December 2008

Elizabeth Bachner


Geniuscide: Reading My So-Called Freelance Life by Michelle Goodman

Genius is not, etymologically speaking, a trait, like prettiness or stupidity or discretion. Genii, in the Roman tradition, are spirits that enter a man’s body at his birth and leave at his death. It was the genius that brought you brilliance, bettering society and thrilling you from the inside out as long as you treated him right. You had to sacrifice each of your birthdays to your genius. He could easily flip out and turn into your daemon or tormenter. I say “he” and “him” because women didn’t have a genius. Each woman had a juno instead, and junoses did things like protect a girl’s virginity or a woman’s marriage -- and, did slaves even have geniuses or junoses? No wonder I prefer the term furor poeticus, the idea of a dazzling frenzy that overtakes a random poet at some moments, rather than visiting everyone to varying ends. Either way, though, there was an understanding -- which is still secretly shared by every real artist or writer -- that your work was magic, whether tormenting or vindicating, that the way it was suddenly, jaggedly channeled through you was a mystery, not to be taken lightly, and that your genius, evil or not, was smarter than you were.

We live in an anti-genius society, and it’s high time that stopped. Save the geniuses!

I love the opening chapters of Henry Miller’s Rosy Crucifixion. He’s just come up with this plan, a plan I’m grateful for every night and every morning, when Miller has it or some other great writer has it -- he’s going to write or die. He’ll starve, he’ll be a parasite, he’ll be an asshole, he’ll take money from his wife, he’ll leap into the unknown, he’ll do whatever he has to, but then, years later, I’ll get to read his work. “I was approaching my thirty-third year, the year of Christ crucified. A wholly new life lay before me, had I the courage to risk all. Actually there was nothing to risk: I was at the bottom rung of the ladder, a failure in every sense of the word.” He’s talking about diving into a messed-up seven-year relationship, sure, but he’s also talking about the work.

“Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty… It occurred to me that I could say what I wanted to say… if I were willing to bear the consequences which a pure act always involves.”

When Balzac had this revelation, after trying and failing to start a dozen businesses using his mother’s money, he raced through the streets of Paris to find his sister, announcing, “I’m about to become a genius!” Charles Bukowski was 49 when it happened: “I have one of two choices -- stay in the post office and go crazy, or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.”

Eric Hanson’s A Book of Ages: An Eccentric Miscellany of Great and Offbeat Moments in the Lives of the Famous & Infamous, Ages 1 to 100 and Michael Largo’s Genius and Heroin: The Illustrated Catalogue of Creativity, Obsession, and Reckless Abandon Through the Ages celebrate genius in a soothing and cathartic way. It’s guiltily heartening to learn how many creative geniuses -- the ones whose rich mothers supported them, the ones who had to work at the post office, the ones who were boho couch surfers, the ones who were genuinely poor and hard-working -- were so unfortunately bad at the “life” part. Even the ones who were really famous and successful and good at almost everything were uncomfortable with some of the basics. Creating work, marketing work, and making it through daily life are largely unrelated skills -- sometimes they coincide, and sometimes they don’t. Balzac, for example, chain-drank black coffee and wrote instead of sleeping. He started hallucinating from all the coffee, and died at fifty-one from an enlarged heart. His skin was waxy, and he had the intense facial twitch of a speed-freak. Dante was obsessively prideful -- “It was this gargantuan-sized pride that allowed him to call and write what he saw as the truth, yet it was the same that left him exiled and wandering, eventually succumbing to fever, probably from malaria.”

