What Ada Calhoun Understands About Geniuses Like Her Father
MYour father is a well-known art critic and has been writing since childhood. I didn’t disturb him when he was working. I am 46 and have worked in many coffee shops, libraries kitchens parks. Wonder PetsWith toddlers and once in an active Nerf gun battle between my sons and his neighbors.
My dad is widely known to be a genius. I have always been called “a hard worker.” I think that’s at least partly because the concept of “genius” is connected to the performance of being one. Geneiuses require space, time, and silence. You shouldn’t expect them to cook, clean or pay your bills. It is not easy to be brilliant. I believe that it goes along with being disconnected from the rest of the world. Maybe a genius doesn’t even enjoy the process of creation. Perhaps they grumble and pace. It’s their job. The Art.
This is what I believed all my life. But lately I’ve started to question the premise that men—and it is, typically, men—should be tiptoed around on the grounds that their genius makes them exempt from daily obligations.
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When I was working on my new book, which is in part about my father and about our shared hero, the poet Frank O’Hara, I read about many writers and painters of mid-century New York who had roomy offices and studios and did not do childcare. And I wondered if there isn’t something about adopting the habits of a genius that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t have to tend to your own or your children’s earthly needs, of course you’re able to go deeper in your work.
While I believe that many so-called geniuses are actual geniuses—and that my father indeed is one—I would wager that not Everybody Whoever has claimed genius’s dispensations deserves it. There are probably a hundred men who have just read Bob Dylan’s lyrics. The RoadYou have 12 too many. We mistakenly think that being a jerk is creativity. Neurosis and isolation are seen as the hallmarks for creativity. Selfishness is mistaken for the Muse.
In her review of Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth, Monica Hesse took apart an implication that Roth should never have been asked to run to the store because of his genius: “Why is it unreasonable for Philip Roth to be asked to purchase an ingredient for the dinner he is presumably going to eat? What was the source of all other grocery purchases? The assumption is that it was. [his first wife] Maggie. Maggie. Here day not ‘interrupted’ when she shopped for and prepared the meal? What is the difference between a ‘thin pretext’ and a valid request, other than whether the asker is Philip Roth…?”
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I recently asked my therapist if to be a great writer, rather than just a bestselling writer, I should have stayed single, not had kids, shut out the world—if those things would mean I could one day be as good a writer as my father or, dare to dream, O’Hara himself—if, in other words, in another lifetime, I could have been a genius, too. Perhaps I should have taken more control of my time and space. Or perhaps, would it have been better to spend less time running around the supermarket looking for ingredients. The geniuses may be right and we should all close the door from time to time if we want to do things.
“Your father had a 34-year head start,” she said. “Your son will be out of the house in less than five years. If you like, you could close your door every day and continue working for the next 40 years. Personally, I’d rather read something by someone who had a full life before locking out the world.”
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I like this way of thinking about it, that artists and writers willing to sacrifice a rich, full life for solitude in order to have the trappings of the word genius are doing themselves—and maybe even their art—a disservice, playing a dangerous game, putting all their eggs in one basket. If your work is all you have and your work isn’t well received, or stops being satisfying, what are you left with? If being a “genius” is your identity, what happens when you’re not recognized in your own time or, worse, you stop finding satisfaction in your work?
The fact is writing is incredibly important to me, and yet I also don’t want to miss out on the multiplicity of life. When I’m not writing, I like to clean up and have fun with my friends. This means I won’t be called a genius no matter what I do. And yet, I don’t mind. Is it worth sacrificing my pure identity to live a life filled with love and connections? I’m happy to make that trade.
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