What’s in a genius?
More than my promotion of sex work, critical readers of my book seem most upset that I refer to myself as a genius as a child. I did write that portion knowing it would upset people, even dear friends telling me it felt abrasive to read.
I’ve always been cocksure, arrogant in a way that’s off-putting to many. I could turn it down, tone it down, but I’ve found the best way to deal with this polarizing aspect of myself is to treat it with a little levity, to roast myself in the process for being such a self aggrandizing asshole, because, in the end, my ego truly is ridiculous, but I’d rather crack jokes about being an asshole than pretend I’m not.
I’ve been lucky to know many geniuses in my time. I was just having dinner with one, an old friend named Harry, and we were talking a little bit about knowing when people have that spark. Harry was attending Columbia in the 50s, back when LSD was given to undergrad students freely, and this time over dinner he was telling me about seeing John Coltrane and Miles Davis on acid and what it felt like to be in the presence of such genius. He said at the time he didn’t appreciate it enough, the easy access to Harlem and the music they were making at the time, how people nowadays would kill to go to a show, but back then they were playing all the time, it was hard for it to feel unusual or special, except for when you were in the room and really feeling the energy, this total mastery they had over their craft and the crowd, feeling and moving with it, there’s nothing like it.
It made me think about the parties I go to in Bushwick, kids in their twenties fucking around, having fun, but of course there’s the few bright lights that you know are absolute geniuses. One of my friends, every time I see him, I tell him he’s a genius and he shrugs it off, chuckling, looking at me almost as if he thinks I’m making fun of him. But I’m really not. Every time I hear him play out it’s insane, one of those people who reads the crowd and dominates them, not just playing what they want to hear or what their energy is but shifting it, trusting so much in his ability that he just runs with it, knowing they’ll catch up, they’ll feel it. It’s almost annoying how demure he is when he talks about it after, how self effacing, when it’s like look: you know what you’re doing, we all know it, why not just lean on it, rest on it? Who cares if a few haters call you cocky or arrogant? Haven’t you earned it?
Because genius isn’t just about raw talent. It’s about the ability to look at what you’re doing, hear and receive critique, update, level up. Always learning and growing. It demands painful self awareness, looking hard at your flaws and working past them. It’s about confidence too, about trusting yourself to stick the landing. That confidence brings an ease to the performance, cockiness gives you that shining, raw power, and self awareness lets you refine it.
I think that’s why so many people with crazy talent self medicate so hard, like Miles Davis and his heroin habit. It’s hard to go from practicing and practicing, refining, being so hard on yourself, striving towards perfection, and then putting your work out there with total confidence. It’s easier to have that confidence when you’re drunk or high, little voice in your head telling you you’re fucking it up turned off, just fully in the moment.
It’s easier for me because my health issues as a kid quickly stamped out my perfectionism. I could hardly take care of myself and it quickly became apparent that if I wanted to survive, I had to get by with just doing the best I could. Sometimes I feel that tendency leaping up within me, and it’s fun now to be able to indulge it a little, now that I have the space, to obsess over something for hours, luxuriate in getting it just right. But I’m also fine with putting work out that’s totally imperfect, like this essay, which I’m writing more or less as stream of consciousness, totally unedited, because whatever, it’s for Substack, no one’s paying me, and sometimes it’s nice to read someone’s raw and unfiltered thoughts, grammatical errors and other flaws be damned.