Your Elusive Creative Genius
This year marks the tenth anniversary of one of the most iconic and beloved books of all time: “Eat, Pray, Love.” The author, Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk entitled “Your Elusive Creative Genius” has since garnered over 3 million views since its inception in 2009. In this deeply moving and thought-provoking talk, Gilbert discusses how the modern climate perpetuates artist suffering, what makes a genius, and why she believes it most definitely is not her.
After the self-proclaimed “freakish success” of her memoir, Gilbert recounts the climate of worry and doubt that began to follow her. Fans and friends would approach her, not excited about her next works, but to tell her how worried they were about her emotional landscape, now that it was probable any future work might never be able to compare to what she’d already done. The pressure was stifling. “Somehow,” Gilbert says, “we’ve completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked.” As young students today decide upon their life trajectory, this is a collective concept that keeps many scared to pursue their dream in a creative field.
At this point, Gilbert began searching for a “protective psychological construct” that might help her unload all of this fear put upon her by a well-meaning public. She began to look back throughout history in an attempt to discover “how to help creative people manage the inherent emotional risks of creativity.” And did she ever.
Gilbert discovered that long ago, the archetype of the suffering artist didn’t exist in the prevalent way it has over the past 500 years. She learned that the Greeks believed that creative inspiration did not come from the artist, but rather, came to them, using them like a sieve to drain from the ether onto the page, clay, or canvas. The Greeks called this entity their daemon. The Romans had a different word for it. Gilbert tells us they “called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this sort of magical, divine entity who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio-- kind of like Dobby the house elf-- and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work.”
Thence came the Renaissance, when suddenly the individual was put into the center of the universe, and that protective psychological construct disintegrated. Creatives no longer believed an outside, divine entity was helping them to create their work, and as such, the burden placed on their individual capacity skyrocketed. Five hundred years ago, the concept of a genius shifted toward BEING a genius rather than HAVING a genius. And suddenly, being an artist became synonymous with suffering, mental distress, and despair. (Just tell your folks you want to be a writer or an actor. Chances are they will react with far greater fear than if you tell them you dream to be a banker.)
Gilbert’s message to young writers is that this societal construct of fear and doom surrounding creative professions has to change. She 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.”
She uses the example of Tom Waits, a contemporary musician who began doing something odd when inspiration hit him at inopportune times. If he was in the car and the inspiration for a tune struck, instead of mourning the melody lost forever because he couldn’t capture it while navigating the highway, he’d talk back to it, saying things like, “Seriously? Don’t you see that I’m driving?! If you want to exist, come back at a better time!” Waits, in an interview with Gilbert, said that this shift in viewing genius as an external source instead of an internal one enabled him to show up and love his work without being crippled by self-doubt. Gilbert began to practice her art anew: by showing up, doing her part, and viewing herself not as one responsible to hold and contain genius, but by rather, humbly, opening herself to the divine inspiration of the unknown.
Do you agree with Gilbert? How do you view genius?
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