Elizabeth Gilbert: Is Creativity Divinely Inspired?

Regular readers of Lateral Action will know we’re pretty sceptical about the idea of creative genius. You’ve probably noticed we preach a gospel of creativity-as-hard-work rather than the proverbial flash of inspiration. We’ve looked at creators such as Michelangelo, Kurt Cobain, Charles Darwin, David Bowie, Shakespeare and Stanley Kubrick, and shown how their apparently effortless genius can be traced to hard work, craft skills, effective business models and eccentric habits.

So when writer Elizabeth Gilbert takes the stage at TED and starts spouting a version of creativity based on supernatural genius and divine inspiration, you can expect squawks of protest from Lateral Action. Right?

Wrong.

This is one of the most inspiring and practical talks I’ve seen about creativity for a long time. (Watch the video here if you’re reading the feed/e-mail version of this article.) Gilbert is a terrific presenter and the ideas she discusses are more than enough for an entertaining and thought-provoking talk. But what makes this really compelling is the fact that she’s speaking from a place of conflict and struggle in her own creative career.

After years of working at her craft and enjoying steady but unspectacular success, Gilbert’s last book, Eat, Pray, Love became, in her words ‘this big mega-sensation international bestseller thing’:

the result of which means that everywhere I go now people treat me like I’m doomed … they come up to me now all worried and they say “aren’t you afraid you never going to be able to top that? I’m sure afraid you’re going to keep writing for your whole life and you’re never going to again be able to create a book for anybody in the world cares about at all, ever again?”.

And, of course, the answer to all those questions is ‘Yes’. Gilbert is honest enough to admit that, like most creators, she is afraid of failure, even in the face of overwhelming success.

So how does she cope with the fear of failure and the pressures of success? After some soul-searching, she’s come up with an unfashionable solution.

The Original Meaning of Genius

In ancient Greece and ancient Rome people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then. 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’. Socrates famously believed that he had a Daemon who spoke to him from afar. The Romans had the same idea but they called that sort of disembodied spirit a ‘Genius’, which was 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 … and who would come out and invisibly assist the artist with their work and who would shape the outcome of that work.

The great thing about this way of looking at creativity is that it doesn’t pile so much pressure on the artist to produce a masterpiece – and it doesn’t allow her to get too big-headed if a masterpiece somehow appears. After all, she’s only an instrument of the Daemon or Genius.

If that all sounds very long ago and far away, consider Gilbert’s report of a conversation with the American poet Ruth Stone about how she writes her poetry:

When she was growing up in rural Virginia she would be out working in the fields and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape and she said it was like a thunderous train of air and it would come barrelling down at her over the landscape. And she said that when she felt it coming – because it would shake the earth under her feet – she knew that she had only one thing to do at that point and that was to, in her words, ‘run like hell’ and she would run like hell to the house, being chased by this poem. And the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and pencil fast enough so when it thundered through her she could collect it and grab it on the page.

Now you might find this account hard to believe, but I’ve heard about – and seen – very similar creative processes when working with artists in one-to-one coaching sessions. I originally trained as a hypnotherapist, so I know how easy it is for people to experience vivid auditory and visual hallucinations. Hypnotherapists attribute these to the unconscious mind rather than a supernatural spirit, but the effect is the same – an image that appears or a voice that speaks to you as if out of thin air.

Oracular Psychology

If there are any hardheaded rationalists reading this and shaking their heads, you may be interested to know that at least one psychologist has seriously entertained the idea of divine inspiration, and offered a scientific explanation of phenomena such as the Muses speaking to poets and the gods of the ancient world appearing to human beings.

In 1976 Julian Jaynes published a book with the magnificent title The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. He argued that hallucinations of gods and spirits were more common thousands of years ago because human consciousness was at an earlier stage of development. Instead of our modern sense of a unified conscious self, human beings had ‘bicameral’ minds, divided into two parts: the first part gave instructions, in the form of hallucinated voices and images; the second part received the instructions and obeyed them.

In support of his hypothesis, Jaynes cites a mountain of evidence from ancient literature. For example, in Homer’s Iliad, when the goddess Athena appears to Achilles and told him not to draw his sword and kill King Agamemnon, Homer wasn’t indulging in a flight of fancy: one part of Achilles’ brain was talking to the other, which he experienced as a hallucinated voice. The same goes for the many other ancient accounts of gods appearing to humans or speaking to them from clouds, burning bushes, pillars of fire etc. The authors weren’t making it up. They were describing actual human experience.

