My mom has close to a hundred personal narratives sitting in dusty binders at home. I didn’t even know that she had even written them, over a decade ago for a friend sick with cancer, but one day I came across them and began reading. Every one resonated with an experience that I’d had and left me feeling inspired. I told my mom that she could publish these essays, because people deserved to read them.
“Ahh, no,” she said, dismissing the idea. “Those were just for John.” But as she sat there on the couch paging through binder after binder, I could tell that she was seeing the essays objectively for the first time, as if someone else had written them. And I think that she was stunned to realize, “These are good.”
I use my mom as an example because in this respect, she is just like you and me. I myself have around ten large charcoal and pencil drawings in a portfolio under my bed: portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. My roommates in San Francisco saw them and wanted to hang a couple on the walls, but I vetoed the idea because I could see a flaw in each drawing. Paradoxically, while they weren’t good enough to put on display, but they were good enough to prevent me from drawing anything else since. It’s been seven years now since my college drawing class, and part of me believes that I won’t ever draw as well again. So I don’t draw at all.
We all have some creative interest that’s lying fallow. We tell ourselves that it’s because we don’t have time to use it, but we know we’re kidding ourselves. What is it for you?
This “brilliant or nothing” attitude stifled me from writing seriously for around ten years. As a child, I wrote for the fun of it, and as a teenager I wrote for the school paper with a compulsive passion. In college, I didn’t write much besides emails and term papers. I began to believe that I’d peaked at 17, and that everyone else had surpassed me in skill by writing for their college newspapers or literary magazines. I avoided even thinking about writing because it made me regret all the years I had lost. It made me wonder what I could have produced, and what I could have been, if I’d kept writing. I felt so much pressure to be as good as I once was that I didn’t even try.
(As an aside, I must confess that I am in love with Elizabeth Gilbert. It’s not just a girl crush at this point. It’s a deep and long-lasting adoration that makes me want to be just like her, or at least be best friends with her. I suspect that I share this feeling with the millions of women around the world — and the three men — who have read Eat, Pray, Love. Thus ends my ode to Elizabeth Gilbert.)
Last week, Gilbert spoke at the TED conference, which “brings together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes).” Wired Magazine reports that Gilbert felt pressured to perform again after writing an unexpected bestseller.
“Everywhere I go now people treat me like I’m doomed,” she said. She thought about how creative people have a reputation for being mentally unstable, which she attributes to pressure to perform and live up to expectations for brilliance from themselves as well as the world.
She looked at other societies to see how they regard this pressure on artists and found an answer in ancient Greece and Rome. In these places, people didn’t believe that creativity came from inside. They believed it was an attentive spirit that came to someone from a distant, unknowable source, she said.
This view served the artist’s mental health, she suggested, because by attributing the artist’s talent to an outside force, the artist was relieved of some of the pressure to perform, and was not narcissistic. If an artist’s work was brilliant, the outside force got the credit.
All that changed with the Renaissance when mysticism was replaced by a belief that creativity came from the self. For the first time, people started referring to an artist as being a genius rather than having a genius.
“Allowing somebody … to believe that he or she is … the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, internal mystery is just like a smidge of too much responsibility to put on one fragile human psyche,” she said. “It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all of these unnatural expectations about performance. I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.”
Gilbert talked about how in the ancient deserts of North Africa, people would perform sacred dances. Sometimes a dancer would be overcome with a transcendent force, and everyone else would chant, “Allah, Allah, Allah” (God, God, God). They recognized that the dancer owed the moment of brilliance to something outside of herself.
As an aside, she noted that when the Moors invaded southern Spain they brought this custom with them, but the pronunciation changed over the centuries from chanting Allah, Allah, Allah to chanting Ole, Ole, Ole, which is now heard at bullfights and flamenco dances when a performer does something incredible.
Gilbert said that we might be better off if we never believed that we were responsible for our own talents, but rather that we were lucky if the Muse visited us for a time and then moved on to someone else.
…When she now feels pressure to produce she just tells herself to forge ahead and do her part and let go of the expectation that it has to be brilliant.
“Just do your job,” she told the audience. “Continue to show up for your piece of it. If your job is to dance, then do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment for your efforts, then Ole. And if not, do your dance anyhow. Ole to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”
It’s not your responsibility to be brilliant. Your job is just to show up. Even if you’ve been a creative truant for twenty years, today’s the day to make an appearance. Start typing right now and see what comes out. Pick up a pencil and sketch for five minutes. And if you happen to be visited by the Muse, today or next week or two years from now, then Ole.
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What creative interest do you avoid because you feel pressure to be brilliant?