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The Tortured Genius

June 17, 2013


When my husband and I were dating, he asked me once if I’d rather be a tortured genius or a happy idiot.

I only had to think for a second. “Definitely,” I said, “the happy idiot.”

His whole face contorted as he looked at me. Clearly, that was not the answer he expected. A tortured genius was so much better. The word genius was in the title. How could I not want to know things, to choose ignorance?

But there’s only so far that genius can get you. Scoring a high mark on an intelligence test doesn’t mean you have positive human relationships, or even that you’re good at driving a car. Scores and grades and income brackets don’t define success. Contentment is an intelligence all its own.

But back in college, my husband and I were the romantic sort, the dark wandering poetsWe’d read Kerouac and Nabokov and wrote socialist-leaning columns for our college newspapers. We saw how revered the tortured genius was to society, how there were whole classes dedicated to writers who had completed masterpieces yet lived tragic lives: Emily Dickinson, who never went out of the house; Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, who killed themselves; John Keats, who died of at the age of 24 of Tuberculosis; Virginia Woolf, who suffered from schizophrenia; Flannery O’Connor, who struggled with Lupus until her death.

Maybe the Beat generation ruined it for us all—they made us think that the artist was a person who drank too much, gulped coffee, stayed up late to finish his or her work and slept through the day, fighting off depressive episodes. We never saw an artist as a person who lived in the suburbs, drove an SUV, had two kids to contend with, was happy chopping vegetables for dinner.

Somehow, we’d formed the wrong image and assumed an artist couldn’t be happy.

If I had to choose between a tortured genius and a happy idiot, I’d still choose the happy idiot. But I’d prefer not to think of it as an either/or. Contentment is important to me, and I’m working hard to find it in my daily life, regardless of my external situation. I’m not saying that those other writers didn’t work hard enough, or that their work isn’t amazing, or that they haven’t shared something important and vital about the human experience. Obviously, they have. But I don’t want to let that color my concept of what it takes to write a great novel or short story.

Artists are sensitive creatures who feel a lot. They often exist on the periphery of society, as bystanders who take everything in. Many times, their art saves them. Anne Sexton started writing poetry when she was in a mental hospital, and would have committed suicide much sooner if she didn’t have the page to turn to. Virginia Woolf was able to show us, from her unique vantage point, how the human mind behaves. John Keats saw something deeper about the nature of existence by watching his loved ones die.

But since I started to practice writing more seriously, the question that’s popped up in my head over and over is, Can writers be happy?Can a happy writer also produce great art? 

Then I remind myself again that it doesn’t have to be one way or the other. A writer can be happy sometimes, and other times sad. She can be capable of the darkest of human emotions on one day, and bliss in the next. Her job is to work diligently to channel those emotions and experiences into something sacred and beautiful and heart-felt, something that touches people.

More than anything, all a writer has to do is be human.


Image: “Cloud” Ricardo Liberato via Flickr

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Lindsey June 17, 2013 at 10:57 am

Such a good question, and one I think about a lot, too. For the record, I’d choose happy idiot every single time if forced to choose, but I like to imagine both are possible. I’m not entirely convinced they are, but I’m going to keep hoping and looking. xox


Gabe October 30, 2013 at 12:30 am

I´d choose the genius cos otherwise the happy idiot regrets being that at the very last moment of life, I think the tortured genius secretly loves his life even if he/she dies young cos they know their life had some sort of trascendence otherwise they would not allow themselves to die yet.


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