Beyond its restorative qualities for the languishing artist, A Book of Ages is a goldmine of factoids that you’ll wish you’d known for longer (ordered, as you’d expect, by the age of the famous person at the time of the detail or event.) For instance, Shakespeare and Cervantes died on the very same day, in 1616. Anderson Cooper is Gloria Vanderbilt’s son, which explains so much. Stephen King’s father abandoned his family when baby Stephen was two, leaving behind only a box of science fiction paperbacks. Dorothy Parker left all of her possessions to Martin Luther King. Albert Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel at age 73. (He said no.) Freud saw his mother naked when he was three and it gave him the heebies. At age 72, he rode his first airplane, and noted in his diary, “Passed over for the Nobel Prize.” When he was twenty-seven, in 1924, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a guide with the nauseating title, How to Live on 36,000 a Year. On the train to New Haven one day in the early sixties, students mistook W.H. Auden (aged 55) for Carl Sandburg (aged 84). It ruined his day.

“Around the time my own first novel wasn’t being published…,” writes Hanson, “I began collecting data and writing it down… The fragments of other writers’ lives, but not only writers’. Lives of artists, composers, boxers, and quarterbacks, all the celebrated dead, accumulated like a kind of poetry. As I assembled the entries year by year, it seemed as if they were all swimming together in the same stream. That was the point… I suggest you do what everyone else will do -- that is, turn to the age you are now. After that you are on your own. Leaf through it at random. Look at the year that you remember most vividly. Or start at the beginning. Even as crowded and selective a canvas as this one does have a plot to it. Jot your own story in the margin.”

A book like this ought to make an obscure or struggling artist feel horrible, but instead, it opens up a pool of beautiful new possibilities. It doesn’t matter when you dip in, it just matters that you swim. Like so many others before you, you might just as easily sink or die of hypothermia, but before that dark turn, you get a moment (fifteen minutes, according to Warhol) of feeling your body submerged in that water.

Michael Largo’s Genius and Heroin is even more mind-blowingly delightful. It’s almost impossible to write meaningfully, at least in nonfiction, about the terrible but sublime connection between creativity and self-destruction. Most works end up either glamorizing artistic suicide, or getting all transcendent and 12-steppish. Michael Largo, a novelist and poetry-lover whose father was an undercover narcotics detective in New York City, does it right. He dives in and writes about Jean Harlowe and Diane Arbus and Carson McCullers and Diogenes and Boudicca and Isaac Babel, and he somehow gets at the divinity and magic of their lives and works.

It’s not that dying and self-destruction are in and of themselves impressive -- as Largo writes, “To create remains noble; to kill oneself while doing it -- questionable, at best.” But:

“Many creative people throughout history explained the indefinable rationale behind inspiration not as a mental illness, rather as a muse or entity invading from some outside source, whether demon or angel. What is considered genius is a matter of perception… The etymology of genius traces it to a Latin word that explained how a person came to an original or innovative idea. It was used to describe how a person was possessed by a spirit… at a whim this genius could easily transform into a daemon, or malevolent spirit, and needed to be watched closely, such that sacrifices made to appease the genius within were always performed on one’s birthday. The figures examined in Genius and Heroin didn’t wait for once a year. They made some sacrificial offering every day…(In) Genius and Heroin, there is no gloating over the look of terror or despair at their downfall, but rather over how the eyes remain wide open behind a blindfold at the moment they face their own firing squad.”

Genius and Heroin does what books like the recent anthology Live Through This: On Creativity and Self-Destruction utterly fail to do: it subtly but irrevocably shows how the life of a gifted person (meaning someone who, as Czeslaw Milosz put it, has a calling as a “secretary to the invisible”) differs from the life of a, well, non-gifted person. It’s social suicide these days to admit that art isn’t “work” for you, that it’s something that happens to you as if you’re possessed, that to not create it would be like seeing a human baby bleeding and abandoned on a street corner and leaving him there to die, that you are dazzled by the electric words that come to you from some angel or demon or forgotten, ancient god. But the fact is that the creative part is erotic, and mystical, and rapturous, and deadly, and filthy, and horrible, and ecstatic. It can be agony, it can break you, but it’s not work. It’s the life part -- the scrimmages with bureaucrats, the effects of late-stage capitalism, the housecleaning, the diseases, the copywriting -- that’s work. Michael Largo is himself gifted with words, and he’s like a good museum curator. He brings the ocean of these geniuses’ troubled lives into full view, and it’s impossible to miss the deeper point.

