Have you seen Elizabeth Gilbert at TED? The video has become a bit of a sensation on the web and if you watch it, you’ll see why. Ms. Gilbert is the author of Eat, Pray, Love. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design; it’s a nonprofit organization that brings together speakers from the arts and sciences and politics several times a year. Ms. Gilbert’s talk was a hit at the most recent get-together.
She was talking about the enormous and unexpected (to her) success of Eat, Pray, Love and how she was struggling with the pressure to follow the book up with something as good or better. What helped her, she said, was to jettison the contemporary concept that the artist is the genius who produces the work and go back to the ancient Roman idea that the artist has the genius (a Latin word). This entity is not ourselves, but something that lives within us–a muse or guardian creative spirit. Thus, Elizabeth Gilbert says, it’s not we fallible mortals who are doing the work, but some mysterious force within and beyond us. And that takes all the pressure off.
I agree. And I’d like to tilt the concept into a slightly darker channel.
What happens to us as artists when our personal lives have gone off the rails? When we’re lost or in trouble, when we’ve hurt ourselves or someone we love, when it’s three in the morning and sunrise feels like it’s never going to come?
In my own experience, some of my best work has been done when my personal life was totally underwater.
This seems to make no sense. How can we do good work when it’s all we can do to keep swimming? But we can. Weird as it seems, inner agony never hurt an artist or an entrepreneur.
The Muse is hardcore
The painter paints and the writer writes from a place that has nothing to do with the personal. Where do ideas come from? How do breakthroughs manifest themselves? This stuff is percolating at a level way beneath heartbreak, illness, deaths of loved ones, addiction, jail terms, being waterboarded. Even our crimes against others and ourselves are absolved on the level where creativity takes place.
The Muse, if she’ll forgive me, is kind of like a mailman. She makes her rounds every day, cruising past our offices and studios and peeking in the window. Are we there at our easels? The Muse likes that. She likes to see us taking care of business. And if we’re there with our hearts breaking or tears streaming down our cheeks, all the better. The Muse says to herself, “This poor bastard is true to me; I’m gonna give him something in return for his loyalty.”
And into our heads pops the solution to Act Two, the bridge to that song we couldn’t lick, the breakthrough concept for our new philanthropic venture.
I’m not saying pain is good. I’m not advocating screwing up our lives for the sake of art. I’m just lining up alongside Elizabeth Gilbert. Our genius is not us. It can’t be hurt like we can. It’s waterproof. Its heart can’t be broken. It’s going to send the next trolley down the track whether we like it or not.
In a way it’s kind of scary–the relentless, impersonal, almost inhuman nature of creativity and inspiration.
The good news is this: no matter how much pain we’re in, no matter how badly we’ve screwed up our lives, no matter what felonies we’ve committed, we can still find refuge in our work. Like the athlete who makes the decision to suit up, even though his grandfather or best friend has just died, we can have the game of our lives in the midst of excruciating personal agony.
Very interesting. I’ve read this about a number of great artists. They seem to thrive in the thick of tough times, artistically speaking. For some reason that’s not the case with me when it comes to creative writing. Difficult times create too much static for me to concentrate. The Muse, if and when she stops by, seems to do so when I’m focused, more relaxed and reflecting. Good music, like Hans Zimmer’s or John Williams’, seems to bring her on.
Creativity is freedom,but sometimes I think we feel trapped or were just not doing it right. I am so glad you wrote The War Of Art.
Ah, this is the perfect post for me today. I’ve been struggling with a feeling of mediocrity. After reading this, I realize there are no mediocre muses. Only genius muses. I have been a mediocre vessel, not giving my muse an opportunity to show its genius.
Thank you for this…. a subtle but huge distinction between being a genius and allowing genius to use you. No one has helped me understand creativity and genius more than Steven Pressfield.
Thanks again for stiring the pot and making me realize that I’m not in this creativity process alone. I loved Elizabeth’s talk and thought how great it would be to overhear a dinner conversation between you and her. Think about it! I’m still planning to be embedded in Iraq in November. Will keep you informed.
Thanks for the link to Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk. Very moving. Thanks also, of course, for The War of Art, very inspiring in that same replacing your wishbone with backbone kind of way.
Very good article. I think that at times the emotions and chaos are so great that to process them and go through them require a great release in the form of the creative process. It’s the need to create that sometimes doesn’t show it’s biggest intensity until something upsetting happens that makes alot of work created during these times so wonderful. It would be nice however not to have to go through the difficult times, but at least something productive can come of it.
Great post, Steven. Tangential to this, these thoughts remind me of an individual (not famous and not a writer) I knew and greatly respected who had very challenging life circumstances and who found solace in workaholism – it wasn’t a perfect solution as anyone who has known a workaholic can attest – but of all the -aholisms, it is probably the least harmful to those around one. I personally find that when my life isn’t all that I wish it could be, my work (my writing) is a great solace. The trick, as always, is overcoming procrastination and plunking oneself down to do the actual writing. I will keep this blog post – and the example set by my workaholic friend – in mind ongoing. Thank you.
Steven, I have called those personal struggles “Friction”. I love Friction and hate it at the same time. I have felt pure inspiration at the most trying times of my life. It seems my position in the Universe is revealed and deep within my soul I can find peace. Peace in the form of untainted truth not the kind of peace that sings, “happy happy, joy joy.” Truthful peace…my self deception or self images are shattered. I know at that moment the outcome of my folies. I may feel anger, embarassment, sadness or all at the same time. However, I know the truth. When this happens, from that spot deep within my soul comes the solution(s). The solution(s) don’t need revising. They don’t need consensus from outsiders. They have already been validated and I instinctively know it…it’s not a gutteral knowledge but a spiritual knowledge. I have no other way to get to this plane than through Friction. My problem…Friction is painful and I love the peace and all that comes with it as much as I hate the pain.
I appreciate being reminded of this. And, it is also true that you don’t have to be undergoing some personal suffering to show up to your work. Through hell or boredom, though all kinds of weather just sit down and start typing. That will get her attention . . that Muse. I am always enlightened by your posts. Thanks for stopping on Wednesdays to speak to us about these things.
I agree with your thesis. As an example, one of my favorite authors suffered the horrifying loss of a family member in a senselessly violent crime a few years ago, and the books he has written since have been dark, brooding, violent, and without question the best he has ever produced. I’ve discussed this at length with him via email and he allows that writing has become his way of exorcising the demons that torment him every day since his family’s loss.
Fantastic post and a fantastic blog. I’m a new RSS subscriber and look forward to seeing more!
Your blog is encouraging as I climb upwards from the black hole of depression!
[…] the starker and darker corridors of the creative life, consider Pressfield’s blog post “Personal Anguish” (Sept. 9, 2009), in which he references Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2009 TED Conference speech […]