The author, Ada Calhoun, and her parents, Peter Schjeldahl and Brooke Alderson c. 1981.
Photograph by James Hamilton
Ideas
June 17, 2022 7:00 AM EDT

My father, now 80, a successful art critic, has always locked himself in a room to write. I didn’t disturb him when he was working. At 46, I have written over the years in coffee shops, libraries, kitchens, parks, while watching Wonder Pets with toddlers, and once during an active Nerf gun fight between my son and some neighbors.

My father is widely considered 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. Geniuses need space and time and quiet. They should not be expected to help with homework, cook, clean, or pay bills. There is something about being brilliant, I came to believe, that goes hand in hand with shutting yourself off from the world. Maybe a genius doesn’t even enjoy the process of creation. Maybe they pace, grumble, and tear their hair out. But they have to do it. For Art.

I have always believed this. 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 everyone who has 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 many. Too often we mistake being a jerk for creativity. We privilege neurosis and distance as hallmarks of the creative process. We mistake selfishness 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? Who purchased the rest of the groceries? One assumes it was [his first wife] Maggie. Was her 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. Or, at the very least, should I have seized more space and time and quiet for myself, done less running to the store for dinner ingredients? Perhaps the geniuses are onto something and any of us who wants to make stuff should close a door now and then.

“Your father had a 34-year head start,” she said. “Your son will be out of the house in less than five years. Then you can close a door and work all day every day for 40 years if you want. 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. I take time away from writing to cook and clean and spend time with friends. I understand that this means that, whatever I make, by the current definition of the word I will likely never be called a genius. And yet, I don’t mind. Surrendering that pure identity for a life full of connections and love? I’m happy to make that trade.

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