I’m sitting in the coffee shop reading Michelle Goodman’s My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire. The slick-haired twenty-something business chick next to me orders a delicious, wonderful sandwich, takes two bites of it, and throws the rest away, along with most of her organic grape soda. I want a sandwich. And then I think of my own tremendous privilege, of all the people in my city who have nowhere to sleep, who are unsafe, who’ve been beaten up, who are sick and need help. It’s clear that in this current world, in this century that does not promise to be less bloody than the last, some deserving people are not getting sandwiches. It seems to me that success in today’s writing and art worlds is much like sandwich distribution. It’s not that there’s an inverse relationship between success and merit. It’s just that it’s kind of random, and unfortunately, sometimes the Times raves about the mediocre, MFA-afflicted short-stories of a sandwich-squanderer while others go hungry.

Michelle Goodman’s introduction to My So-Called Freelance Life talks about how you shouldn’t listen to naysayers who believe that adult life involves a miserable 9 to 5 grind in a cubicle. So far so good, but then by chapter two, she bashes a guy at a business conference for writers and visual artists for having an “I am an Artiste!” attitude that drives her nuts:

“It goes something like this: ‘I don’t have a fallback. Having a fallback is like falling down, or admitting defeat. It’s like giving up my artistic ambitions altogether’… So basically this Vincent Van Schmo would rather sell his paintings at the farmer’s market and eat Saltines for dinner than taint his Talent with any commercial work. Yeah right. And I’m the Queen of Sheba. …Nobility, to me, is using your creative talents to invent a job for yourself and getting paid a decent wage to do it. It’s taking on corporate, commercial or commissioned work so you don’t have to stress about pursuing the creative projects that thrill you most but (perhaps initially) pay the least.”

I got to meet Czeslaw Milosz once in Krakow, a few years before he died. I asked him why he wrote poems and he said, “I have no choice.” Being a great artist is like your sexual preference -- you can thwart it, deny it, hide from it, or pursue it too hungrily. You can experiment with it, you can push its boundaries, you can try to unclench its grip on you, but ultimately, it’s you, and you know it. It’s better for the health of you and your work if go commando with your identity, like Henry Miller, but either way, your work will win.

In My So-Called Freelance Life, Michelle Goodman only speaks to the middle-class hobbyist. A brilliant immigrant artist and thinker living in an American city who comes from a working-class background and is financially supporting six relatives in a country where five-hundred thousand people have been made homeless by a tsunami-generated earthquake will not be taking on corporate or commissioned work so that she doesn’t have to “stress” about pursuing her low-paid creative projects, she’ll be piecing together whatever work she can to support her family. It’s hard for most Americans, legal or not, to make ends meet, and doing so involves exhausting yourself so horribly that you can’t function as a writer or artist at the same time. Medical care would help. Meanwhile, a genius writer with a trust fund will not need (or presumably, want) to take on corporate or commissioned work. A bohemian “artiste” -- meaning somebody middle class who has decided to rebel against it, a practice that’s been futile for over 400 years but is at least colorful -- will be deeply unwilling to work for Novartis or “taint his Talent” by painting awful little realist portraits of people’s lapdogs, and some of us won’t eat Saltines or other Kraft products, not while South African labor unions are still protesting, especially not with a farmer’s market nearby.

A clarification: for many, creative work doesn’t come in “projects”, ill-paid or not. It’s more like orgasms or breathing. It’s largely visceral, only briefly stoppable, and quite essential. If you’re experienced, you can tell when it’s the real thing, real work, versus when it’s just a private little catharsis. Of course, if you’ve already gone completely psycho from your day job, from the horrors of modernity, from bureaucracy or the stupid people around you or depressing self-help books or your Oedipal complex or lost love, you might not be able to tell anymore. You might, like Franz Kafka, instruct your friend to burn all your manuscripts after you die. So, it’s essential to figure out a way that you can keep working. If it’s an option not to be hunched in a toilet stall at 4am writing what turns out to be a rather long novel, or painting over your last body of work after the end of your dishwashing shift because your new tryptichs are coming out now and you can’t afford new canvases, so much the better.

