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Recently, I watched the TED talk that Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed) gave in 2009 on creativity, the creative process and how the concepts of being a genius and the tormented artist construct were created.

As I listened to her speak, I thought about the many times I’ve heard people say things like “She’s a genius at that” or “What a genius he is.” I know I’ve certainly said it. In fact, I’ve said it right here in the kasbah when referring to a certain classy British actor. But what does is really mean to call someone a genius? And what kind of pressure does that place on an artist?

According to Elizabeth, quite a lot, so much so that writers and other artists tend be afraid of trusting their own creative process. When someone reveals she is an artist of some type, she’ll often get asked if she’s afraid of not succeeding, of not being the next great artist in her genre, of not being able to control and bend her creative process at will. Because of this doubt and fear, artists have developed the unfortunate reputation of being a mentally unstable group driven to self-destruction over the results of their work.

The tormented artist construct is one that has persisted over the last several centuries. Elizabeth explains in her talk why she is not willing to accept this construct anymore and what she proposes as an alternative. (I know, 19 minutes is a big chunk out of your already busy day, but I found it to be very thought-provoking and fascinating to listen to and I hope you do, too. Also, the rest of the post will make more sense if you do.)


According to Elizabeth, the ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t believe that creativity came from human beings. Instead, they believed that creativity came from “divine attendant spirits that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable places.”

The Greeks called these attendant spirits daemons and the Romans called them geniuses, “the magical divine entities that lived in the walls of an artist’s studio and would come out to assist the artist with their work.”

Winged genius facing a woman with a tambourine and mirror, from southern Italy, circa 320 BC. Photo credit ~ Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons

This externalization of the creative process allowed artists to have a psychological construct outside of themselves that served to protect them from the results of their work. In other words, if your work was amazing and brilliant, everyone, including the artist, knew that the artist couldn’t take all of the credit for it. Likewise, if your work totally sucked, then everyone knew you had a lame genius assisting you on that project.

I’ll admit I didn’t buy into the external genius construct right away and had to give a lot of thought to it after hearing her talk. Maybe it was because the tortured artist construct is such a pervasive one that it took me some time to deconstruct it in order to fully understand it and then decide to reject it.

Or perhaps it was because I wasn’t sure if I could buy into the concept of an external genius construct. It felt a little too removed, too distant, too lacking in responsibility for my own actions. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was already finding inspiration outside of myself when writing. So, was it that big of a leap to consider a divine attendant spirit that would give me guidance, inspiration and support?

Not really.

I rather like the idea of seeing the creative process as one of collaboration. I like knowing I’m not alone in the process. The fear of failure, the fear that I’m not a good enough writer, the fear that I’m only capable of creating craptacular prose not fit for human consumption, is so crippling and isolating. But, if I don’t have to be the genius and can instead have a genius for a writing partner, if I can let go of the notion that everything I create must come out perfect and stellar and brilliant ALL THE TIME, then maybe I can shake off some of that nasty fear and loathing.

Still, I wondered about where my personal responsiblity lay in the process. If I’m not taking sole credit for the bad or the good that I create, what do I hold myself accountable for? Elizabeth answered this for me at the end of her talk:

“Olé to you nonetheless for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up and doing your part.”

Getting my butt in the chair, my fingers on the keyboard, and the words on the page. That’s my job. That’s what I’m responsible for.

And that genius lounging over there in the corner? I’ll allow myself to partner up with him (especially if he has a British accent). I’ll keep myself open to the words and ideas he wants to send through me. And if they happen to be sucktastic and lame? Well, at least I can say I showed up for my part. Olé to me for doing so and for continuing to do so every day.

And olé to you, fine readers, for showing up and doing your part in your own creative endeavors, whatever they may be.


What are your thoughts about Elizabeth’s talk? Do you accept the tortured artist construct? What about daemons, geniuses, and divine attendant spirits hanging out with us while we work? What do you think about having a genius vs. being a genius? Olé to y’all for hanging out in the kasbah and leaving your comments below. As always, I love hearing from you.