Creativity and Writing: My Genius in the Corner

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Elizabeth Gilbert TED talk on creativity and genius
Elizabeth Gilbert speaking on creativity      and genius

I have been on a long-term writing retreat. One of the main reasons I chose to do this was so I could hopefully figure out what my relationship is, or should be, between myself and my creativity. Did I even want to have a creative life as a dedicated career? Left-brain work and engagement comes easy to me, but like many gifted people I am multi-talented in areas both left- and right-brained.  Each of those areas of focus fulfills me in a way the other can’t.

I have been back and forth with my creative work all my life. Do it, love it, run away from it to the refuge of the chewy mental challenge of something left-brained and preferably entrepreneurial as well.  Finally I was at a juncture in my life where it seemed nothing was working for me. I wanted to go to law school but was unable to swing the financing. And it became clear to me that I needed a new focus, the right focus. So I escaped to the country to write a book (of course) and, yes, figure this stuff out once and for all.

Being a Creative Writer

I’ve been at this since I was a small child.  I wrote my first story as soon as I’d mastered the letters for it. At age 6, on the double-lined paper of a first-grader, I wrote out my story and ran home and handed it to my 24-year-old brother.

The sun is warm today.
I mean Hot.
I will rob your bank today.
You will be tired. I know you will.
an Outlaw.

Yes, it read like a hold-up note, and maybe it was. It was the fall of 1962, and cowboys and outlaws were bigger then than they are today.  But this was the vignette playing out in my mind, that vibrant scene I had to capture somehow. There it was. My first story. And I knew it.

My brother knew it too. When I turned 33 he tossed an unwrapped picture frame in my lap in his unceremonious way and said, ‘Happy Birthday.” In that frame was the story he’d kept all those years.

I hadn’t yet sold a book, but we both knew what I should be doing.

“Top That”

I’m not going to go into a lot more autobiographical depth here. Let’s just skip ahead a ways and say that my first science fiction novel, Mainline, got good reviews. Really good.  In 1997 it placed number 9 in the Locus Poll Award for Best First Novel. My publisher was okay with me writing fantasy, but after two books and so-so sales in that genre it became obvious they saw me more as a science fiction author, and wanted more in the vein of Mainline.

Well, I do love me some sci-fi, and live part-time in that science fictional world anyway. Sure, I was up for that. I’m eager to tell stories there, and that’s how Splintegrate came to be my next book (finishing it now).

But it has been a long, long road to get here with it. Part of my problem was that I fell into a subtle trap that best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) talks about in her brilliant TED talk about creativity and genius (video below).  Besides the very real challenges of discovering how to live – how to be – in a creative space in order to write, I dealt with my own smaller version of Gilbert’s conundrum, which she describes thus:

“It’s exceedingly likely that anything I write from this point forward is going to be judged by the world as the work that came after the freakish success of my last book.”

Drop the word “freakish” and add “science fiction” to “book”, and we’re talking about me.

Gilbert talks about friends asking her, wasn’t she afraid that she could never top the success of that book? Her answer was yes, and her challenge was to find a way to “recalibrate” her relationship to her creativity, so that whatever comes in the future, success or failure, she remains a comfortable vehicle for creativity to flow through. She shows up for “her part of the bargain,” and that thing, that creative force, that glimpse of God sitting over there in the corner – that is what she allows herself to have a relationship with.

In other words, the onus is not all on her, within her, brilliance or failure contained within the four walls of her mind. Instead, it is a partnership with something greater than self, that she allows to come through herself.

This is the same process I have been going through, especially while on retreat. I’ve been here before. In working through The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s profoundly transformative work1, I came to recognize this partnership with the divine or the transcendent that is part of allowing myself to flow creatively.  I have long had a personal and immediate experience of, as Cameron puts it, “not making it up, but getting it down”, as I channel (I use that word deliberately) what comes through me and onto the page.  (See my “About” note at this site, under the header “Why I Write These Stories.”)

So what has changed for me?

Taking time for introspection about Creativity and Me, is one. Doing some intense work in that area (thanks, Gail! my dear friend who is my companion in that jungle.)  Getting a story published in an anthology is another.  I don’t ordinarily write short fiction, but this timely invitation to write a military science fiction short came at just the right moment, and to be frank, seeing my work in print again reminds me that – hey. I’m an author. Not just a writer, putting words on a page, but a teller of tales – and channeling the tales that need to be told. (Thank you, Danielle and Mike, for this opportunity that reminded me of my proper framework in Things Creative.)  Age is another. I’m in my mid-50s, and the cumulative effect of these and other changes and insights makes me feel like I just figured out what I want to be when I grow up.

I’m not a writer. I’m an author. The two feel profoundly different to me now.

Creativity and Being an Author

Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk, then, feels very apropos, even though she recorded it two and a half years ago.  She talks about recognizing that creative force not only as being within, but being a specific Thing outside one’s self, that a person can interact with. She tells of the marvelous experiences of poet Ruth Stone, who felt poems physically barrel through her, and would run to write them down before they fled. Sometimes, when she’d almost missed one, she could sometimes “catch it by its tail” and pull it back into her body, writing the flood of words as she did so, capturing the poem in full but backwards, from last word to first.

I’m not writing backwards yet, but I am recognizing, finally, unequivocally, when Story is approaching, and when it is barreling through me. And when I’m stuck and feel like I’m empty of That Thing, then I can, like Elizabeth, raise my head from my work and talk to that not-so-empty corner of the room, and say, hey. I’m showing up for my piece of the work. It would be nice if you helped me out, here, too.

By situating the Muse not just within, but also outside myself, and by making her presence tangible (like Dobby the house-elf, per Gilbert’s funny analogy), I’m shifting the way I work. Here, finally, is Someone or Something I can engage with and gain traction with over the long haul. “Being creative” is not something I alone am responsible for. It is an outworking of God or the Universe or whatever you wish to call it. Now maybe I have a better way to gain full participation from all parties involved.

Maybe this is something every artist must go through, this recalibration of self and relationship to creativity. Or must, if you want to go beyond your self-set limitations and baggage from the past.

So now, when you hear me speaking to an empty room when I’m supposed to be writing,you’ll know it’s because I am talking to my Genius. She’s over there, sitting in the corner – and if you listen just so, you may hear her response. Or at least, if I listen just so, I know that I will.

And that is as it should be.


1. A book I found so transformative, in fact, that I credit my unlikely sale of Mainline to the work I did in The Artist’s Way, and dedicated my novel in part to Julia Cameron. How unlikely was that sale? It was sold unagented out of the slush pile at Tor on the strength of a 30 page partial, making it (I was told) only the third book ever to be bought from their slush pile, and certainly the only partial ever sold in such a manner. Kids, don’t try this at home. I broke every rule of “how to sell your first novel” – but I did it in an intense state of visualization and by being open to serendipity and the aid of the Universe. What Cameron said.

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