Jaynes argues that this ancient mode of thinking has to a large extent died out in modern society, but it survives here and there: in the people diagnosed as schizophrenics; in those who practice as mediums and claim to hear the voices of spirits; and – you guessed it – in the many artists, writers and other creators who have described inspiration coming to them in the form of hallucinated visions or voices.

Where the Renaissance Went Wrong

As we saw in my article about Michelangelo, the Renaissance brought about a change of attitudes to creativity and artists. This is how Gilbert describes it:

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 centre 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 beginning of rational humanism and people start to believe that creativity can 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’ve got to tell you I think that was a huge error.

Why was it such a big error? Because, Gilbert points out, on the one hand it places too much responsibility on the individual, who feels a constant pressure to reach or live up to impossibly high standards; and on the other, it leads to the temptation of narcissism, of taking too much credit for success. No wonder post-Renaissance artists have earned a reputation as mentally unstable egomaniacs.

As soon as we talk about someone being a genius instead of having a genius, we are neglecting the art in favour of the artist. And we start to lose sight of how creativity actually happens. We complicate things by trying to do everything ourselves instead of being open and receptive to unconscious (or supernatural) sources of inspiration. Craft skills and practice start to be neglected or despised, so that a great artist like Michelangelo resorts to burning his working sketches so as to preserve the image of effortless genius.

Creativity Is Still Hard Work

So what does all of this mean for you when you start work on a Monday morning?

Does it mean you don’t have to worry about working hard and perfecting your craft? Maybe you can abandon your studio or laptop and simply wait for the Muse to visit you? Or wander off into the hills in search of a goat to sacrifice?

I’m afraid I have bad news for you. (But good news for the goat.) After all the high-flown speculations of her talk, Elizabeth Gilbert circles back to a point very close to where she began as a writer: having to show up every day and put in the hours at her desk.

When I was in the middle of writing Eat Pray Love and I fell into one of those pits of despair that we will fall into when we’re working on something that’s not coming and we think ‘this is going to be a disaster, this is going to be the worst book I’ve ever written — not just that but the worst book ever written … So I just lifted my face up from the manuscript and I directed my comments to an empty corner of the room and I said aloud ‘ Listen you, thing! You and I both know that if this book isn’t brilliant that is not entirely my fault, right? Because you can see I am putting everything I have into this, I don’t have any more than this, so if you want it to be better then you’ve got to show up and do your part of the deal, OK? But you know what? If you don’t do that then I’m going to keep writing because that’s my job and I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up and did my part of the job!

In one sense, Gilbert’s concept of genius makes life easier for the creator – if your work is ultimately down to a Genius outside of your normal self, then you can’t be too crushed when your next novel turns out to be a flop. It should also mean you don’t get too carried away with yourself should it turn out to be a best seller.

But it also makes life more complicated. Instead of just you doing the work, you have to somehow accommodate and negotiate with an external force in your life. You may not like it. It may be difficult or interrupt you at an inconvenient time. And you may not like what it shows you, and wants you to express in your work.

And because of the ‘deal’ Gilbert invites you to strike with your own Genius, you still have to show up every day and work just as hard as you ever have – if not harder.

In the words of the artist Philip Guston:

I go to my studio every day, because one day I may go and the Angel will be there. What if I don’t go and the Angel came?

You and Your Genius

What did you make of the idea of having a Genius instead of being a genius?

Have you ever experienced inspiration striking you as if from outside yourself?

Have you ever tried to make a deal with your Genius/Muse/unconscious mind?

About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.

How to get creative work done in an "always on" world

Productivity for Creative People

Mark McGuinness' latest book Productivity for Creative People is a is a collection of insights, tips, and techniques to help you carve out time for your most important work – amid the demands and distractions of 21st century life.

“Of all the writers I know, I have learned the most about how to be a productive creative person from Mark. His tips are always realistic, accessible, and sticky. It’s not just talk, this is productivity advice that will change your life.”

Jocelyn Glei, author and Founding Editor, 99U

More about Productivity for Creative People. >>

Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. Mark

    This is a brilliant post – you have explained the talk wonderfully.

