English-Video.net comment policy

The comment field is common to all languages

Let's write in your language and use "Google Translate" together

Please refer to informative community guidelines on TED.com

TED2009

Elizabeth Gilbert: Your elusive creative genius

Filmed
Views 13,351,526

Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses -- and shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person "being" a genius, all of us "have" a genius. It's a funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk.

- Writer
The author of 'Eat, Pray, Love,' Elizabeth Gilbert has thought long and hard about some big topics. Her fascinations: genius, creativity and how we get in our own way when it comes to both. Full bio

I am a writer.
00:13
Writing books is my profession but it's more than that, of course.
00:15
It is also my great lifelong love and fascination.
00:19
And I don't expect that that's ever going to change.
00:23
But, that said, something kind of peculiar has happened recently
00:25
in my life and in my career,
00:30
which has caused me to have to recalibrate my whole relationship with this work.
00:33
And the peculiar thing is that I recently wrote this book,
00:38
this memoir called "Eat, Pray, Love"
00:41
which, decidedly unlike any of my previous books,
00:43
went out in the world for some reason, and became this big,
00:48
mega-sensation, international bestseller thing.
00:51
The result of which is that everywhere I go now,
00:54
people treat me like I'm doomed.
00:57
Seriously -- doomed, doomed!
01:00
Like, they come up to me now, all worried, and they say,
01:03
"Aren't you afraid you're never going to be able to top that?
01:05
Aren't you afraid you're going to keep writing for your whole life
01:10
and you're never again going to create a book
01:13
that anybody in the world cares about at all,
01:15
ever again?"
01:18
So that's reassuring, you know.
01:20
But it would be worse, except for that I happen to remember
01:22
that over 20 years ago, when I first started telling people -- when I was a teenager --
01:25
that I wanted to be a writer,
01:29
I was met with this same kind of, sort of fear-based reaction.
01:31
And people would say, "Aren't you afraid you're never going to have any success?
01:34
Aren't you afraid the humiliation of rejection will kill you?
01:37
Aren't you afraid that you're going to work your whole life at this craft
01:40
and nothing's ever going to come of it
01:43
and you're going to die on a scrap heap of broken dreams
01:45
with your mouth filled with bitter ash of failure?"
01:47
(Laughter)
01:51
Like that, you know.
01:53
The answer -- the short answer to all those questions is, "Yes."
01:55
Yes, I'm afraid of all those things.
02:00
And I always have been.
02:02
And I'm afraid of many, many more things besides
02:03
that people can't even guess at,
02:06
like seaweed and other things that are scary.
02:08
But, when it comes to writing,
02:12
the thing that I've been sort of thinking about lately, and wondering about lately, is why?
02:14
You know, is it rational?
02:18
Is it logical that anybody should be expected
02:20
to be afraid of the work that they feel they were put on this Earth to do.
02:23
And what is it specifically about creative ventures
02:27
that seems to make us really nervous about each other's mental health
02:32
in a way that other careers kind of don't do, you know?
02:35
Like my dad, for example, was a chemical engineer
02:38
and I don't recall once in his 40 years of chemical engineering
02:42
anybody asking him if he was afraid to be a chemical engineer, you know?
02:45
It didn't -- that chemical-engineering block, John, how's it going?
02:49
It just didn't come up like that, you know?
02:55
But to be fair, chemical engineers as a group
02:57
haven't really earned a reputation over the centuries
03:01
for being alcoholic manic-depressives.
03:03
(Laughter)
03:06
We writers, we kind of do have that reputation,
03:08
and not just writers, but creative people across all genres,
03:11
it seems, have this reputation for being enormously mentally unstable.
03:14
And all you have to do is look at the very grim death count
03:19
in the 20th century alone, of really magnificent creative minds
03:23
who died young and often at their own hands, you know?
03:27
And even the ones who didn't literally commit suicide
03:30
seem to be really undone by their gifts, you know.
03:33
Norman Mailer, just before he died, last interview, he said
03:36
"Every one of my books has killed me a little more."
03:39
An extraordinary statement to make about your life's work.
03:43
But we don't even blink when we hear somebody say this
03:47
because we've heard that kind of stuff for so long
03:50
and somehow we've completely internalized and accepted collectively
03:53
this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked
03:57
and that artistry, in the end, will always ultimately lead to anguish.
04:01
And the question that I want to ask everybody here today
04:06
is are you guys all cool with that idea?
04:08
Are you comfortable with that?
04:11
Because you look at it even from an inch away and, you know ...
04:14
I'm not at all comfortable with that assumption.
04:17
I think it's odious.
04:20
And I also think it's dangerous,
04:21
and I don't want to see it perpetuated into the next century.
04:23
I think it's better if we encourage our great creative minds to live.
04:26
And I definitely know that, in my case -- in my situation --
04:30
