With most of winter now behind us (we hope), March brings longer daylight hours and some balmy temperatures: Hurray! I’ve begun to plan for summer container gardening. Will you also garden this year?
Today the frost has melted from my office window. And brilliant sunshine cheers me, as I write another busy month of your marketing and communications materials.
Last month’s issue featured Seth Godin’s and Tara Mohr’s insights on surpassing creative fears and failures. Thank you to those of you, including veteran editor Wilf Popoff, who wrote to say you found those articles valuable!
The question of surpassing creative fears and failures is addressed differently in this issue, by changing our assumptions of creative “genius”: I’ll visit novelist Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk on the topic, from 2009, “Your Elusive, Creative Genuis”; I’ll also feature Seth Godin’s response to that same talk, on the need to “ship” our work; I’ll return to some thoughts by writers for a final month in “Word Nerd’s Corner”; and I’ll update you on sundries in the usual “Shop News.”
Enjoy this issue and happy mid-March!
CEO, Elizabeth Shih Communications
“Your Elusive, Creative Genius”: TED Talk by Elizabeth Gilbert (2009)
Business writers, like creative writers, can sometimes suffer from not being able to write in inopportune moments. Seth Godin (whom I featured in last month’s issue) says however that “writer’s block” and other impediments are something that we hide behind. Godin calls for continual, ongoing creation, regardless of failure. He argues that we should aim to “connect” with others, rather than to achieve success. But few writers find that prescription easy.
In one of the 20 most popular TED Talks ever, novelist Elizabeth Gilbert raises the connections between writing, not being able to write and compromised mental health.
When Gilbert began writing in her youth, people asked if she was afraid of the humiliation of rejection, or of dying “on a scrap heap of broken dreams with [her] mouth filled with the bitter ash of failure?” Of course she was and is. What writer isn’t?
But she poses a crucial question: “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? What is it specifically about creative ventures that seem to make us really nervous about another’s mental health in ways that other careers don’t do?” (Godin himself advocates creating through discomfort, but not through self-destructive fear.)
Gilbert needn’t remind us that writers have a reputation for being “alcoholic manic depressives.” Creative people across all genres have been “enormously mentally unstable.” They have died young, “at their own hands,” or “undone by their own gifts.” There was a “very grim death count” in the 20th Century of “magnificent creative minds who died young” or were destroyed by their work.
“We’ve internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked” and that “artistry in the end” will always “give way ultimately to anguish.”
In the 20th (and the 21st) centuries, we have viewed creativity and destruction or self-destruction as linked. This assumption, Gilbert says is “odious and dangerous and shouldn’t be perpetuated,” since many say that her greatest literary creation, the memoir, Eat Pray Love, was published when she was not yet 40 years old. She asks, what is she to do for the next 40 or so years that she has left in which to write? It would be “dangerous” to view one’s career in such terms, she says.
How can we forge a new path, in which discomfort but not high-pitched anxiety and intense fear are the backdrop to creation?
While seeking earlier models for society’s view of creative work, to help creative people cope with the “inherent risks of creativity,” Gilbert found that “The way . . . to continue writing is to create a protective psychological construct” to “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.”
Seeking that construct, Gilbert returned to the writing of Ancient Greece and Rome. The ancient Greeks said that “creativity was this divine, attending spirit that came to humans from some distant source, for “distant and unknowable reasons . . . . [The] Romans called that spirit ‘a genius,’ and said it was a magical divine entity, but not necessarily [always, or only] a brilliant thing.”
The Greeks said that creativity came from divine beings called “daemons,” or spirits who spoke wisdom. In both of these models, “This disembodied genius protected you from failure.” If you failed, it was “not entirely your fault,” because the genius could have been “lame,” or capricious and unreliable.
But with the Renaissance, she notes, came the idea that the individual person was at the centre of the universe, not the unreliable Gods. And with rational humanism came the view that creativity came “completely from the self.” Gone was the distance provided by earlier protective psychological constructs.
For the first time, artists were seen as “being” a genius, and not as “have a genius” that could come and go. Gilbert argues that that viewpoint is “too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche . . . [it] warps and distorts egoes and it creates unmanageable expectations about performance.” It’s that pressure that has “killed off our artists for the last 500 years.”
So what now? Why not return to ancient models of creativity? How do we deal with the “maddeningly capriciousness of the creative process?” Most artists have had work come through to them from a source they don’t understand and find the process to be that. Creativity “does not always behave rationally,” and can even feel “paranormal,” in the examples of the American poet Ruth Stone and the musician Tom Waits, whose careers reflect the predicament of the contemporary, “tormented artist,” who is at the mercy of creative impulses.
Gilbert also cites the example of dancers of North Africa from centuries ago, who danced sacred moonlight dances in which, occasionally, a dancer would become “transcendent . . . lit up on fire with divinity.” They called it “Allah, Allah, Allah!” to name it a glimpse of God. (The term became altered to “Ole” after the Moors’ invasion of Spain.)
Even one such dancer would, as Gilbert argues, outlive that divine “glimpse” and face “one of the most painful reconciliations to make in a creative life,” that that artist may never achieve that height again, but still must keep living and working.
Gilbert says that maybe this reality wouldn’t be “so filled with anguish” if “you never happened to believe in the first place that the most extraordinary aspects of your being came from you,” but just believe that “they were on loan to you from some unimaginable source, for some exquisite portion of your life, to be passed along when you’re finished to somebody else.”
