Let’s Retire the ‘Crazy Genius’ Trope. It’s Damaging.

I was a serious fan of the TV show THIRTYSOMETHING. I wasn’t a thirty-something myself, when it aired, but that milestone wasn’t far off, and I think I invested the show with a sort of prophetic power. I watched those characters the way I might have watched older brothers or sisters, if I’d had them. To see what was coming next. For me.

The combination of that personal investment with the fact that it was just a really well-written show seems to mean that moments – lines, looks, emotional tones and nuances – from a long-ago television program still ring in my head and, in some cases, help guide my life.

One of those lines has been playing in my mind lately. Delivered with compassion and frustration, to a Beloved who could be a little too prone to guilt and angst – “Yes, bad things do happen. But not as punishment for the good things.”

Those words gave me a great gift. That gift that words can give, sometimes, when they eloquently and resonantly describe something you half knew, or guessed, or hoped, but had never found the words for before. They summed up my feeling that life isn’t a zero-sum game. That we don’t have to look over our shoulder in every moment of happiness, watching for the balancing sorrow that must be creeping up behind us.

But it’s only recently that the logical corollary has occurred to me. Or, to be fair, finally stepped fully-formed out of the shadows of my subconscious where this knowledge has been living and growing across years of life experience: If bad things don’t happen as punishment for the good things, then good things don’t happen as reward or compensation for the bad things either.

I work in a creative field. I am surrounded by creative people. I live in a world shaped by the romantic mythos of the Suffering Artist. I see a lot of suffering, but that doesn’t make me, or the artistic community, special. Suffering is everywhere. I do see a special kind of suffering though that is excused, enabled and, sometimes, even courted because we think it brings a corresponding boon – access to a level of creativity, of inspiration and genius, that is denied to those who are “normal”.

As though “normal” people don’t suffer. As though pain isn’t a part of every person’s life. As much a part of every “normal” life as joy, creativity, unique perspective, some spark of personal genius.

In my experience, those personal depths are often, and most easily, accessed by a kind of breaking apart. Physical, emotional or spiritual breakdowns are crucibles. Sometimes what comes out of them is amazing.

But that alchemy is not because of the pain. It’s in spite of it. In those cases, the genius is in our response to suffering, not a gift that is held in the hands of the suffering itself.

I think a lot of the trappings of modern life work to blunt our individual genius – that quality that is often touted in those for whom it breaks through, regardless, as an ability to think ‘outside the box’. We live so thoroughly in that box, bombarded constantly by the visions and voices of others. Those of us who initially break out of that box traumatically can become addicted to the trauma. Because we are addicted to the place it takes us.

And those of us who live in bitter envy of the adulation of the “crazy genius” can console ourselves that we’d rather be sane than be superstars.

And so we collectively perpetuate this idea that disease, dysfunction and destruction are the price of admission to the realm of discovery.

This is a plea. To and for myself, and those like me. Those who live most vividly in that place in our minds where the maps don’t work. Where the roads don’t reach. Those who ache in every moment to be caught up, again, in that wide-open whirlwind that shapes us and is shaped by us. Find another way. Countless other ways. They exist. This place is inside us. Always inside us. We don’t need pain to find it.

Pain will come anyway. Let’s face, and be instructed by, the pain we cannot avoid. And let’s alleviate the pain we can, without fear that doing so will cut us off from some wellspring of our creative humanity. Let’s learn from suffering, certainly. But let’s not excuse or invoke it. Particularly in the name of “Muse”.

When misery brings gifts, by all means take them. But Misery is essentially a destructive force, not a creative one.

Life will give us sorrow and joy. We will have love and loneliness, energy and exhaustion, inspiration and inertia. We will be spine-tingling-ly alert, and we will be numb. These are all the flavors life comes in. None of them are the price or the perquisite of any other.

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2 thoughts on “Let’s Retire the ‘Crazy Genius’ Trope. It’s Damaging.

  1. Martha August 20, 2014

    Your essay brilliantly from a wise heart-place converges with what Lionel Trilling wrote about the privilege our society assigns to authenticity as inspiration’s source. “A very considerable originative power had once been claimed for sincerity, but nothing to match the marvellous generative force that our modern judgement assigns to authenticity, which implies the downward movement through all the cultural superstructures to some place where all movement ends, and begins.” (Sincerity and Authenticity, p. 12, 1972, spelling in original) It’s W. B. Yeats’ “rag-and-bone shop of the heart,” Sir Philip Sidney’s “look in thy heart and write.” Didn’t these pre-Freudians project dark virtue onto their shadow sides thus privileging them? As Laurie says we don’t need to do that anymore; everything we’re downstream of, light and dark, informs our life and work. Thank you for illuminating something I’ve been thinking about uncannily recently.

    • Jason Frey August 20, 2014

      …everything we’re downstream of, light and dark, informs our life and work.

      I love this way of framing it, Martha. Because of course I’m downstream not only of what’s happened to me and in the world, but also of my own choices and actions (and choices not to act, for that matter). All of it has an impact on me and on my work. That’s worth remembering, and the image your words invoked will help me do so. Thanks for that.


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