You can just feel it. Autumn is on its way, and with it, a new school year. It’s always been my favorite time of year – a time for beginnings, to learn something new, to grab life by the tail and make things better than they were last year. And though I’m not in school anymore, I do teach part-time and I get a little giddy while attempting to weave together my syllabus.
I teach composition: not the most scintillating of courses, and a general education requirement, to boot. I always want to do something radical, something creative, something different. Last year, exhausted from working a full-time job and having just found out I was pregnant, my class was ordinary and (dare I say) boring. But this year, I’m feeling a bit ambitious.
Right now, I’m in the incubating stage, gathering as much information as possible in hopes of synthesizing what I find into something coherent and interesting. Often the trail leads me to things I would have never considered, or at the very least, expand my horizons a bit. (It also gives me a bit of time to procrastinate while pretending to be productive.)
In one such recent venture, I found myself on the TED web site, browsing through the TEDTalks. TED is a great place to find inspiration – the talks focus on technology, entertainment, and design, and there are hundreds of these short talks from fascinating and brilliant people. Someone had suggested I listen to Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on nurturing creativity. I read Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love last year and, though it’s not my favorite book, I figured she’d having something interesting to say.
Let me tell you: the talk is fascinating.
In the wake of her maddening success from Eat, Pray, Love, people continually ask her if she’s afraid that she’ll never find success like that again. Gilbert’s answer: yes. But she made a commitment to herself early on to be a writer – she never promised to be a great writer or a successful writer. She just knew that she would write.
She goes on to discuss the concept of genius and the difference between being a genius and having genius. In the contemporary world, we say people are geniuses, that their brilliance and creativity comes from within them. But in ancient times, genius was considered to be a disembodied other that would inspire brilliance and creativity in human beings. Like Dobby the house elf, Gilbert imagines that the genius sits in the corner of the room where someone’s working and either inspires or doesn’t. All you do is show up and do your work – that’s your part. If the genius shows up, you attribute your creativity to it, and if it doesn’t, it’s not completely your fault that your work wasn’t amazing.
It kind of takes the load off.
Essentially, she proposes, we are nothing more than vessels for creativity, bodies that translate what the genius provides into one form or another – words, paintings, skyscrapers, whatever. Gilbert illustrates this in the poet Ruth Stone who, as a young person working in the fields in rural Virginia, would hear a poem rushing at her and start racing to find a pen and a piece of paper so she could record it as it passed by. If she got it, wonderful; if she missed it, the poem was meant for someone else.
But Gilbert says that not all of us are pipelines for the genius; some of us are mules. Some of us have to slave and work and sweat and hope that we might brush up against something brilliant. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t, but we have to show up and put in the work or it’ll never happen.
I started thinking a lot about this (though I still haven’t found a way to work it into my classes this year). I thought about how being a writer involves doggedly sloshing through ideas and words, spelling them out and deleting them over and over. How one idea leads to another and another and suddenly the perfect, easy, magical thing appears. And sometimes it doesn’t. Likewise, teaching involves as much inspiration from an “other” as it does preparation because teaching is fluid, filled with organic interactions among people. There’s no way to control it – sometimes I’m on and sometimes I’m way, way off.
This other, disembodied genius is not unlike the Christian idea of the Holy Spirit, a concept that Gilbert touches on, though not in those terms. She describes dancers in the deserts of North Africa centuries ago who would gather to dance together and, very rarely, one person would light up and become transcendent. The others would recognize it as God within them and begin clapping and chanting the name “Allah.”
Christians think of the Holy Spirit working the same way as genius – with us, part of us, inspiring us for the Kingdom of God. Though most of us don’t live in a state of constant spiritual inspiration, we do the work of prayer, study, and loving others with the promise that the Spirit will work through us and in us at the right time. We make the commitment and do the work – that’s our part. But just as we can’t assume responsibility for our own creativity, we can’t take credit for the work of the Spirit. We are vessels and pipelines and mules and slaves.
This idea of nurturing creativity and having genius begs a closer look at our culture. We are so dominated by performance – in school, in the workplace, in relationships – that just showing up to do the work and waiting for the light bulb to go off isn’t really enough. We’re expected to be on all the time, and if we aren’t, we’re failures. We get bad grades from our teachers, demeaned by employers, ridiculed in our personal lives. We’re expected to always do our best, but told that it’s not enough if today’s best isn’t as good as yesterday’s. And in many ways, it feels very, very wrong.
I’m not suggesting that we start handing out A’s to everyone simply for showing up. We do have to work and should be expected to work hard – without hard work, the world would be chaotic.
But maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves when we don’t perform well. Maybe for as many times as we’re on, we’re very, very off. And maybe that’s okay. Maybe we’re not all meant to be geniuses but, most assuredly, we will have moments when we are touched by genius.