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.