I’m very jealous of Elizabeth Gilbert, which of course, makes her very annoying. My wife got the audio book version of “Eat, Pray, Love” and drove around with it for weeks. Every time it was her time to drive, there was that dripping-with-compassion-you-can-only-get-at-an-ashram voice of hers talking about “Rome this” and “India that.” I would like to get paid to live in Rome for a few months and gorge out. I’d love to hang out at an ashram (seriously) but, so far, Creative Commons won’t expense that. (I only got as far as “Eat” and “Prey” before my wife took off to Costco on her own, so I can’t make any petty snarky remarks about her take on “Love.”)
Her latest annoyance is her TED talk about genius. I think I agree with her 100% and that possibility drives me nuts. (My buddies Brad Sucks and spinmeister are enamored and that just makes it worse.)
Gilbert draws a link between the image of the tortured artist and society’s expectations on genius that, she claims, is especially high on artists. Her proof that expectations are higher on artists than say, chemical engineers, are all the depressed artists over the last 500 years that have been destroyed by their careers, especially successful ones. (She didn’t mention him, but I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking of David Foster Wallace when she used the very dramatic “some, by their own hand.”) This kind of torturous pressure is especially hard after the “freakish” success of a memoir, like say, one that takes place in Italy and India and one other place I didn’t get to hear about. So Gilbert figures, enough is enough — after 500 years of the renaissance individual supremacy, now, right now, right before the release of her follow-up to “Eat, Pray, Love” would be a really opportune time to let that whole sophomore jinx pass into the night. Despite her blatantly self-auspicious timing, and that she would personally benefit the most if we were to change the course of human history right now — she is, of course, completely justified for asking for this. But it’s an uphill battle on all fronts.
When it comes to expectation levels, I wish her well with that one. I don’t see ridiculous sophomoric anticipation as exclusive to artists, tortured or otherwise. If you have amazing sex the first time you are intimate with someone, you’re going to be dialed pretty high the next time the two of you get together. There’s plenty of one-hit-wonder pressure in that situation to go around. This repeat performance anxiety is not even driven by good times. After the attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001, the entire country (certainly our political system) went through wrenching change all in breathless anticipation of 9-11 Version 2.0, which any decent scientist from 1930’s would recognize as inductive categorical inference — you can’t draw conclusions based on your personal observations.
In Gilbert’s defense, Hollywood, is particularly fucked up in this regard. I was working at Epic Records in Los Angeles when Thriller was released in 1982. The album sold 40 million copies, doubling the output of all the other artists combined on Epic and all other CBS affiliate sales. A year later the stock holders of CBS were aghast to find total record sales had been halved again to pre-Thriller levels. The expectation level had been set that Epic would produce a Thriller every year. Why not? You did it in 1982, why not again in 1983? (Thus was born the phrase: Epic FAIL.) Jackson’s follow up record five years later, sold 8 million in that year and still holds the record for most number one singles (five). The pathetic part is that every single person I talked to in the industry at the time considered Bad a flop. Every. Single. Person. Heads rolled, careers were ruined, stock prices plummeted.
It could also be argued that Jackson, himself, never recovered from the crushing defeat of Bad. It certainly goes to Gilbert’s main concern: herself. Er, sorry, I mean: the artists whose lives and careers were cut short over the last 500 years from this crippling, unrealistic expectation level. She starts this section of the talk with a plea to the TED audience, a decidedly clinical, secularist, scientific group, to allow for the possibility of a muse that sprinkles “fairy dust” on the creative process. “Come along with me,” she implores. But the thing that got her a rousing standing ovation and (literally) hugs and kisses from the audience was the big flourish finale in which she rejected the idea of the muse, renouncing its power over her. “I showed up for my part of the job,” she scolds the belligerent agent of genius who sits unhelpfully silent in the corner of her work studio.
In other words, there is no muse. It all, in fact, comes from the artist. I guess artists need to hear that “it” comes from “some unimaginable source” other than themselves and that, somehow, will ease their anguish. What peaks my envy is that her message is relayed with an unswerving compassion for the artist, plus she’s a great story teller and knows the art of writing and I wish I was that accomplished in my art. Her message is totally righteous: just “do your job.” Ignore the pain of others as expressed as fear and anxiety aimed at you. Give yourself a break by not giving yourself a break from the work. Your “job” is to toil along, get over that. Read Norvig’s “Teach Yourself Programming in 10 Years” and get used to the idea that you’re in it for the long haul, some results are to be expected, others are out of your control.
And that’s part that annoys me the most: that because we don’t have a definitive, rational basis for where the “a-ha” moment comes from, we have to invent a fairy-tale around it. In my darker moments, I think the entire human history can be summed up: “I don’t get it, it must be magic.” But there is rational thought in the world. If you want to know where “inspiration” comes from trying reading “Creativity, Psychology and the History of Science” or another of the thousands of studies out there on the creative process. If you don’t want to go to the trouble (I don’t) then, you know, take it faith that you don’t understand it. Here’s all you have to know: all the science is pointing to one source of inspiration fairy dust: work. Gilbert got it right even though she, oddly, never makes the direct connection between her plea and her advice. Inspiration is on the other side of discipline.
The only other element I have found that plays a major role is luck. Again, unexplainable, maybe unknowable. If you want to know more, go study chaos theory (I guess). For all we know the best musician who ever lived was born in Pompeii in the year 59 AD. On his 20th birthday – volcano. Unlucky. Sometime in the early 1970’s, Rick Astley had random unprotected sex with some lowly, appreciative agent who got him signed and didn’t give him a disease. Lucky. Tiger Woods – good golf genes, born post-civil rights cultural revolution. Lucky. Brad’s point about “genius” being contextual is right on the money. When it comes to be called a genius, context is a fancy word for Anton Chigurh coin-flip luck.
Make believe things and imaginary friends bring us a lot of comfort and distraction from things like death and the randomness of life. Both Gilbert and I find comfort is accepting the things we can’t control and I can see where it’s kind of fun to couch things in happy-fairy talk (even when, in the end, her entire point is to ignore it all and learn your craft.)
But if your life is decimated because you only sold 8 million albums of a record that only got five number one singles then I would advice against looking to explanations from the Easter bunny. The answer is, in fact, inside you. If you succumb to the pressure, I understand, I relate, I still love you, but it’s you doing the succumbing, not society. Gilbert is right again, this tortured artists fantasy myth is bullshit. Perhaps the missing thing is therapy. Sometime that can be expensive but most major cities have mental health clinics where the counselors are not necessarily the best at what they do, but they will treat you with respect and help guide you to a rational way out. In my experience the two most dangerous things in these situations are sycophants and family so tread carefully.
Yes, your genius does come from you – now ignore all that.