On Having a Genius

May 18, 2012 § Leave a comment

All writing is creative.

I’ll say it (write it!) again: ALL writing is creative.

One more time . . . All writing is creative.

As a professional writer proficient in many genres, I’m always puzzled when my students draw what seem to me to be arbitrary distinctions between what we call “creative” writing (poetry, fiction, drama, and the various forms of creative nonfiction) and writing for an academic audience (say, writing a research paper.)

While I have much evidence (and ten years of teaching all kinds of writing at the college level) to ground this claim, I want to focus today on just one: the first stage of the writing process– INVENTION.

Invention, I tell my students, is the most mysterious part of the writing process.  One day you don’t have an idea for a novel, an essay, a blog entry.  And then, suddenly, you do.

Sometimes the idea comes from “out of the blue” (usually while you are doing some sort of left-brain activity like driving or showering– the rational, analytical, judgemental  part of your brain is occupied, so your creative, irrational right brain is free to express its presence to you, often in the form of thoughts like, “eating an avocado is like consuming a green sunset.”)

Sometimes you have to sit down with a blank screen (or a lump of clay, or a blank canvas) and just put down words (or start molding, or making brush strokes) until something, anything, comes.

Sometimes something happens to you that is so powerful or transformative that you just want to write about it.

Sometimes there is an assignment or a life experience that demands we create– using a deadline and a grade to add extra impetus.

And other times there is just an urge, a nameless desire, to CREATE.  To write our life story.  To pick up a camera.  To paint a wall in our house a green we’d previously never considered.

At any rate, at multiple points in our life, at one point, there was nothing.  And then . . . SOMETHING.  It’s a miracle, every time.  A woman is not pregnant, and then, suddenly, her body is filled with another life.  A student sits down at midnight to write an essay and then, hours later, there are words on the page . . . typed, double spaced, formatted using MLA conventions . . . .  A poet walks in his garden softly reciting lines that come to him like music.

In my English classes, whether writing or literature, I introduce my claim that all writing is creative by asking my students these questions sometime during the first week:

What does it mean to be creative?  Where does creativity come from?  Are we born with a certain amount of creativity (a finite amount), or is creativity something that can be nurtured?  Developed?  Do you consider yourself to be a creative person?  If so, why?  If not  . . . WHY NOT?  

After having my students freewrite (usually about ten minutes) in response to these questions, I then show them this Ted Talk, given by Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame), every quarter.  In it, Gilbert describes her tremendous anxiety about writing the “dangerously anticipated,” as she puts it, follow-up to the “freakish success” of her best selling memoir.

Whether we have written a best-seller or not, I think we can all relate to that feeling of fear when it comes to a creative project.  Any woman who has had a child will tell you that along with great excitement and wonder comes at least a smidgen of fear.

Sometimes that anxiety pops up as we write an e-mail at work.  Sometimes it comes while we are drafting a blog entry.  Composing a song.  Sculpting.  Painting.  Taking pictures of a wedding.

I believe that anxiety has many roots, but one of the largest is that tension of INVENTION– where we don’t know how we will get from NOTHING (blank page, blank canvas, lump of clay) to SOMETHING.

Invention is not rational.  It can’t be explained using science and reason.  It is not reliable (although there are ways to train yourself to trust the process and access that moment more effectively.)

To help us cope with that anxiety, Gilbert offers us a new way (that is actually an old way) to revise our thinking about living a creative life.  To do so, she revisits the classical understanding of creativity.  From ancient Greece, Gilbert invokes the daemon.  And from ancient Rome, she recalls the genius.

Gilbert points out that the way we have thought about creativity changed about 400 years ago.  After the Renaissance, she says, “We had this big idea,” and that Big Idea was to put the human in the center of the universe.  In addition to the multiple shifts that scientific fact created (sort of like throwing a stone into a pond) we started referring to great artists of all kinds as BEING a genius, versus HAVING a genius.  Of this difference, Gilbert has a striking image: “It’s like asking someone to swallow the sun,” she says (Note that about the same time we discovered, scientifically, that the solar system revolved around the sun, rather than the earth.)

To talk of HAVING a genius versus BEING a genius is an admittedly subtle language shift, and Gilbert gives a few stories to illustrate its power, using the poet Ruth Stone, the singer Tom Waits, and an allegorical dancer.

At the end of the talk, Gilbert says “I believe that this is true, and I believe that we must teach it.”

I believe that what she says in this talk is true too– so much that I ever since the first time I watched it (about three years ago now), I have shown it to every writing and literature course I have taught.

While Gilbert’s points in this Ted Talk may seem, at first, to our post-Englightenment, rational, scientific, left-brain dominant minds ONLY to apply to creative writing (and even then this talk of creatures living in our walls may seem a bit suspect), my students in literature classes (namely Shakespeare and World Literature Renaissance to Enlightenment) find her points immensely relevant to their study.

What’s even more significant is that this quarter, as my students write their first essay– a synthesis essay making an argument about work in the shifting landscape of the 21st century– they find Gilbert’s points reassuring, thought-provoking, and helpful as they play with their first attempts at writing for the highly specialized (“Picky!” one of my students exclaimed today in a conference) for an academic audience.

I’d encourage all of you, this week, to not only watch the video (it’s about twenty minutes), but to ask yourself this question: if I start thinking of myself as HAVING a genius (rather than BEING a genius, which is by definition a pretty exclusive club), how might your approach to ANY creative act change?

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