I had a day out in Galway with my writing partner Helen this week. We were attending a screen-writing workshop. It was a beautiful sunny day, and immediately we arrived we went in search of breakfast. That’s the first thing we always do on these trips to any city – find food. We once got off the morning flight from Knock and bought a bag of groceries in Luton airport M&S to have for lunch when we arrived at my sisters house. We had the food finished before we got off the train. The journey was half an hour.
These screen-writing workshops are always full of young men. Gangs of them lounged outside the old theatre, in earnest conversation with each other, smoking. Groups of young men always irritate me. Partly because they think they know everything and partly because, as a forty five year old married mother-of-two I am utterly invisible to them. They represent something I have lost – the fresh, obvious sex appeal of youth, and something I will never have - egotistical male confidence in my own professional prowess. The guy leading our workshop was a seasoned Hollywood screenwriter. His technique was great, but he insisted on regaling us with anecdotes about Frances (Ford Copella) and Gary (Oldman) – both of whom, it seems are were geniuses. What seemed to identify them as such was inordinate emotional intensity, cavalier rudeness and erratic behavior. The film industry, like the publishing and art world, is simply brimming with genius. All of them men. Maybe it was my invisibility, or the overly large fried breakfast, or the fact of being inside on such a sunny day, but I started to get annoyed. In my experience genius is usually just a cover for a reasonably talented creative who is chronically badly behaved. “He’s a genius,” men are fond of saying about each other, “with all that that entails,” which generally means a drink problem, a propensity to be exceptionally rude, promiscuous and pathologically self-aggrandising.
We don’t have women geniuses. We have “Gifted Actresses” and “Greatest Living Female Novelist” (best of a bad bunch- in other words). If a brilliantly talented woman displays genius-type symptoms such as being a diabolical housekeeper or a bit tardy about her appearance or fond of a drink and a ride – she is labeled at best eccentric and at worst an amusing slut. Creative women, quite simply, don’t get to act up like men. We just can’t get away with it. I am often so involved in my work that I lose interest in blow-drying my hair or even, frankly washing myself. At such times of intense creativity I would happily leave my house to rot and my children unwashed and unkempt. My husband is supportive, he cooks the dinner and mind the kids and pulls his weight about the place when I have a lot on – but frankly, there is no way he would ever indulge me to the extent a woman married to a male-writer would. Much as I would like to, I can’t go about looking like a bag of washing for weeks on end without him pulling me up on it.
Helen is an exceptionally clever woman – I mean that scary combination of naturally being really, really, clever and highly educated. A first from Oxford followed by intensive, obsessive reading means she is quite terrifyingly well informed. She is also a brilliant, literary writer and poet. I have a pitifully small amount of knowledge in my head, and feel very privileged to having full working access to her brain. I bring other things to the working partnership – order, structure, biscuits – but if Helen was a man she would be most certainly be classified as a genius.
In which case she would be able to indulge her intense loathing of housework while some misguided young wife hung on her every word, brought her sandwiches and tea and shielded her from the front-line of parenthood as she sloathed about in her pyjamas writing seminal novels and poetry. As a perk of her brilliance she would also be allowed to drink copiously, insult publishers and drop the hand on aspiring young poets without fear of criticism or retribution. But because she is a woman, Helen must content herself with coming on screen-writing workshops with me with no more reward than her own bodyweight in biscuits. Oh plus – if she was a male genius? I would hate her and we couldn’t work together.
We went out for lunch and discussed all this (apart from the bit about her being a genius) over designer burgers and chips and having bonded over our annoyance with young men in general and male geniuses in particular, had a very pleasant afternoon. Except frustratingly, we couldn’t eat the bag of donuts we had bought back in with us because they made too much of a crinkling noise and everybody started looking. That’s what you have to do to get attention when you are an female genius – eat loudly - or kill yourself - like Sylvia Plath.
When we got home I collected Leo from my mothers house and she told me some anecdote about him that, being a bad mother, I now cannot remember.
“He’s very advanced,” she asserted in her I-know-everything-retired-schoolteacher voice, adding, “that boy’s a genius - I’m telling you….”
“Don’t be stupid,” I said.
Inwardly, of course, I was thrilled.