I want to share this TED talk from writer Elizabeth Gilbert.
It was filmed in 2009, in between what she terms the ‘freakish’ success of her novel Eat, Pray, Love, and the release of her next book. She put the talk together whilst grappling with the knowledge that although she may have another forty years of work ahead of her as a writer, she may never again create a work that touches as many people as Eat, Pray, Love.
This wasn’t simply an internal fear or paranoia – Gilbert says that people often came up to her to ask if she was afraid; afraid that the highlight of her career may already be behind her, afraid of never again writing anything so successful, afraid of failure. And so she asks: Where does that kind of pressure leave someone with decades of work still left ahead of her?
The weight of that question, she suggests, has been responsible for the ruin of many artists over the past 500 years. In her words:
We have completely internalised and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked, and that artistry in the end will always ultimately lead to anguish.
It’s so true. The stereotypes of struggling creatives are perpetuated time and again.
The starving artist.
The alcoholic writer.
The drug-addled musician.
We don’t even stop to question these portraits any more, it’s as if the adjectives and nouns are bound together.
Gilbert says that she has been looking for models to help her find a way of avoiding the well-documented kind of artistic despair that results in reaching for gin at 9am in the morning. She has traced one model back to the ancient Romans and Greeks. It is the idea that the individual is not the fount of all creativity when they are engaged in their work. Instead, they are conduits for creative, divine forces that work through them to assist in the creation of their art.
The Romans called this force ‘genius’, and the Greeks called it ‘daimon’. It is the idea that the artist is a vessel through which creative energies, or divine forces, or the universe, or God, or mystical spirits, or [insert whatever other term you might wish to call it – ‘Bob’ might work best for you], can flow and help us to create works that are inspired, and ultimately greater than anything that we could have achieved on our own.
This idea provides the artist with both protection and some distance. They can’t take all the credit for great work, so narcissism and ego are diminished. Neither can they take all the responsibility for a flop. Creating art becomes a co-production – you and the Universe. Communities of ancient Greeks and Romans understood this. It took the pressure off individuals, gave them the space to work and create more freely. When the Renaissance came along and turned the world into one where the individual was the centre of the world, Gilbert argues that it wasn’t necessarily the best outcome for artists.
In late 2015, Gilbert released a non-fiction title called Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. I recently read the book, and I could see how her TED talk seven years ago was the beginning of a rumination about creative struggles, and how to get on with the business of living.
The book is part-memoir, part creative cheerleader, part permission slip (for those that need one), and wholehearted endorsement of the straight-up joy of letting go and allowing yourself to truly live a creative life.
Gilbert writes with such emotional honesty in Big Magic, it’s hard not to be seduced by her writing. As a writer who struggles with a ferocious inner critic and sometimes crippling fear of judgment, I found myself glued to much of what Gilbert had to say. The idea of divine creative forces at work certainly takes the pressure off – and has given me an opportunity to get to know my Muse a little better.
I saw Gilbert speak a few years ago at a writers’ festival, where she laughed about people saying Eat, Pray, Love was a ‘brave’ book to write because it was so personal (a memoir covering everything from her divorce to her cystitis). She admitted that she had no filter (and had to learn that it was ok to have an unspoken thought), and that the book’s ‘brave’ content was essentially what she’d tell the person standing next to her at a bus stop.
Whether it’s habit or bravery, the truth in her work is compelling, and the divinely bestowed creative forces that Gilbert spoke of in the TED talk are clearly at work in her. I don’t know if sales of her later books have, or ever will, surpass Eat, Pray, Love, but it matters none – her writing is magic.