You may notice that this post is labelled Genius Part II. It is a little follow on from last week’s discussion about BEING A GENIUS AT WHAT YOU ARE WIRED TO DO.
Hopefully we convinced you that you are all geniuses? Good. Now, completely disregard all of that. Too much pressure for a Monday morning!
Back in 2009, writer Elizabeth Gilbert gave a talk on TED regarding Nurturing Creativity. It is simply wonderful, and we urge you to watch it. (We stumbled across TED looking for inspiration and found it. There are a whole load of intelligent people on there – much more intelligent than us! Brilliant 15 min talks.) Gilbert discussed the difficulties she had when she sat down to write the book to follow her first ‘mega-sensation, international best seller’. She said that people started to approach her as if she was ‘doomed’ –
“Aren’t you afraid — aren’t you afraid you’re never going to be able to top that? Aren’t you afraid you’re going to keep writing for your whole life and you’re never again going to create a book that anybody in the world cares about at all, ever again?“
Aren’t people so encouraging?! Still, she admits that yes, of course, she was terrified. Aren’t we all? (not of course that we have written any international best sellers … but you know what we mean!) But, she asks, “Is it logical that anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel they were put on this Earth to do.” It then led her to think about why it is that us creative types are always linked to the idea of struggle and being “enormously mentally unstable”. This made us laugh a little. Because, let’s face it, it’s true. The tortured artist that is misunderstood and set apart. And, although we can smile, it has been the bane of many lives. Gilbert challenged her listeners as to whether they are actually comfortable with this notion. Why is it that “we don’t even blink when we hear somebody say this because we’ve heard that kind of stuff for so long and somehow we’ve completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked and that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish.”
She decided to investigate and see if there were other societies which didn’t have this outlook and approach. Now, she puts it much better than we can, but, in summary … she discovered that in ancient Greece and ancient Rome, people did not believe that creativity came from human beings. Instead, they believed it was a ‘divine, attendant spirit‘ which visited artists and provided wisdom and inspiration from afar. The Romans called this creative spirit ‘a genius’. Aha! Gilbert hones in on this concept and thus the ability to have “that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work“.
And so, “the ancient artist was protected from certain things, like, for example, too much narcissism … If your work was brilliant you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault …“
Then the Renaissance happened and, as a consequence, the human being was made centre of all things. No more room for mysteries and mystical creatures and so –
“People started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius rather than having a genius.“
This certainly is a very interesting shift which we should take note of …
Gilbert says: “I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.“
Perhaps we need to be aware of this trait in us, because it is in us – if we are not careful. And the pressure of ‘being a genius’ and creating ‘something of genius’ would just make us stop right there and give up, wouldn’t it? Which really seems to defeat the whole purpose.
The real question is, can we actually approach it differently, and if so, how? Perhaps waiting for some fairy to appear on our shoulder and whisper the secret to life is a bit much to expect? Gilbert does acknowledge this. Instead she suggests meeting somewhere in the middle. We all know a little what it feels like to brush up against something which might be described as ‘inspiration’ – we know it exists, somewhere out there. But, we also know that it ain’t flowing freely from the kitchen cold tap and it’s not like you can just switch it on and off – you know, when you might fancy being a genius for the day.
Gilbert cites Tom Waits –
(who spent many tortured years of “trying to control and manage and dominate these sorts of uncontrollable creative impulses that were totally internalised“)
“one day he was driving down the freeway in L.A. … he’s speeding along, and all of a sudden he hears this little fragment of melody, that comes into his head as inspiration often comes, elusive and tantalizing, and he wants it … he longs for it, but he has no way to get it. He doesn’t have a piece of paper, he doesn’t have a pencil, he doesn’t have a tape recorder. So he starts to feel all of that old anxiety start to rise in him like, “I’m going to lose this thing, and then I’m going to be haunted by this song forever. I’m not good enough, and I can’t do it.” … instead of panicking, he just stopped. He just stopped that whole mental process and he did something completely novel. He just looked up at the sky, and he said, “Excuse me, can you not see that I’m driving? Do I look like I can write down a song right now? If you really want to exist, come back at a more opportune moment when I can take care of you. Otherwise, go bother somebody else today. Go bother Leonard Cohen.”
What a fantastic story. It really challenged us about how we approach our work and process. Instead of the instant anxiety ridden, tortuous and ultimately limiting approach to creating, it could possibly, maybe be a conversation between ourselves and that which wishes to be created. Gilbert advises that what we simply must do is turn up. Ok, so it’s not like we can laze about watching daytime tv and expect moments of eureka to land on our toast. Damn. Rather, it seems it is about sitting down at your desk/laptop/studio space and being present and open, without pressure and anxiety. Perhaps if we remove the emphasis from ourselves outwards to the creative realms and influences, then maybe we are ready.
Gilbert confides – “I tried it … I just lifted my face up from the manuscript and I directed my comments to an empty corner of the room. And I said aloud, “Listen you, thing, you and I both know that if this book isn’t brilliant that is not entirely my fault, right? Because you can see that I am putting everything I have into this, I don’t have any more than this. So if you want it to be better, then you’ve got to show up and do your part of the deal. O.K. But if you don’t do that, you know what, the hell with it. I’m going to keep writing anyway because that’s my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.“
We reckon it is certainly worth a try. We’re up for learning and trying anything!
We’d love to hear your thoughts … Is this something you already do? Or have you found other methods of being free to be creative? All opinions and thoughts welcome!
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