Creative Genius – A Different Way to Think About Creativity

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A Different Way to Think About Creative Genius

Elizabeth Gilbert-author of the bestseller "Eat, Pray, Love"-gave a fabulous talk at entitled "A Different Way to Think About Creative Genius". She explains that after the mega success of her book, everywhere she goes she's asked the following question: "Aren't you afraid you'll never be able to top that?" And she confides that in fact she is afraid that at forty her best work is behind her. So she asked herself how she could continue to do the work she loves.

Elizabeth concluded that in order to be able to continue writing she had to be able to create a safe distance between herself as she's writing, and the natural anxiety she feels about what the reaction to her writing will be. In order to do this she began to look for models on how creative people can manage the inherent emotional risks of creativity.

On her talk she shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person "being" a genius, all of us "have" a genius.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Randy Son Of Robert

Ideas Worth Spreading

Daemons and Geniuses

Gilbert explains that in ancient Greece and ancient Rome people did not believe that creativity came from human beings. Instead, they believed there was a divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source.

The Greeks called these beings “Daemons”. It is well-known that Socrates believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him. The Romans called the disembodied creative spirit a “Genius”. That is, a genius was not a particularly clever individual, it was a magical entity that lived in the walls of an artist’s studio and would come out and invisibly help the artist with his work.

Elizabeth argues in her Ted talk that adopting a belief similar to that held by the Romans and Greeks is a good way for a creative person to establish some distance from their work. By believing that there’s a being that works through you, you keep your ego in check: after all, if your work is a success it wasn’t entirely you that created it, you had help. At the same time, it keeps performance anxiety at bay: if you create something that fails, that wasn’t entirely about you either: your genius or daemon is also to blame.

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Elizabeth Gilbert: A Different Way to Think About Creative Genius

Elizabeth Gilbert: Your elusive creative genius
by TED | video info
14,761 ratings | 1,812,753 views
curated content from YouTube

Can't you see that I'm driving? I can't stop to write down the song right now. Come back later.

Illustration - Tom Waits

As an illustration of a modern artist that uses the concept of getting help from the Divine to help him cope with the anxiety of creating, Elizabeth Gilbert mentions the musician Tom Waits.

In his early years Tom was the very embodiment of the tormented contemporary artist trying to control and manage uncontrollable creative impulses that were completely internalized.

But as he got older he got wiser and more sane until one day he was driving along the highway and he heard a fragment of a beautiful melody. At that moment he had no way of catching it and he began to feel some of the old anxiety that had plagued him: he wouldn’t be able to capture the melody in time and it would be lost to him forever.

However, instead of panicking like he used to do, he simply stopped this mental process; he looked up at the sky and said:

    “Excuse me, can’t you see that I’m driving? Do I look like I can I write down a song right now? Come back at a more opportune moment when I can take care of you.”

His work process and the anxiety that surrounded it changed at that moment. He took the genius out of himself where it was causing nothing but trouble and released it back to where it came from. That is, he turned his creative process into a collaboration between himself and the external creative impulse that worked through him.

Elizabeth goes on to say that when she was in the middle of writing “Eat, Pray, Love” she started to fall into one of those pits of despair that come when you feel that the work is not flowing, and you start to dread that what you’re working on is a complete disaster. She decided to try Tom’s method and she started talking to an empty corner of the room:

    “Look, you and I both know that I’m putting everything that I have into this; I simply don’t have anything more to give. If you want it to be better then you have to show up and keep your part of the deal. But you know what: even if you don’t show up I’m going to keep writing, because that’s my job. So if this book is a failure it’s your fault for not doing your part. I would like the record to show that I showed up and did my part.”

This immediately relaxed her and she was soon able to get back to work.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Conor Lawless

"Books choose their authors; the act of creation is not entirely a rational and conscious one."

-- Salman Rushdie

American Poet Ruth Stone

More On Gilbert's Talk

Gilbert goes on to say that she met the extraordinary American poet Ruth Stone who’s now in her 90′s and has been a poet her entire life. Stone told her that when she was growing up she would be working out in the fields in rural Virginia and she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape.

It was like a thunderous train of air and it would come barreling down toward her and shake the ground under her feet. At that point she knew that she had only one thing to do: run like hell toward her house and grab a piece of paper. She had to get to a pencil and paper fast enough so that when the poem thundered through her she could write it down and get it on the page.

