Follow by Email

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Am I a Genius? Are You?

It’s got to be the least useful question a writer can ever ask him- or herself, and yet—all right—it’s one we’ve all asked ourselves, even while suspecting we already know the answer (if you have to ask . . .) and thus guaranteeing a day of feeling absolutely wretched. So let’s get it over with:

Yes, you’re a genius.

And now you owe me, big-time. I want a big lobster and a gushing blurb when you’re famous.

The whole genius label, like the current passion for the word passion, makes me want to find my inner curmudgeon, take my walking stick off the wall and go hit something, like a cute puppy or the first daffodil of spring. To growl and say, Damn geniuses! Have to talk to the gardener again about letting them into the garden.

But it’s hopeless. We’re in the self-esteem business. And we live in an age when egos inflate and hover like Zeppelins over the Zuiderzee. To dare to raise a pen to paper, ego and self-regard and even a dose of early gushing praise are probably necessary. Still, a steady diet of fatuous self-appreciation can make you awfully unpleasant to be with and contribute to the most ridiculous, bloated, flatulent work. Unless you really are a genius.

The question of genius is a serious one, once we get over the junior high clique aspect. What makes someone really good? Really really good? The best? Can we quantify it? Graph it and fill in the squares? Turn the job over to Watson, the IBM supercomputer?

Well, we know the answer to that. Yes, of course. Maybe it’s Don Foster, the guy who can find a new Shakespeare sonnet in a shredded phone book using a software program. There’s just no question that someone somewhere is already doing it, pouring the relationship of fancy words, complex sentences and the occurrence of the semi-colon into an algorithm that will yield incontrovertible truth; every time.

We also know this, too, will pass and the question will remain: what is genius?

I first heard it applied to someone I knew when I was 19 and a singer in a rock n’ roll band. My best friend from childhood came up to Santa Cruz for a visit, heard us practice, and said later, in an awe-struck tone, “I’ve never met a real genius before.”

He was talking about our rhythm guitarist/songwriter. Boy, were my feelings hurt. Even if Peter wrote 90 percent of our material and could play an instrument. You see, I made really really good James Brown-like grunting sounds exactly where they were needed. For a white boy from Long Beach, that’s genius. Just not genius enough for Mike.

Mike is still my best childhood friend, but hurt feelings are why I’m going to dispense with the genius tag and replace it with something his mother, Trudi, once said of someone who was on a roll: “Why, his hair’s on fire!” I think this is a more useful appellation, because it connotes talent plus energy plus volatility plus combustion. You can just see Beethoven, sitting at the piano bench and his hair’s on fire. William Blake, you know the man’s hair is definitely on fire. And so forth. Frida Kahlo? Even her unibrow is on fire.

So we leave genius to the critics in the next century. Right now, in our lifetime, whose hair is on fire? That’s the question.

And now, quickly, I’m going to put myself in the jury box and answer the question, “Who among writers you’ve actually met was a—that word—you know. Whose hair was on fire?”

As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, I hit a pretty good era for writers. We had Jim Houston running the program, William Everson doing “Birth of a Poet” in a giant teepee, George Hitchcock publishing Kayak, a free weekly, Sundaz, that ran a short story a week thanks to fiction editor Lou Mathews, Gurney Norman writing a serialized novel in the margins of The Whole Earth Catalog, a large group of fine printers including my pal Tom Killion, a seriously literary bunch of professors up the Hill including my personal Virgil, Norman O. Brown, and a slew of young and old writers milling around the community and classrooms. As a fumbling apprentice, I soaked it all up indiscriminately.

There was plenty of talent in the room, all kinds. Many of us went on to publish. There are some real successes among us. But you know what? Nobody’s hair was on fire. (I think Norman O. Brown’s tonsure was singed, but his writing was academic and interpretative, even if Love’s Body and Life Against Death are among the few books I can think of that actually take you step by step into a different reality than where you started.) Once in awhile Gary Snyder came padding through the forest in roadkill moccasins and you knew greatness had passed. But Snyder kept away from scenes. He was like Obi-wan Kenobi, making himself invisible.

At one point I worked as a busboy-runner at the Oak Room on the Pacific Garden Mall, an outdoor café that was the center of the scene. One sunny day I served a table of writers, including my advisor, Jim Houston, and a handful of others, almost all of them in the UCSC-Stanford orbit, the heirs of Wallace Stegner. A fly on the wall, I hung around picking up elliptical gossip and collecting empty glasses and bringing fresh pitchers.

The talk turned to a guy they all knew, apparently. I gathered he was someone they cared about and had come up through the ranks with. And now, well, he’d hit the skids. He was going to be at the university to give a reading, but his drinking had become a terrible handicap and career-wise he was really blowing it. How? By writing too much, a couple of short stories a week, most of them undeveloped, sort of sketches. And publishing too much, too fast, in any little review that would take him. In places like The Chico Review, Humboldt Review, when he should be massaging one perfect story to showcase at The New Yorker or The Atlantic.

Yeah, poor Ray Carver. Now there was one guy whose hair was definitely not on fire.

See you next week, when I take the “hair on fire” roadshow to the Iowa Workshop.

Note: This post also appears on the We Wanted To Be Writers website and on my Bright City Writes blog -- because the book is gearing up for pub date and the Bright City blog will accompany the launch of our digital publishing house, Bright City Books.

No comments:

Post a Comment