In that case, the creative or artist need only do his or her work: “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be daunted” by what comes after success, Gilbert says. “Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it . . . . If the divine, [erratic] genius assigned to your case decides to let some work of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts, then ‘Ole!’ [Allah!]. If not, do your dance anyhow. And ‘Ole’ to you, nonetheless . . . for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”
Gilbert’s conclusion addresses the very questions and issues of creative fears and failures we’ve examined in recent issues of this newsletter.
View Gilbert’s talk for yourself at www.ted.org
Do you agree with Gilbert’s view of the creative spirit that sometimes visits and other times fails us?
What protective psychological values or constructs do you use to endure failure or struggle, when you create? Please write to share your thoughts on this.
Nerd Alert! Word Nerd Corner: Quotations on Writers, Reading and Writing . . .
- — “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way”
- –On education: “An admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught”
- –On creative failure: “Fear of failure, fear of success: If you give in to it, it’s all the same”
(Paul R. Martin)
- –On critics: “Critics sometimes appear to be addressing themselves to works other than those I remember wrtiting”
(Joyce Carol Oates)
- –On cynicism: “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”
- –“Writing is the hardest way to earn a living, with the possible exception of wrestling alligators”
(Please send me your writers’ jokes and quotations via the “contact” page at www.elizabethshih.com. Next month, I turn to “wordsmithing” with Bryan Garner: Stay tuned!)
From an Expert…
Who: Seth Godin
Where: Linchpin: Are you Indispensable? (2010)
What: Godin on Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk (Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? ). . . .
In his best-known book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? (2010), Seth Godin responds to Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2009 TED Talk (see article one, this issue), saying that “Society pushes artists to be geniuses, as opposed to encouraging artists to allow the genius within to flourish. Different tasks” (107).
But he says that avoiding the anguish of creative work means you are giving in to what Steven Pressfield famously termed, “the resistance” (107).
“The enemy of the ‘daemon,’ the spirit, the creator is the resistance,” Godin says (107). And psychological resistance is “nefarious and clever” and shape-shifting, creating “diseases, procrastination, and most especially, rationalization” (108).
Resistance is a million years old and is the work of the primordial “lizard” portion of our brains, he says.
Godin remarks that for novelist Elizabeth Gilbert (see article one), “The lizard brain won,” since she ended up throwing out her entire book that followed the international acclaim of Eat, Pray, Love (2006). She “junked [the next book], trashed it, missed her deadline and started over. More than a year’s work gone.
Fortunately, she has a new book on the way. She persisted and found another way to beat the lizard. But it’s clear that no matter what sort of creative work you’re doing, no matter how successful or acclaimed you are, the lizard will seek you out and probably find you. What happens after that is up to you” (Godin 108).
Gilbert lost a battle with the book that followed her first runaway bestseller. But she also published a new book, in 2010: Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage.
Godin says that she may have lost the battle in 2009, but I assert that she persisted to win the war (and continues to do so), such as with her latest volume, The Signature of All Things (2013).
Both Gilbert and Godin make useful, if not always compatible, arguments about the difficulties of creative production.
We have to be prepared to fail publicly, even weather insensitive and negative criticism, if we’re to grasp after what Gilbert calls “Allah.” Not all creatives (writers or artists) will endure that pain, over the length of a career.
With his emphasis on “shipping” (imperfect) work, Godin (who has incorporated negative reviews into his own writing) may have found more psychological distance from them than Gilbert has.
Do you handle anxiety, fear and perfectionism as the resistance of one’s “lizard” brain?
Is it more important to you to “ship” or to achieve excellence and why?
How do you keep fears at bay, so that you can sustain the creative process?
In mid-February, I was inspired again by conversation with mentor Monica Kreuger (Founder/CEO of Praxis School of Entrepreneurship and President of Global Infobrokers). Monica’s tremendous gifts as a strategist helped me to rethink my work as a writer and so to stoke the flames of my small business.
Special thanks go to mentor Bob Pitzel (COO, Failure Prevention Services; gifted painter and graphic designer) for sharing valuable insights into and generous support for my work. Bob’s generosity and good nature have brightened many days for me: thank you, Bob!
I also delighted in sharing coffee with “Word Nerd” contributor Paula Jane Remlinger whose poetry and short stories have been requested by several Canadian literary publications. Brava, Paula Jane!
Elsewhere, I was fortified by hearing fellow freelance writers’ diverse approaches to non-fiction, business, creative and academic writing, at my Freelancers’ Roundtable meeting. Thanks to its members for their invigorating words.
I continued to enjoy visits on some of the past month’s colder, grey days to the local civic conservatory and the Mendel Art Gallery’s “Museo” cafe. Both are scheduled to close in June, as the gallery undergoes renovations to become the future Children’s Museum of Saskatchewan. I’ll miss the conservatory and cafe, not to mention the gallery. While a new and greater gallery will soon replace it, the Mendel has welcomed artists and viewers of diverse kinds, since it opened in 1964.
About Us . . .
Since 2011, Elizabeth Shih Communications has provided B2B marketing and communications services on the Prairies and across Canada.
Do you need help writing your “marcom” materials? Please contact me through my website, via the CASL-compliant email form, on each page at www.elizabethshih.com.
Once I have received your permission, I’ll be delighted to discuss projects with you!
I help small- and medium-sized businesses create e-newsletters and related communication that secure good clients. Please visit my website for more information (www.elizabethshih.com).