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?
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.
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 poet and creative coach.