JC: Confessions of a Polymath
Confession time. My name is Jack and I’m a polymath.
Now I know what you’re thinking:
1) Poor Jack.
2) There, but for the grace of God, go I.
3) What’s a polymath?
Confession number two. I had to look up the word polymath in a dictionary to find out that I am one.
Contrary to how the word sounds, polymathism is not some form of mental disorder in which a person is afflicted with a preponderance of algebraic equations.
So, what is a polymath? Let me see if I can describe it in layman’s terms.
A polymath is a person who gets emotional about reading an encyclopedia. A polymath is a person who sneaks to Blockbuster late at night so his neighbors won’t discover that he’s the one who rents the documentaries. A polymath is a person who rewards himself at the end of a hard day by watching a college lecture on videotape.
A polymath is a person who is addicted to reading the spines of books. He’s drawn to them like a two-year-old to electrical outlets. Now I’m not talking about your garden variety reading of book spines in a bookstore or library. A polymath reads the book spines on a shelf behind a friend in the middle of a conversation. He reads the spines of books in the background of magazine photos and on the pull-down backdrop at the portrait shop at Walmart.
Don’t snigger. It’s nothing to laugh about. Polymathism is a social disease. As soon as your friends find out you are one, your social life dies. Let’s face it. No one will every make a reality show featuring polymaths.
And right about now some of you who are closet polymaths (you know who you are) are blocking the computer screen because you’re afraid someone in your family will see what you’re reading and say, “Hey Mom! He’s writing about you!”
Being a polymath writer is both blessing and curse. For the polymath researching a novel is fun. That’s the blessing. For the polymath, researching a novel is too much fun. That’s the curse. Too many rabbits to chase. Once while googling zeppelins for a World War I novel I lost the better part of a day following links to the rock group Led Zeppelin.
I know what you’re thinking. It’s a sickness.
I once read a tragic story about a polymath who was carted off to the loony bin. They found him frozen in front of his computer muttering, “Just one more link. Just one more link.” I know how he feels. For the polymath, saying “No” to just one more book, one more paragraph, one more fact, one more link is like saying “No” to a second helping of lasagna and ribs (Uh-oh. I just confessed to another addiction, didn’t I?)
Many people equate polymaths with geniuses. A natural mistake. But just because a polymath consumes copious amounts of information doesn’t mean he retains it (unlike the lasagna and ribs). Take me for example. My mind holds facts as effectively as my hands cup water. If Mensa were ever to give me an award, it would be for forgetting more information than the average PhD learns in a lifetime. Hardly the stuff of legend.
What does all this have to do with writing? Two things.
First, a word of advice to fellow polymaths. Researching is not writing. While it may seem important to research the perfect typographer’s font for your story, unless you’re putting words on paper, you’re not writing. Establish a realistic word count and force yourself to write every day.
Second, while some of you may not be polymaths (and until now you didn’t even know polymaths exist, but now that you know you’d willing sign a petition making it a law to register polymaths and track them on a web site so that you can identify all the polymaths on your block and warn your children to stay away from them), if you have any storyteller blood in your veins, by now you’re thinking, “Hmm. I’ll bet a polymath would make an interesting quirky character in my next novel.” And you’d be right.
Bonus tip: Like researching, reading blogs about writing is not writing. Go write something.
--Jack Cavanaugh, with Dr. Bill Bright, the author of Proof