Monday, April 12, 2010

The Muse, The Daemon, and The Artist

This post is a continuation from last week’s. Sort of. :)

TED speech by Elizabeth Gilbert

I know many who love what Gilbert had to say. I think she has some valid points, like the high mortality rate of creative geniuses. I agree about the lack of support for creative artists, helping them manage “the inherent emotional risks of creativity.” The creative mind can walk a fine line between genius and crazy.  :)  I also agree that there must be a way to deal with this, so we don’t lose so many artists to tragic and unnecessary deaths.

But how that’s done? Well...I have to say that I completely disagree with her.

I need to take a moment to say this, because it's very important to me.  The kidlit world of writing is an amazingly supportive one.  Just look at places like Verla Kay's Blueboards or SCBWI.  These places are treasure troves of information, as well as filled with people who are willing and happy to share their experiences, cheer you on, or comiserate.  Sure, there's still jealousy and competition, but it's rare that it turns vicious (if ever).  So if you write for kids and you're having trouble dealing with something, you have places to go.  For the adult world of writing?  I've heard rumors that it's nothing like the kidlit world.  The opposite, in fact.  So I can see much of Gilbert's talk applying more to that world.

Anyway, Gilbert had some interesting things to say about the daemon or genius, which has basically been translated into today's muse. The big difference is that society as a whole doesn’t believe the talent comes from the muse anymore, the way the ancient Greeks and Romans believed that talent came from a divine spirit (called the daemon or genius). Gilbert believes that we should go back to that philosophy, putting the talent back into the muse. That way the artist doesn’t bear the entire burden of success or failure. And if one artist is better than another, then that means one artist got a better muse than another – thereby, it’s not his fault.

That might be helpful for some people, but that philosophy doesn't apply to everyone. It's too specific. I’ve said this before, but I don’t have a muse. I don’t like them. If others want to have one, hey, that’s fine with me. But they don’t work for me. At all. Plus, I don’t buy that artists will accept that one person got a great muse but another didn’t. There would be much whining about ‘why did I get stuck with this idiot when he got the greatest muse in the world?’ :) Petty jealousy is still part of human nature.

I think that the real problem comes down to one's own self-confidence. What I mean by this is that you truly believe in yourself, not that you think you’re better than everyone else. If you believe in yourself, that you can do what you set out to do, then you will be able to let the fear roll off of you. If you don't, then the fear will find places to grab hold and hang on.

Gilbert said the general solution to this problem is this:
“I have to create some sort of protective psychological construct...find some way to have a safe distance between me...and what the reaction to that writing is going to be.”

I think that’s somewhat true, but I don’t think it needs to be a huge, elaborate process. The real solution is to search within yourself for ways to let that fear go, and chances are you will be left holding on to the love you have for your work.  Which is the most important thing of all.


Lily Cate said...

I don't have a muse either :)
Personally, I'd like to take credit for the work I do. Writing, and making any art, is incredibly hard, even for the incredibly talented.

Julia Kelly said...

Thank you for the post and the source of TED- can't wait to find other cool videos to watch- I totally agree with Ms. Gilbert and know my talent come from above- you inspired me to write about it on my blog- did give you credit for finding TED- thanks again, look forward to other writers comments-

Mary Witzl said...

I've never really felt I had a muse either. (Or if I do have one, I've never used it.)

The other day I asked a colleague how he dealt with people who talked about him behind his back (we work with a few back-biters) and he said, "They don't bother me at all. I have a high regard for myself and if what they say is not true, it does not touch me." He didn't say this boastfully -- he said it gently and firmly.

I just loved that. I'm trying to cultivate a high regard for myself so I can learn to let the fear roll off me too.

Tabitha said...

Lily - Maureen Johnson calls them 'credit-stealing parasites,' and I couldn't agree more. :)

Julia - I'm so glad you enjoyed her talk. For those who believe in an external source for talent, I think it's very inspiring. :)

Mary - good for you!!! :) Dealing with people who talk behind your back is actually similar to being an author. Because people are going to talk about your book behind your back, and if you let that bother you then you'll end up in the looney bin. :)

Anonymous said...

I have several thoughts on this.

First, I think the tough part about being creative in a commercial society is not that the work itself is a torment. Certainly it is difficult to be vulnerable to the kinds of emotions I need to be in touch with, in order to bring my work alive. Certainly I fight the self-protective instinct, and I believe good writing demands that I fight self-protection. But still, feeling those emotions doesn't scare me; it's showing them to the world that's scary. It's judgment that's scary.

And I think that's what "drives artists crazy" more than the work itself: the judgment. The ridicule or rejection on one hand, or the head-turning adoration and attention on the other. Both kinds of reactions can knock people for loops.

For that reason, I think it is helpful to have some self-protective mechanism when the work is done and is in the process of being judged by the world.

Gilbert's discussion of this external source reminds me of the 12-Step program Higher Power: the belief in a power greater than themselves. Many writers speak instead of a muse, or the man in the basement, or the subconscious--and to varying degrees these sources can be seen as wholly external or somewhat internal but below the reach of the conscious mind.

One of my Muses appears as a character on my blog to illustrate certain points I want to make about the writing process (hopefully in an amusing way), but I don't have a sense of a literal, external being called the Muse.
I do, however, have the sense of stories being something that I discover rather than fabricate. I unearth them rather than manufacture them. From where I discover and unearth them, I don't really know and I don't feel the need to know.

Getting back to the self-protective mechanisms during judgment: people talk of having thick skins, but it's not so simple. It is unbelievably difficult to have one's creative work judged publicly, and I found that as much as I tried to prepare myself for this process, my imagination was not equal to the reality. And I've seen many others go through the same door and experience similar reactions, and we all find our own ways to deal with it. I don't think it's possible to immediately let go of or shrug off those feelings--nor, really, should we expect people to. Everyone finds his or her own way through it. And I don't mean this at all in a "poor us, please don't hurt us" kind of way. Our work is a form of communication, and we can't expect that to be one-sided. I mean it in a very matter-of-fact way: we must all find our own bread-crumb trail through the forest.

Very thought-provoking topic!

Tabitha said...

I love how concepts like these can provoke such thorough and deep responses like yours. :)

I completely agree that the torment comes from the judgement on the work, not the work itself. I guess I should have been clearer on that.

I also agree that we all have to find our own paths through the forest of publication. What works for one person may not work for another. Or it may only partly work. But if we pay attention, then we'll find the way.

I'm wishing now that I'd said more about the kidlit world of writing. There is so much support out there for writers in this age group, and, for me, that counts for a whole lot. I've met some great people through blogs, the authors I've spoken to are so down to earth, and nearly all the writers I know are more than happy to help each other out. It's a fantastic community, and having something like this on your side has *got* to make it easier when you get extreme reactions to your book (either positive or negative). I am very glad I'm a part of it. :)

Elana Johnson said...

You are so right. I'm not sure I have a muse either. Sometimes I force myself to write. I get better. I work hard. That's all there is to it. Oh, and I believe I CAN.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tabitha,

After I posted I wanted to apologize for the length of my comment--but then I thought you might like such an in-depth response!

I thought the "torment of the work" was Gilbert's point more than yours--at least, that's how I was responding to it. I wished she'd said more about the torment of the judgment, but I think she did in an indirect way.

And I totally agree with you about the supportiveness of the kidlit community. I'm glad so many writers really get the concept that cooperation is good for the soul. Also that one good book leads readers to seek out more good books: so let's help each other discover good books, and let's help each other write them!