Monday 21 June 2010

Musings on Creativity, with a little help from Elizabeth Gilbert

In the space of a week I have, quite literally, devoured two books by the wonderfully talented and inspirational writer Elizabeth Gilbert. Those of you who are familiar with the phenomenon that was Elizabeth’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love will recognise her name. She is a brilliant writer, an extraordinary woman, and someone I felt a kinship with from the very first moment I read her words. This kinship is not because we are both writers. What made me recognise my connection to Elizabeth Gilbert was the way we view the act of writing itself, the creative process, and how closely it links with divinity.

All artists, across all disciplines, often speak of an entity or thing that resides outside of themselves, a thing that helps their creative projects, that provides inspiration and, sometimes, drops the fully-formed work of art directly into their minds. Artists have described experiences whereby they feel they have become a channel through which art and creativity are manifested into our physical reality. I have felt this myself. When I am in the ‘zone’, you could say, when my writing is flowing from my mind down through my fingers and onto the page with almost lightening speed, I know that something else is working through me. Something outside of me is helping me, nudging me along.

As I’ve continued to develop both my writing and my spiritual life over the last few years, I’ve come to realise that these two aspects of life can not be separated. In fact, as Julia Cameron talks about so passionately in The Artist’s Way, art and creative pursuits are a spiritual process. Being an artist is a direct link to the divine. Artists work with the divine to create works of art. That’s the beauty of a creative life.

In a video I discovered on You Tube, Elizabeth Gilbert gives a thought-provoking speech about her belief that the artist is not a genius, rather the artist has a genius – that entity or thing that resides outside of them but who offers support and guidance during the act of creation. Elizabeth discusses this idea with reference to ancient Greece and Rome, where people believed creativity came from another source, not from human beings. “People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source.” The Romans called this “sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius.” The genius was the entity that provided creative inspiration to assist the artist in their work. Elizabeth goes on to say that during the Renaissance, when the human being became the centre of everything, “above all gods and mysteries”, people began to refer to specific artists as being a genius, instead of having a genius. This put a lot of pressure on one individual and “creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance.”

As a writer, I sometimes suffer from crippling self-doubt; it seems to come with the territory. I do not consider myself a genius, far from it. But I do feel pressure to write something brilliant, to prove my abilities. Yet something I have learnt of late, and something that Elizabeth Gilbert’s speech has given substance to, is that my only requirement as a writer is to turn up to the page and to write. That’s my job; to turn up, to commit to writing, and then to get out of the way. Because if any kind of creative energy is going to come through me from the divine source, the ‘genius’, that is waiting in the wings to assist me, I must be, first and foremost, open to it. When I step out of the way, stop trying so hard, stop trying to write the most perfect sentence ever constructed (which I say is an expectation placed on a lot of writers, even if only by their own egos) then a true act of creation can occur.

What Elizabeth Gilbert is saying in her speech was informed by the situation she found herself in, after the monumental success of Eat, Pray, Love, as she was trying to write her next work, with a world’s expectations on her shoulders. Would she ever write something good again? Could she ever top that success? And that’s when she realised; to have “the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up”, to continue to write was all she could do. Writers live a creative life; we must turn up to the page. But creativity itself is not something that comes from the self, from the individual. Creativity is larger, grander, than mere human existence. Creativity is spiritual, it comes from the divine.

If you feel so inclined, and have a spare twenty minutes, watch Elizabeth’s speech –


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