A good friend sent me the link to a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love) on creativity and where it comes from. I like what Gilbert has to say about the way the idea of genius has changed over the millennia, and that what used to be considered a channeling of the muses has become something we consider internal to a person. Rather than saying he has a genius (a muse who speaks through him), we say she is a genius. The thing you produce then is part of you, and, of course, the need for it to be brilliant could paralyze you. I prefer to think, as Gilbert does, that we’re vessels for the ideas that come through us and it’s our responsibility to put them on our chosen canvas.
Gilbert also reminds us of the common belief that creativity is suffering, and I wonder if this has to be the way it is. I know, what about Van Gogh and the ear, and all those alcoholic writers, and the lonely garrets? What about Sylvia Plath sticking her head in an oven? Didn’t creativity just tear those people apart? Isn’t that how you know you’re creating, i.e. it’s killing you?
For me it seems to be the opposite. When I’m writing, I’m filled with excitement and energy. I lose track of time. When I lay down the pen or close the laptop, I feel fulfilled. There are few things in my work life that I would describe this way. Having to participate in a difficult meeting or converse with a very stuck coaching client are not events I look forward to. When I can turn the situation around, sure, it’s rewarding, and that’s why I keep at it. That feeling of using all of my skills and experience and applying them to a blank page, though, is uniquely exhilarating.
So, fellow creative people, is the suffering in the act of creating or in getting ourselves to the point of creating? There’s a subtle but powerful difference there. Once you cross that chasm, you feel compelled to create. What holds us back is of course that old nemesis, self-doubt. But think of it this way: if you knew that if you did a particular thing every day it would give you energy and make you happy, that this thing was virtually free and required only your brain, that you had all the skills to do it and that the more you did it the better you would be at it – would you do it? It doesn’t sound like suffering. In fact, not creating sounds far more anguish-producing. What am I missing out on if I don’t make room for art-making?
I’m working hard to honor the practice of creating every day. It keeps the suffering at bay, certainly, plus I find my muse will show up only if I do.
Leah and Carolyn
Writing Exercise: Start a novel. (I’m not kidding.) Put a character in a scene – at a party, driving somewhere, alone in a restaurant, anywhere – and take it from there. Work on it every day, a little bit at a time. Let the story take you where it wants to go. Observe how this simple act positively influences all the other aspects of your life.
NaNoWriMo novel writing word count update (as promised): 39,509 as of 11/21. Home stretch!