As George Orwell wrote, “Unemployment is not merely a matter of not having a job. Most [middle class] people can get a job of sorts, even at the worst of times. The trouble was that by about 1930 there was no activity, except perhaps scientific research, the arts and left-wing politics, that a thinking person could believe in… Who could now take it for granted to go through life in the ordinary middle-class way…?”

What Michelle Goodman is describing sounds identical to a cubicle job, only done in your bathrobe, potentially surrounded by children and pets. For people everywhere on the food chain, our tangle with the problems of figuring out how to get by is usually either ignoble or torturous, or both. Why does she have to bring “nobility” into it, or insult artists who need to make their real work their only priority?

Nobility is not the prudent decision to do corporate work so that you can enjoy dabbling at creative projects in your spare time. Nobility is the constant, courageous daily effort to pursue and embody truth and beauty. (Note the effort part.) Or, according to the dictionary, “The state or quality of being exalted in character.” Or, according to Marcus Aurelius, “To live each day as though one’s last.” It’s complicated, of course, because lots of creative geniuses have noble work but are far from noble people, and it’s also complicated, because every human being, rich or poor, has to balance his or her strivings for dignity and humanity with the awful fact of society’s sickness. But, neither noble people, nor ordinary people with extraordinarily brilliant work, can afford to have a fallback, at least not for long. They have jobs -- the Van Schmo anecdote ends with Goodman smugly noting that the artist admitted to juggling a vast number of them, as if that proves her point and not his -- but if you have a fallback, you end up hitting that Bukowskian breaking point. Eventually, you have to hurl yourself into the unknown or you won’t be able to do transcription for your deities anymore.

In my limited experience with noble people, they don’t have a fallback either. Jafar Hamzah, who went to my grad school, was a peace activist in Aceh. He fled with his wife to New York, via Malaysia, after the military torched his office and security forces threatened his life. He founded a human rights organization, the International Forum for Aceh (IFA), and did full-time graduate work in political science, and drove a taxi to make ends meet. He scrupulously documented Mobil Oil’s (now ExxonMobil’s) systematic human rights violations in Aceh, even after receiving death threats. He went back there in 2000 to publish an English-Acehnese newspaper and start up a local branch of IFA -- no fallback. The gas facility in Aceh, co-owned by Mobil and the Indonesian government, produced almost a quarter of Mobil’s global revenue in the early nineties, but many Acehnese were living below the poverty line. Villagers claimed they were physically abused and tortured by soldiers assigned to Mobil duty, including being given electric shocks. Hamzah was kidnapped in broad daylight in August, and his body was found a month later with four other corpses, tortured and mutilated. There has been no progress in the investigation of his murder.

I’m not saying he’s noble because he got killed. He’s noble because he listened to his genius and did his thing, no matter what, even if it was not terribly convenient. Also, his friends report that he was always humble and considerate, he started his career working tirelessly with Legal Aid (“His legal advocacy did not know economic, political or religious boundaries,” wrote his friend Abdul Malik, “He worked with the same enthusiasm on behalf of the Christian Church Organization and his fellow Muslim Acehnese.”), and he had a reputation for being New York City’s gentlest and least-rude taxi driver.

Why do I compare great artists to this kind of hero? Because both take on, at some level, the impossible, awe-striking and perilous risk of engaging in what Miller calls pure acts. This gets especially tricky with characters like T.S. Eliot, an unpleasantly rightist and heartbreakingly talented poet whose work was, E.M. Forster noted, refreshingly “innocent of public-spiritedness.” And, wasn’t Eliot’s job at Lloyd’s Bank a “fallback?” What about Jafar Hamzah’s job as a cabbie? I say, no, not in the sense that Michelle Goodman advocates, because they put their real work first, leaving everything else incidental.

