Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Elizabeth Gilbert and Her Genius

I didn’t plan on this, but I think SLB is turning into Eat, Pray, Blog for the week. You see, I posted about food and words on Saturday because Elizabeth Gilbert made me hungry. Today, I’m moving on to a more spiritual, loose-goosy topic, again thanks to Ms. Gilbert. (The review—LOVE—will be coming soon.)

Let me backtrack a bit. I completely missed the whole Eat, Pray, Love wave when it came out in 2006. I was in the middle of my own journey, too busy with preparing for college and interning in Israel and saying goodbye to my friends to pick up a nonfiction book. Memoirs weren’t really my thing then. (How the 12 I currently have queued up at the BPL mock me now!) Even though I kept hearing about this book over the years, I never found time or incentive enough to read it myself.

It took me all of college to return to Elizabeth Gilbert. The summer after I graduated (which started me on my current journey), I caught her TED talk online and was completely enthralled by this magnetic, self-deprecating woman. Her talk was the push I needed to read Eat, Pray, Love. Do yourself a favor and spend some time with her. She has a point AND she did her homework. (The Harry Potter reference cemented my state of smitten.)

To recap for the non-watchers (shame on you!), Gilbert details the historical shift from “having a genius” to “being a genius,” particularly how it has impacted artists. The modern notion that “creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked and artistry in the end will ultimately lead to anguish” has caused a lot of pain. “Being a genius” puts the onus solely on one soul. If that genius artist fails, they can become self-destructive because they believe they are no longer a genius. However, classical societies understood that there was an intermediary, a daemon, a muse, a literal genius that lived with an artist. That creature spirit helped an artist create, so it was not completely the fault of the artist if they did not succeed. There was a partner to shoulder their blame and share in their triumph. This “psychological construct” made allowances for the magic and the large amount of failure essential to the creative process. The artist was the receptacle, the conduit, for the mysterious spark of the divine.

The idea of “having a genius” resonated with me because that is such a part of my process. There are times when I can stumble across an idea and say “Wow, that’d be really nice to put into a story! Someone should write that.” So, I squirrel that thought away in a Word document to wait for the right write moment that may never come. However, some stories sneak up on me and tap me on the shoulder. These ideas don’t let me put them away, the urgent whispers that flow into me from “a distant and unknowable source for distant and unknowable reasons.” I get a voice, a feeling, an opening sentence. If I’m lucky, I get a character. I don’t know where these things come from or why they come to me. They just show up and demand to be written.

When I’m writing, really writing, I feel like I’m channeling. Words spring to life from my fingertips, words that are mine and not mine at the same time. Nothing’s laborious when I’m doing it right. (The intense work of editing is always the same though!) When writing is difficult? Oh, boy! That’s when the fear can set in: “This is so great. I love writing. What a brilliant idea! I’m awesome. Hey…This is getting hard. I can’t find the right…thing. It stopped. I don’t know how to…WHAT IF IT NEVER COMES BACK!?!”

If I believed that this mystical source could dry up and go away, I would be seriously depressed. Over the years though, my genius and I have come to an understanding. I’ve learned that mine has a sense of humor. All I have to do is shower or do dishes or go for a run or try to sleep (read: put myself into a state that doesn’t allow me to write things down) to get it to whisper to me again.

I think we’re friends, my genius and me. I love that between my brain and this little spirit of inspiration, I can accomplish all I need to. So if you happen to see me talking to something that you can’t see, like Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye or Elizabeth Gilbert, just know that I’m either talking to G-d or to my genius.

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