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Tiptree on genius


David M recently mentioned ambition and genius, among other things. I've recently finally gotten back to reading Julie P's Tiptree bio, and just came across this quote, from a letter from Tiptree to a young Craig Strete:

[The "genius horse"] knows it is his destiny to make one great burning leap and carry you to shine forever among the stars. To your rightful place. He will chafe all his life at his inability to do this, at the idiotic small steps necessary even to shoulder among the earthly throng, [...] the endless miserable mechanics of attaining even a modest writer's career. Between that and the one great soaring leap he needs the difference is always almost too much.

Phillips adds a comment (talking about Alice Sheldon years before writing the abovequoted letter):

Between Alice and that "great soaring leap" also came a sense that she wasn't ready, that she was still learning and preparing for the great work yet to come. All her life Alice would love new beginnings. She threw herself with enthusiasm into each new job, study, marriage. But when the future arrived with its limited potential, she tended to get restless and move on.

--James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips, pp. 64-65.

Then again, on the other side of the ambition question, there's what Swanwick said about Gibson and realistic ambitions.


This was the point at which the biography stopped working for me. This is someone who understands success in terms of the single path. The idea that someone might work on many, many things; might create a patchwork of synthesis which no-one working on the single path might reach, is incomprehensible in this understanding.

Imagine the above written about Leonardo Da Vinci. It's a perfect description of him, but it makes him sound like a failure.

Hi, Farah! I didn't read the description that way; I would say that it's possible to recognize that there can be a patchwork of synthesis of many things but still remark that a particular person tends to embark on a series of linear paths and then abandon them for other things. (Especially if that person explicitly expressed dissatisfaction about it.)

In other words, I didn't see Phillips as saying that people who like new beginnings are failures, nor even that pre-Tiptree Alice Sheldon was a failure; just that Sheldon was personally dissatisfied with each of her projects in turn, and that part of her penchant for moving on to new projects was due to that dissatisfaction. Based on the extensive quotes from things Sheldon herself wrote about her various fresh starts (as quoted in the book), I'd be inclined to agree--though I'm relying on data provided by Phillips in the book, so I can't be certain there isn't other data that contradicts that idea.

So ... have you seen indications elsewhere that Sheldon (pre-Tiptree) saw herself as successfully creating a patchwork of synthesis out of her many beginnings?

(Note: in addition to the naming difficulties regarding the subject of this book, I'm uncertain how to refer to the bio's author. I've met her once, briefly, in person, and she and I attended the same college, a place where almost everyone assumes a first-name basis. (As do most people in sf and most WisCon people and so on.) But in an attempt to maintain at least a veneer of professionalism, I'm calling her by her last name here. ...In case you happen across this entry: Hi, Julie!)

Hi back! You're welcome to use my first name, though I do feel sort of excitingly professional when I read "Phillips says."

best wishes,

Julie (Technorati eavesdropper)

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