As a consultant, I constantly run into two types of artists, those who consider themselves to be geniuses at their craft, but have very little talent, and those who have amazing talent, but do not consider themselves to be geniuses. I guess there is actually a third type and that is the artist that falls into the middle of these two extremes.
Being a creative artist involves a unique set of perils different from other vocations. A depressed novelist may kill himself over an unsatisfying book creative artists are a notoriously anguished lot; while some of us might be well-adjusted and perfectly content with our lives, a great many of us suffer from constant self-doubt, chronic depression, violent mood swings, drug and alcohol addiction; some succumb to madness, others to paralysis, others to suicide. Most people assume that this is just part of the bargain of being a creative artist—that this is the way it’s always been and always will be.
But is it inevitable that creative artists must live tortured lives, or is there another path available to us—one that might spare us from a life of anguish, addiction, and madness?
Artists since the Renaissance have been under the belief—or more accurately, the delusion—that they are the source of their own genius; and that this delusion may in fact be the root cause of much of the suffering, madness, and self-destruction that characterize the lives of creative artists in the modern, post-Renaissance era.
The modern view of genius is starkly different from the Greco-Roman view; for the Greeks and Romans, creativity didn’t come from human beings, it came to human beings. This view served as a “protective psychological construct” that kept the artist both humble and sane. Humble, because the artist could never entirely take credit for his or her work. Sane, because if the work wasn’t good, it wasn’t entirely the artist’s fault—he or she could blame it partially on the “universe”.
Appealing to muses, fairies, daemons, and gnomes for our creative inspiration may run counter to our firmly entrenched rational beliefs; but it may also save the lives of our creative artists., since all of us have struggled with the anxieties that come from believing that we are the source of our own genius. One moment you’re totally unified in purpose, actively making progress on your art, when suddenly your mind splinters into dozens of conflicting inner voices, each speaking a different “language” (doubt, megalomania, anxiety, despair) all of them threatening to undermine your creative endeavor—and perhaps your sanity.
Of course, embarking on any bold creative endeavor is a sure way to trigger the forces of self-sabotage, inner confusion, and torment. In our own era, creative artists have become quite adept at inflicting punishment on ourselves, as the lives of artists from Edgar Allan Poe to Kurt Cobain tragically illustrate.
The question becomes: is there a way to spare our present-day artists from a lifetime of suffering? Is it possible to keep the future “Icaruses” of the world from plunging to their deaths? Is there a way to save our creative minds from succumbing to the inner voices of Babel and descending into self-sabotage? And keep in mind, I am not posing this question as a detached observer, but as a creative artist myself, one who has personally experienced the anguish and self-doubt and “babeling” voices that attend the creative process—and who has also asked himself: “Is there a better way?”
Yes, there is—even if it may seem suspiciously New Age-y to many creative artists and our post-Renaissance, rationalist sensibilities: Give up on ever becoming a genius. Instead, ask for help from your Genius.
This doesn’t mean that creative artists need to find religion (although if we do, that certainly is our right). What it does mean is that if we want to avoid the dangers of “swallowing the sun,” it would behoove us to create one of those “protective psychological constructs” that separates us from our Genius (lame or otherwise), and by doing so safe-guards our psychological, emotional, and physical well-being.
Admittedly, the idea of separating yourself from your Genius doesn’t fit well with our Romantic notions of individual artistic achievement; nevertheless, many artists since the Renaissance have relied upon such constructs to help them with their creative process. Walt Whitman, for example, split his personality into three parts: there was “Walt Whitman, one of the roughs,” his mortal, physical self; there was the “Me Myself,” Whitman’s essential self, undisturbed by circumstance, who was, as he put it in “Song of Myself,” “Both in and out of the game and watching wondering at it”; and finally, there was “The Soul,” the ultimate cosmic source of Whitman’s creative genius that occasionally allowed him to merge with it to write works of incredible poetic power.
We can’t win the battle alone, the purpose of these constructs isn’t to make you a great artist. Their purpose, to put it bluntly, is to keep you sane and keep you alive, to function as a buffer between you and the mysteries of creation, between your fragile mortal mind and the awesomeness of our Genius, that we realize that our talents, and our occasional bursts of “genius,” are really just gifts sent to us on loan from God. So that our proper attitude to anything we create shouldn’t be “I am a genius” or “I am a failure,” but rather, “I can’t take all the credit.”
Entirely rational? Maybe not. But being rational hasn’t necessarily been good for the happiness and emotional stability of creative artists over the last five hundred years. And although we shouldn’t turn our backs on reason completely, perhaps we as creative artists need to abandon our “rational” efforts at becoming geniuses, “open up the door,” and in the words of The Beatles, ask for help. Who knows—with a little faith and hard work, we just might get it.
I am crediting Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the big magic for excerpts in this article.