it would be very dangerous for me to start sort of leaking down that dark path
04:36
of assumption, particularly given the circumstance
04:41
that I'm in right now in my career.
04:44
Which is -- you know, like check it out,
04:46
I'm pretty young, I'm only about 40 years old.
04:49
I still have maybe another four decades of work left in me.
04:51
And it's exceedingly likely that anything I write from this point forward
04:54
is going to be judged by the world as the work that came after
04:59
the freakish success of my last book, right?
05:02
I should just put it bluntly, because we're all sort of friends here now --
05:05
it's exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me.
05:09
So Jesus, what a thought!
05:13
That's the kind of thought that could lead a person
05:16
to start drinking gin at nine o'clock in the morning,
05:18
and I don't want to go there.
05:21
(Laughter)
05:24
I would prefer to keep doing this work that I love.
05:25
And so, the question becomes, how?
05:27
And so, it seems to me, upon a lot of reflection,
05:31
that the way that I have to work now, in order to continue writing,
05:33
is that I have to create some sort of protective psychological construct, right?
05:37
I have to sort of find some way to have a safe distance
05:41
between me, as I am writing, and my very natural anxiety
05:44
about what the reaction to that writing is going to be, from now on.
05:49
And, as I've been looking over the last year for models for how to do that
05:53
I've been sort of looking across time,
05:57
and I've been trying to find other societies
05:59
to see if they might have had better and saner ideas than we have
06:01
about how to help creative people, sort of manage
06:05
the inherent emotional risks of creativity.
06:08
And that search has led me to ancient Greece and ancient Rome.
06:11
So stay with me, because it does circle around and back.
06:16
But, ancient Greece and ancient Rome --
06:19
people did not happen to believe that creativity
06:21
came from human beings back then, O.K.?
06:24
People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit
06:26
that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source,
06:30
for distant and unknowable reasons.
06:34
The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity "daemons."
06:37
Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon
06:42
who spoke wisdom to him from afar.
06:45
The Romans had the same idea,
06:48
but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius.
06:49
Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think
06:54
that a genius was a particularly clever individual.
06:57
They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity,
06:59
who was believed to literally live in the walls
07:03
of an artist's studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf,
07:07
and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work
07:11
and would shape the outcome of that work.
07:15
So brilliant -- there it is, right there, that distance that I'm talking about --
07:18
that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work.
07:21
And everyone knew that this is how it functioned, right?
07:26
So the ancient artist was protected from certain things,
07:29
like, for example, too much narcissism, right?
07:32
If your work was brilliant you couldn't take all the credit for it,
07:34
everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you.
07:37
If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know?
07:41
Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.
07:45
And this is how people thought about creativity in the West for a really long time.
07:48
And then the Renaissance came and everything changed,
07:53
and we had this big idea, and the big idea was
07:55
let's put the individual human being at the center of the universe
07:57
above all gods and mysteries, and there's no more room
08:01
for mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine.
08:03
And it's the beginning of rational humanism,
08:06
and people started to believe that creativity
08:09
came completely from the self of the individual.
08:11
And for the first time in history,
08:13
you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius
08:16
rather than having a genius.
08:21
And I got to tell you, I think that was a huge error.
08:22
You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person
08:26
to believe that he or she is like, the vessel,
08:30
you know, like the font and the essence and the source
08:33
of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery
08:35
is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche.
08:39
It's like asking somebody to swallow the sun.
08:45
It just completely warps and distorts egos,
08:48
and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance.
08:51
And I think the pressure of that
08:55
has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.
08:57
And, if this is true,
09:00
and I think it is true,
09:02
the question becomes, what now?
09:04
Can we do this differently?
09:07
Maybe go back to some more ancient understanding
09:09
about the relationship between humans and the creative mystery.
09:12
Maybe not.
09:17
Maybe we can't just erase 500 years of rational humanistic thought
09:18
in one 18 minute speech.
09:22
And there's probably people in this audience
09:24
who would raise really legitimate scientific suspicions
09:27
about the notion of, basically fairies
09:31
who follow people around rubbing fairy juice on their projects and stuff.
09:33
I'm not, probably, going to bring you all along with me on this.
