Wednesday, December 16

On genius, geniuses and the sources of creativity (and where oh where can I get me one?)

Lately, I have been watching some of the talks on the wonderful TED — Ideas Worth Spreading website. Most truly live up to their billing as "riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world".

A case in point is the one given by the writer Elizabeth Gilbert in February of this year. I embed the video below, although you may want to see it directly on the TED site so you can get the other background information on the speaker, the full interactive script and list of other talks (Elizabeth Gilbert at TED).

Titled "Nurturing creativity", her discussion begins by addressing the impossible situation many writers and artists are trapped in by the expectations placed on them by the public and, even more mercilessly, by the artists themselves. Very eloquently, humorously and with a gently self-deprecating wit, she traces this vexing dilemma back to the Renaissance age idea that equated genius with individuals and the belief that "creativity came completely from the self of the individual". This was a break from the concept of genius that held sway in ancient Greece and ancient Rome, where "people believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons".

And she advocates that we go back to seeing genius in this way, arguing that believing inspiration comes from daemons or geniuses outside of us takes the pressure off the artist, not allowing them to indulge in overly narcissistic self-congratulation when their minds are fertile and, more importantly, relieving them of the anguish that comes when they feel foiled and defeated by the "utter maddening capriciousness of the creative process". I find her very effective when she talks about writer’s block and the “pit of despair” into which writers are thrown by their own feelings of inadequacy.

Well, I won’t go on and on. She delivers these ideas so well that I will enthusiastically encourage everyone to see and hear the talk yourselves. Even though it lasts nearly 20 minutes, you will surely find her ‘performance’ richly rewarding.

One of the highlights is her description of meeting 90 year old poet Ruth Stone and hearing her explanation of how poetic inspiration would come to her as a young girl out in a field in her native Virginia. The poem would rush at her “like a thunderous train of air … barreling down at her over the landscape”. What ensues from this encounter between young poet and hurtling wind of inspiration is absolutely marvelous and not to be missed. This bit begins at around 10 minutes and 15 seconds into the video (but I urge you to see the entire talk). That is followed by a very funny anecdote illustrating how Tom Waits has learned to dispatch with his own elusive and tantalizing genies.

Although I find it riveting throughout, the talk actually gathers momentum as Gilbert nears the end of her discussion. She concludes the talk forcefully with a moving and original take on the old 1%–inspiration–99%–perspiration concept of artistic creation: no matter where we think it may from, wherever the “cockeyed genius” or muse of creation is to be found, the most important thing is the “sheer human love and stubbornness” you bring to the encounter with the elusive daemons of inspiration.

I can’t recommend this must-see talk enough. Check it out and let me know what you think.

The Nine Muses of Greek Mythology


  1. Although I've had a few poems rush at me like a thunderous train of air, most are products of sheer human love and stubbornness. Great post, LLL.

    I've got this old bottle here, and not a genie in sight.

  2. Good news about the genie, willow. That means xhe is up and about, perhaps off making history somewhere ...

  3. I am gonna watch this video! From your summary of it, I think I might agree with her.

    Xhe! I spot a "xhe!"

  4. By the way, in noting the 9 Muses, you should try out The Tenth Daughter of Memory.

    I'd love to see what you bring to the table.

  5. Now, be nice, Jeff. My first use of "xhe" and it was whispered to willow "sub rosa". You'll definitely enjoy the talk.

  6. I'll check out the tenth daughter of memory. Sounds interesting ...

  7. Watched it; liked it. Don't agree completely, but it's certainly a valid conversation. And it's definitely a must-see speech.

    Thanks for that!

  8. That's a great Elizabeth Gilbert talk. I saw it a while ago and liked it from the start.

  9. Glad you liked it Solitary Walker. I live in Spain and hope to see you sometime and somewhere on El Camino. Until then, we can cross paths on the blog trails.

  10. I began watching this video many months ago, and for some reason did not finish it. So I did not then hear the part about Ruth Stone or Tom Waits. I'm glad I came back to these 2009 posts and decided to listen to the whole 19+ minutes. I don't know, but I think I needed it, now.

    I wrote a poem back in the mid '90s, it must be at home in a manila envelope, called Night Poems. There are poems in the night . . . , and it goes on, I don't have it memorized. It's this idea, that the poems are out there, and they decide to bore down into the brain from somewhere in space. You have to flip the switch on in the bathroom quickly to write them down, or they might disappear. When I wrote it, I hadn't heard of this concept, but clearly I felt this then. Maybe I need to change my current meditative practice from going inside to listening to the air. Or, maybe it's a combination of listening inside and listening outside.


"Let us be silent, that we may hear the whispers of the gods" — Ralph Waldo Emerson
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