“When she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape and she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barrelling down at her over the landscape. And when she felt it coming—because it would shake the earth under her feet—she knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times, she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it, “for another poet.””
-Elizabeth Gilbert on American poet Ruth Stone’s “creative process” (the video)
I wasn’t initially very impressed with her proposition that we (re-)adopt Ancient Greece and Rome’s conception of ‘daemon/genius’ as mystical fairies that come to us in a collaborative manner in our production of creative works. Aside from coming across as completely bizarre, it doesn’t seem like progressive thought to me.
BUT. Her account of Ruth Stone’s experiences completely stalled my scepticism. Because, incredibly, that is how I write. I haven’t really thought about it before, other than, at times, reading through past entries and thinking to myself, “It just doesn’t look like I wrote this.”
It’s not always like that. But I’ve had my fair share of encounters like that. When an overpowering idea fills my whole head and I almost tremble with excitement to write it down. My head will be filled with fragments of words, almost intelligible to my understanding because they are so disjointed. And they’ll be floating in this vast space in my head and I feel like I’m standing below them, grabbing at the fragments. At that point, I have to get to a computer to type it out in its totality. Because in my experience, scribbling the phrases down in a notebook, squinting through the dark, and thinking to myself, “It’s too late, I’ll complete it tomorrow” means that I’ve lost that idea forever. Maybe it’s gone to find some other writer.
I don’t always write like that. And that is how I know what Gilbert and Stone are talking about is something magical, and something very real. More than a mere human capability of what genius entails. I am not a genius. I only say that in jest. I’m scared to death of failure. I can’t even call myself a writer without trepidation that I will never live up to that name. I call myself a writer simply because I write. It’s a title I use, born of technical pragmatism. Sometimes, when I write, words don’t flow. And I live in fear of those times because when that happens, I feel paralyzed, useless and inadequate, a good-for-nothing.
Over time, I’ve consoled myself with the fact that though it isn’t often that people can catch a glimpse of something magical in my writing, I do not write badly. And I think I can extrapolate the point Gilbert is trying to make about seeing, again, genius as something external so that we may retain a shred of sanity by disassociating ourselves from the pressure of performing, of living up to our last ‘success’. To see the creative product as a collaboration with our assigned genius, that even if our absent-minded, cockeyed genius fails to show up, we do our part, relentlessly, by being present and giving our best. Because even if people cannot catch the glimpse of the divine in our everyday work, we would have improved our technique as we await the next time our genius appears, to be a better vessel to manifest that magical product. And the point is, I do not write badly, because even when that magical epiphany eludes me, I continue to write. And it’s something that I’ll probably always do. What I cannot achieve with the divine, I can make up for (though not entirely) with sheer human commitment.
“Because it makes as much sense as anything else I have ever heard in terms of explaining the utter maddening capriciousness of the creative process. A process which as (…) everyone knows, does not always behave rationally. And in fact can sometimes feel downright paranormal.”