“Normally, the thing is when I win a writing award—and you don’t share the script with anyone—you write it by yourself. You kinda don’t have anyone to thank. I did it,” said Quentin Tarantino, clutching his new Golden Globe for Best Screenplay of a Motion Picture-Drama.
Curled up on the couch, watching Tarantino’s speech, I sighed. And I wasn’t alone: across social media, posters mocked the director-writer’s comments. One meme pictured him staring into a mirror: “Quentin Tarantino looking at his mentor.”
While few artists will ever stand onstage at a glittery awards show, Tarantino’s self-reliant gratitude is less rare than Twitter assumes. Though louder and brasher than most, he is far from the first to dress in the myth of the lone genius.
A frail, dark figure rakes his fingers through his (it’s usually his) hair, frizzing the strands into a clever Byronic halo. He grips the pen, the brush, the test tube—the glowing torch of his trade—in a mad, manic grip. As if from miles away, he hears a knock on the door and a question: “Can I help?” He shakes his head: no, no, no. “I must do this alone.”
We recognize the figure because he is ideal: asked to sketch the artist in our minds, we conjure him—slovenly personal hygiene and all—and aspire to him. If only I had the time, the money, the room of my own to become him.
The lone genius is not a new concept: Western culture has flirted with the idea for centuries, from the love-tortured troubadour to the troubled Romantic hero. But the social media age allows us to watch the sacrifices maintaining that image demands. The artist’s logic become ridiculous and contradictory, and gratitude becomes a confession of incompetency. The costume will eat away at the costumed, no matter how comforting the myth feels against the skin.
The truth is that geniuses rarely work alone: Vincent Van Gogh had his brother Theo; the Brontë sisters had one another; E.B. White had his editor Ursula Nordstrom. Creation and conversation feed one another, a circle that grounds and nourishes good work. Even as I sit here, turning thoughts into keystrokes, I think of the books I’ve read this month, the barista who made my cinnamon plum tea latte, the friend who listened to me ramble as we scrubbed dishes this weekend. Did any of these people type out my words? No. For them to claim these paragraphs would be plagiarism. But no good work happens unsupported. Collaboration—working together, learning together—happens in every creative act, consciously and unconsciously. But we will either acknowledge the help or distance ourselves from it. Conscious collaboration presses us beyond mine, my, I did it, towards honesty and humility.
While the myth of the lone genius is dangerous for the successful artist, it is absolutely cruel to the aspiring artist. If collaboration is compromise, then being anything less than a Renaissance man is failure. And few people have the time or talent to become one. As someone who works on books behind-the-scenes, I often receive shocked responses when I describe my daily tasks. “Someone does that?” Tweaking punctuation and asking about narrative flow. Fact-checking scientific mentions, book numbers, and release dates. Obsessing about serif or sans serif, matte or gloss, the warped or aligned edges of a hardcover.
“Someone does that?” In the little o of their mouths, I can see their minds churning. If the book wasn’t self-published—and often even if it was—the author didn’t design its cover. The author probably didn’t send review copies to journals. The author didn’t…do this alone. Success is rarely achieved solo, even if the successful hate to admit it. Even Tarantino, saying he didn’t have anyone to thank, concluded his acceptance speech by acknowledging his cast, his inspirations, and his family. A work might be created alone, but no one would ever find it without collaboration.
Any artist can’t deny the thrill of my name—my name—in print, on an album cover, on the gallery listing, on the award. While that goal is good and lovely and important, the thrill cannot replace the grounded good of collaboration. Without it, creativity would sputter and creak, losing nuance and beauty. The mythic costume falls away with a tug, and something more whole and healing begins. And for that I give thanks.
Courtney Zonnefeld graduated in 2018 with a degree in writing. She currently lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where she works for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and saving up for more herb plants. You can usually find her wandering a farmer’s market, hunting for vintage books, or browsing the tea selection in coffee shops.