I stayed home sick from work today, which was nice in that it’s always fun to play hooky, but was not so nice in that I really was suffering from a wicked head cold that left me too dizzy and exhausted to do any fun hooky-type things.
During one of the brief periods in which I could actually focus my eyes on a screen, I took a moment to watch Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on creativity and inspiration, which lots of people were buzzing about when she delivered it last month at TED:
Gilbert describes inspiration as a sort of “demon,” something extrinsic that comes and goes according to its own whims. You can’t control it, so it’s not worth wasting your energy trying; the best thing you can do is to keep plugging away at your creative work, enjoy the work for its own sake, and be ready for when the demon shows up.
That’s all very nice, but it’s not what I found most striking about the talk. What I really loved was the way in which Gilbert resists the idea that inspiration is the exclusive property of the doomed genius, shooting off his magnum opus in a grand, heroic burst before drinking himself into oblivion. Your creative life is not a made-for-TV biopic, narrativized and packaged for easy consumption; your big hit isn’t a climax, to be followed only by bittersweet denouement.
We love stories so much that we’ve developed a tendency to try and mold every experience into the shape of an arc, a story with a beginning, middle and end. This has the effect of making us afraid of success and excitement; we worry that every peak we reach is it, the climax, the resolution of all the forces and tensions that have led up to one shining moment, and that after the moment has passed… nothing but a slow falling action full of writer’s block and failed comeback attempts.
It can be hard to remember that the whole life-as-narrative-biography thing exists only in our heads, and that reifying it dooms us to living out a story that no one has written, despite not liking the way it ends. Instead, Gilbert tells us to stop letting some metaphorical demon define our lives and to keep doing the things we love to do without fear.
The Simpsons once touched on similar points in slightly different terms:
Homer: Save a guy's life, and what do you get? Nothing! Worse than nothing! Just a big scary rock. Bart: Hey, man, don't bad-mouth the head. Marge: Homer, it's the thought that counts. The moral of the story is a good deed is its own reward. Bart: Hey, we
a reward. The head is cool. Marge: Then... I guess the moral is no good deed goes unrewarded. Homer: Wait a minute. If I hadn't written that nasty letter, we wouldn't've gotten anything. Marge: Well... Then I guess the moral is the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Lisa: Perhaps there is no moral to this story. Homer: Exactly! Just a bunch of stuff that happened. Marge: But it certainly was a memorable few days. Homer: Amen to that! [laughter all around]
If it’s all just a bunch of stuff that’s happening, then it’s up to us to make sure that we keep making it happen, and that the stuff that happens is the best we can make.