Don’t think it’s lost on me that the incident with my kid’s typewriter and the improbable result of my typing my own name, when I’d yet to study the alphabet or the sounds of its letters, was essentially the Infinite Monkey Theorem writ small. Of course, this whole episode assumes my mother was accurately reporting what she had seen on the paper I’d typed. She might have been shining me on, and I was too dumb to know the difference. In fact, I recently asked her about it. “Say, do you remember….?”
So much for the profound effect of my earliest writing effort.
So back to the chimps.
Now that we’ve eliminated the obstacles to the theorem and have the chimps typing as furiously as little Mikie over their typewriters, let’s assume one does manage to type out the lyrics to “Hey, Jude,” and even plays hard enough with the dashes and backspaces and ampersand to superimpose the lines of staff paper and the notes to the song. And since there are infinite chimps and time and paper, let’s say a whole bunch of them managed to do the same thing.
Who’s to know? Who’s monitoring their progress and standing by to recognize their accomplishments? If no observing eye is there to evaluate every typed piece of paper, the remarkable reproduction of “Hey, Jude” is just another piece of paper.
So let’s give one of the chimps a helping hand. Let’s say some watching intelligence notices the accomplishment of just one of the chimps – we’ll call him “Harvey” – and spreads the word.
Soon Harvey is the toast of the town. Everyone wants to meet the chimp that typed “Hey, Jude.” But what about the other chimps who’d mirrored the exact same accomplishment. If no saw their reproductions, if no one heard about them, no one would look at the anonymous chimps’ staff papers filled with the exact same notes and lyrics.
So now we’re zeroing in on the writer’s curse, but we need a few more adjustments.
First, let’s take the Beatles out of the equation. There never was a song called “Hey, Jude,” and none of the other Beatles songs was ever written. But Harvey nevertheless types “Hey, Jude” into existence. And the other chimps manage to type up every other Beatles tune, which would now be original works.
Yet only Harvey’s sheet of typing papers gets noticed. Only Harvey’s “Hey, Jude” is found and produced and sung, and only Harvey’s “Hey, Jude” makes its way onto recordings and is performed, and only “Hey, Jude” becomes a cultural phenomenon. This leaves every other great Beatles song written but unknown.
This is getting closer to the nugget of the writer’s curse.
Look, I love the Beatles. I get it if you don’t, but you’re just wrong. Plain wrong. But I’ve often wondered how many individuals are or were out there who were the talented equivalents of Lennon and McCartney who, for whatever reason, weren’t heard – at least not at the right time by the right people in the right environment. Maybe there were musicians as good as the Beatles with songs just as great for whom the dice rolled the wrong way. Maybe they kept the wrong drummer or needed to take a full-time job to feed their families or to avoid starvation themselves.
Maybe there are any number of persons out there right now, just a year shy of retirement age, sitting on a chair and bouncing a grandchild or two on their knees, musing over the songs they’d written long ago, any one of which would have infiltrated the collective consciousness if it had only been heard.
But the songs weren’t heard, and their songs and talent faded into the ether.
We’re getting closer now to the writer’s curse, but we’re not quite there.
Let’s make another adjustment to our chimps. Let’s say they’re as smart as your average human and have an inexplicable urge to create literature. They’re set up pretty good with time and supplies, so the only obstacle is putting something on paper that is good enough for someone to read.
They’re aware, of course, that there are an infinite number of chimps just like them, trying to do the same thing. They’re also aware that the desire to create and the talent to do so are not mutually inclusive. They have doubt. Yet a love for words has infiltrated their brains, and they don’t really have a choice but to play with the words and place them into stories that will have an effect on the reader – whether the effect is amusement, thought, or emotion.
Perhaps the greatest writer among them is a chimp named Alice. Alice can make word combinations that lyrically fill the page and resonate along some deep chord in the psyche that demands more of the same. Her stories make the reader weep for the characters and shout in triumph when Alice’s protagonists overcome all odds to meet some favored revelation or accomplishment. To read one of the many works she manages to pound out on her typewriter is nothing short of a sublime experience.
But before Alice’s works can be read, she needs something – that intelligent observer who will decide whether Alice will be heard. She needs an agent.
So Alice is required to write something impossible: a 150-word “query” letter that will make an agent understand not the wonder of the work she has written, but its salability. She must take a complex 100,000-word story arc and distill it and its lyricism into a sales pitch. This is the equivalent of giving an infinite number of intelligent chimps an infinite amount of time to create the perfect pitch that will convey all of the wonders of Alice’s work to a person who will glance at it ever-so-briefly. Even with infinity in the mix, the odds are nearly unsurmountable.
Soon Alice runs out of agents to query, and she is left with wonderful stories, a terrible need to write more, an no way of ever having her words heard.
Harvey, on the other hand, has written a so-so novel that just happens to strike the right cultural chord at just the right moment, and his novel is scooped up, sold, and published. Harvey smiles the biggest chimp grin ever recorded.