Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Dysfunctional Relationship Artists Have With...Everything

For this post to make sense you'll need to reference the previous and watch that video.

I spent the night, probably my sleep, and most of my snooze button soft crash into wakefulness chewing over the notion of 'having genius' instead of 'being genius'. I'm a little besotted with the idea.

At a glance I imagine it's distasteful to some, pushing, as it does, the idea of invisible entities be they called muse, daemon, genie, angel, faery, spirit, Fred. What Gilbert is trying to sell, however, is not belief in these things - that's a whole other conversation in which I admit I'm not much interested in - but the usefulness they serve as a mental construct.

She speaks of the emotional risks inherent in the creative process, which resonated with me. There are the obvious stresses associated with placing a work in the public eye; will it be liked, hated, understood, will it be successful, will it be rejected entirely and never be consumed by the public because you are the crappiest artist in all the history of all the cosmos; these are the natural doubts when you put yourself forward for anything.

However I choose to believe that she was speaking of the other risks that come well before considerations of audience reception come into play, the risks we take with ourselves while in the process of creating the work. We pour ourselves into it, we draw upon lessons, memory and knowledge that we may not wish to visit, we take on aspects that do not come naturally to us. I've always said that for writers in particular, the act of writing a story is not unlike forcing the literal definition of a split personality upon yourself.

And, I don't know, the creative process defies predictability and repetition, and I do not believe it is destructive, but it is not always nice, and doing these things to yourself because you love what you do, tearing yourself up because the work requires you to do so, they are hard things.

To then be able to say, "That kinda sucked, and you could have been a little gentler about it," in a disgruntled, passive-aggressive manner to some intangible thought construct and lay some of the responsibility for what happened upon it, well, any less ammunition for the artist to use upon themselves is a good thing, right?

It's this idea of distance. It smells fantastic, like freshly crushed coriander and cummin all mixed together. I'd eat it but I can't stop sniffing it. Distance not only from the work, but from the idea of talent as well.

To be talented is a crippling thing.

I have been told that I have talent. The people who have said this to me are not individuals with a vested interest in keeping me on side and gain nothing from stroking my ego. They were not speaking of craft, but of that part of art that cannot be learned, that essence of creativity that can't be picked up or passed on.

For the creative mind to consider the fact of its own talent is probably one of the most dangerous thought paths to follow. Might as well drive a steamroller over a minefield.

It's one thing to entertain dreams of grandeur and quite another to realise they could be a reality. That maybe you have something that is unique, and that others can see. Suddenly, there are ramifications to everything you do. Are you living up to your talent? Have you wasted it? Do you meet the expectations of those who have recognised it? By having this talent you did not earn are you bruising the already sensitive egos of the creators around you? Will there be a price for using something you haven't earned? Is it possible to exercise control over something entirely unconscious? What if you come to depend on it? What if it goes away?

This is not about any alleged talent I may have, but the weight and damage that merely considering it did. To consider talent left me terrified of using it. It has taken years to be reconcile myself with the idea, all of which has nothing to do with anything I've produced. The work goes on (or not) regardless.

But if someone had given me permission to disown the idea of talent, I daresay those years would have been spent being decidedly more relaxed about my writing.

There is a parallel with photography. I have absolutely no technique, skill, technical or theoretical knowledge, and so I don't feel I can claim ownership of any of the compliments my photographs garner. "I didn't do that," I say. "The world was there, I pressed the button and the camera did the rest."

Now of my stories I can say, "I didn't do that. The story was there, I opened to a new page and the [ ] did the rest."

The difference between being a vessel and a conduit. Gilbert's speech resonated so powerfully with me because she gave voice to a practice I've been slowly and stealthily ninjaing upon myself for some time. A space that is me, but not me. A trapdoor to the subconscious, down which I will deliberately shove stories and let whatever it is down there do whatever it is it does until it is ready to release the story back to me. There is something that is me, but not me. Something over which I have no control. Something that does not come from me.

I'm not going to call it Fred.

But, there is always a but. When you change the creative process from one of dictation to a conversation, then there must be another party with which to have the conversation, which means you are essentially engaging in a relationship with something that is Not Called Fred.

And when I turned this over in my mind, all I saw was a whole lot of issues. Like, not trusting NotFred to actually contribute. Feeling betrayed and rejected when NotFred does not produce the goods. Trying to make myself infinitely more attractive to NotFred, or NotFred's friends. Wondering what is wrong with me that NotFred&Friends talk to everyone else but not me. Deciding this is because I am hopeless and useless and worthless.

Etc, etc...

Which probably says more about me than anything else, but I believe that that poor, insecure, fragile, hopeful and despairing creative mind can find weapons to use against itself no matter what thought constructs are in place.

Still, I prefer NotFred to the thought of inspiration being sourced solely from within.

I find I disagree with the very end of Gilbert's speech. She has put forth the idea that creative transcendence - which we have all felt all too briefly - is not something we can find within ourselves but are graced to feel or not feel its touch according to the whims of something unknowable and unreasonable, and that a word for that something may as well be 'god'. When we are caught up in that passion which is equal parts exhilaration and desperation and in the paws of which we are tiny furious creatures, there, in our work, is god. And if god, the genie, NotFred has touched us...olé.

