Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity

Pointed out by Ian McHugh.

We writers, we kind of do have that reputation, and not just writers, but creative people across all genres, it seems, have this reputation for being enormously mentally unstable. And all you have to do is look at the very grim death count in the 20th century alone, of really magnificent creative minds who died young and often at their own hands, you know? And even the ones who didn't literally commit suicide seem to be really undone by their gifts, you know. Norman Mailer, just before he died, last interview, he said "Every one of my books has killed me a little more." An extraordinary statement to make about your life's work, you know. But 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.
When I started watching the clip I became a little apprehensive, especially when she began drawing that line, that line I dislike immensely, between the creative process and mental illness. Much as I am not exactly a poster girl for disproving that mistaken assumption, I think that having wrassled with both monsters I'm in a position to say, with authority, "That is shit from a bull."

Thankfully, Gilbert continued on after the above, with this;

And the question that I want to ask everybody here today is are you guys all cool with that idea?

...I'm not at all comfortable with that assumption.

I think it's odious.
Fuck. Yeah.

And so, it seems to me, upon a lot of reflection, that the way that I have to work now, in order to continue writing, is that I have to create some sort of protective psychological construct, right? I have to, sort of find some way to have a safe distance between me, as I am writing, and my very natural anxiety about what the reaction to that writing is going to be, from now on. And, as I've been looking over the last year for models for how to do that I've been sort of looking across time, and I've been trying to find other societies to see if they might have had better and saner ideas than we have about how to help creative people, sort of manage the inherent emotional risks of creativity.

...ancient Greece and ancient Rome -- people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then, OK? People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity "daemons."...The Romans had the same idea, but 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 and would shape the outcome of that work.

So brilliant -- there it is, right there that distance that I'm talking about -- that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work...the ancient artist was protected from certain things, like, for example, too much narcissism, right? 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, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame. And this is how people thought about creativity in the West for a really long time.

And then the Renaissance came and everything changed, and we had this big idea, and the big idea was let's put the individual human being at the center of the universe above all gods and mysteries, and there's no more room for mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine. And it's the beginning of rational humanism, and 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.

And I got to tell you, I think that was a huge error. You know, 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.

I'm in danger of cutting and pasting the whole transcript. I just watched it, so I'm still processing and irrationally in love with what she said. There's a fabulous example of putting the creative essence on the outer that she gives later in the video, from none other than Tom Waits, which made me laugh. Now I'm thinking of it again, it's making me cry.

There have been times I've been afraid of my writing, because when I've looked back at it, it was too good for me.

Telling myself that perhaps it never came from me at all? That makes it okay to live with.

But then...what if that outer interference never interferes again? What if you're touched once, and then left alone to plod on after that moment of glory for the rest of your mortal life?

I don't think I've ever come across a more uplifting context for "just carry on" than this.

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