Genius, Responsibility, and Showing Up
Over the weekend, I got an email linking to an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert (the author of Eat, Pray, Love, which I’ve never read, but which, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of). There’s a quote at the start of it that I really liked:
When you release the wrongdoer from the wrong, you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life. You set a prisoner free, but you discover that the real prisoner was yourself. –Lewis B. Smedes, in ‘Forgive and Forget’
Susan and I have talked a lot about forgiveness, so I forwarded the interview to her before I even read it and starred the email in my inbox to read when I got back from the woods and back to internet and big screens. So then yesterday morning, I see Susan made a post about it, talking about the myth of the tortured writer. Which I read. And then I went to read the interview. And then I went to watch Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk about Your Elusive Creative Genius.
It’s always interesting to me to see what different people get out of the same thing. I’ve never really bought into the myth of the tortured writer. I mean, statistically, there is a much higher incidence of mood disorders among the creative set (I’ve written papers on it). But I’ve never really bought into the idea that dysfunction and tortured psyches are necessary for creativity. I mean, sure I’ve got some issues like anybody does, but I don’t consider myself tortured.
But anyway, one of the things Elizabeth talks about is how prior to the Renaissance, people believed that creativity came to them from some, divine, distant outside source. Daemons according to the Greeks. Geniuses according to the Romans. These were kinda like Dobby the house elf, these invisible spirits that lived in the walls of the artist’s studio that would help out. It was this distance, this psychological construct that kind of protected the artist or writer or whoever from the results of their work. So if your work was brilliant, you couldn’t be too narcissistic about it because you couldn’t take all the credit. If your work was an epic fail, again, not entirely your fault. And then came the Renaissance and the onus of genius became embodied in the creative person themselves, and she basically postulates that this is where the whole tortured artist/writer thing began because DUDE, THE PRESSURE.
I’ve never been a fan of the notion of an outside entity having any bearing on the work. We would most often probably think of it as muses (though if you wanna get technical, that was something else entirely from the daemons). It feels too much like an abdication of responsibility–as if you were just supposed to sit around and wait for inspiration or help. I’ve always been of the whole 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration school of thought. I did all the work, I damn well better get all the credit. I’m big on credit.
But the flip side of this is that when something doesn’t work, I also get all the blame. Not like anybody is running around beating me with the blame stick but me, but still…I got a big stick, yo. So I got to thinking about it…and it’s not that I consider myself a tortured writer by the classic definition. I’m not depressed. I don’t have a substance abuse problem. But…I’ve kinda got a thing about self recrimination. I hold myself to CRAZY high standards and then when I don’t meet them, I tend to engage in a considerable amount of self flagellation.
I begin to see some of the appeal of having that distance and a little bit of shared responsibility.
Around 15:03, Elizabeth talks about looking at an empty corner of the room and addressing this invisible thing saying “Listen you…thing…you and I both know if this book isn’t brilliant that that is not entirely my fault, right? Because you can see that I am putting everything I have into this. You know, I don’t have any more than this, so if you want it to be better, then you’ve gotta show up and do your part of the deal, okay? But if you don’t do that, you know what, to hell with it, I’m gonna 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.”
That made me laugh. But I think there’s really something there that kind of appeals to both sides of the equation. Because yes, I’m a strong believer that the first part of winning the battle (and some days it really IS a battle) is showing up. This is the classic BICHOK method. Butt in chair, hands on keyboard. Showing up, doing the work, even if that other disembodied Something didn’t show that day. You showed. You get credit. You did the work, whatever it was, to the best of your ability THAT DAY. And maybe it wasn’t ultimately what you needed it to be, but you will show up TOMORROW and you’ll do the best you can do then. And eventually that amorphous other Something will feel guilty and stroll on into work and you’ll get that dose of genius. You can’t know when it’ll decide to show, but you definitely won’t get an appearance if you don’t show up yourself.