To Swallow the Sun

Several months ago, I stumbled upon a talk given by Elizabeth Gilbert, the acclaimed author of “Eat, Pray, Love.” I began listening to this talk casually, thinking it would be a nice way to spend eighteen minutes- However as Gilbert's talk progressed, I began to feel the gravity of her words. They pressed down upon me deliberately and fearfully- I shook, I wept, and then there was a sort of calm; a peace in knowing that my own anxieties are shared by so many other creative minds. A peace in knowing that I can cast off my own perceived insanity to stand in illuminated solidarity with my struggling comrades. For the past several months, the words of this talk have haunted the cobwebs of my mind. They have settled there, they've taken root, and they are beginning to shape the way I see and think more than I could have imagined. 

I had no idea that eighteen minutes could change my life.

I don't want to imbue Elizabeth Gilbert with the sole responsibility of this metamorphosis; I do however credit her for so gracefully articulating the tempest of anxieties I've been battling through the entirety of my creative career. For the past several months I've been meditating on this talk- and now, out of necessity, I will feebly attempt to relate it to my own experience as a maker.

I am a maker. 

I'm sure this identity is something unheard of to you, my loyal readers, who are not in the business of being creative. A quick definition: A maker is someone who creates out of the desperate need to create, be it art, music, dance, or otherwise. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing at all wrong with being a non-maker. In a recent interview, I stated that “I'd much rather be a rich lawyer- I am an artist simply because I have to be. I have no choice.” So, I am infinitely jealous of you who can enjoy a stable job doing math and science and business. I am jealous of your inevitable comfort. I am jealous of your fearlessness.

In the words of Mrs. Gilbert, “When I first started telling people -- when I was a teenager -- that I wanted to be a writer, I was met with this same kind of, sort of fear-based reaction. And people would say, 'Aren't you afraid you're never going to have any success? Aren't you afraid the humiliation of rejection will kill you? Aren't you afraid that you're going to work your whole life at this craft and nothing's ever going to come of it and you're going to die on a scrap heap of broken dreams with your mouth filled with bitter ash of failure?'...Yes... And I don't recall once in [my father's] 40 years of chemical engineering anybody asking him if he was afraid to be a chemical engineer.”

So what is it about creativity that we are so afraid of? Why do we stand alone before a room full of our peers to be voluntarily criticized for the work we have created? I'm sure you marketing majors have never cried after a failed pitch for an ad campaign. You see, the ad you have created may be filled with innovative brilliance, but it is not filled with your sweat and blood. It did not erupt from your core to take possession of your pen.

Makers are so personally tied to their work that there often ceases to be a distinction between the person and the piece. This is a historically deadly line to blur- makers have a dark history of violence and mental instability. The pressure placed on an artist by himself and by society is often unbearable, “like trying to swallow the sun,” and sometimes that artist simply breaks under the pressure. He goes on to cut off an ear or to reign a Third Reich. So, if we have no choice but to be an artist, what optimism is left in our profession?

 Mrs. Gilbert offers a buffer: 
“[In] ancient Greece and ancient Rome -- people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then...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. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity "daemons." Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar. The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist's studio”

There it is. That's the thing that has been unexplainable to me for years. This is exactly what I need to function; this is a loose theology that I have since chosen to accept and personify. This is something I have spoken to very few people about, because it makes me feel crazy, inarticulate, and helpless to describe. So, for the first time, here goes.

It started in high school, when I was first graced by this paranormal thing Mrs. Gilbert calls genius. I don't mean that my work was particularly good, or that I think it was a sort of transcendent masterpiece; I mean that this was when I was first possessed by something uncontrollable. Not demonic, but rather brilliantly optimistic. I had been working on a tedious painting in my parents' basement, crying over some forgotten teenage woe, when it struck me. It felt like something swept through me from behind and breathed into my heart, inflating me with passion and understanding. With my hands I smeared paint across the drawing I had been so careful about. I created something entirely new, entirely outside of myself. Ever since then I have often been graced by the same indescribable force, that cock-eyed genius in my walls. Sometimes he stays with me for days- I know my friends can sense the difference in me. And I can always feel him coming, and I am never without a pen and paper exactly because of that. My room is filled with blank canvases waiting for his touch.

I realize this sounds like madness. In my fear of being called crazy or worse, I have kept the details of my perpetual possessions private until I heard Gilbert's talk. Since then, I have timidly admitted this to a select few of my most trusted and respected creative associates- and they have admitted to similar if not identical feelings. 

Mrs. Gilbert relates the words of American poet Ruth Stone, “When [Ruth] was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, 'run like hell.' And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn't be fast enough, so she'd be running and running and running, and she wouldn't get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it 'for another poet.'”

That is my creative process to a tee. Later in the talk it is revealed that even Tom Waits shares a similar approach to creating. So, this possession, this uncontrollable need to create seems to both haunt and grace creative people across the spectrum. Call it talent, call it inspiration, call it daemon, call it God, call it genius. It has chosen us to be makers, and that is why we do what we do. We have no choice but to oblige.

My genius and I have grown to be quite familiar with each other. He tends to show up to work around 1am, which is rather inconvenient for me, but I manage to compromise. Some days, when I face an insurmountable wall of creative block, I call out to him. Sometimes he answers. Most times he won't bother. He loves to show up the night before something is due, light me on fire from within, and prevent me from sleeping while I create something spectacular and A+ worthy. Sometimes he won't show up at all and I am forced to submit some uninspired slop, “but I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.”

Yes, I realize the insanity of “basically fairies who follow people around rubbing fairy juice on their projects.” I don't believe in a specifically personified gnome who lives in the walls of my studio, but it is the best description I can give to something that I have been unable to put my finger on. I can simply laugh and shrug my shoulders, and accept the inspiration when it strikes me.


Kate said...

Ya know I never really thought about that inspiring little creature living in the walls. I've only been allowed to experience his presence a few times since entering the art world, but I know exactly what you mean and can completely agree with you in the truth of this "genius". This was written beautifully and I have deeply taken it to heart.

Anonymous said...

Right on, everyone has the potential to tap into their genius. Some master the process and are called "super-geniuses."

"I can simply laugh and shrug my shoulders, and accept the inspiration when it strikes me."

There's a blurry line between genius and insanity. That's worth keeping in mind so "tangent space madness" can be avoided as best as possible. Hehe.. But yeah, anyway, I would suggest finding out what things specifically stimulate your process of inspiration. Once identified, you might be able to modify them to better suit your needs
(ie. schedule).

I like your paint-drawing and your blog. You're an excellent artist.

Anonymous said...

I work with Savanna. I want to tell the world - Savanna has the wind in her..I think the readers here KNOW what I'm talking about.

Anyway, TO: Elizabeth - WELL SAID
TO: Savanna - Walls that let LIGHT through,,,very cool.