    In my opinion, I feel it is important to realise that what Elizabeth Gilbert speaks of is in no way connected to Ego – there is no sense of “me” creating, just the simple act of creating.

    It can be too easy to discount or look at ideas such as these as rules when they are no more than tools; possibilities that either work for you or not. There is nothing to belief in, it is simply something to try out for yourself.

    Thank you for creating such an excellent post and I echo your words:

    “This is one of the most inspiring and practical talks I’ve seen about creativity for a long time.”

  2. What a fantastic article! It definitely pushed me to question my views on this one.

    I’ve never taken to the idea of a muse — perhaps because for me, it carries connotations of laziness (“Can’t write today, my muse is off”) and serves as an easy source of blame.

    But the muse is an image, a literal myth that reflects a creative flow. I believe it’s useful to have a figure to represent such abstractions, but ultimately, I find those abstractions to be just another facet of the endless selves inside us. Which links nicely to the idea of schizophrenia reflecting Jaynes’ book… a book that sounds fascinating — I’ve never read about that hypothesis!

    I like the idea of *having* genius in the sense that it acknowledges this feeling we know, where some strange energy enters the body and creativity flows out. I don’t call it my muse, but I quite like your image of being open to unconscious sources of inspiration. We have, in many ways, moved toward a culture of egotism.

    Although I’ve often argued that creativity comes from within us, I now feel that view is better modified to say that our selves must be completely open to absorb these energies from any direction. Can’t wait to see the rest of the comments on this one…

  3. Mark,

    I’m a big believer in creativity through showing up to do the hard work. Yet as I watched the talk I found myself thinking of all the musicians/artists/writers I’ve heard saying they couldn’t even remember creating XYZ, because it “just came to them”… then I thought of looking back at old paintings, sculptures, designs, and writings I’ve done, and the disembodied feeling I get with the really good ones—Wow, did I create that?

    I remember reading Jaynes’ book a long time ago and I’m pretty content with his explanation. But for the despair and anguish that comes with having an off day… maybe I’ll paint a fairy in the corner of the room and talk to him about it.

    Gilbert’s talk was beautifully honest, and your exploration of the ideas has really got me thinking. Thanks!

    Regards,

    Kelly

  4. As everyone else has said, what a wonderful article! It’s more than an article actually, more of a term paper.

    At any rate, I didn’t follow the leap you made where someone who “is a genius” would want to hide evidence of their work. “Having a genius” could be equally as unproductive in its own extreme, since the recipient could just sit around waiting for divine inspiration.

    If you go by IQ, many of us are at or above the genius level. Not to brag but to make a point, I am. But I still have to work if I want to produce anything of quality (I can ramble off some diarrhea of the mouth as easily as anyone else). It’s just that sometimes that “something extra” comes out of my work, and I honestly don’t care if it came from “my genius” or “a genius” or was a reaction to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich I just ate. I just grab the result before it slips away and like Ruth Stone, run like hell.

  5. Awesome post. I enjoyed Gilbert’s talk and your thoughtful analysis of it. My favorite part (and one I thought you’d really like) is where she wants her Genius to know that she showed up today, no matter what. ‘Cause that’s what creators do.

  6. Terry calls this a term paper. I’d call it a devotion. Either way I think we’re trying to say it is much more than a blog post. Very moving.

    Also I thought of how Milton invokes the Muse at the beginning of Paradise Lost:

    Sing, Heavenly Muse,
    … I thence
    Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
    …what in me is dark
    Illumine, what is low raise and support;
    That, to the height of this great argument,
    I may assert Eternal Providence,
    And justify the ways of God to men.

    There’s something wonderfully humbling about those invocations–whether they come from Elizabeth Gilbert, Homer, or Milton. They are a way of saying we don’t know everything.

    And really, to act with bravado or “sprezzatura” is just fundamentally dishonest.

  7. Thanks guys, glad you liked it.

    Terry — sorry if the bit about hiding one’s work wasn’t clear. It was a reference to Michelangelo’s burning of his working drawings, so that people didn’t see how hard he worked to produce his masterpieces, which helped him project the image of being a divine genius. I explain it more fully in my article about Michelangelo: http://lateralaction.com/articles/you-dont-need-to-be-a-genius/

    Catherine — yes, that made me smile! Very human.