But then she says that even if god, the genie, NotFred never comes near us again, or never noticed us at all, yet still we labour at our craft...olé, she says, there is god anyway.

And by doing so, by putting god back in the artist when there is no god at work, she undermines that brilliant, necessary idea which was the point of her whole speech.

No. If god isn't there, then god isn't there.

Maybe god will only rip through us once, and never again. Maybe we will never channel god in our work. We can sit down and write, paint, design, draw, mould, stitch, whatever it is you are creating, and there will be no god in the end product. We can wait, and work, but diligence does not equal divine inspiration.

The work produced may be flawed, technically sound, thorough, clever, cliché, bold, unbalanced, dull, merely okay. The work produced may be the lewd loud shit of those who have not yet even begun to realise the challenges involved in creativity, or it could be the crisp precision of a master of the craft and years of rich experience.

It will not have that frightening fire to it, will not smell of freshly crushed coriander and cummin, and god won't know it exists.

It will be yours, and only yours.

And that is a thought construct worth taking pride in as well.


  1. I rail against that which further ingrains the so-called symbiotic relationship between creativity and mental illness, and then pretty much shot myself full of hypocrite juice by stating the creative mind cannot help but turn upon itself.


    Yeah, I'm part of the problem.

  2. Hurro. I have so many thoughts about your post that I don't know where to start. First, I have to say I liked it. I watched that talk a couple of months back and had mixed feelings about it.

    I talk about the muse and daemons a lot. In fact, I have an essay about that relationship Yeats had w/ his daemon which should be up at Cabinet des Fees, I dunno when, but it will be. But nevermind that. Suffice to say, I do believe we need a name for that "fine frenzy" that comes upon us, that makes us write, that drains us etc. Mental illness according to modern definitions is something I have major issues with. I think that the mental health industry wants to pigeonhole everything that doesn't fit neatly. It makes for revenue, you see? But I'm cynical like that.

    But where Gilbert is right is this, that fine process in which we're swept away and write, and dream, or paint? It's both internal and external. Yes, the externalising of it helps us. But I don't think she gets the big picture as such. It's a two way street. I said on my blog, because I'm having an interesting week of it, that being inspired to write and create is kind of like falling in love. It is. You have that first flush of mad infatuation, but after that, you have to _work at the relationship_ if it's to work. You have to fight with yourself and your own insecurities. That's where craft comes in.

    I just have issues with crediting everything that's in us to an external force - and that's where Gilbert falls down. I think especially as a woman from a postcolonial nation when so many people try to attribute things I say to others, when I am silenced or made to feel like a doll and a mimic, I react even stronger to those sentiments (hers, not yours!). I never had a problem with the muse/daemon idea before. I don't really have a problem w/ saying my muse is overcoming me ;) but my meditations on silencing have problematised it to a certain extent.

    `course, I have other issues w/ Gilbert, esp as someone who is aware of fat activism etc, hence I'll never buy her book, but yes, the first part of her talk resonated with me. And I agree with you that the second half is problematic. And erk. Didn't mean this to be a mini-essay. Just wanted to post it before I /really/ go social media silent. Cheers :)

  3. But there is something bothering me.

    I'm a huge advisor of diversity and the idea of "What works for you works for you". If you can't cope with the strangeness of the world without the aid of something omniscient moving time through thinly-veiled strings of copper, like Cthulhu, I'm cool with that. But that doesn't mean Cthulhu is the one molding my world and not the Macaroni Monster.
    What I'm trying to say is that we all have our own way of seeing things, and as long as it works, it works.

    I think the idea of attributing all your creative prowess to some ethereal being may lift a boulder from your shoulders, but at the same time you shouldn't free yourself of all responsibility upon what you've done. After all, even you were a mere vessel, the world has changed it's shape by your own hands.

    I've been munching on this idea for quite some time. Living is not as easy as it looks like, and should be approached with caution. Everything you do and say resonates somewhere with someone. Again, by your own doing someone's else world has been changed, and that is something you just cannot attribute to another one.

    Maybe I'm just a little kid jumping and screaming "lookit me" deep on the inside, but I share your worries about what's going to be made of me now that NotFred is gone, or has never been here. To be honest, that very thought kept me away from writing for as long as I can remember, 'til someone said "It's ok. It's gone now, it's not your fault. But you still have yourself, and isn't that awesome?".

    At least for me the prospect of losing someone (even if it hugs me with 8 squishy tentacles) hurts more than knowing there was never anyone there at all, and Brad Pitt was me the whole time.

  4. "Fine frenzy" is _gorgeous_. I love it, I'm stealing it.

    And no, I don't believe that all credit/blame/responsibility should be given to an external idea. There's a fair history of people who have tried to do that, said they are the voice of [insert entity here], and they don't exactly have a good time of it.

    Conduit was too stark a word. It is as you both have said, a relationship, and one that requires work, and will not always work.

    There is a difference between the relationship with NotFred in the process of creating the work, and the relationship when the work is then out in the public eye. There are different strains placed upon the artist in each instance, and so the purpose and usefulness of NotFred as a distancing agent and buffer alters somewhat.

    I have more to say, but no more typing for now.

  5. Heh :) Shakespeare said it first, then the Romantics appropriated the idea, so yoink away :D

    Wish blogger would give notifications re comments. Bad blogger, bad!