About a week ago I let myself get distracted from writing with a “quick look” at Facebook. Half an hour later I was watching Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on creativity and the creative genius. It is very much worth a watch, so if you want to take a moment to do that before you finish reading this post, I’ll totally understand. If you don’t want to, I’ll get to the most salient point as quickly and with as much eloquence as I can. Gilbert begins by talking about the crippling fear faced by artists when they sit down to work on a new project, especially in the wake of success (in Gilbert’s case it was with Eat, Pray, Love, a mind-boggling success that took her by surprise). This fear can understandably inhibit the creative process and has been known to drive artists mad–or at least to drink and do drugs. In order to combat this fear, Gilbert began looking for ways to understand the creative impulse, what we sometimes call genius, and she raises the marvelous possibility that genius is not something that comes from within but is something external to the artist, something that can be invited into the room to give the artist a little help, like, as she says, Dobby the house elf. There’s more to this TED talk, so you really should watch the video when you get a chance.
After the video ended, I finally pulled myself away from the Facebook and went back to work, inspired and relieved. I did a little experiment and extended an invitation to Dobby the House Genius to join me. Ralphie, my dog, was curled up on one end of the couch, but there was ample room for Dobby on the other. And damned if the writing didn’t go just a little bit smoother. The slog was a little less sloggier. I didn’t feel tortured at all, which got me to thinking about something that I’ve been thinking about for some time: a mixture of images and ideas that are best described as the portrait of the artist as a tortured soul, so burdened by the weight of his genius that he goes mad.
When I was younger–in my teens and twenties especially–this portrait fascinated me. There’s just something so special, I thought, about that artist so driven to do his or her work, so driven by his or her genius, that they can be held apart, distinguished, as somehow better than other mortals. Somehow less mortal. It’s a seductive image, especially for an adolescent, because, among other things, it gives permission for a lot of very bad behavior. “I’m an artist. I commune with the divine. I don’t have to live by bourgeois rules.” Who doesn’t want to have permission to say something like that? From the other side of forty, however, I can see quite clearly how that is not a very healthy idea, how, no matter the distinction it brings, genius is not a burden I wish to bear.
But when I was a freshman at UCONN, I reveled in that image. Early in my first semester, I took some time one afternoon to craft a sign to hang on my dorm room door whenever I was writing a paper. First I wrote (in as elaborate a script as I could manage–we didn’t have computers in our rooms back then) “Abandon hope all ye who enter.” Then I poured coffee over the sign and hung it to dry. Later I charred the edges with my friend Paula’s cigarette lighter. I was very pleased with my sign, not just because I had made it myself but also because it was an awesome prop in my ongoing performance of being a Writer. The purpose, of course, was to let everyone on my floor know that I was WRITING and that things could get crazy because that’s what happens when someone is WRITING. I embraced this role because I thought that’s how an artistic person should act, and I was nothing if not an artistic person. I cringe now to think about it, and I realize that I had very indulgent friends, especially my roommate Kim, who happily studied downstairs in the cafeteria so I could write in our room. No one laughed to my face about my pretension. They just kind of took it in stride.
Of course, behind the door with my awesome sign, I was doing the work. I didn’t just sit at my desk, pulling out my hair. Fueled by coffee and chocolate, I wrote draft after draft of my papers, crossing out lines, cutting bits and pasting them–or taping them–to other bits, and then when it was ready, typing the whole thing to be turned in. Without really understanding it, I was actually doing my duty as a writer. For, as Gilbert makes clear, that is the artist’s only job: showing up and doing the work–sitting down to write and writing, no matter how awful or wonderful the words, bringing paint brush to canvas, warming up the body to dance, running lines before a rehearsal or performance, whatever the work, it is the artist’s job just to do it. Genius belongs elsewhere, to Dobby, or to whatever one chooses to envision. And that is a remarkably freeing idea for a type-A-must-get-it-right-and-be-perfect person like me.
It was freeing for Elizabeth Gilbert, too. While she was deep in a draft of the book after Eat, Pray, Love (or maybe it was that one, I can’t remember), she looked up from her work one day and addressed a corner in her office, saying something like, “I showed up. I’m here doing the work. So if this sucks it isn’t my fault.” That moment helped her turn a corner and actually finish the book. Whether her genius showed up or not didn’t really matter after that.
The one problem I have with Gilbert’s notion of genius is that she connects it to the divine. To me that connection undermines the whole pressure-relieving notion of genius as separate. I don’t want to worry about a deity occupying any corner of my house. How am I to keep from taking myself too seriously if I believe that God has taken some time out of His busy day to make sure that my writing doesn’t suck? Isn’t that the point of removing the burden of genius from myself–so that I can get on with my work and not be so tortured? Besides, I’m not a big believer in gods.
As a reaction against this invocation of the divine, I’ve been refining my vision of the genius that I welcome to my office every day, searching for something a little earthier, a little baser. So now I imagine a combination of Dobby the house elf and Tom Hulce from the movie Amadeus: it’s helpful like Dobby, but also crude and irreverent like Hulce’s Mozart. When I sit down to write, I invite this Dobby Mozart to join me. While I’m slogging away, my genius is sitting on the couch with Ralphie. Looking out the window, maybe, or watching me or just, I don’t know, geniusing. If, as I am going about my work, I start to take myself too seriously, my genius looks at me and pointedly scratches its ass.