05 August 2009


I just watched this TED.com video.* Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the recent popular book Eat, Pray, Love, explains a new way to look at creativity and the creative process. I've embedded the video below, but for those of you who don't have 19 minutes' worth of free time or patience right now, I'll sum it up: Creative types carry the burden of being expected (and expecting themselves) to be creative all the time. Creativity can seem like cutting parts of yourself out, a bit at a time, and being constantly burdened with producing at the cost of personal sacrifice. A better way to understand creative genius, according to Ms. Gilbert, is to appreciate that it comes from an outside source. The Romans referred to creative muses as Genius. These ethereal fairies may not really exist, but maybe another creative force does, and maybe it illuminates humans from time to time, giving us glimpses of the Divine. Reshaping our thinking this way takes the burden off of the writer, the musician, the artist, and gives back some credit where credit is due. This is, I think, a brilliant way to perceive the creative process.

Interestingly, the main point that I caught hold of while Ms. Gilbert was explaining this was not the idea that I need to recognize outer inspiration in my own creative processes, but rather that I need to put more emphasis on the efforts required of me to make that inspiration become something worthwhile. At one point in her speech, after describing what inspiration can be like, she counterbalances it with this statement:

I'm a mule, and the way that I have to work is that I have to get up at the same time every day, and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly.

This sentence hit me hard, and I realized that at times I neglect the fact that I have to work hard for what's important to me.

This may sound like I'm being harsh on myself. Or it may sound like I'm an idiot for not realizing that I have to work hard for important things. Please bear with me.

First off--I'm not an idiot. I've been familiar with the Law of the Harvest for quite some time, but I think that I sometimes expect to be able to set the terms of what needs to be sown. In high school I started to exercise in earnest. I remember coming to a decision that it was important for me to be in shape. But I would lift weights and run and do sit-ups and push-ups for maybe two weeks, then go stand in front of the mirror, bare from the waste up, and be totally unimpressed with myself. Where was the definition? Why was I still so soft? I had worked hard--really hard--for two whole weeks, with no visible results. It took several times of starting and stopping before I finally realized what was required of me and got into a long-term exercise routine that yielded a leaner body and more defined muscles.**

Second--I don't think I'm being too harsh. I do recognize that in spite of my occasional shortsightedness there are trends of knowing what's required of me and giving my all to get it done. I knew what it would take to become an Eagle Scout. I prepared for and carried out a hard-working two-year mission, learning Spanish throughout. I completed my B.A. and I'm nearly done with my M.A. Perhaps the key difference is that the things I know I need to put X amount of work into have some semblance of defined parameters. I knew from age 12 what I needed to do to achieve the rank of Eagle--it was outlined in my Scout Handbook. I know how long two years is, how long four years is, what courses I needed to take during those four years, et cetera. But nobody was able to tell me how many weeks of hard exercise it would take to get a line of definition onto my abs, and nobody has ever set out how many drafts I need to rewrite in order to produce a publishable account of my Great Uncle Ronald's sordid life.

The brilliant thing about Ms. Gilbert's speech and what it taught me is that it's nothing really new or novel. As I said, I know the Law of the Harvest. And it's not like every time I write something I just sit down and expect the light of creativity to illuminate my keyboard and stream art onto the screen. One of my favorite posts I've written for this blog is my reflections on seeing Dave Brubeck perform in New York. That post is the result of a writing process that involved some research, the transcription of portions of Ken Burns' documentary, and a few revisions and minor rewrites before I felt satisfied with my work, satisfied that it reflected what I felt and thought when I heard and saw Mr. Brubeck perform.

There's a point to all of this. Maybe I'm learning now that if I want to be satisfied with my paper on the anti-sell-out culture of ska, I need to become more of a mule. The creative spark was there--something inspired me to research a paper asking whether or not ska bands and fans really care about selling out or not. I must admit that it's a pretty cool idea and the foundation for a potentially great paper. But so far I haven't put the work into it that has been required. My biographical piece on my Great Uncle Ronald is pretty good, but I need to sweat and labor and barrel through it awkwardly to make it great and get it published. I eventually learned what it would take to get my body into shape. Maybe now I'm learning what it takes to really write well, and not wait for some brilliant idea to strike me and expect to be able to do it justice with a first draft.

*If you're not familiar with TED, it's worth taking a look at the site. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a non-profit organization that hosts an annual conference in the name of "ideas worth spreading." The conference consists of several short speeches given by leading writers, business people, scientists, et cetera, all of whom have something, supposedly, worthwhile to share. Some of the talks are definitely better than others. Like I said: worth perusing the site.

**Then I fell through a roof and injured my lower back, ruining that for the rest of the summer. But that's another story...