s next-door-neighbor thought he was great. We think he was a great man and historically he sure was. But that guy next door saw Ben giving his wife and daughters the long look, he saw Ben drinking wine deep into the night and he watched as Ben tried, unsuccessfully, to grow a garden or train a dog. That guy next door probably didn’t think much of Ben at all.
Ben was a savvy guy. His greatness was when he went to a new place, like France. He did great things there. He made up names for authorship for works that he wrote, otherwise they’d be seen as “something Ben wrote” and be regarded lightly. When you are founding a new country, everybody is new and great things did happen in that narrow sliver of chance.
It is not being in the right place at the right time, having greatness thrust upon you. You can manufacture the opportunity, like Ben and Jesus did; going to new places. Or you can remove yourself from others and do a work by an unknown name. You can create a mythology about yourself like Hemingway, though that is impossible to sustain in today’s intrusive social media environment.
You do have greatness in you. You do. It is all about putting yourself in that place that will allow for great things to happen. And, best of all, you can try again and again knowing the rules of greatness which I just laid out for you. Go get it, tiger!
Great people and great works come from people on the move. Those people are on the move alone. They arrive and take their chance and then move again. A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country.