09:38
But the question that I kind of want to pose is --
09:43
you know, why not?
09:45
Why not think about it this way?
09:48
Because it makes as much sense as anything else I have ever heard
09:49
in terms of explaining the utter maddening capriciousness
09:54
of the creative process.
09:58
A process which, as anybody who has ever tried to make something --
09:59
which is to say basically everyone here ---
10:02
knows does not always behave rationally.
10:04
And, in fact, can sometimes feel downright paranormal.
10:07
I had this encounter recently where I met the extraordinary American poet Ruth Stone,
10:12
who's now in her 90s, but she's been a poet her entire life
10:18
and she told me that when she was growing up in rural Virginia,
10:20
she would be out working in the fields,
10:24
and she said she would feel and hear a poem
10:25
coming at her from over the landscape.
10:28
And she said it was like a thunderous train of air.
10:30
And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape.
10:34
And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet.
10:36
She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point,
10:39
and that was to, in her words, "run like hell."
10:43
And she would run like hell to the house
10:45
and she would be getting chased by this poem,
10:46
and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil
10:48
fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it
10:51
and grab it on the page.
10:54
And other times she wouldn't be fast enough,
10:56
so she'd be running and running and running, and she wouldn't get to the house
10:58
and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it
11:01
and she said it would continue on across the landscape,
11:04
looking, as she put it "for another poet."
11:06
And then there were these times --
11:09
this is the piece I never forgot --
11:12
she said that there were moments where she would almost miss it, right?
11:14
So, she's running to the house and she's looking for the paper
11:17
and the poem passes through her,
11:20
and she grabs a pencil just as it's going through her,
11:22
and then she said, it was like she would reach out with her other hand
11:25
and she would catch it.
11:27
She would catch the poem by its tail,
11:29
and she would pull it backwards into her body
11:31
as she was transcribing on the page.
11:34
And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact
11:36
but backwards, from the last word to the first.
11:41
(Laughter)
11:44
So when I heard that I was like -- that's uncanny,
11:46
that's exactly what my creative process is like.
11:50
(Laughter)
11:53
That's not at all what my creative process is -- I'm not the pipeline!
11:57
I'm a mule, and the way that I have to work
12:00
is that I have to get up at the same time every day,
12:01
and sweat and labor and barrel through it really awkwardly.
12:03
But even I, in my mulishness,
12:06
even I have brushed up against that thing, at times.
12:09
And I would imagine that a lot of you have too.
12:13
You know, even I have had work or ideas come through me from a source
12:15
that I honestly cannot identify.
12:18
And what is that thing?
12:21
And how are we to relate to it in a way that will not make us lose our minds,
12:22
but, in fact, might actually keep us sane?
12:26
And for me, the best contemporary example that I have of how to do that
12:29
is the musician Tom Waits,
12:33
who I got to interview several years ago on a magazine assignment.
12:35
And we were talking about this,
12:40
and you know, Tom, for most of his life he was pretty much the embodiment
12:41
of the tormented contemporary modern artist,
12:45
trying to control and manage and dominate
12:47
these sort of uncontrollable creative impulses
12:50
that were totally internalized.
12:52
But then he got older, he got calmer,
12:54
and one day he was driving down the freeway in Los Angeles he told me,
12:56
and this is when it all changed for him.
12:59
And he's speeding along, and all of a sudden
13:01
he hears this little fragment of melody,
13:03
that comes into his head as inspiration often comes, elusive and tantalizing,
13:06
and he wants it, you know, it's gorgeous,
13:10
and he longs for it, but he has no way to get it.
13:13
He doesn't have a piece of paper, he doesn't have a pencil,
13:15
he doesn't have a tape recorder.
13:17
So he starts to feel all of that old anxiety start to rise in him
13:18
like, "I'm going to lose this thing,
13:21
and then I'm going to be haunted by this song forever.
13:23
I'm not good enough, and I can't do it."
13:25
And instead of panicking, he just stopped.
13:27
He just stopped that whole mental process
13:29
and he did something completely novel.
13:31
He just looked up at the sky, and he said,
13:33
"Excuse me, can you not see that I'm driving?"
13:36
(Laughter)
13:39
"Do I look like I can write down a song right now?
13:42
If you really want to exist, come back at a more opportune moment
13:45
when I can take care of you.
13:49
Otherwise, go bother somebody else today.
13:51
Go bother Leonard Cohen."
13:54
And his whole work process changed after that.
13:57
Not the work, the work was still oftentimes as dark as ever.
14:00
But the process, and the heavy anxiety around it
14:04
was released when he took the genie, the genius out of him
14:07
where it was causing nothing but trouble, and released it kind of back where it came from,
14:10
and realized that this didn't have to be this internalized, tormented thing.
14:13
