Greater Minds: Elizabeth Gilbert on the Creative Genius

Elizabeth Gilbert is best known for Eat Pray Love  which, I’ll admit, I haven’t read. Successful as it is, it just doesn’t look like my kind of book and there’s more of my kind of books around than I’ll ever get round to reading. My own taste aside, her writing has touched a lot of people, and what she says resonated with me, especially as I’d just been writing about talent for last week’s post. She also made me laugh a lot, which is reason enough to recommend it in itself. As ever, please listen to the greater mind before reading the commentary wrung out of my lesser mind. Or just watch the talk and ignore the commentary:

There’s also a full transcript.

Fear of failure

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Zhu (CC / Flickr)

I found it easy to relate to what Gilbert said about the fear of failure when she was starting to write. Wondering whether anyone will ever read the words I was sweating over, let alone publish them. The conviction that I was writing the worst thing anyone had ever written since the first glyphs were chiselled into the first stone tablet. Gilbert puts it much better than me, but I think it’s something most of us who to create in any form, have struggled with.

What most of us haven’t had the chance to relate to is what Gilbert said about those feelings persisting after having achieved the sort of monumental success she has. Having said that, I felt I’d made a big step forward when my stories started getting published, and I felt the effort I put into developing my skills was validated. It increased my confidence, but it didn’t make me complacent. Once I knew I could produce something editors were willing to give space to, I wasn’t playing any more. I’d wanted to get better. Now I felt I needed to.

While I’ve only got my toes on the first rung of the ladder that Gilbert is at the top of, I can relate to what she says about past success being no antidote to anxiety. Good art never came from complacency. The anxiety comes from the pressure I put on myself to strive for quality.

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James Gordon (CC / Flickr)

Hence I find myself very grateful when Gilbert asked, ‘what is it specifically about creative ventures that seems to make us really nervous about each other’s mental health?’. I suspect the pressure to perform is a big part of it. Managing that pressure is like being a lion tamer. We can’t perform without the lions, but they’ll devour us if we don’t keep them under control. They are essential to our act, but we need to retain the ability to put them back in their cage and turn the key. If we lose control, they may not maul us literally – they’re only metaphorical lions after all – but they will follow us around until we find them sitting on the bed in the small hours of the morning, roaring words like ‘mediocrity’ and ‘past your peak’ at us. No wonder creativity has become inextricably linked in the popular mind with self-destructive behaviour, from Vincent van Gogh to Kurt Cobain.

Being a sceptic, I’m not convinced that creative types are actually more prone to depression, alcoholism and broken marriages than anyone else or if it’s just that their dramas tend to be played out more publically, but that’s by the by. It’s refreshing to hear someone of Gilbert’s stature challenging the idea that creativity is inextricably linked to misery and self destruction.

The genius of talent

Perhaps it’s because I watched this when I’d just pontificated about talent in a future post that I found myself drawing parallels between what I said about talent and Gilbert’s descriptions of creativity. I described talent arising from the subconscious, while she externalises creativity completely. However we think of it, it’s something we capture and negotiate with rather than build and control in the way we do with craft.

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Dawn Yilmaz (CC / Flickr)

Gilbert describes herself as ‘mulish’ in her approach, with the self-deprecation that infuses her whole talk. I relate to that description far more than I related to the anecdotes of her friends who chase poems across fields or hear music falling from the sky. If that makes me a mule, I hereby embrace my inner equid. I admitted the limitations of my talent last week, which is why I’ve had to put so much thought and effort into building a scaffold of craft around them. Perhaps that’s why I feel I can take more credit for my minor successes than if I depended entirely on talent. If talent is innate, I can’t take any credit for it. Or perhaps writing is just such a thankless occupation at times that I wring any excuse to feel good about it that I can.

Returning from the machinations of my lesser mind to Gilbert’s greater, the question she poses is not about where talent and inspiration come from but whether it’s healthy to see ourselves as geniuses or fools, taking full credit for our successes or failures as I did in the last paragraph. Alternatively, is it healthier to attribute the intangibilities of creativity to the genius in the walls or the song in the sky? It’s one of those questions we all need to find our own answers to.

I asked my own genius for a Socratic conclusion, or at least a pithy last word. Unfortunately he’d just read the part where I said I take the credit so he folded his arms and said ‘shan’t’. I’m going to send him deeper into his sulk by pointing out that he couldn’t do better than Gilbert if he tried. I’ll plagiarise the sentiments of a greater mind: if you’ve ever created, with pen, keyboard, paintbrush, voice, body or anything else. In fact, If you’ve ever even tried to create, you’ve achieved the part you can do: Olé to you.

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Posted in Greater minds, Wednesday Pontification
3 comments on “Greater Minds: Elizabeth Gilbert on the Creative Genius
  1. I’ve read some of EPL. Gilbert is competent and knows how to arrange experience to write about. She’s deep to those who live in the shallows, ie most people. Hence her success. She makes no claim otherwise that I noticed.

  2. DJ Cockburn says:

    Interesting way of putting it, and thanks for some insight from the book. I don’t know how deep she is but I know that if I ever manage to touch as many people as she has, I’ll count myself a successful writer.

  3. […] someone to box. More likely, he’ll end up on the sofa bingeing on X-Factor and hoping for his genius to return from its […]

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