What Ada Calhoun Understands About Geniuses Like Her Father

Mhis father, now 80, a successful art critic, has always locked himself in a room to write. I didn’t bother him when he was working. At 46, I’ve written over the years in cafes, libraries, kitchens, parks, while watching wonderful pets with young children, and once during an active Nerf firefight between my son and some neighbors.

My father is widely considered a genius. I’ve always been called a “hard worker”. I think it’s at least in part because the concept of “genius” is tied to the performance of being one. Geniuses need space, time and silence. They shouldn’t be expected to help with homework, cook, clean or pay bills. There’s something about being brilliant, I’ve come to believe, that goes hand in hand with isolation from the world. Maybe a genius doesn’t even like the creation process. Maybe they walk by and grumble and pull out their hair. But they have to. for art.

I always believed that. But lately I’ve begun to question the premise that men—and they usually are men—should walk on tiptoe, claiming that their genius relieves them of daily obligations.

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When I was working on my new book, which is in part about my father and our shared hero, the poet Frank O’Hara, I read about many mid-century New York writers and painters who had spacious offices and studios and not do day care. 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 need to meet your earthly needs or those of your children, of course you can go deeper into your work.

While I believe that many so-called geniuses are real geniuses – and that my father is in fact one of them – I would bet that they are not. all whoever claimed the dispensations of genius deserves it. For every Bob Dylan, I suspect there are a hundred guys who just read On the road 12 times too much. We often confuse being an idiot with creativity. We privilege neurosis and distance as marks of the creative process. We confuse selfishness with the Muse.

In her review of Blake Bailey’s Philip Roth biography, Monica Hesse dismantled an implication that Roth should never have been asked to run into the store because of his genius: “Why is it unreasonable that Philip Roth should be asked to buy a ingredient for the dinner he’s likely to eat? Who bought the rest of the groceries? One supposes it was [his first wife] Maggie. He was your day not ‘interrupted’ when she shopped and prepared the meal? What is the difference between a ‘weak pretense’ and a valid request, unless the requester is Philip Roth…?”

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I recently asked my therapist if, in order to be a great writer, instead of just a bestselling writer, I should have remained single, not have children, exclude the world – if these things meant that one day I could be so as good a writer as my father or, dare you dream it, O’Hara himself—if, in other words, in another life I could have been a genius too. Or, at the very least, should I have enjoyed more space, time, and silence for myself, running less to the store to buy ingredients for dinner? Maybe geniuses are into something and any of us who want to do stuff should close a door every now and then.

“Your father had a 34-year head start,” she said. “Your child will be out of the house in less than five years. So you can close a door and work all day, every day, for 40 years if you want. Personally, I prefer to read something by someone who has a full life before locking up the world.”

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I like this way of thinking about it, that artists and writers willing to sacrifice a rich and full life for solitude to have the trappings of the word genius are doing themselves – and maybe even their art – a disservice, playing a dangerous game. , putting all the eggs in one basket. If your work is all you’ve got and your work isn’t well-received or unsatisfactory, what’s left? If being a “genius” is your identity, what happens when you go unrecognized in your own time or, worse, fail to find fulfillment in your work?

The fact is that writing is incredibly important to me, but I also don’t want to miss out on the multiplicity of life. I take time off from writing to cook, clean, and spend time with friends. I take this to mean that whatever I do, by the current definition of the word, I’ll probably never be called a genius. And yet, I don’t care. Giving up that pure identity for a life full of connections and love? I am happy to make this exchange.

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