Writer’s Diary #18: Elizabeth Gilbert on Elusive Genius

Yesterday I watched a TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert about elusive genius. I came to the talk via a Paul Krugman article asking if Taylor Swift is underpaid. (Short answer: she is). To build his argument, Krugman notes Swift is the real deal, as evidenced by this Tiny Desk concert. It’s good. Listen.

A few minutes in, Swift observes:

Writing songs is strange because it never happens the same way. But sometimes, it happens in a way that feels like this weird, like a haunting that you can’t really explain. Like you don’t know where these ideas came from, and you feel like you didn’t work at all to write it. And that’s the best kind of song. There are most days you show up and the idea doesn’t, and that’s where craft comes in. You have to know the craft of it, and you have to try to scrounge your brain for something to write. It’s not always going to be inspired, and that’s okay. There is a really good Elizabeth Gilbert TED talk about that. It’s one of my favorite things to cry while watching.

I may have gotten my transcription wrong. Anyway, I dropped everything, and listened to Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk. It’s good. Watch. I took notes. I may have gotten them wrong, as well.

Gilbert begins by reflecting on the success of Eat, Pray, Love. The problem? What comes next? How do you top that? Or maybe you can’t, and that’s why we become tortured artists.

Norman Miller once said, she says, “Every one of my books has killed me a little bit more.” This idea, the idea of artistic creativity, leading to untimely death and depression.

“That’s the kind of thought that could drive you to drink a glass of gin at 9 in the morning.”

She rejects the idea of the tortured artist. “I want to keep doing the work I love. The question is, how?”

How do you keep doing the work without killing yourself? One way, Gilbert’s TED Talk explores is to create a protective psychological construct between yourself and your writing. She’s looked for models of how to do this, and turned to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The Greeks and Romans, she explains, didn’t see creativity as coming from humans. Rather, they saw it coming from divine companion spirit, a daemon, for the Greeks, and a disembodied spirit, a genius, for the Romans. Rather than seeing genius as an embodiment of a person, the Greeks saw it as something outside: a magical, divine entity. Ancient artists were protected from too much narcissism when they made great works. Everyone knew there was a disembodied genius helping them, a daemon in the background doing the real hard work. If the work bombed, it was the genius’s fault, not the artists. Useless daemon.

This was the case until about the Renaissance, Gilbert explains. In the Renaissance, with rational humanism, creativity became seen as coming from the self, from the individual. From then on, the artist was a genius, rather than the artist had a genius. For the artist, this lead to the idea that you are the source of the creativity of the unknowable mystery, rather than just being helped along a genius in the studio walls. That’s a lot of pressure. Did this pressure led to tortured artists for 500 years?

The creative process is not rational. Sometimes it’s something that happens to you. There is an American poet, [Ruth Stone] (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Stone), Gilbert explains, who told a story of growing up in Virginia, working in the fields, and then feeling and hearing a poem coming from a distance. It would come crashing down on her in the fields, shaking the earth, and Stone knew she had to run like hell to the house, get a paper and pencil, and write the poem. Sometimes she would walk slowly and miss it, and the poem would pass her by.
Gilbert describes her own process as different. Her approach is more mule like.

Mine is too.

We sweat and we work and we do the work. But sometimes we come up against that elusive genius.

How do you relate to Genius outside yourself?

Gilbert thinks of Tom Waits, that most famous struggling artist facing his demons. But as Waits got older, he calmed down, and he was driving, and a song came to him. Instead of getting anxious, he stopped that whole mental process of getting anxious and said, “Excuse me, can’t you see I’m driving? Do I look like I can write? Go bother Leonard Cohen.”

He saw, for the first time, that the creativity was external. This shift in perspective, Gilbert said, changed the way she thought about her work.

Writing Eat Pray Love, in the pits of despair, thinking this project was a disaster. Ready to throw it away, she remembered Waits, and she tried it.

She stood at the empty corner of her room, and said: “Look, we both know I am putting everything I have into this. If you want it to get better, you have to show up and do your part. My job is to keep writing.”

Did it work? Did it make her feel better? What if genius and creativity were outside of the self? What if the truly divine, the presence of God, the transcendent, were not the product of the individual, rational, human genius, but something other than oneself, something beyond our own control, something like the Greek daemon or the Roman genius. Not something you are, but something you have, sometimes. Mostly not.

This morning, on a walk, I tried it.

It was a terrible morning.

A morning not of writing, but of laundry, child care, and meetings, when I had a conversation with what I have come to think of as a knobbly, gnome-like creature assigned to my case who is an often unhelpful little creative spirit daemon who is never really there to help.

His name: Knobbly Toes.

“It’s not a good day, is it Knobbly Toes?” I say.

Knobbly Toes does not answer, of course.

It’s raining and I’m walking. I have a sore shoulder. I think I looked at the screen too much yesterday.”

“None of this is writing, is it?”

I imagine my gnomish genius Knobbly Toes walking in the grass where a few nights ago there were a thousand fireflies.


“So you know what I’m going to do? Genius,” I say to nobody. “I’m going to go home; I’m going to make a decaf espresso; I’m going to go upstairs; I’m going to write this Writing Diary as well as I can in an hour and a half, and then I’m going to have my meetings this afternoon and then I’m going to make toast and go for a walk.”


I do what I say.

I’m not genius, and I’m usually not tortured, but maybe talking to the little bugger will make things better.

It did.