By Rebecca C.
"Is it rational, is it logical that anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel they have been put on this earth to do?" (Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity | Video on TED.com) Elizabeth Gilbert is an experienced, talented writer that has a long time love and fascination for the thing she feels that she was put on this earth to do. The quote above is exactly why she stands before us on TED and talks about creativity and the pressure put on creators. She believes that what we have is a genius with us when we need it to do our best work, but we ourselves, are not geniuses. This proves itself as a fascinating topic and by the end of her talk, I found myself moved by this idea.
Elizabeth wrote the memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” which was her most successful book. It became a best-seller and whenever she saw someone who knew of her success, their reaction was peculiar. Everyone wanted to know if she was afraid and nervous about writing another book, "Aren't you scared that you won't be able to top that?" Elizabeth was then getting reactions as if she was doomed. Why is this rational? Why is this expected among creators, or even ourselves? Elizabeth questions the image of artists, writers and creators. Why it is that their profession is always thought of as driving people to insanity? Elizabeth then states that creative people in all genres seem to have this reputation for being mentally unstable, just from the death count in the 20th century alone of amazing artists who died young and often at their own hands. Even the ones that didn't commit suicide are mentally unstable at their own work. She then quotes from Norman Mailer, "Each and every one of my books has killed me a bit more." When we hear this though, we don't find it amazing or concerning that he is saying this about his life work because we have somehow come to bring creativity and suffering together as a common combination.
Elizabeth asks the audience, why would we want that? Is that okay by you? Ultimately, it is dangerous and grim and somehow if a creator does something wonderful, they then feel that their biggest success is behind them. Elizabeth being the new best seller writer that she is, then realized this, "I need to find some way to have a safe distance between me, as I am writing and my very natural anxiety about what the reaction of that writing is going to be from now on" (Elizabeth Gilbert). This led her to research and also to the great idea that she is sharing with us today.
In ancient Greece and Rome, people didn't believe that creativity came within humans. They believed something quite more extraordinary, that creativity was a divine spirit that came to humans from a wondrous, noble distance for noble reasons and the Romans called this 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, who would come out and invisibly assist the artist with their work" (Elizabeth Gilbert). This then protected you from the outcome of your work, and everyone knew that this was how it functioned so it protected you from narcissism (everyone knew you had a genius helping you, so you couldn’t take all the credit), and if your work wasn't good, it protected you from embarrassment because everyone knew you had a genius that could take some blame. The Renaissance then came and people started to put humans above all magical, mystery, god-like creatures and started to refer to this or that human as being the genius, thinking the creativity came from inside. Elizabeth believes that this was a huge error, stating, “believing that one human is the vessel and essence of all divine creative mystery is just too much responsibility” (Elizabeth Gilbert). She thinks that it creates egos and crazy expectations about performance and that it is this pressure which has been killing off wonderful artists for years.
“Some of you could raise really legitimate scientific suspicions of the notion about fairies following people around and I’m probably not going to bring you all with me on this, but the question I want to pose is, why not? Why not think about it this way?” (Elizabeth Gilbert). She connects with not only the people who would believe her theory but also with the people who would not, recognizing them and trying to persuade them as well. She brings up scenarios of paranormal feelings, such as when she met Ruth Stone, the poet. Ruth said that sometimes she would feel as though a poem was coming at her, and chase her until she found a pen and paper and wrote it down, but if it caught up to her, and went through her, she lost it. Elizabeth says that even she, in all her normality, has brushed up against this spirit.
She wants to find a way to relate to it in a way that doesn’t make us lose our minds, but does, in fact, keep us sane. Tom Waits, the musician, has handled this, as Elizabeth can say from interviewing him. He would hear music from a distant source, but would hear it while driving or doing something else inconvenient. Instead of keeping anxiety pent up from not hearing it at a time he could write it down, he would speak to it, tell it to “come back later!” He would put that anxiety of “I’m going to lose it” and “I’m not good enough” away and just be able to calm himself. Elizabeth wonders why our creativity needs to just come from within us or if it could be something of a conversation between us and some divine, magical thing that wasn’t quite ourselves. She tries it herself, when writing something that she was sure would be awful. She looked into an empty corner of the room and said, “Hey, you and I both know that if this is awful it’s not completely my fault. You can see that I am putting everything I have into this, and if you want it to be better you’ve got to show up and do your part of the deal, OK? If you don’t do that, then I am going to keep writing anyways because that’s my job. And I would just like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job” (Elizabeth Gilbert).
Elizabeth puts her heart into this idea and you can feel it through her body language as she often lifts her hands to her chest and brings them forward, as if she’s bringing something out, maybe the internal genius and placing it outside of her, where pressure is non-existent. She persuades people by the idea of why not? Everyone is pressured by something that they work on and she poses the idea of taking pressure off of them, taking a weight off their shoulders and making them feel better about themselves. She used rhetorical questions and interesting tones of voice to bring the audience to attention. She has honesty about her, and uses natural humour to display a fun-loving feel to her speech. When discussing why creative ventures cause us to worry about mental health when other careers don't, she says, "My dad was a chemical engineer, and I don't recall once in his 40 years anyone asking him if he was afraid to be a chemical engineer; get chemical engineer block, John?" (Elizabeth Gilbert). She used a tone of voice and an imitation to get a reaction of laughter out of the audience as she does throughout her speech. She uses real people who have witnessed this spirit genius, including herself, and gives quotes and examples to display the reality of the issue.
Near the end of her speech she mentions African tribal dancers, and how sometimes, they were given moments where they were absolutely magnificent, where people would chant “Allah, Allah!” which means “God! God!” as if they were witnessing a glimpse of God. “Allah, Allah” became “Ole, Ole” in passing years and is now used in bullfighting, when someone does something amazing and impossible. Well, that dancer would wake up the next morning feeling pain because he was not a glimpse of God anymore, just a normal person, probably with bad knees. The idea Elizabeth poses is this: maybe he wouldn’t have to feel so much anguish if he didn’t believe, in the first place, that this magic came from him and only him.
This is a fascinating idea and might be very difficult to believe for all people, but I think that it is a good one. I think that maybe, just maybe, if people thought about it this way, but in a rational way, that pressure to do something amazing, to perform better than your last piece of work, could float away. I am an art student; I put pressure on myself to make physically appealing pieces that are well done, but I cannot always manage to do this. I have put into action the idea that Elizabeth proposes in the past week and I find myself more at ease. I also have written poetry in my spare time as a hobby, and looking back at it now, I have had an idea pop into my head or a wonderful word or phrase that is perfect for what I have to say in a piece of writing or to describe what I am feeling. And who knows where that idea came from, popping out of nowhere. Did that idea really form inside of me? If it had, wouldn’t I have felt it coming, why so sudden? Was it a glimpse of something external?
We may have a genius within us but I believe we have a genius beside us. Elizabeth has made me realize this; that life and creativity are divine things, that we shouldn’t have this burden on our shoulders. That we should be able to live our lives knowing we have worked hard. Questioning it, believing in it, whatever you decide to choose, just keep doing your job, whatever it may be. As Elizabeth says, “Just do your job. If the designed cock-eyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts then Ole and if not, then do your job anyhow, and Ole to you none the less. Ole to you none the less just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up” (Elizabeth Gilbert).