“Making time for the work you really want to do is about making choices and compromises when you have to,” Goodman concludes, “Some freelancers budget an afternoon or day each week for tapping their creative vein… Others flit from three-month bread-and-butter gig to three-month creative stint and back again. And some get the bulk of their annual creative work done during a few weeks a year spent at an artist’s retreat.”

Yes, and many of these people are highly successful. The plodding functionaries holding society’s purse strings feel safer around them than around those uncompromising Van Schmo types. Certain art forms can thrive with this sort of compromise -- filmmaking, for example, or ensemble theatre, can be done three-months-on, three-months-off -- but all Goodman’s solutions are a killer for painting or poetry, which is why taking to the streets or working as a plongeur can seem more doable than writing the kind of fiction that you know will get you a particular fellowship, or working on a commissioned piece that matches the living-room set of a corporate wife.
Michelle Goodman: “Pick a concrete deadline to work toward -- a contest, a grant, a residency application, a gallery’s call for visual artists, an anthology looking for submissions.”

When you work like this, you end up creating stories or sculptures that are tailored to gatekeepers or to the market. This may bring you publication, awards, grants and accolades, but it will bring the public more compromised, tame, plodding, inauthentic, un-genius hack work. Stop! We don’t need more! Create your work and then try to place it. If it won’t place, figure out some way to get by. Don’t jump out your fifth floor window or drown yourself in the local river, but neither should you tailor your poems to get accepted in the Peoria Poetry Journal. That’s committing another kind of murder. Similarly, if you’ve gotten famous with your real work, find a way to make sure it’s still raw and inspired, rather than customizing it to please your publicity apparatus. Otherwise you are going to want to drink until you can’t remember your own name, or hunker into the garage of your million-dollar home and hang yourself.

Goodman: “And if, like me, you’re a bit of an ADD case who, at times, has trouble keeping the pedal to the creative metal for even one damn hour, find yourself a study buddy or three who’ll swap creative projects with you and offer suggestions, encouragement, and tough love as needed... Invent bite-sized challenges you can mutually strive toward -- developing one new cartoon character a month, publishing a poem in a lit journal in each of the fifty states before the decade’s out, coming up with a new apron pattern for Mother’s Day.”

If your work is not exploding out of you, bruising your ribs, crushing you and obsessing you, maybe you ought to be feeding your inspiration rather than working right now. Why not find an undiscovered genius who has already created brilliant work, and raise money for him or her to get to a safe place to write or paint, and find yourself some “study buddies” who can help line up a visa so that your genius can dodge persecution? Immerse yourself in the world’s most mind-bending scholarship, numinous poetry and radical art, and when (if) your own genius nudges you, then drop everything and work.

Goodman: “Nothing lights a fire under my backside like an e-mail from someone in my freelance posse saying, ‘I wrote my five hundred words/spent my hour at the easel/practiced three songs today -- how about you?”

Feeding on the brilliant work and energy of others fuels the output of any great artist or writer, and after you finish something, you’re sometimes burning to show it to someone in particular, and get their notes. Virginia Woolf, famously, trusted Leonard with her first drafts. If you write more like Kafka or Millay or Jelinek or Kerouac or Joyce or Woolf than Julia Cameron or our latest Pushcart Prize runners up, though, a little knitting circle with a bunch of earnest hobbyists is not going to help your work. On the contrary, they are probably a bad influence on you, and they are certainly a poor influence on the already-flailing worlds of contemporary arts and letters.

Trying to regiment great art as if you’re throwing a neighborhood casserole party or writing a corporate report results in insidiously uninspired work. It’s not that you can’t be disciplined, but creating real work is different from the meaningless products of mundane society. The process is different. The dazzling, thrilling results are still different, even all of these years after a bunch of sour academics, unhappy geniuses and talented but hyperbolic writers have proclaimed the death of art.