    Marcus — yes, nail on head with the Milton quote. Although if that was his invitation to the Muse, you have to say he was doing pretty well on his own before the call was answered! 🙂

  8. Linda Hough says:

    Hi Mark,

    I’ve just come across your fantastic site and have been exploring with glee.

    I loved this talk by Elizabeth Gilbert and your analysis of it. Here are some random thoughts.

    Recently, I’ve tried to look up one of my favorite quotes on inspiration. It was by a writer who was asked a question about his inspiration. His reply was something to the effect that ‘My inspiration shows up every day at 9 a.m.’ For me, this illustrates the powerful combination of inspiration and taking consistent action. I have so often used that thought when I haven’t felt like working or pushing through the tough places.

    One aspect of this conversation I find interesting is the use of the word ‘work’. What does that imply? Is creating work, hard work even? And does using that word taint the process? Yes, it can be a struggle. It can be uncomfortable. But it can also lift you to the highest. I guess my connotation of work is not positive. 🙂

    One of my clearest memories is of walking home from grade school after completing an art project. Halfway home, thinking of what I had done in class, a clearly-formed image popped into my mind. Even at that age, I knew that I had to put it into form immediately. It happened effortlessly and easily. And with it, I won a local contest!

    One thing a successful author once told me has always stuck. He said one of the best things I could do for my art was to follow my intuition and guidance every time. That if you act on what you receive, more will follow. I’ve found this to be true. The more I receive and act on, the more I can trust it to show up. It’s a wonderful experiment to try.

    Thanks for sharing your insights and wisdom.
    Linda

  9. When I dream, I sometimes have these crystal clear visions of the most incredible things. For instance, this astounding and otherworldly bizarre architecture that is completely realized to the smallest detail. I stare in awe at entire cities, as I fly over them.

    When I wake, I catch myself thinking about this as if it was ‘outside’ of myself, but I remember then that it was my subconscious mind that actually created this – that fully realized these incredible objects.

    If my mind made that, I need to find a way to tap into that ALL the time! Imagine what you could accomplish…

    I think part of our work as creative people is to try and bridge the gap between your dreaming/subconscious mind and the waking one, and the idea of rituals, imagining, externalizing, self-hypnosis – in general, magic making activities described in this article are a great way to start.

  10. Dear Mark,

    What a wonderful post! Your “genius” obviously paid you a visit and was working overtime with this one!

    I love this talk of Elizabeth Gilbert’s and this whole idea of our creativity being a force or an energy that exists outside of us and that our job is to make ourselves available to receive and channel it.

    I often have the experience when I write or when I paint of being at the beck and call of what I experience as my often bossy muse. I might have certain ideas about how I want things to be but I only get in trouble if I try and control the outcome of my creative work.

    And I love the idea of it being a collaboration between me and my daemon. It is my job to show up. It is my job to do the best that I can. It is my job to hone my skills. But beyond that, as I often say to my students “Your painting is none of your business”. In other words, it is also my job to just get out of the way and let my creative juices have their way with me!

  11. Mark,

    That was inspirational! I have read Elizabeth’s book. It flows like she was just recounting a story so much so, it didn’t seem like she really had to “work” at it. Her talk gave me perspective that even for someone who is a “professional” writer, the words don’t always come. I know how much it frustrates me to write and I don’t have to do it for a living. The best part was to have a concrete concept of “having a genius.” When she mentioned the “hey I am driving now…later” it reminded me of the movie LA Story. A highway sign gives him messages just when he needs inspiration. I have had a number of moments when I felt like something like a highway sign had just given me the right words to point me in the right direction. Must have been my Genius! It is a shame our modern world promotes relying on what you can see and touch, versus what you can sense. I am going to invite my Genius for tea. Maybe there is hope for that book after all!

  12. Mark, there’s no question that you put a lot of time and effort into writing a great article on Gilbert’s TED talk. I might not agree with all of your ideas, but you’ve certainly written a thought-provoking piece.

    Black Sun Journal was very critical of Gilbert’s talk and the editor and I had a bit of a discussion about it in my blog comments section. I originally thought he was being quite harsh towards Gilbert but I sort of came to agree with his general criticism: she nicely, but definitely, gave the Renaissance/Enlightenment a “thumbs down” because of its new emphasis on the mind as a sort of creativity.

