In the Presence of Genius

A couple of weeks ago, darling hubby took me to see the symphony. It was a wonderful program—Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 in D major, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole, a world premier by Roberto Sierra—but the absolute highlight was Shostakovich’s Concerto No. 2 for Cello and Orchestra. The cellist, a young woman named Elisa Weilerstein, strode on the stage in a purple gown, her flowing brunette locks hanging free around her shoulders. She was stunningly beautiful. She shook the first chair’s hand, nodded her thanks to the audience, arranged herself in front of the Maestro, and dove into the piece. It took no time at all to see we were in the presence of genius.

Weilerstein didn’t play the cello. She became the cello. Her body language, facial expression, the set of her shoulders, all bespoke the story. She plucked the strings with a raw energy, her bow flowing, cutting, ripening the notes, and I literally had to force my mouth closed. The maestro was inspired by her performance, and become more animated himself. The orchestra as a whole came to life, each member hanging on Weilerstein’s every note. 

And we, the audience, were told a story by a genius.

Elisa Weilerstein spoke to me through her music, and in so doing, she garnered a fan for life.

I’ve always likened the symphonic medium to books. There’s a delineated three to four act structure, and the music follows the classic unfolding storylines: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Dénouement. The music build and retreats, ebbs and flows, allowing small bits of foreshadowing for the massive climax, the lingering notes closing the piece in a final dénouement. (Rachmaninoff’s Concerto no. 3 lends itself especially well to the crime fiction storyline.) I am particularly drawn to these compositions; it’s always so lovely to see this structure in action.

What is genius though?

Wikipedia defines it thusly:

A genius (plural genii or geniuses) is a person, a body of work, or a singular achievement of surpassing excellence. More than just originality, creativity, or intelligence, genius is associated with achievement of insight which has transformational power. A work of genius fundamentally alters the expectations of its audience. Genius may be generalized, or be particular to a discrete field such as sports, statesmanship, science or art.

Although difficult to quantify, genius refers to a level of aptitude, capability or achievement which exceeds even that of most other exceptional contemporaries in the same field. The normal distribution suggests that the term might be applied to phenomena ranked in the top .1%, i.e. three standard deviations or greater, among peers. In psychology, the inventor of the first IQ tests, Alfred Binet, applied the term, to the top .1% of those tested. This usage of the term is closely related to the general concept of intelligence. The term may be also applied to someone who is considered gifted in many subjects or in one subject.


“A work of genius fundamentally alters the expectations of its audience.”


In those terms, we’re all genius, to a point. Everything we do affect those around us. We are our own individual purveyors of chaos theory. Every movement, every breath, every blink ultimately alters the course of reality. The Butterfly Effect, as it’s more commonly known. Again from Wikipedia:

The phrase refers to the idea that a butterfly's wings might create tiny changes in the atmosphere that may ultimately alter the path of a tornado or delay, accelerate or even prevent the occurrence of a tornado in a certain location. The flapping wing represents a small change in the initial condition of the system, which causes a chain of events leading to large-scale alterations of events. Had the butterfly not flapped its wings, the trajectory of the system might have been vastly different. While the butterfly does not "cause" the tornado in the sense of providing the energy for the tornado, it does "cause" it in the sense that the flap of its wings is an essential part of the initial conditions resulting in a tornado, and without that flap that particular tornado would not have existed.

We writers and readers are daily participants in chaos theory. Writers put words on the page. A year later, a reader holds the finished novel in their hands and reads those words. Their lives can be inextricably altered by the concepts in our work. Our lives have been changed, because we’ve made a psychic connection with the reader. We’ve told a story, and the reader has absorbed the tale.

But there is a step past all of the psychic entertaining we do, a moment in time when even more magic happens. That moment is the book tour, where we meet the readers whose lives we’ve altered.

There have been many roundups of the most recent Bouchercon these past two weeks. I came away with a sense of pure awe. The numbers were staggering – of authors and of fans. There was a moment on Saturday night, at Lee Child’s annual Reacher’s Creatures party, that I realized the collective conscience of the crime fiction world was present and accounted for in a single, stiflingly close room. I was among the geniuses of our genre, of writing, of our finest creativity. Not everyone was there, of course, but if you had a single copy of every novel published by every author in that room, the numbers would wobble the shelves of a mid-sized town library. I made that comment to Mr. Child, who opined that if you added in all the books we’ve read, the numbers would be astronomical.

I know I'm touched each and every day by the genius that permeates out community.

But being a writing genius isn’t enough. Our livelihoods depend on readers. In these changing times, with digital books making a play for large shares of the market, with major wholesalers discounting their titles to openly take a loss, we need readers, fan, more than anytime before.

Mediums change. That’s the nature of our society. Our cultural conscience, though, will remain strong and vibrant, regardless of whether we’re reading electronically, listening, or holding a hardcopy book. Because our collective genius is captured in those words.

I read a fabulous article recently by Nashville-based author Ann Patchett on touring. I know tours aren't nearly as prevalent as they were, but the article is about more than the physical state of touring, it’s ultimately about the metaphysical connection authors have with readers. Jane Friedman, who developed the modern book tour with Julia Child’s second cooking novel, says to Ann Patchett:

“What hasn’t changed is the connection between the author and the reader. If anything, it’s even stronger. The people who come out to your signings are real…fans.”

And there’s the trick. The folks who come to the conferences, to the readings and signings, are the drivers of the industry. Yes, there are many, many readers who never set foot near an author or conference. But that one fan who puts their hand on your shoulder, who says you’ve touched their heart with your books, can sustain an author for a very long time.

The next time you’re touched by genius, stop for a moment. Appreciate it. Appreciate the phrase that caught your eye, the musical notes that create a melody, the lyrics that speak to your soul, that perfectly shaped fallen leaf. Recognize you’re in the presence of genius, and allow that to spark your own creativity.

Today’s question is self-evident: When was the last time you were touched by genius?

Wine of the Week: Compliments of my parents, who loved the whimsical label - 2007 Michael David Petite Petit