My Fencing Genius*

Elizabeth Gilbert gave a very interesting talk a few months ago about changing the way in which we think about creativity and genius. Rather than, as we have since the Renaissance, insisting that creativity is something that comes from within, as the personal responsibility of its human author, it would be much healthier, she suggests, to think of it in the way in which the ancient Greeks and Romans did, as something that comes from outside, inspired, as it were, by the gods. Or, rather, not exactly the gods (or God), but instead something at once more personal and yet still not ourselves: our "genius." And what is a genius? Gilbert suggests something "rather like Dobby, the House-Elf." Okay, maybe not the image I would have chosen, but it makes the point: not everybody's genius is, well, a genius. As authors and artists, we are dependent upon the inspiration we are given and sometimes, our genius isn't really up to it. So, Gilbert argues, it's really not our fault if our work doesn't sparkle all the time. Our job is to show up and do the work, and if it isn't inspired, well, there's not much we can do about it. We can only do as well as our genius and sometimes it just has a bad day.

I'm trying to imagine my fencing genius. My writing genius, I think I know. We've been working together for quite a long time now, and I've done all sorts of exercises (mostly Artist's Way work) learning how to listen and not panic when I can't seem to hear. But my fencing genius is much more elusive. She's not Fencing Bear; that's myself. But who is she? She likes to play and have fun, I'm pretty sure of that. And she's not afraid to lose because she knows that that's part of competition. But neither is she at all dependable. Weeks, months can go by without a breath of her existence, leaving me stranded and helpless, slogging through bout after bout wondering why I ever thought she might return. I would hate her if only it weren't so amazing when she arrives: there, I can feel it, the hint of knowing what to do. I can see the moves I need to make, almost as if in slow motion. No panic, no desperate flinging myself into an attack that cannot possibly land, no pushing. It's as if a huge space suddenly opens up between my actions and those of my opponent and I have plenty of time to do what I need to do to get in. And then, just as suddenly, it's gone and I have no idea why.

Perhaps my genius is a bit of a ditz. She just forgets about me and goes off playing with other geniuses until someone reminds her that she is supposed to be taking care of me. Or perhaps she's just mean and enjoys seeing me suffer. Gilbert talks about how silly it sounds to believe in fairies or elves helping us with our creative work, but some would say the image is apt: fairies are not benevolent creatures and not even the Men of Middle Earth necessarily trusted the Elves (think Fëanor--dangerous folk!). So I have to be nice to her anyway? Sod that. Maybe she's shy and can't stand all the screaming and crying; that's what my mother and husband would say. Certainly, their lives would be quieter if I didn't keep scaring her off. I don't trust her, that's for sure. My fencing friends say to be patient; one day, I'll see, she'll stick around. Okay, so they don't use that image, but they do say one day things will be different, the pieces start falling into place and my fencing will change for the good.

Maybe I just got a beginner and she really still doesn't have a clue what she's doing. Great, just my luck. Other people (like my clubmate who beat me yesterday; twice, actually, both in our D-E and in the pool) get experienced geniuses; I got the one who couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with a truck. Or even drive. Can't I change? Who gets to decide which genius we get? And who trains them, anyway? And why, come to think of it, is she bothering me? I didn't even know what fencing was six or seven years ago. I could have spent the rest of my life going to yoga classes, planting pots every spring, doing things for our home. And then SHE came along and there I was, obsessed. And what, gods damn her, has she ever given me? Except, of course, some of the best friends that I have ever had in my life, lots of adventures in going to tournaments, stronger legs than I ever imagined I could have, and, just to keep me tempted, the occasional medal (all two of them, plus the turkey trophy from the first tournament I ever fenced). Clearly, there is something important going on here.

"The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you."* Good quote (thanks, Ken!). So, we get the geniuses that we do because there is something that we ourselves need to learn and they won't leave us until we do. That feels like a pretty good description of my writing genius: she's been pestering me to write about the Virgin Mary my whole adult life, and I'm not always sure I even like the Virgin Mary. Okay (third "okay" of this post; wonder what that means?), that's not exactly right. I love Mary, but I have no idea why. I find it very hard to visualize her with the immediacy that clearly some of her devotees have been able to achieve, and I have never had the feeling of her presence or desire to speak with me. And yet, I can't stop thinking about her and wanting to get devotion to her right. It enrages me when people get her wrong and claim that she is either irrelevant or really just a "type" of the Church; likewise when they insist she is either too passive to be a good role model for women (whatever that means, even if it were true) or simply a substitute goddess (again, not true, although she was definitely more than "just a housewife"). Thus my dissertation; thus my first book; thus the book I am writing now. She won't let me go and I don't really seem to have a choice. Nothing else that I write even comes close to fascinating me in the way that she does.

Likewise with fencing. I'm doomed. I've tried lots of other sports in my life--swimming, gymnastics, basketball, square dancing, taekwando, bicycling, roller skating, skiing, to name only those that I actually practiced for more than a few months--and none of them had the effect on me that fencing did from the very first moment I tried it. Taekwando came close, but it was nowhere near as electrifying; skiing, likewise, but I never had the urge to compete. Somehow, the truth that I have to learn is in fencing, and it is not going to let me go until I do. Stupid genius. Maybe she does know what she is doing after all.

*David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996), p. somewhere. I haven't managed to read more than the first chapter or so of the book, but the quote is out there on the web.


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