It could be this peculiar, wondrous, bizarre collaboration
14:17
kind of conversation between Tom and the strange, external thing
14:20
that was not quite Tom.
14:25
So when I heard that story it started to shift a little bit
14:27
the way that I worked too, and it already saved me once.
14:30
This idea, it saved me when I was in the middle of writing "Eat, Pray, Love,"
14:32
and I fell into one of those, sort of pits of despair
14:36
that we all fall into when we're working on something and it's not coming
14:38
and you start to think this is going to be a disaster,
14:42
this is going to be the worst book ever written.
14:44
Not just bad, but the worst book ever written.
14:46
And I started to think I should just dump this project.
14:48
But then I remembered Tom talking to the open air
14:52
and I tried it.
14:55
So I just lifted my face up from the manuscript
14:57
and I directed my comments to an empty corner of the room.
14:59
And I said aloud, "Listen you, thing,
15:02
you and I both know that if this book isn't brilliant
15:06
that is not entirely my fault, right?
15:09
Because you can see that I am putting everything I have into this,
15:11
I don't have any more than this.
15:14
So if you want it to be better, then you've got to show up and do your part of the deal.
15:15
O.K. But if you don't do that, you know what, the hell with it.
15:19
I'm going to keep writing anyway because that's my job.
15:22
And I would please like the record to reflect today
15:25
that I showed up for my part of the job."
15:26
(Laughter)
15:29
Because --
15:32
(Applause)
15:35
in the end it's like this, O.K. --
15:37
centuries ago in the deserts of North Africa,
15:39
people used to gather for these moonlight dances of sacred dance and music
15:41
that would go on for hours and hours, until dawn.
15:46
And they were always magnificent, because the dancers were professionals
15:49
and they were terrific, right?
15:52
But every once in a while, very rarely, something would happen,
15:53
and one of these performers would actually become transcendent.
15:57
And I know you know what I'm talking about,
16:00
because I know you've all seen, at some point in your life, a performance like this.
16:02
It was like time would stop,
16:06
and the dancer would sort of step through some kind of portal
16:08
and he wasn't doing anything different than he had ever done, 1,000 nights before,
16:11
but everything would align.
16:15
And all of a sudden, he would no longer appear to be merely human.
16:17
He would be lit from within, and lit from below
16:20
and all lit up on fire with divinity.
16:23
And when this happened, back then,
16:26
people knew it for what it was, you know, they called it by its name.
16:29
They would put their hands together and they would start to chant,
16:33
"Allah, Allah, Allah, God, God, God."
16:35
That's God, you know.
16:40
Curious historical footnote --
16:43
when the Moors invaded southern Spain, they took this custom with them
16:45
and the pronunciation changed over the centuries
16:50
from "Allah, Allah, Allah," to "Olé, olé, olé,"
16:52
which you still hear in bullfights and in flamenco dances.
16:55
In Spain, when a performer has done something impossible and magic,
16:58
"Allah, olé, olé, Allah, magnificent, bravo,"
17:02
incomprehensible, there it is -- a glimpse of God.
17:05
Which is great, because we need that.
17:09
But, the tricky bit comes the next morning,
17:11
for the dancer himself, when he wakes up
17:15
and discovers that it's Tuesday at 11 a.m., and he's no longer a glimpse of God.
17:18
He's just an aging mortal with really bad knees,
17:22
and maybe he's never going to ascend to that height again.
17:25
And maybe nobody will ever chant God's name again as he spins,
17:29
and what is he then to do with the rest of his life?
17:33
This is hard.
17:36
This is one of the most painful reconciliations to make
17:37
in a creative life.
17:40
But maybe it doesn't have to be quite so full of anguish
17:42
if you never happened to believe, in the first place,
17:45
that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you.
17:49
But maybe if you just believed that they were on loan to you
17:53
from some unimaginable source for some exquisite portion of your life
17:56
to be passed along when you're finished, with somebody else.
17:59
And, you know, if we think about it this way it starts to change everything.
18:03
This is how I've started to think,
18:08
and this is certainly how I've been thinking in the last few months
18:10
as I've been working on the book that will soon be published,
18:13
as the dangerously, frighteningly over-anticipated follow up
18:16
to my freakish success.
18:20
And what I have to, sort of keep telling myself
18:22
when I get really psyched out about that,
18:25
is, don't be afraid.
18:27
Don't be daunted.
18:29
Just do your job.
18:31
Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be.
18:33
If your job is to dance, do your dance.
18:36
If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case
18:39
decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed, for just one moment
18:43
through your efforts, then "Olé!"
18:48
And if not, do your dance anyhow.
18:50
And "Olé!" to you, nonetheless.
18:53
I believe this and I feel that we must teach it.
18:55
"Olé!" to you, nonetheless,
18:57
just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness
18:59
to keep showing up.
19:02
Thank you.
19:04
(Applause)
19:06
Thank you.
19:08
(Applause)
19:09
June Cohen: Olé!
19:12
(Applause)
19:14

