Thursday, May 21, 2009

Responsibity to Ourselves

"Every one of my books has killed me a little bit more."
-Norman Mailer
As I mentioned in my last post, I've been in a responsibility frame of mind. I've talked about fan expectations. This time let's discuss self-expectations.

A Facebook friend recently sent the link to Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert's talk on a different way to think about Creativity. Gilbert suggests that before the Renaissance creators and artists felt that the spark of all their creative ideas came from the heavens. This idea, suggests Gilbert, spared them the pain of fearing failure and the danger of getting a swelled head from any success they acquired.

Elizabeth Gilbert and her best-selling memoir.

The Greeks called these Muses daemons and the Romans called them genius. Not a brilliant person... but rather a spirit guide. This allowed for the artist to have a distance from their work.

The Renaissance gave rise to the idea that the artist is the sole creator of the work. "Let's put the human being at the centre of all creation." This resulted in artists being put on a pedestal as the sole vessel of the creation. Gilbert goes on to say this is the first time we begin to see the modern usage of genius and she thinks this is a bad idea.

"It completely warps and distorts egos and creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years."

The idea that an artist requires distanc e from their work to do the work seems valid. There is a point where you need to immerse yourself in creation and let the it flow. But holding something too close, or being too deep in it removes perspective. Every time I see someone bristle at criticism or get defensive about comments, I know they're in too deep to see the comments for what they usually are: genuine interest and potential insight into the work.

But while we do need to dive deep into the waters of creation to explore an idea thoroughly, we also need toperiodically come up for air. By doing so we, we remove ourselves from the creative process briefly to eye the work as a whole. That critical distance helps us to shape and hone the final product.

As Gilbert points out, that's tough on the psyche when it's just not working and you have no one but yourself to blame. And even if you do succeed, you may have to confront the fear you will never create anything as good again. In other words, if your first book is the Catcher in the Rye, your ego is screwed tyring to live up to it for the rest of your life.

If the inspiration came from God or the universe, then you have someone to share the blame with with. "I have a lame Muse." or "My Muse was hungover that day." On the other hand, you can't get a swelled head if your book is a bestseller or your painting launches a bidding war between art galleries. "Your Muse was working overtime tht day."

Gilbert suggests a return to thinking the way the ancients did because it's as accurate a description of the maddening capriciousness of the creative process as anything. Sometimes it can feel "downright paranormal".

Many of my artist friends found Gilbert's talk extremely inspiring. It seemed to encapsulate how they felt about their artistic process. But the magic of is less about the presenters themselves but rather about conversations they create in those watching. That's why I got more out of the comments section below Gilbert's chat.

Ruth Anne Harnish was "comforted, encouraged, educated, and inspired by the content of this talk." Others feel the metaphorical nature of the talk is useful but people taking it literally is dangerous. But that's up to the viewer, not to Gilbert. She's expressing a theory. How people use it up to them.

Gilbert is not suggesting an artist should be absolved of responsibility for thier work. She's saying, this is a way of reclaiming the slight distance from a work that you need to stay stable and focused without raking your psyche over the coals. "Don't be afraid. Just do your job. Show up and do your part. If you dance... dance."

Oddly, by letting go of a small piece of the responsibilty for creation to the universe, collective unconsciousness, Allah or whatever you refer to a higher power as, Gilbert is not saying you absolve yourself of responsibility. She's telling you to take responsibility for your own self. Your physical and psychic health. On her website's Thoughts on Writing page, Gilbert suggests that discipline is less important for a writer than self-forgiveness.
As for discipline – it’s important, but sort of over-rated. The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you. You will make vows: “I’m going to write for an hour every day,” and then you won’t do it. You will think: “I suck, I’m such a failure. I’m washed-up.” Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness (which comes from a place of kind and encouraging and motherly love). The other thing to realize is that all writers think they suck. When I was writing “Eat, Pray, Love”, I had just as a strong a mantra of THIS SUCKS ringing through my head as anyone does when they write anything. But I had a clarion moment of truth during the process of that book. One day, when I was agonizing over how utterly bad my writing felt, I realized: “That’s actually not my problem.” The point I realized was this – I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write. So I put my head down and sweated through it, as per my vows.
We can't create if we ignore our bodies needs to eat and sleep and relax and have. We have nothing to draw from if we don't explore our world and share friendships and experience family. You owe it to your art not to work all the time, to read about things you know nothing about, to have experiences and unexpected moments of confrontation or bliss.

Werner Herzog.

Gilbert's web essay goes on to tell of a independant filmmaker friend who wrote to his hero, director Werner Herzog, when he was feeling defeated. Herzog's reply is priceless.
Herzog wrote back a personal letter to my friend that essentially ran along these lines: “Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.”
Gilbert takes as much inspiration those words as her friend did.
I repeat those words back to myself whenever I start to feel resentful, entitled, competitive or unappreciated with regard to my writing: “It’s not the world’s fault that you want to be an artist…now get back to work.” Always, at the end of the day, the important thing is only and always that: Get back to work. This is a path for the courageous and the faithful. You must find another reason to work, other than the desire for success or recognition. It must come from another place.
You owe it to yourself a chance to recharge and gain perspective. ou owe that to your art. You don't have to acknowledge a higher power to do that if you think that's ethereal and artsy fartsy. But you do have to find a way to step back and forgive yourself.

Then get back to work.

Live the adventure.