If you are a creative person, you really owe it to yourself to take twenty minutes to watch this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert on nurturing creativity.
Elizabeth Gilbert — the author of “Eat, Pray, Love,” who I have had an intellectual crush on for awhile now — discusses the tendency for very creative people to get consumed or psychologically overwhelmed by the very act of doing what they feel they were put on this Earth to do — create art. Her solution? We should consider the notion that instead of people BEING geniuses, perhaps we are just here to provide a channel for genius to flow through. She says:
You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.
This talk blew my mind.
I completely agree. Completely. We have a hard enough time as a species with all of the problems and worry that we try to reassign to ourselves from others, and that alone is psychologically crippling. In this culture, we’re supposed to navigate through our own worry, doubt, and insecurity while also juggling our kids’, parents’, coworkers’, and others’ feelings and issues. Now think about if, on top of all that, that the thing that owned a large portion of your mind and soul — your art — if that thing you felt called to do above all others suddenly became a giant litmus test to judge your self-worth against. “I created genius once, so I can do it again — but better.”
It’s a lot of pressure.
One of my recent posts dealt with this same issue. I had written,
God, after getting so excited about this new piece, I suffered the most severe bout of ego-death I’ve ever experienced. For the first time EVER in my life, I questioned whether I was meant to be a dancer. What purpose does it serve? I had a moment where I thought, ‘Maybe I’m never going to get to the point where I can create something significant, no matter how hard I try.’
It’s a pretty shitty feeling. It’s a big, big responsibility feeling like you have the ability to connect with something profound, and wondering why you can’t always access it. Gilbert said it best:
In Spain, when a performer has done something impossible and magic, “Allah, ole, ole, Allah, magnificent, bravo,” incomprehensible, there it is — a glimpse of God. Which is great, because we need that. But, the tricky bit comes the next morning, for the dancer himself, when he wakes up and discovers that it’s Tuesday at 11 a.m., and he’s no longer a glimpse of God. He’s just an aging mortal with really bad knees, and maybe he’s never going to ascend to that height again. And maybe nobody will ever chant God’s name again as he spins, and what is he then to do with the rest of his life? This is hard. This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life.
I have never been a religious person. I was raised without any real mention of if there was a God or some greater being. And honestly, I’m not really sure I buy into the whole “supreme being” thing. In my later years, though, I have begun to sense some sort of underlying current or energy in how life marches forward, and I have absolutely no idea how to characterize it, identify it, or even talk about it.
But it doesn’t really matter, does it? Maybe this is just something outside my realm of comprehension. But what I DO understand, what I am familiar and acquainted with, is the feeling of connection something greater than myself through those rare moments of true surrender to dance. And in those moments, I feel something flow out of me that I simply can’t identify and, as a result, can’t take credit for.
When Gilbert shared Ruth Stone’s and Tom Waits’ stories on how art came to them, I felt an eerie connection.Yes, I have left a meal before to visit the restroom because I HAD to try to dance out a combination before the knowledge of it left me. Yes, when driving on long trips, portions of choreography will drift past me as I hear the music, and if you were to pass me on the highway, I would be frantically dancing in my seat.
Every artist has a very unique relationship with their art. I’m not going to assume I know how any other artist relates to his or her work, but I can tell you what it is like when I create. This talk inspired me to go through some old journals and things I’ve written. I stumbled across this journal from April that I wrote right after coming home from the dance studio:
“When I drove up, the doors to the building were wide open. It felt like a sign. It felt like a hug.
I walked into the studio. I opened my computer, didn’t bother to set up my camera like I usually do; I just put on my dance playlist and closed my eyes.
I felt the music in the very center of my bones. It curled through my toes and it prickled my scalp. I began to stretch.
And as I stretched every muscle, tendon, and ligament in my body, I loosened up. I let go. I gave my body completely to the music and just stretched. The stretching began to morph into movement, and then it melted into dance. There was no thought.
It felt so good. It felt intimate. I felt vulnerable. I felt like I was with a partner that knew every single way to make my body feel good…”
In that moment, I felt a connection and I felt like a channel for something slightly greater than myself. I go so far as to compare it to another PERSON that I’m dancing with. You can go ahead and think what I wrote was weird and creepy, but honestly, that’s what I felt. (And it’s my blog, dammit. I’ll write about what I want.)
Now, was what I danced that day pure, raw, genius that was the best thing belly dancing has ever seen and will ever hope to see? Oh, hell no. I am still training my body to be capable of expressing what I need to say. I have a lot of work to do. But Gilbert reminds me that moments like are to remind me that if I continue to work hard, if I continue to train, if I continue to put MY contribution into creating art — training and maintaining my instrument, my body — then maybe someday genius will visit me and I can really make something to share.
I’ll end with Elizabeth Gilbert again, since I’m not a writer, I’m a dancer.
And what I have to, sort of keep telling myself when I get really psyched out about that, is, don’t be afraid. Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment through your efforts, then “Ole!” And if not, do your dance anyhow. And “Ole!” to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. “Ole!” to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.