    Thing is, her method is to basically delude (?) herself as to the source of her creativity so she can cope with the creative process emotionally and mentally. I say delude because I’m extremely skeptical of “divine inspiration”. I’ve had experiences somewhat similar to Ruth Stone in that I’ve been gripped by a notion that I had to get down on paper ASAP, but I never attributed it to anything more holy, mystical, or divine than my subconsciousness at work.

    Other professionals do similar things to quiet down the inner cacophony through rituals, etc.: salespeople, athletes, business leaders, politicians, etc. when attempting to visualize success and calm their nerves down. To me, it’s not so much about creativity as it is about performance anxiety. Hell, maybe artists just need to take the creative pressure off themselves and accept work that’s less than perfect. Easier said than done, I know…

    Your comments about how, thousands of years ago, people used to perceive new ideas as though they came from the gods is fascinating, though. It sheds a different light on religious experiences, doesn’t it?

  13. I feel the question of where creativity/inspiration/genius comes from may be the wrong question. (Just as I think “Is There A God?” is the wrong question). A distraction. When I worked with writers I always encouraged them to think not about the source of their creativity but the practices in their daily life that encouraged it. My personal recommendations are F-R-E-E-Writing and Inspiration Meditation, together with long walks and long baths. Each of us must find our way own and whether the source brain neurons and synapses or a Creator God is, frankly, unknowable. Part of the great mystery of life. And, for me, best left there.

  14. One point that I think gets lost in the “everyone is creative” line of argument: I believe creativity is “work” – and just like any other kind of work, there are people who are drawn to it and people who are not. There is a stereotype that people who identify themselves as “creative” are simply narcissistic or nonconformist. However, it’s been my experience that many people actively dislike creative WORK and the environments that nurture it. In particular, “incubating” behavior – whether just sitting and thinking or doing something other than the work at hand while ideas percolating – is punished, and seen as laziness, in many workplaces.

  15. Just thinking aloud here, but watching the video made me wonder if there’s an alternative to the view of a genius as a kind of supernatural collaborator… one that would say that genius is an emergent property of the interaction between a creative person and his/her circumstances, environment and implicit/explicit collaborators.

    This would tie it in with the cases where a whole bundle of “geniuses” all seem to emerge out of the same place and time — what Brian Eno describes as collective “scenius”, as outlined in this Kevin Kelly post at http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/06/scenius_or_comm.php (which, Mark, you’re bound to explain patiently that you’ve already mentioned before…;-)

  16. Thanks everyone for the fascinating comments. I had a feeling this one would stir up debate!

    @ Linda — was it this quotation by Somerset Maugham?

    I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.

    One of my favourites. 🙂 And in response to your question…

    Is creating work, hard work even? And does using that word taint the process?

    … I’d offer another of my favourite quotations:

    Work is more fun than fun.
    (Noel Coward)

    @ Adrian —

    I think part of our work as creative people is to try and bridge the gap between your dreaming/subconscious mind and the waking one.

    Good point. Which is why taking lateral action is often anything but a straightforward productive process.

    @ Chris –

    Your painting is none of your business.

    Very nice. I’m a sucker for paradoxical advice!

    @ Rosanne — having worked with lots of professional writers and having written professionally for a number of years, I can assure you it most certainly does not always come easily. 🙂

    @ Mark — Thank you as always for your perceptive comments. Like you, I don’t personally spend a lot of time wondering where my inspiration ‘comes from’. I’m usually grateful that it comes at all! And judging from her talk, I think Elizabeth Gilbert would agree with you that her idea of Genius is a practical measure to help her relieve some of the ‘creative pressure’ that comes with success and get back on with her work.

    But I’d question your use of the word ‘delude’. When you say Gilbert is deluding herself because you are ‘sceptical of “divine inspiration”‘, I’d respectfully suggest you are barking up the wrong tree. It sounds like you are barking up The Tree of Truth, gazing into its tangled branches and trying to decide whether she is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Whereas I think Gilbert is barking up The Tree of Usefulness, looking for an idea that will help her get her next book written. Because the ideas she’s inherited from contemporary culture are getting in her way. To me, her tone sounds ‘playfully serious’ — i.e. entertaining an idea and inviting us to consider it, rather than presenting it as ‘the truth’.

