Category Archives: creative process

Daemons, Genies and Our Creative Muse

How do I continue to write after the freakish success of Eat, Pray Love?

So asks novelist Elizabeth Gilbert in this amazing 2009 TED Talk, as she confronts society’s anticipation on her behalf for a mental health breakdown when confronted with the potential to become a creative has-been.

What she was really asking is: what is the creator’s relationship to creativity?

Was she herself the source of the creative work that spoke to so many souls?

Or was she the conduit for the expression of ideas that came from a source outside herself?

She leads listeners on a tour of society’s expression of artists’ relationship to creativity. She begins with the ancient Greeks and Romans who envisioned genius outside of the craftsman, a deamon (Greek) or genius (Romans) who lurked like ghosts in the walls, entering the craftsman to find their expression in the world. Moorish dancers twirling in the night, sometimes elevated by a transcendant energy, a glimpse of God that led viewers to shout “Allah! Allah!” turned to “Ole, ole!” for bullfighters and flamenco dancers in Spain.

Back then, it was said: this creator “has” a genius.

In the Renaissance, when man became the center of the universe, it was said: this creator “is” a genius.

The pressure to be a genius, the pressure to continually be God’s transcendant expression of the divine on earth, is a bit much for a mere mortal. And so, she posits, you see the increasing link between creativity and the expression of mental illness, leading to the modern day conception of great artists as alcoholics and manic depressives, and the fear of a lifetime of instability associated with a commitment to a creative life.

When we remain simple humans, and genius is a companion that comes and goes, we are able to maintain our sense of self as ourselves.  This divine expression no longer is something we must express at every moment, but something that will come to visit us when it does. We make ourselves available to the daemons that visit us. And when we do, our daily labors provide the craft through which genius may be expressed to other mortals.

Beautiful. She takes the pressure off the writer to be anything other than a writer. We are no longer solely responsible for producing a work of genius. We just need to produce material, through which genius may choose to find its expression.

As someone who was paralyzed in writing after winning a college essay prize accompanied by a public prediction of “she will become a Pulitzker Prize winner in ten years!” this gives me the permission to return to writing, with no expectations for myself other than to write.

The Not-Not Me

In the second year of my college depression, I made a poster for my dorm room wall out of yellow construction paper, black permanent marker, and glittery nail polish.

“Not-Not,” it said in bold black letters, that sparkled in the light.

There was a definition underneath, that I’m not remembering.

Not-not was a term I stumbled across in my class “The History of Modern China.” As an ancient culture shifted and shook, and struggled to invent characters to fit ideas imported pell mell across the nineteenth century — justice, democracy, Marxism–the old world shattered and a new China was born.

Not-not. The opposite of nothingness. Not necessarily somethingness, but not nothing.

For someone struggling to adjust to a world marred with a new found void, I found the concept of not-not reassuring. I was not myself, as I struggled through my second episode of prolonged and deep depression, shocked by the loss of the me I had grown throughout life to know.  I was not not myself, for this was still me. But it was a different me–a slower, sadder me, who struggled to concentrate and express my ideas, who gained twenty pounds and inhabited a body that did not move like the one I had grown up in.

I was not me. Life was not worth living.

And I was not-not me. Life was not-not worth living.

Reading Francesca Milliken’s blog “The Not Me” that chronicles her devastating depression, makes me remember the college me who needed to know that not-not existed, who saw the sparkly writing on the wall and was reminded that there was a space between being and nothingness that could be inhabited and claimed by a word and life could go on.

I just google searched “not-not China” in an attempt to find the definition, and instead found a recent movie by Chinese modern artist Zhou Chen. In 2013, he made the film “I’m not not not Chen Zhou,” exploring China’s modern art world.

Zhou Chen proudly inhabits the space of not-not.  I first saw his work a few years back in the National Art Gallery in Washington D.C.  On the ground were ancient Ming vases. Next to them were ancient Ming vases covered in cheap modern house paints. Nail polish bright colors with McDonald’s logos, and a video and picture series of himself smashing the vases to the ground, and shards of the broken vases.  The ancient Ming vases that are treasures of modern China, now desecrated by Warhol-esque neon paint, become neither treasures of ancient China nor not-treasures of ancient China. They are not-not treasures of ancient China, and in the affirmative statement of opposite forms of being at the same time, express the not-not me who thinks these thoughts today.