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personal essay, series

Library for the Homeless (pt. 2/2)

As I locked the bookcases and prepared to leave for the day, a regular who’d talked with me the week before hails me over. This time, he introduces himself as Amos Johnson, and introduces me as “the writer” to his friend, a semi-regular with a friendly, sharp face. “Amos” then launches into a full rendition of “Dreams” by Langston Hughes, from memory. I’m stunned, and already late to leave, but I roll with it and keep talking to him.

“Amos” changes topics rapidly, but stays focused on literary and philosophical figures: Emerson, Socrates, Stephen King.

“Bet you didn’t expect to connect with someone on this high of a level in a place like this, did you?” he interrupts himself, voice mild and Southern Comfort slow.

What level is that? The Socratic level?

“Did you know he died by poison? Because he spoke the truth, and people didn’t want to hear it?”

Yes, and I’ve read that he killed himself before anyone else could take his life from him.

“Wow, now, I hadn’t even heard that. But like I said, I bet you weren’t expecting to have this level of discussion with a person in this Center.”

Maybe not before I actually got here. But I’ve had a few conversations now, about poetry or spiritual things or what have you.

“Amos” suddenly shifts topic again, to genius and Thomas Edison. Our world would still be lit by “really tall candles,” Amos contends, if Edison hadn’t trusted his genius or had confidence enough in his insight to go after inventing the light bulb.

The question: Are human greatness, genius, and modesty able to coexist? Or does one get in the way of the others? I said, Yes, they can live together, and added that Edison’s output as an inventor was caused more than anything else by sleeping, like, 3 hours per night. “Amos” smiles, agrees, and asks if I know that famous quote by Edison.

“Genius is 1% Inspiration, and 99% Perspiration.”

I do. Which got me thinking long afterward. If most creative work is sub-potential, it’s because most creators wish this equation were reversible: 99% Inspiration, 1% Perspiration.

But that’s not possible: Just because one has more inspiration than the average person—as most writers and artists think of themselves—still doesn’t mean the equation for success should be any different.

The same goes for my writing (sometimes) and my music (always). If …. if I already had the programs and production equipment, as well as the know-how to utilize them, then I could write an entire album in a month. There are enough fully-developed song ideas in my head. But that’s not how art happens. What’s in my head already is the 1%, not the 99%. The real creative work is me slamming my head against the wall, figuring out how to make the songs actually work. Learning the programs. Saving up for the equipment. None of which has actually happened yet.

Thomas Edison and “Amos Johnson” helped me recognize the necessity of self-learning.  That is what manufactures genius, if anything. In sleeplessness and patience.

Later that night, I went drinking and watched Horrible Bosses with friends. Oh well. Maybe I’ll perspire more today.

{check out the first half of this post here}

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