In the Presence of Genius

by JT Ellison

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

12 thoughts on “In the Presence of Genius

  1. Dana King

    Let me begin by saying what a pleasure it was to meet you at Bouchercon. I thoroughly your conversation with Jon Loomis and the other authors as they rolled through the Continuous Conversation. For those here hwo have not met JT in person, her picture here does not do her justice.

    I used to be a musician; all of my formal education, up through a Masters Degree, is in music, so I know exactly what you’re talking about. To me, "genius" was what couldn’t be taught. I’n sure Ms. Weilerstein has been well schooled, but the abilities you described can’t be taught. They can be refined and enhanced, but the original germ of the gift has to be there.

    I also like your recounting of your conversation with Lee Child. To me, among the primary joys of Bouchercon is getting to spend time with such a large quantity of people who consider reading to be an important part of their lives. It’s a good feeling.

  2. Louise Ure

    God, JT, it happens too often to count. A turn of phrase, a sharp cheekbone in a painting, a long held note on the oboe. In the presence of all this genius it’s a wonder we still try at all.

  3. pari noskin taichert

    What a beautiful and reflective post. Thank you.

    Genius? Wow. Like Louise, I stumble upon it often — in my varied reading, in a superb teacher that is able to reach every single student in a crowded classroom at his or her unique level, in an old time musician who plays traditional songs so truly you’re back in the past right there with him . . . I’m awed and encouraged by this astonishing amount of genius and am so incredibly grateful whenever I have a chance to sense it in my life.

    Re: fans and that contact you’re talking about
    Email/real electronic social networking is another real way to connect. I know it’s not the same as seeing that smile, feeling that hand on the shoulder, but I’ve had some exchanges with people I’ve never met in the flesh that are tremendously meaningful and profound. Since I won’t be traveling for the foreseeable future, I’m glad the electronic option offers me some — if not all — of that wonderful experience.

  4. Kaye Barley

    Beautiful post, JT, thank you.

    I agree with Louise and Pari that we are quite lucky in being touched by genius practically every day of our lives. However – I’d have to say, I’m not sure everyone is receptive enough to recognize it. And that is sad to me. Even sadder though, may be the folks who recognize it but instead of embracing it and passing along a thank you, they ignore it out of petty jealousy. I’ve seen it happen recently and it’s something I just do not quite "get."

    When was I last touched by genius? You know what I’m going to say, I’m sure! I’d have to say it happened in Indianapolis. And more than once. And am I thankful? oh my – extremely. And I "think" I managed to tell everyone SO often that they’ll run when they see me coming the next time. LOL!


  5. JT Ellison

    Dana, it was lovely to meet you as well – and forgive me for assuming you were the only Dana there ; )
    I think you’re exactly right – genius is what can’t be taught, what is inside us. We can be introduced to the concept, but if it isn’t living in our DNA, there’s no chance of hitting that note, so to speak.

    Louise, you’re like me. I can see the genius in just about everything.

    Pari, it’s so nice to have you back. We missed you! I agree that you can make the connections online, but I have to tall you – getting a chance to hug Old Beeg and Miss Kaye made my weekend. There’s just nothing to replace that face to face meeting.

    And Miss Kaye, you’re right – sometimes we’re just too wrapped up in ourselves to see the genius right in front of us. The only thing we can do is be present. Great to finally meet you!

  6. Cornelia Read

    JT, I’m with you on that wonderful sense of being surrounded by remarkable people at Bouchercon. Just those moments when you look around the bar and think to yourself, "I’m lucky enough to be a witness to a new golden age of this kind of writing, with all these wonderful people in one place." So much talent, so much kindness, so much fun. It’s breathtaking, in the best possible way.

  7. Zoë Sharp

    OK, now I miss having not been at B’con even more than I did before …

    I agree, though, that genius is all around us, if only you have the will to see it.

    Musical genius? I long time ago I was lucky enough to see Andres Segovia play classica guitar. He came out and sat down on the stage and when he started to play we were looking around for all the other musicians, because it didn’t seem possible that one man could draw so much sound from one guitar.

    I know there have been many moments since, but that’s the one that springs to mind.

  8. pari noskin taichert

    JT, of course you’re right. But I’ll have to make do . . .

    Musical genius? I got to see some of the greats and was floored by every one of them:
    Ella Fitzgerald, Stephan Grapelli, Itzhak Perlman, Paco de Lucia and on and on. The Tokyo Quartet and the Emerson (and the Julliard when they were still around) were all absolutely incredible.

    What a life . . .

  9. Chuck

    Deep, JT. Good stuff, and thanks for making me change perspective on a busy Friday.

    Hmmm…some geniuses I have encountered lately:

    Listening to Billy Duffy’s guitar work on "Rain" by the Cult.

    Reading Hermann Hesse’s "Rosshalde".

    In Colorado Springs, at a conference, and listening to Henry Beer of Commarts. He and his company have been hired to create the environment for some of the world’s top events and destinations. I was mesmerized.

    Watching Paul Giamatti in nearly anything.

    Listening to my daughter singing, all alone, in her room. There’s no more beautiful sound–to these ears–in the world.

    Hope you’re well. No news here! 😛

  10. BCB

    Oh, thank you for the comparison of books to symphony! I’ve always thought so too, and I don’t have a background in music education. I tried, rather inadequately, to explain that concept to another writer once. She looked at me with a combination of pity and disbelief — as if she’d go buy me some more marbles if only she thought I’d know what to do with them.

    I hear genius when my daughter plays the piano, taste it in my mom’s cinnamon rolls, see it in the charisma of my son’s quick teasing smile. I’ve felt it reading books and blog posts and heard it in several TED talks. Most recently, I came away with the feeling of something that "fundamentally alters the expectations of its audience" when I read a news report about the two brothers who created Google Wave and their conviction about what inspired their innovation. Completely altered some of my own expectations. I tried to explain it in a recent blog post, but really failed to do it justice.

    I agree with what others have said. Genius is all around us, in things both ordinary and extraordinary. And sometimes the genius is in just recognizing it.

    Thanks for yet another thought provoking post.

  11. JT Ellison

    Cornelia, that’s the fun of these conferences, seeing all my heroes in one place.

    Pari, I always feel uplifted by Andrea Bocelli too. Amazing in concert.

    Chuck, there you go. Pulling a little bit from everywhere. And fingers crossed for more news soon!

    BCB, you too are in the spirit. I love it. Glad you see the genius in us all.


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