▲Back to top

About the speaker:

Elizabeth Gilbert - Writer
The author of 'Eat, Pray, Love,' Elizabeth Gilbert has thought long and hard about some big topics. Her fascinations: genius, creativity and how we get in our own way when it comes to both.

Why you should listen

Elizabeth Gilbert faced down a premidlife crisis by doing what we all secretly dream of -- running off for a year. Her travels through Italy, India and Indonesia resulted in the megabestselling and deeply beloved memoir Eat, Pray, Love, about her process of finding herself by leaving home.

She's a longtime magazine writer -- covering music and politics for Spin and GQ -- as well as a novelist and short-story writer. Her books include the story collection Pilgrims, the novel Stern Men (about lobster fishermen in Maine) and a biography of the woodsman Eustace Conway, called The Last American Man. Her work has been the basis for two movies so far (Coyote Ugly, based on her own tale of working at the famously raunchy bar in New York City), and Eat, Pray, Love, with the part of Gilbert played by Julia Roberts. Not bad for a year off.

In 2010, Elizabeth published Committed, a memoir exploring her ambivalent feelings about the institution of marriage. And her 2013 novel, The Signature of All Things, is "a sprawling tale of 19th century botanical exploration."

Gilbert also owns and runs the import shop Two Buttons in Frenchtown, New Jersey.

More profile about the speaker
Elizabeth Gilbert | Speaker | TED.com