Friday, March 6, 2009


My Kid Sis brought the video below to my attention, a lecture by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the bestseller Eat Pray Love, on the topic of creativity and the burden of being a creative person. It's one of the popular "TEDtalks" seminars, in which someone noted for something gets 18 minutes to talk about it. Most of the TEDtalks are at least very interesting, and a few fall into the "life changing" category. If you've got the time and curiosity, I think this talk is worth watching even though, upon reflection, I disagree with almost all of it.

Ms. Gilbert makes the point that it's difficult and risky to do creative work. In particular, producing one good, acclaimed, or popular creative work can create extraordinary pressure to do something even better, more acclaimed, or more popular next time.

Well, she got my attention . . .

She posits that the stresses of a creative life--fear of failure, need to show that earlier success wasn't an undeserved fluke, proving oneself worthy--account for the stereotypical artists who're lousy at relationships and drink or drug themselves to death. When you've captured a bit of the divine, and attained that creative high when the good stuff just seems to flow through you as if it's not even coming from you at all, it can be tough to face the next morning not knowing if you'll ever do it again.

To resolve that problem, Ms. Gilbert suggests reviving the ancient idea of the "genius," which was originally a kind of sprite that lived in your walls and provided inspiration. A muse. Ascribing creativity to a power outside yourself has many benefits. It takes off the pressure; if you didn't have any good ideas today, the muse just wasn't doing its job. It deflates ego; you can't take full credit for something a muse helped you do. Now, it was clear to me (though not to some who commented on the original video) that Ms. Gilbert wasn't suggesting people start believing in literal muses, but rather using that concept as a way to change how they think about and manage their own creative process.

It's a good, interesting, entertaining speech--with which I disagree.

First, I don't care much for the cult of artistry that says creativity is some rare, mysterious, divine gift granted only to a few. I think most people have the same thoughts and notice the same things artists do; the only thing that makes artists special is that they're better at capturing and expressing them. It's a skill that can be taught and cultivated, although I do believe that some people have more natural affinity for it than others. Nor is creativity reserved for people who write books or make pictures. Ms. Gilbert makes (what I took as) some dismissive remarks about her father's career as a chemical engineer, but in fact I've known one or two extremely creative chemists.

I disagree with the idea of waiting helplessly for the fleeting ephemera of inspiration to strike. My definition of professionalism is sitting down and getting the job done whether you feel like it or not. Sometimes it comes gracefully but, if not, pound it out. Charles Schulz said, "Writer's block is for amateurs," and though I think that's a little uncharitable, it's closer to my way of thinking than Ms. Gilbert's musings. There's nothing mystical about it. Just start. Start badly, clumsily, tritely, sloppily, start doing something you know is bad and no one will ever see but you. In my experience, it always leads to something worthwhile.

I also wonder if Ms. Gilbert overstresses the pathology of being an artist. Maybe we just don't hear about all the accountants, office managers, and chemical engineers who cheat on their spouses and drink too much. I'm wary of the school of thought that you can't be an artist unless you had a lousy childhood, for example. I think a lousy childhood can drive a person toward art, so that maybe a survey of artists actually would turn up more lousy childhoods than average, but I very much doubt it's a necessary condition. At least I hope not, because my childhood was pretty good.

I disagree with Ms. Gilbert's notion of creativity being an unusually heavy burden. I'll be honest: there were times I felt the shadow of Mom's Cancer fall across my shoulders while I worked on Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow. Almost literally--my Eisner Award sits on a bookshelf behind me, and the thought occurred to me that, after WHTTWOT comes out, a man in a dark suit will knock at my door and say, "I'm from the Eisners. We obviously made a terrible mistake and want the trophy back."

But those thoughts quickly pass because I'm a grown-up who's had actual responsibilities and challenges in my life. Here's the way I look at it: what's the worst that could happen if WHTTWOT turns out to be a terrible book that nobody buys? Well, whatever tiny reputation I have would be damaged. My publisher would lose money. I might never put out another book. In other words, except for some expense to my publisher--which is a business gamble they knowingly took--the only one hurt if my book fails is me.

(I once said something similar in the presence of Editor Charlie, who replied, "Gee, thanks a lot!")

In contrast, I think about my Nurse Sis. She doesn't do direct patient care anymore, but back when she did, if she had a bad day at work somebody could actually die. One of my oldest college buddies analyzes terrorist activity for the CIA; if he has a bad day at work, hundreds of thousands could die.

Cops, doctors, firefighters, soldiers, lawyers, politicians, construction workers, social workers, and even chemical engineers do work that involves real risk and directly affects people's lives. They know pressure. They carry burdens. Me, sitting on my butt, drawing my little pictures, risking nothing except my ego? Not so much.

In my opinion, too many artists just get too full of themselves. Guess what? You're not that special. Cut the drama.

Yeah, I want my book to be good. I want people to read it, like it, get something interesting and worthwhile from it. I want to sell a lot of copies, earn back my publisher's investment and maybe make a few bucks myself. I want critical praise and awards. I want this to be the beginning of a career, not the end.

But if not? I could live with it. Good or bad, I'll take the responsibility. Not my muse.

EDITED TO ADD: Feel free to disagree. I might be wrong.


Sherwood Harrington said...

What a nice co-incidence that I'd read this post on the same day that the "classic" Peanuts re-run was this one:
Elizabeth Gilbert is Lucy; you are Charlie Brown.

Seriously, this was a fine essay, Brian, and one whose import extends well beyond artistic enterprises. My Dad was fond of saying that "the greatest handicap is disinclination," but then he was fond of saying a lot of things.

Otis Frampton said...

Seriously, Brian . . . I'll sue.


Namowal (Jennifer Bourne) said...

"I disagree with the idea of waiting helplessly for the fleeting ephemera of inspiration to strike. My definition of professionalism is sitting down and getting the job done whether you feel like it or not."
So true! Inspiration can be wonderful, but it's elusive and unreliable. The "just [write/draw/design] the damn thing" method works better.
I haven't seen the video yet, but from your description it sounds like it may suffer from the us creative types are more sensitive and special than mere mortals syndrome. That's silly.

Otis Frampton said...

"The "just [write/draw/design] the damn thing" method works better."


I have no time to wait for inspiration. If I ever run out of steam on a project, I either start or move over to a different project. Work momentum is salvaged and there's no need to ever believe in "writer's block"!


Peter Yellowlees said...

I agree with you Brian - but what about those of us who both work in a pressure job where others can die, ( I am a doctor) and also like writing and being creative. My creativity, like you, has been to publish a book - in my case showing patients how they can use the internet properly to communicate and learn about their health - details at - might have been useful for you a while back.

Dann said...

Hi Brian,

I haven't seen the video, but would like to offer a couple of thoughts.

1 - creativity isn't necessarily limited to those that earn a living with it. A couple weeks ago I had the occasion to sit in on a hen house meeting at the local cross-stitch store. For the uninitiated, that is a form of needlework.

There was a broad scale of creative talent sitting around the table from the workmanly approach of rigidly following the pattern as established by the designer to the more creative approach that would alter color schemes and other content to suit the stitcher's vision. Yet everyone enjoyed some measure of creativity.

IMO, earning a living from creativity is more a matter of drive than it is a measure of creative ability.

2 - As you suggested with the chemist, even most dry of technical careers can involve a generous measure of creativity. A programmer that can write the fewest lines of code to accomplish a given task is generally more creative than their peers. Structural engineers test the limits of materials and design to create visually interesting buildings and other structures.

The above probably invites a 'duh' response from most folks, but is probably news for those that believe their possession of talent is an exception rather than the rule.