I’ve never heard a creative person in my circle say, “I want to win a Genius award.” The nickname itself makes it so that you can’t utter the words out loud, but…
It always catches me by surprise, as I imagine it must to the actual winners, when I start reading the news and I realize that this is it: that September day when the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announces their list of honored fellows. The foundation shirks the unofficial title, but the rest of us embrace it: we call them the genius awards. There may be a system, but I have been following the Genius Awards for most of my adult life and I’ve missed it. Unlike the Tonys, the Emmys and the Oscars, there’s no fanfare to let you know that the awards are coming. The chosen are called in late summer, photographed and told to keep the award secret until the big announcement.
It is not an award you can apply for, there is no set in stone criteria, and yet in the upcoming weeks, among the writers and artists, playwrights and poets that I call my friends, we’ll be talking about the Genius Awards. Because while they are all inspiring, they also invite comparison. It seems we can’t help but compare ourselves, to the stats, if not to the work itself: some of the winners are so young, how young? Some of the winners are women, which women? Some of the winners are people of color, which color? The question underneath the question, which is complicated and murky and illuminating is: What’s their story? And what does it tell me about my own?
I’ve never heard a creative person in my circle say, “I want to win a Genius award.” The nickname itself makes it so that you can’t utter the words out loud. Even if you’ve won awards, even if you’ve garnered praise, you don’t dare put it out there: because the longing for this particular prize goes to the very core of what makes us so fragile as creatives: the desire to be told we’re special, and we’ve done well and we should keep working.
The prize says many things, among them: your creative choices are interesting and noteworthy. That kind of feedback matters because everything about making art is an amalgamation of choices: every word, every note, every drop of paint, every stage direction and piece of cloth. One work consists of thousands of choices. Years of work consists of hundreds of thousands of choices and even when there is praise, and pay, the “wows” and the “good jobs” are almost universally a children’s plastic bucket of sand sitting next to an ocean of work. Most of the creatives I know work hard at not letting the ocean of work, with all its dark places and unseen depths, wash away that little plastic bucket of sand praise. Those of us who claim to be confident might even say that we don’t need the bucket of sand praise. Praise is not the point, it’s ephemeral, it’s just that: sand.
But this is the thing about the Genius Award. It’s a big bucket. It’s a lot of sand. It’s a lot of praise. Enough to build one hell of a castle on a really lovely beach. You might think I’m talking about the money attached to the award, a “do with it what you will” award of $625,000, spread over five years. And I can only imagine, the money is nice. But the distinction means so much more, it really is priceless.
As I read through this year’s award winners, I found myself going down the most inspiring rabbit hole. I cheered when I saw Gene Luen Yang’s name. American Born Chinese, along with Marguerite Abouet’s Aya, was my introduction to the world of graphic novels and that changed me: personally and professionally. Maggie Nelson, author of the Argonauts. How had I not read that book? The playwright, Branden Jacob-Jenkins, whose work I didn’t know but I immediately wanted to spend the weekend watching staged, like an August Wilson festival.
Speaking of which, I think August Wilson is one of the most genius minds of the 20th century and he didn’t get a MacArthur Genius award (correct me if I’m wrong.) That is humbling, for a wannabe genius like me. I may write until I’m 101 years old, but I seriously doubt if I will ever craft anything as amazing as Wilson’s Century Cycle. But Suzan-Lori Parks got one back in 2001 and that makes me happy, and I can only imagine made August Wilson happy too. I was just a couple of years out of school when Virginia Hamilton became the first children’s book author to win a Genius award. I remember how happy I was on that Genius Day that someone who had created so much was recognized in her lifetime. Hamilton passed away in 2002, but I thought of her yesterday — on Genius Day — as I walked across a busy street to pick my daughter up from school.
I began reading her work a full decade before my daughter was born, but I can’t imagine the kind of woman I might be or the kind of mother I might have become, without Hamilton’s books.
There was a year, when I was a not-yet-published writer, when I fell asleep most nights, next to a pile of books. I’ve been a reader my whole life, but I’d never had a year quite like that. It seemed that all I did was read, the night and morning hours were mixed. You might find me reading at 2 am or 4 am or 3 pm or 5 pm, it was as if my bed and the books were a magnet that I was either being drawn to or away from.
I would read and re-read the words of these books, as if the mere repetition would metabolize them into brain and into my heart. One of those books was Virginia Hamilton’s collection of African-American folk tales, The People Could Fly.
I think this is the reason why, outside of the longing and comparison filled conversations, that Genius Day feels like a holiday to me. A surprising and possibility-filled holiday, like a snow day in September. It is hard to be a working artist in America today. There are fewer systems for distribution for creative work and like a public park with dodgy hours, the gates seem to be closed more often than not. (We could have that old argument about digital equalizing the landscape for creatives, but we’re celebrating Genius Day so let’s not.) What I love about Genius Day, what I love about scrolling through the names and the hyper links, about putting books on my Amazon wish list and saving profiles of people I’d never heard of before to Instapaper is that it makes me want to read, it makes me want to work. The MacArthur fellows, their stories, their body of work, is powerful fuel for my own dreams. At least once a year, on a day in late September, we are reminded that what Virginia Hamilton wrote was more than just mere myth: the people could fly: they have and they did.