Your Own Personal Genius – Is it You Or Something Else?

The ancient Greeks believed that no artist, poet, musician was fully responsible for his work. Each was thought to be ‘assigned’ a daemon, a spirit that lived in the walls of the artist studio, and gave him access past the veils of this world, into the world of the gods. There, the artist could see the thoughts of the gods, thereby bringing them to light in his work. In ancient Rome, these same spirits were called Genius.

The ancient Greeks believed that no artist, poet, musician was fully responsible for his work. Each was thought to be ‘assigned’ a daemon, a spirit that lived in the walls of the artist studio, and gave him access past the veils of this world, into the world of the gods. There, the artist could see the thoughts of the gods, thereby bringing them to light in his work. In ancient Rome, these same spirits were called Genius.

The beautiful thing about this is, the artist, should his work be less than pleasing to the King (or whatever great ruler it happened to be) would be spared beheading, since it wasn’t entirely his fault. Maybe he’d been assigned a lame daemon. One could never be certain.

Elizabeth Gilbert (of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ fame) gave a marvelous speech on TED regarding this historical perspective, insisting that perhaps we might like to re-adopt this theory and save the creative lot of our time. She said, “…we’ve completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked. And that artistry, in the end, will always and ultimately lead to anguish.” She is asking us to rethink what we have accepted as the norm: that artists are a crazy bunch and it’s ‘normal’ for them to lose their minds, drink themselves to death, act in the most bizarre ways, wander the streets muttering incomprehensibly. They’re artists. It’s just the way they are.

I was struck deeply by her appeal. As a writer, and an artist, I’ve never felt that I ‘fit in’ anywhere. Even amongst other artists. I’ve always been prone to walk that unbeaten path, even as those who love me (despite my oddities) warned that where I was going was dangerous. I’ve been nudged and pushed and sometimes aggressively yanked toward the more conventional life, kicking and screaming until finally, they gave up. It took years, but, at last, they were just too tired to try any longer. Big sigh of relief.

Still, I wonder how many of those people still worry about me. It is not an easy path, this creative walk in the woods. In that I mean, there’s always the teetering on the brink of homelessness. Perched precariously on the edge of fiscal uncertainty, sticking to your guns and refusing to compromise can leave you alone and listening to the echoes of all those “I told you so’s”. But still…

It’s not really a choice. Because the genius is always hovering just inside those walls. Sometimes she shows up and gives me access to that splendid Other World. Sometimes, she hightails it for the nearest swimming hole, leaving me to brood as I stare at a blank page. Most artists will tell you that they simply must create. They must write or paint or play their instrument because if the don’t, it’s like not being able to breathe. It suffocates you as if someone were holding a very large pillow over your face, slowly cutting off any oxygen until you stop kicking. Neither a way to live nor to die.

I’m with Miss Gilbert on this. I think it’s a great idea to lay some of the onus on the Genius inside your walls. What difference does it make if it’s you or your Genius. So long as your work can come through you, and you can live as you were meant to live ~ impassioned by your work, happy to have another day to do it. It may very well serve to free us well enough to keep us from putting a gun to the head, or living in dank alleys with a cheap bottle of wine wrapped in a paper bag, hoping someone comes along with another buck or two before the bottle is empty. Let the genius do her job. And all you’ve got to do is show up for the ride. Makes a whole lot of sense to me.

BOLA TANGKAS