Sometimes she wasn’t fast enough, so she would be running toward the house and the poem would go through her and continue down the landscape looking for another poet.

There were other times when she would almost miss it: she would get to the paper and pencil just as the poem was passing through her. So she would grab the pencil with one hand and would catch the poem by its tail with the other hand; she would then pull the poem back into her body as she transcribed it. In these instances the poem would come up on the page intact, but backward from the last word to the first.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Nicholas_T

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"Allah", "Allah"

Here’s the end of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted talk::

Centuries ago in the deserts of North Africa, people used to gather for moonlight sacred dances that would go on until dawn. The dances were magnificent, but every once in a while one of the dancers would become transcendent. We’ve all seen performances like this: it was as if the dancer had stepped through a portal and he would be lit from within and lit from below and he would appear to be lit on fire with divinity.

People would immediately realize what had happened and they would begin to clap and chant “Allah, Allah”, recognizing that they had gotten a glimpse of God. When the moors invaded the South of Spain they took this with them and over the years the pronunciation changed from “Allah” to “Olé”, which you still hear at bull fights and at flamenco dances in Spain when one of the performers has done something magical.

Elizabeth advices that you just do your job: continue to show up for your piece of it. If the divine genius assigned to you decides to make an appearance then “Olé”, and if not, do your dance anyhow and bravo to you nonetheless for showing up and daring to try to do something great.

Creative Commons License photo credit: _Imaji_

Maya Angelou - Convincing the Muse

Maya Angelou is best known for her series of six autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adulthood experiences. In 1971 she was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for her volume of poetry, “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Diiie.’”

The following quote by Angelou is very reminiscent of Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk at entitled “A Different Way to Think About Creative Genius”:

“What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat.’ And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.’”

(Image taken from here).

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What will the Lord's power do to me right after I have invoked it and before I beg for mercy?

The Risk of Prayer

These are two quotes from Annie Dillard's "The Writing Life", which relate to Elizabeth Gilbert's message.

“I admire those eighteenth century Hasids who understood the risk of prayer. Rabbi Uri of Strelisk took sorrowful leave of his household every morning because he was setting off to his prayers. He told his family how to dispose of his manuscripts if praying should kill him. A ritual slaughterer, similarly, every morning bade goodby to his wife and children and wept as if he would never see them again. His friend asked him why. Because, he answered, when I begin I call out to the Lord. Then I pray, “Have mercy on us.” Who knows what the Lord’s power will do to me in the moment after I have invoked it and before I beg for mercy?”

“It takes years to write a book, between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statatiscally insignificant. One American writer has written a dozen major books over six decades. He wrote one of those books, a perfect novel, in three months. He speaks of it, still, with awe, almost whispering. Who wants to offend the spirit that hands out such books?”

Jim Henson - Ideas Waiting to Be Heard

Jim Henson–creator of “The Muppets” and the leading force behind “Sesame Street”, among several other successful projects–has the following to say about “ideas waiting to be heard”:

“I don’t know exactly where ideas come from, but when I’m working well, ideas just appear. I’ve heard other people say similar things – so it’s one of the ways I know there’s help and guidance out there. It’s just a matter of our figuring out how to receive the ideas or information that are waiting to be heard.”

Creative Commons License photo credit: Looking Glass

What Are Others Saying About Gilbert's Talk?

Elizabeth Gilbert: Is Creativity Divinely Inspired?
Regular readers of Lateral Action will know we're pretty sceptical about the idea of creative genius. You've probably noticed we preach a gospel of creativity-as-hard-work rather than the proverbial flash of inspiration. We've looked at creators such as Michelangelo, Kurt Cobain, Charles Darwin, David Bowie, Shakespeare and Stanley Kubrick, and shown how their apparently effortless genius can be traced to hard work, craft skills, effective business models and eccentric habits.

So when writer Elizabeth Gilbert takes the stage at TED and starts spouting a version of creativity based on supernatural genius and divine inspiration, you can expect squawks of protest from Lateral Action. Right? Wrong.
The Brain, Agent of Creativity
Best selling New-Age author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) recently delivered a TED talk in which she called into question the role of the human mind in the creative process. In a disturbing broadside against "five hundred years of scientific humanism," she called on her audience to accept the "psychological construct" of a kind of supernatural inspiration.

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