The author of ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ Elizabeth Gilbert on Your Elusive Creative Genius at TED Talks – Transcript
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Elizabeth Gilbert – Writer
I am a writer. Writing books is my profession but it’s more than that, of course. It is also my great lifelong love and fascination. And I don’t expect that that’s ever going to change.
But that said, something kind of peculiar has happened recently in my life and in my career, which has caused me to have to sort of recalibrate my whole relationship with this work. And the peculiar thing is that I recently wrote this book, this memoir called “Eat, Pray, Love” which, decidedly unlike any of my previous books, went out in the world for some reason, and became this big, mega-sensation, international bestseller thing. The result of which is that everywhere I go now, people treat me like I’m doomed. Seriously — doomed, doomed! Like, they come up to me now, all worried, and they say, “Aren’t you afraid you’re never going to be able to top that? Aren’t you afraid you’re going to keep writing for your whole life and you’re never again going to create a book that anybody in the world cares about at all, ever again?”
So that’s reassuring, you know. But it would be worse, except for that I happen to remember that over 20 years ago, when I first started telling people when I was a teenager that I wanted to be a writer, I was met with this same 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?”
Like that, you know. The answer — the short answer to all those questions is, “Yes.” Yes, I’m afraid of all those things. And I always have been. And I’m afraid of many, many more things besides that people can’t even guess at, like seaweed and other things that are scary.
But when it comes to writing, the thing that I’ve been sort of thinking about lately, and wondering about lately, is why? You know, is it rational? Is it logical that anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel they were put on this Earth to do. And what is it specifically about creative ventures that seems to make us really nervous about each other’s mental health in a way that other careers kind of don’t do, you know?
Like my dad, for example, was a chemical engineer and I don’t recall once in his 40 years of chemical engineering anybody asking him if he was afraid to be a chemical engineer, you know? “That chemical-engineering block, John, how’s it going?” It just didn’t come up like that, you know? But to be fair, chemical engineers as a group haven’t really earned a reputation over the centuries for being alcoholic manic-depressives.
We writers, we kind of do have that reputation, and not just writers, but creative people across all genres, it seems, have this reputation for being enormously mentally unstable. And all you have to do is look at the very grim death count in the 20th century alone, of really magnificent creative minds who died young and often at their own hands, you know? And even the ones who didn’t literally commit suicide seem to be really undone by their gifts, you know.
Norman Mailer, just before he died, last interview, he said, “Every one of my books has killed me a little more.” An extraordinary statement to make about your life’s work. But we don’t even blink when we hear somebody say this, because we’ve heard that kind of stuff for so long and somehow we’ve completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked and that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish.
And the question that I want to ask everybody here today is are you guys all cool with that idea? Are you comfortable with that? Because you look at it even from an inch away and, you know — I’m not at all comfortable with that assumption. I think it’s odious. And I also think it’s dangerous, and I don’t want to see it perpetuated into the next century. I think it’s better if we encourage our great creative minds to live.
And I definitely know that, in my case — in my situation — it would be very dangerous for me to start sort of leaking down that dark path of assumption, particularly given the circumstance that I’m in right now in my career. Which is — you know, like check it out, I’m pretty young, I’m only about 40 years old. I still have maybe another four decades of work left in me. And it’s exceedingly likely that anything I write from this point forward is going to be judged by the world as the work that came after the freakish success of my last book, right? I should just put it bluntly, because we’re all sort of friends here now — it’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me. So Jesus, what a thought! That’s the kind of thought that could lead a person to start drinking gin at nine o’clock in the morning, and I don’t want to go there.
I would prefer to keep doing this work that I love. And so, the question becomes, how? And so, it seems to me, upon a lot of reflection that the way that I have to work now, in order to continue writing, is that I have to create some sort of protective psychological construct, right? I have to sort of find some way to have a safe distance between me, as I am writing, and my very natural anxiety about what the reaction to that writing is going to be, from now on.
And as I’ve been looking, over the last year, for models for how to do that, I’ve been sort of looking across time, and I’ve been trying to find other societies to see if they might have had better and saner ideas than we have about how to help creative people sort of manage the inherent emotional risks of creativity.
And that search has led me to ancient Greece and ancient Rome. So stay with me, because it does circle around and back. But, ancient Greece and ancient Rome — people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then, Okay? 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, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.
So brilliant — there it is, right there, that distance that I’m talking about — that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work. And everyone knew that this is how it functioned, right? So the ancient artist was protected from certain things, like, for example, too much narcissism, right? If your work was brilliant, you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.
And this is how people thought about creativity in the West for a really long time. And then the Renaissance came and everything changed, and we had this big idea, and the big idea was, let’s put the individual human being at the center of the universe above all gods and mysteries, and there’s no more room for mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine. And it’s the beginning of rational humanism, and people started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius, rather than having a genius.