9/6/2009 4:19 PM
Somehow I missed the first wave of buzz for the book Eat, Pray, Love and its author, Elizabeth Gilbert. But one day while playing tennis and talking about writer’s block with a fellow musician friend (it’s less stressful talking about the frustrations of writing music when you’re hitting a fuzzy yellow ball back and forth), I heard about Gilbert’s speech on Ted.com.
A couple days later, while trying to write a new song, I was particularly frustrated, and I remembered to watch the video. Wow, what a relief. The first thing that struck a chord with me (and that pun is intended by the way; I’m a guitarist and a fan of striking chords) was Gilbert’s take on the “tortured artist” and how society provokes the fear of failure in creative people.
After Eat, Pray, Love became an international bestseller, people asked Gilbert if she was afraid that she’d never be able to top that success again. But long before that, people were fueling her fear, even when Gilbert first started writing: “People would say, ‘Aren’t you afraid that you’re going to work your whole life at this craft and nothing’s ever going to come of it, and you’re going to die on a scrapheap of broken dreams with your mouth filled with the bitter ash of failure?’”
Hilariously put. Gilbert admits that yes, she is afraid of that. But more importantly, she questions the reasoning and rationale for why fear is forced upon anyone pursuing a creativity-based career.
The suggestion that creativity and suffering are inextricably linked is ludicrous, and Gilbert really drives the idea home in her speech. To avoid heading down the path of the tortured artist who resorts to “drinking gin at 9 o’clock in the morning,” Gilbert started doing research to figure out how to “create some sort of protective psychological construct,” she says, “to find some way to have a safe distance between me as I am writing and my very natural anxiety about what the reaction to that writing is going to be.”
That protective construct was the notion that a musician (artist, writer, whatever) is not purely responsible for the success or failure of their creativity. Gilbert says that in ancient Greece and ancient Rome, people believed that creativity was a “divine, attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distance and unknowable source.”
We’ve all heard about the songwriting “muse,” and in the process of writing music, most lucky songwriters have at some point experienced creating a song that seemingly came from nowhere, as if they weren’t even present when it happened.
Having this muse or “genius,” as the ancient Romans called it, took a lot of pressure off of the artist. For example, Gilbert suggests, having a genius protects against narcissism: “If your work was brilliant, you couldn’t take all the credit for it,” she says. The genius also protects against failure: “If your work bombed… not entirely your fault. Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame,” she jokes.
Somewhere along the line of history, society’s beliefs shifted and people began saying that brilliant artists are geniuses rather than declaring that those artists have geniuses. In Gilbert’s view, that was a huge mistake.
I could go on and about Gilbert’s speech on creativity, but you have to hear it from her. Watch the video. It’s less than 20 minutes of your time very well spent. Every word of it is captivating and funny. And for all you artists/musicians/producers trying to hold on to your creative sanity, Gilbert’s awesome advice and anecdotes could be just the therapy you need.