Comedian Patton Oswalt is skilled. Through years of effort he has risen to the heights of his profession, playing roles in numerous films, having his own TV specials, selling out theaters. But his childhood dream was not comedy — he wanted to be a novelist, and even attempted to write two post-apocalyptic novels as a teenager.
He started doing stand-up as a young man in D.C. as a way to flex his writing muscles. But that eventually changed, he writes in his new book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland:
Once I started doing stand-up comedy, I couldn’t get enough. The idea of writing a book, becoming a journalist and then, hopefully, a novelist, couldn’t withstand my sudden ambition to craft a perfect dick joke. Five thousand words a day seemed silly when I could bring a room full of drunks together with fifteen perfectly chosen words.
Of course, as I’m reading this book I’m thinking to myself, “Ah, but you are a writer, Patton. I’m reading a book by you right now, and it’s brilliant.” And it is. Taking the growing genre of memoir in new directions, this book of essays has standard reflections on childhood (mostly high school), but also includes a short graphic novel-style piece about two vampires, a sampling of disturbing greeting cards, and an epic poem to an orc warrior. It also contains a moving recollection from his childhood, where his good friend is suffering because the friend’s father is having an affair with a neighbor, but the narrator (the young Patton) is unaware.
It doesn’t seem fair, we often say, when we discover that someone so talented in one area is also a master of another. For me, it’s bad enough that George Clooney is so gorgeous he’d probably be able to persuade me to switch teams if he wanted (my wife knows of my man-crush, no worries), but it turns out he’s also a skilled actor, director, screenwriter and producer. Creativity expert Douglas Eby wrote about this phenomenon recently, and linked to an article he wrote about another multi-talented Hollywood star, Amber Benson of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fame.
Eby notes K-12 educations specialist Tamara Fisher calls this phenomenon “multipotentiality.” It’s an issue for educators, particularly guidance counselors, as the multi-talented student wonders what to pursue professionally. I love and excel at calculus, Greek philosophy and English literature, Ms. Fisher. What now?
Creatives and those who frequent creative communities will not find multipotentiality unusual. In fact, it might seem so common they’ll wonder why there’s a word for it.
Recently I met two students in a low-residency MFA in Writing program who are about to graduate. They told me about a talent show their class held at their last on-campus residency. One of them said he had performed on the violin. The other told me he has acting experience but didn’t want to do a one-man show, so he performed magic tricks. I said it was interesting that all of these writing students had another talent they could perform. The violin player looked at me as if I had just expressed bafflement that an orange was the color orange. “All creative people have multiple talents, don’t they?”
They do, scientists tell us, even if they don’t realize it. After all, if you’ve never picked up a musical instrument, you may not realize you have a predisposition to excel at it. But the creative brain knows how to both master a skill and think in ways others would find counter-intuitive to breathe new life into that skill.
This is useful to society far beyond the arts. One obsession of mine is the so-called “Theory of Everything,” in which scientists hope to find answers to the mysteries of the universe and thus improve society in unimaginable ways. I devour books written by scientists about the cross-disciplinary work of researchers looking for commonalities in the universe, such as the fact that the way birds form flight patterns echoes the way neutrinos travel and the way a jaguar’s muscles flex in full pursuit of prey. I usually have to start skimming at some point because my scientific education is lacking and they lose me in jargon, but just as I can find delight in reading a comedian write beautiful prose, I can enjoy reading a physicist exploring anatomy.
Guidance counselors are expected to find a student’s “path” and set him or her down that path. But as Oswalt’s book shows, one should never mentally close off other paths.
Do you have a personal experience with the “dilemma” of multipotentiality? Have you observed it in your family, in your social circle, in yourself? I’d love to hear from you.