I just watched a wonderful TED presentation by Elizabeth Gilbert about creating art. Gilbert is the author best known for her book Eat, Love, Pray which was then made into a successful movie starring Julia Roberts.
Gilbert is addressing the doubts and psychic turmoil that all artists are familiar with. If one hasn’t “broken through” to success, this angst takes the form of “I am completely without talent and everything I write (or compose, paint, perform, whatever – pick your poison) isn’t good enough to be called ‘crap’.” If one has broken through, as Gilbert did with Eat, Love, Pray, the agony shifts to “My best work is behind me, I didn’t really deserve that success, and I’ll never create anything remotely close to that quality again.” Sound familiar?
Gilbert’s persuasive theme is based on two ideas: The Greeks and Romans were smarter about such things; and, The Renaissance did it. For the Greeks, creative inspiration did not come from inside, it was visited upon you by a daemon. The Romans, as they did with so many Greek ideas, adapted this, changing “daemon” to “genius.” This Greco-Roman concept protected the artist: from narcissism and arrogance when the art succeeded (“I was only the vessel that delivered this beautiful thing; it originated elsewhere.”) and from despair when it tanked (“I only conveyed this turkey; it certainly didn’t originate with me.”)
But then disaster struck with the Renaissance. “Genius” migrated from an external source to an internal one. The artist was now both conveyor and possessor of genius. This mega-change imposed on the artist a pressure that turned out to be problematic and could become toxic. Flash forward to modern time and consequences are a fondness for gin at nine in the morning and countless other forms of self-destruction that artists have found.
Gilbert encourages artists to slough off some of the responsibility for creating art to an external source, to think more like those Greek and Roman artists. Just show up and do the work. If the muse visits you, be receptive and grateful. If the muse is nowhere in sight, show up and do the work anyway. If the work is less than stellar, hey, it’s not your fault, that damn muse didn’t show up today; I did my part.
For a playwright I suppose this means adopting Euripides or Aristophanes as a model and – sorry Willy – discarding Shakespeare. Seriously, Gilbert makes a lot of sense to me. Any artist in any discipline who watches this 19-minute presentation will have spent their time well.