In this talk, Elizabeth Gilbert asks the question – are anguish and art inextricably related? Can we always expect there to be an element of suffering, anguish, and depression / suicide etc when you have a person producing art?
The Greeks believed creativity is a spirit that comes to someone, a damon. So in a sense it's not only up to the individual to create the art, it's a joint venture between the individual, and the damon. This helps because it means the artist can't be too narcissistic – they can't say 'I'm wonderful' since it's not all down to themselves, they've had a bit of help. From the damon. And it's also quite freeing if it's not so great, if it's a bit rubbish, the artist can say, 'it's not my fault' cos they weren't the only one involved in creating the art – the damon had its hand in there too.
So, right through ancient human history civilisations talked about people having genius – when the damon or whatever that civilisation called it, joined the human to create the art. Which has all the great advantages I've discussed above.
Until in the last 500 years of less we started talking about people being a genius. Note the difference: having genius, and being genius. Avoir and etre if you're into French. To have, and to be. A small, but important difference between the two.
In the recent human history the person is a genius, therefore if the art is great, it's all down to that person - enter stage left the narcissistic artist and if it's a bit rubbish, that too, is all down to the artist enter stage right the artist suffering with depression who may take his or her life. Changes the game a bit doesn't it?
A poet friend of Elizabeth Gilbert's described what it felt like when the genius / damon came to her as she was farming in the fields: it was like a thundering elephant arriving, charging towards her and if she didn't get to a pen and paper when it hit, the genius would pass through her and go find some other poet to be with who'd take down the poem. When she sat with pen and paper the poem just flowed from her, because the genius was with her. She and the genius were working together. I don't paint or anything else particularly creative, but I'm sure I'm not alone as a writer having those days/hours when the words are literally pouring out of me, it's all I can do to type them fast enough. And other times I sit at the keyboard and it's like pulling teeth to extract the words from my brain onto the page.
I prefer this having genius concept to this being genius concept. It takes off the pressure when things are good and when things are a bit crap. Elizabeth Gilbert said since the success of Eat Pray Love, it's very possible her best work her most successful work is now behind her, which in itself could have become paralysing in terms of creating new work/art (which is her job). But it takes the pressure if if you embrace the having genius, rather than being genius.
All you have to do as an artist is to show up; to sit at the keyboard when you've said you're going to write, and to write. Some days the genius will be nowhere to be seen, but you still showed up, you still did your part of the deal (and the genius will hopefully turn up when you edit the words).
Other days the words will fly from your fingers and the genius is with you, you're an amazing team writing together. Those are the amazing days, those are the days when you feel you could write your way out from here to eternity, to the sky, across the fields, anything. But they're definitely not every day, and if you sit around waiting for the genius to visit you until you start writing, you'll not write very much.
Elizabeth Gilbert has a journalistic background and I've done some newspaper work too. As a journalist, if your editor says 'I want 600 words on that film review by Tuesday,' you can't turn, mopping your brow, say you're waiting for your inspiration/genius so Tuesday will have to wait. No, you sit down at the computer and you pull 600 words out of yourself by Tuesday. End of. You show up to work.
As long as you, the writer, the artist, show up for your part of the job, if the genius didn't show up that day, it's not all your fault if that day's words are a bit off par. You still added words, you still showed up. And the days when the genius turns up, fly, enjoy those days, but don't get too big headed, don't become that narcissistic artist, because as Elizabeth Gilbert said, 'some of the best bits are on loan to you from “the genius”.'
So next time you're having a day when it's not flowing and you're all stuck, it's not your fault, it's a day when the genius is with someone else, but you still did your part. You showed up to write.