If your genius is acting up, and you suppress it by treating it like a hobby, beware. You would (hopefully) not mistake a loosed, rampaging wildcat for a caged hamster. If you make a similar error of judgment with your genius, you risk the same thing: literal death. And if you win, and murder your genius, and do piddling, mediocre work that fits easily into your Sunday afternoon schedule, then you doom the rest of us (metaphorically or maybe not) to a world without the beauty of big predators, without the variety that frightening and exotic animals bring, without menace, awe or surprise.

Genius: no matter what your life situation, your real work is happening to you anyway, and you can’t stop it. If you try to stop it, or you get a block, you go crazy and want to die. Hobbyist: you feel like if you started writing, or started painting, you would be more fulfilled. Genius: You already do your real work, period. You have no choice. Hobbyist: You’d like to learn how to be a great writer or artist by studying with someone you admire. Genius: Your work does battle with you, insisting that it’s good or right when you wanted it to be about something else entirely, or letting you know it’s inauthentic even when you’ve carefully constructed it. Hobbyist: you want to learn to tap into your inspiration. Genius: the demon inside you is like a tapeworm.

Hobbyist: you create a life where you have time to pursue your “creative kicks.” Genius: Your real work happens when it damn well feels like it. You can construct good, credible work anytime -- every Monday afternoon at two on the dot, if you like -- and the editors of the Peoria Poetry Journal will probably like it a lot better than your real work. But you will always be able to tell the difference. Side effects of this include substance abuse, depression and suicidal ideation. It is safer to just commit to doing your thing, purely and inconveniently. Hobbyist: you feel like you have “something to say.” Genius: you are often surprised -- sometimes awestruck, sometimes angry, sometimes merely puzzled -- by the work that comes out of you, and the rupturous way it insists on being born.

If you’re a genius, and not a hobbyist, please don’t find “study buddies” and customize your work for anthologies or galleries. I want to get to experience it someday.

I’m sitting at the same coffee shop on another day, and the guy at the table next to me tells his friend, “I tried my fucking damnedest to sell out, but I was crap at it. No one would hire me, and when they finally did, I cried every day before work. I just have to be a person of the theater.”

Not everyone’s genius or juno will hit in the same way. Some people have intense revelations about the physical nature of the universe, others write menacing and incomprehensible poems -- and a great poet might be a hobbyist in the sciences, and a great scientist might dabble innocuously in poetry, or the same person might be brilliant in both, yet still suck down laudanum as if there’s no tomorrow. (And of course, as Janis Joplin said, there is no tomorrow, man. It’s all the same fucking day.) I don’t mean to be anti-hobbyist. I value hamsters as well as cheetahs. But Michelle Goodman writes about balancing life with creative work as if people like Kafka or Millay or Jelinek or Kerouac or Joyce or Woolf or, for that matter, Vincent Van Gogh, don’t even exist anymore, or never existed, or maybe she just assumes that they’re all already famous or already dead and not reading self-help books.

Based on the biographical notes in Genius and Heroin and A Book of Ages, it’s easy to imagine hundreds of unique, fabulous, inspired writers and artists out there who we haven’t gotten to experience yet, inspecting poultry like Borges, or serving in armies, or lost in med school, or waiting tables, or barefoot and pregnant, or trying to join the priesthood, or maybe sitting next to me in a café, or speaking at a conference to naysayers who will go on to pooh-pooh them for not wanting to compromise their work, who will ridicule not only them, but a painfully gifted artist whose work was not appreciated until well after he took his own life at age thirty-seven, as if this doesn’t still happen today, as if there aren’t geniuses out there who won’t make it, whose work we’ll never see.

Call me Vincent Van Schmo, call me the Queen of Sheba, but I’m thankful for the people in this world who do not slaughter their finest impulses. There’s a line by a great poet, Adonis: “He never burned/ he never returned/ this Icarus.” It’s about exile, but it’s about being a poet, too. You have to fly too close to the sun, and nothing will protect you. But if you fly that high, who knows where you’ll end up?

If you are lucky enough to run into someone who is beautiful and crazy and misguided and deranged and brilliant and honest enough to do this, with no fallback, with wings that might not work, buy them a sandwich.