Real Genius: Indulge Your Curiosity

I was having coffee with Frank, a childhood friend. We hadn't seen each other in many, many years, and so there was a lot to catch up on. For instance, since the last time we spoke he'd become a tenured American History professor and I'd written a few novels. One of those novels was set in the antebellum South on the eve of the Civil War. Frank's area of expertise, the focus of his life's study and the subject of several academic books he'd written, just so happened to be the antebellum South.

I mentioned that I was surprised to discover, during my research, that historians weren't in one hundred percent agreement that slavery was the fundamental cause for the Civil War. It seemed pretty obviously the case.

"Well, actually," said Frank, sitting up in his chair with fresh enthusiasm, "there were also a number of economic factors that played just as large a role."

Frank paused, cleared his throat, and leaned across the table seriously. "Now we have to be careful, Bill. We're getting ready to cross the bridge to Boring Town."

I laughed and assured him I was willing to risk that journey. I thought about the bridge to Boring Town long after Frank and I said goodbye. I had led my friends across that very bridge in conversation a few times. It often happened accidentally. We'd be chatting along about this and that and then we would stumble on some subject about which I had a long and abiding passion, and the next thing I knew I was in the middle of a dissertation about the imagination or unconditional love.

It is a problem, I think, common for many writers -- or for anyone who has allowed himself to get interested in something. I've come to understand that what we call intelligence is just a function of curiosity, and what we call genius is an expression of our curiosity indulged. And by indulged I mean pursuing my curiosity without any thought of whether anyone else shares that curiosity; pursuing it without any thought of where it's leading me or if it's practical; pursuing it simply because it feels good to do so.

Indulging my curiosity is not generally considered polite behavior, a fact that becomes strangely relevant if, as a writer, I wish to share the fruits of my passion with other people. Being an author is a form of socializing, albeit at a distance. The last thing I want to do as a writer is bore my readers, as I have sometimes bored my friends.

Yet for much of my life my number one complaint about my days was that they were boring. Why, I wanted to know, wasn't there anything interesting to do? That was before I began really indulging my curiosity. Once I began indulging it, I found I was rarely bored. My curiosity, after all, followed me everywhere. My curiosity was a friend who was always interesting and interested.

The nice thing about being an author is that people can simply stop reading what I've written without one thought of whether it's impolite to do so. This freedom allows readers to indulge their curiosity. What an ideal relationship. Now we can meet somewhere we both very much want to be, having freely crossed a bridge to our shared genius.

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