    And when you talk about the use of rituals to ‘quiet down the inner cacaphony’ and ‘calm their nerves down’ it sounds a bit like the voice of (Renaissance/Englightenment) reason trying to quell those unruly emotions and take control. I’d suggest there is more to rituals than calming and quieting things down. As I said in my article about creative rituals, they also stimulate powerful emotions to produce a heightened state of consciousness for creative performance.

    @ Orna – As with Mark’s comment, in one sense I completely agree that asking where ideas ‘come from’ is the wrong question. i.e. if it’s asked as a speculative question it can be a distraction from creative work. And I endorse your excellent advice to creators to ‘to think not about the source of their creativity but the practices in their daily life that encouraged it’.

    But funnily enough, the reason I wrote about Gilbert’s video is that in her case, it’s evidently more of a practice in her daily life than a speculative distraction. What really interests me about the video is the way she incorporates her ‘Genius’ as an integral part of her work process (e.g. in the imaginary conversations) and especially the way she uses it to make sure she’s fully focused on her work, with no excuses for shirking ‘her job’.

    @ Mark and Orna – I think the key to our points of agreement/disagreement is how we view personal beliefs. If we look at them as statements about ultimate reality, then we could be here for a long time discussing whether or not Gilbert’s beliefs are ‘true’. But I sense that, like me, you are more interested in ‘what works’ than what may or may not be the nature of reality. So I’d invite you to consider beliefs as practical tools, which may be ‘useful’ or ‘not useful’ (as far as creative work is concerned) rather than right or wrong. It strikes me that this is how Gilbert uses her own beliefs — I like her playful, mischievous tone, and the way she holds the ideas of Genius and inspiration lightly, trying them out to see whether they deliver better results than her old set of beliefs. In her case, evidently they do.

    @ Barbara –

    I believe creativity is “work” – and just like any other kind of work, there are people who are drawn to it and people who are not.

    Nicely put. And the bit about perceived ‘laziness’ in the workplace.

    @ David — Wow thanks for the Eno link! I hadn’t seen that. I’m tempted to describe the concept of ‘scenius’ as absolute genius — but I’d better resist. 🙂 I can feel another post coming on…

  17. @Mark – “delude” might not be the correct word, but, looking at it from Gilbert’s point of view, in the wording that she used in the TED talk, it seemed to me that she was consciously pretending to believe in some form of divine inspiration or external source of inspiration to take some pressure off herself. Maybe I misinterpreted her statement, but that’s what I took from it.

    You sure do know how to write an intriguing blog post. 🙂

  18. Linda Hough says:

    YES! Thank you. That is exactly the quote I’ve been looking for. And I love the one on work too.

    After reading this, I’ve decided to define work for myself as ‘focused intention’. And I’ll add in the fun bit too.

    When I find that I’m feeling it is hard, I’ll now switch to thinking of it being more fun than fun.

    Great discussion.
    Linda

  19. @Mark Dykeman – I have to tend to agree with you. The first time I watched this video it had me scratching my head. On the one hand, the idea of not being fully accountable for crap work is very appealing, but on the other hand, if in order to do that I need to assume that the quality of work is outside my control, I wonder if it’s worth it.

    The idea of continuously creating while hoping that my genius will do his end of the work is a de-motivator. It also detracts from the idea that a person who works hard at something can improve. Every word I write makes me a better writer. Every photo I take makes me a better photographer. According to Gilbert, that’s wrong. Every word I write is jut another word, and every photo I take is just another photo. Until, that is, my genius comes along and sprinkles fairy dust on it.

    So, as much as I’d like to avoid responsibility for the garbage that I have produced (and will inevitably produce), I would rather see it as a learning experience than work for work’s sake that was not blessed by my muse.

    Besides – it feels really awesome to take credit for a great piece.

  20. I think we must be careful not to confuse the idea of “genius” with some combination of TALENT and INSPIRATION. One needs a certain native talent to be a good writer. Then comes the hard work of honing our craft. Only after THAT can we grasp inspiration (from a Muse or otherwise) and wrestle it onto the page.

  21. I’m a big believer in the creative power of the subconscious mind, but find this idea has fallen out of favor in recent years – or at least no one has advanced it in a compelling way (until now!).

    Whether you consider your muse to be coming from angels or spirits (externally), or the unseen powers of the subconscious (internally), the fact remains that you must believe in this process, and give your muse jobs to do, problems to mull over. If you dismiss this idea, then chances are you are starving your creative fires. Your loss!

