Friday, November 27, 2015

The genius outside ourselves

On Thanksgiving morning, I caught another TED lecture by another author, this time Elizabeth Gilbert. She poses the question, must artistry lead to anguish? Do artists really have to suffer for their art? Does creativity always carry inherent emotional risks? The answer, at least in today's world too often seems to be yes.

Yet this was not always the case, Gilbert says. Before the Renaissance genius was considered something artists had, something they were blessed with, however temporarily, not what they themselves were. Genius was just something certain artists had the use of for awhile, before it moved along to someone else. The practical difference, Gilbert says, is that all the pressure is now on the artist to produce great art, where before artists believed both the credit and the blame for their work lay elsewhere. They were, at least psychologically, off the hook.

Gilbert advocates trying to return to the idea of muses, sprits or whatever, but her argument is not just that this is a useful mind trick. She argues this may actually be true. Writers often say they don't know where certain ideas came from. They talk as if characters invented themselves, the authors simply transcribing their words. Other creative people tell similar stories. Great ideas come from dreams. They spring, unbidden, at the oddest times and places. That proverbial light bulb sometimes just lights up, and if you happen to be the beneficiary, you feel not responsible but blessed.

In small ways, this sort of thing has happened to me three times over the past few days in the writing done for this blog. On Wednesday, the day I planned to write about truth in fiction, I happened to listen to an Amy Tan lecture in which she speaks on that very subject. Last week, intending to write about reading old books and magazines, I came upon a related Hi & Lois comic strip. A couple of days earlier, I came upon a passage in one novel about precision in language and a passage in another about ambiguity in language, both serving the same purpose of protecting the speaker or writer.

How can one explain such things? Fortunate coincidences? The spirit of God? A genius outside ourselves? A muse? Whatever the case, they give us one more thing to be very thankful for.

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