Friday, November 03, 2006

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


At 7:45 AM, Blogger Tracy Ruckman said...

Hi, my name is Tracy and I'm a polymath!

Hysterical reading and so accurate!

At 7:52 AM, Blogger Mike Duran said...

This reminds me of the statistician who drowned in a lake with an average depth of six inches. Just imagine how much writing I could accomplish if I weren't floundering in facts.

At 6:11 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

So, I've got pms (polymath syndrome) wasn't the hormones after all!

At 12:03 PM, Blogger Traci DePree said...

Great blog, Jack! Now I know what to call my husband when he runs to the Internet every time he hears a new word.

At 9:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like it. I like it very much. Oh my, this is so me. And now I have a word for it!

The joy.

At 7:22 AM, Blogger matt e. said...

I try to tell myself it's a healthy addiction. Now, I can put a name to it.

At 7:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm trying to think what kind of talisman one could hold up to ward off a clicking know, like a cross to ward off a vampire?

Would it be a mousepad? A wireless mouse?

Or would it simply be enough to hold up a reference book and threaten to break the binding or tear out a page?

At 9:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh to finally be able to put a name to my affliction...and to know I'm not alone!

At 9:37 AM, Blogger batgirl said...

Jack, this was the best post I've read in a long time. I think I need a polymath to do my research for me. Where can I get one?

At 11:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a polymath and so is my husband. It's a wonder we get ANYTHING done.....

At 12:04 PM, Blogger Heather said...

You caught me! I am not a polymath, but as I read this blog, I indeed inserted this quirk into one of my characters.

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Erica Vetsch said...

Polymaths of the world, Unite! So guilty of the book spine compulsion. A terrific post today.

At 3:00 PM, Blogger Bald Writer said...

Why do you think I found this post... polymathism run rampant... I'm trying to figure out how to blog as a writer. Maybe I'll reach this level eventually. Thanks!


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