    Secondly, when ideas and intuitions bubble up, you must capture them before they get away – as the late Earl Nightingale described it, you must “gaffe them on the point of a pencil.” Otherwise, they will retreat back to the murky depths of your mind – or as poet Ruth Stone so colorfully described it, the rumbling “train” of thought will pass you by and disappear into the distance.

  22. @ Adam – Thanks for sharing your thoughts and expanding on them in this great post: http://52shortstories.blogspot.com/2009/03/external-genius-vs-internal-genius.html

    I like your emphasis on working hard and taking responsibility for the results – while I would argue that Gilbert does the same in a different way, it shows that where creativity is concerned there are plenty of ways to skin the cat!

    @ Chuck – love the ‘gaffe’ quote!

  23. what a thoughtful and well-written piece. I have certainly experienced an interaction with creativity and inspiration much more akin to a conversation with another person than akin to an internal thought process. It can be disturbing, but I agree with the idea of believing that which is necessary for keeping you sane. I loved her talk; thanks for posting.

  24. Thanks Christian – disturbing but exciting, like so many of the best things in life. 🙂

  25. Interesting essay, I’ll have to watch the video you’ve posted. However you may have misinterpreted Jaynes. Jaynes never suggests the voices were from *actual* gods or spirits — he believed that hallucinations originated in the right hemisphere but were heard and *interpreted* as being externally generated (chief, king, ancestral spirit, god, etc.) by the left hemisphere of the bicameral person. It would be more accurate to say the “second part” (right hemisphere) generated the voices, not “received” them. So to say “Jaynes took divine inspiration seriously” I think is somewhat misleading.

    By the way for those interested in more on Jaynes’s ideas, there’s a great new book out called “Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited” edited by Marcel Kuijsten…

  26. Jaynes never suggests the voices were from *actual* gods or spirits

    I never suggested he did. As I say in the article, he was talking about one part of the mind speaking to the other.

    It would be more accurate to say the “second part” (right hemisphere) generated the voices, not “received” them.

    In the article ‘the second part’ refers to the left hemisphere, which ‘received’ the voices.

    So to say “Jaynes took divine inspiration seriously” I think is somewhat misleading.

    Those words don’t appear in the article. What I said was ‘[Jaynes] seriously entertained the idea of divine inspiration’ – meaning that he was prepared to consider it as a genuine (albeit highly subjective) aspect of human experience worthy of scientific investigation.

    So I think we are agreed on what Jaynes was saying.

    I noticed the Kuijsten book recently and was wondering if it was worth reading. Thanks for the recommendation – I’ll add it to my wish list…

  27. What a great post! I’ve come to it late via an answer to one of my comments. I have a vague recollection of Bicameral Mind being mentioned in a college class, but I’ve never read it. Now I’m intrigued. I’m going to have to go through the archives on a more systematic basis. I really like your articles.

  28. An awesome perspective into this talk, and how hard she worked at it to make it sound so light and conversational: http://sivers.org/sprezzatura

    As Steven Pressfield wrote, your muse has to find you working!

  29. I recall that my math- logic professor in 1977 brought Jaynes’ book to class and we discussed it. I later read it. He pointed out 18 flaws in logic, showing Jaynes book as a sophistic polemic for atheism. In retrospect, I believe Jaynes and Gilbert are describing the same phenomena: Jaynes says our brain sides stopped communicating–an evolutionary, essentialist explanation. Gilbert says we just stopped listening–a humanist explanation. I side with Gilbert.
    Excellent synopsis of Gilbert’s talk.
    Dr J.

    • Thanks Jerome. Re ‘sophistic polemic for atheism’ I was intrigued to see that Richard Dawkins is quite happy to entertain Jaynes’ thesis, so it looks like there’s something for everyone in his work!

  30. Creativity is just one wondrous rung of the ladder-totem of expanding consciousness evolving to include a greater experience of the All. This leads to Being- not creating commodities for art galleries or book stores- that’s capitalism limited to the ego- which is ok I suppose for necessary survival benefits in the material world, but so very limiting finally. Folks can get stuck at this point unfortunately in the post industrial western world…freedom to be is the ultimate portal that is uniquely defined in each individual life experience if we have the courage to be wide open to it…