Your Elusive Creative Genius
THIS TALK WAS PRESENTED AT AN OFFICIAL TED CONFERENCE IN FEBRUARY 2009, AND WAS FEATURED BY TED EDITORS ON THE HOME PAGE, SPEAKER ELIZABETH GILBERT
Writing books is my profession but it’s more than that, of course. It is also my great lifelong love and fascination. But that said, something kind of peculiar has happened recently in my life and in my career, which has caused me to have to sort of recalibrate my whole relationship with this work. And the peculiar thing is that I recently wrote this book, this memoir called “Eat, Pray, Love” which, decidedly unlike any of my previous books, went out in the world for some reason, and became this big, mega-sensation, international bestseller thing. The result of which is that everywhere I go now, people treat me like I’m doomed. They come up to me now, all worried, and say, “Aren’t you afraid you’re going to keep writing for your whole life and you’re never again going to create a book that anybody in the world cares about at all, ever again?” So that’s reassuring. Is it logical that anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel they were put on this Earth to do? And what is it specifically about creative ventures that seems to make us really nervous about each other’s mental health in a way that other careers kind of don’t do? We writers, we kind of do have that reputation, and not just writers, but creative people across all genres, it seems, have this reputation for being enormously mentally unstable. I’m not at all comfortable with that assumption. And I also think it’s dangerous, and I don’t want to see it perpetuated into the next century. I think it’s better if we encourage our great creative minds to live. In ancient Greece and ancient Rome 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 Romans called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. 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, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work. So brilliant — there it is, right there, that distance that I’m talking about — that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work. You know, even I have had work or ideas come through me from a source that I honestly cannot identify. And what is that thing? And how are we to relate to it in a way that will not make us lose our minds, but, in fact, might actually keep us sane? Maybe it’s possible if you just believed that they were on loan to you from some unimaginable source for some exquisite portion of your life to be passed along when you're finished, with somebody else. Don't be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be.
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