At twenty-one years young I’ve prematurely divided all the people in the world into two categories: business people and creative people. Doing so has proven to simplify things for me and my brain. Moreover, I don’t mean to suggest everyone either works within the realm of commerce or art; rather, I use the categories to more generally refer to the two different ways in which I think the brain works—either in terms of numbers, like zeroes and ones (business people), or in terms of questions, like what lies outside the box (creative people).
I’m too emotional to be a businessperson (Why won’t you stay in one place Mr. Dow Jones? Why?!), so I’d like to focus on the creative group, of which I strive to be a part. In particular, I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be “creative” and to have to rely on “creativity” to make a living.
I’ll begin with my conclusion: It’s risky, this creative thang.
Let’s journey way, way back to uncover how and why my brain told me this. While cave drawings from hundreds of thousands of years ago (See. Way, way back.) are among our earliest examples of creativity, I start thinking about the idea of “creativity” around the times of ancient Greece and Rome. For one, as my scriptwriting courses have taught me, the Greek muse was the mediator between God and human. Greeks and Romans invoked these figures to foster what would eventually be labeled “creativity.”
A TED Talk was recently recommended to me by a friend, as it deals specifically with our current perception of said “creativity.” (If you’re not familiar with TED, you should be. I heart TED and you should, too. Click here: http://www.ted.com.) Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, suggests the way we think of creativity is wrong. We view creativity, she says, as inextricably linked to suffering, and it’s been this way for five hundred years. Most important, she uses the aforementioned Greek and Roman muse to suggest a new way to approach creativity: instead of feeling pressured to create, creators should relieve creative pressures and anxiety via a separate and intangible “thing.”
While you should watch the video for yourself, Gilbert’s perspective on how creative people should think kind of goes like this: “It’s not entirely my fault I can’t create right now. The separate creative “thing” in the room just isn’t talking to me at this moment, and this is OK.” And, I have to say, I really like this idea.
Can I, however, recognize it may take a leap of faith to commit to this perspective wholeheartedly? Sure. After all, the separate creative “thing” is imaginary and therefore intangible. Nevertheless I embrace its positivity and think it accurately alludes to the complexity and magic surrounding the actual creative process. For one, Gilbert describes that of American poet Ruth Stone. I found myself saying, “Me too! Me too!” as she spoke of the 90-year-old writer who runs around trying to “catch” ideas.
While I cannot say I’ve ever literally clenched my fists in the air in trying to catch an idea zooming spontaneously through thin air, I can relate to the experience of trying to capture the idea that so kindly lands in your head and heart by springing toward anything—a piece of paper, my iPhone, a computer—to immortalize that idea on paper before it exits the knowable universe at that present moment. Sometimes I even like to think of ideas as little magic elves who hover invisibly in your surroundings and swoop down to deliver an idea when you’re ready for it, like a stork bringing a childless family a newborn baby. But most of the time I don’t think like this because where the heck were these so-called magic elves when I wanted to write a screenplay this semester on my time off. Instead this is all I got down on paper:
Dear magical elves hovering invisibly in my surroundings,
Stop playing Barrel of Monkeys and come help me. I’m ready.
With unrequited love,
On a more serious note, I’ve learned to internalize Gilbert’s theory while writing this blog. Writing, that is, like it’s necessary and something I have to do because I’m a vessel for this thing, this particular elusive creative force. A thing is telling me to write (“Jonathan Ames, is that you or the elves up there?”) and all I can really do is write it down out of respect.
While this relieves creative pressures some of the time, what happens when it doesn’t? The answer to this question brings to mind a documentary I watched in one of my scriptwriting classes. Chris Rock describes how creative people are different from other people (read: business people) in that they’re born with an acute sense of observation. For him, this is both a plague and a gift, as a mind that ceaselessly absorbs its surroundings can often be a troubled one. Here my teacher interjected: “Hence the phrase, ‘Ignorance is bliss.’”
But Rock’s allusion to himself as a “tortured artist” is really nothing new. While it hasn’t been mentioned in any of my classes, Wikipedia tells me its origins lie in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Romanticism, where strong emotions in visual mediums were used to counter aristocratic social and political norms. (Thanks, Wiki. Screw you, elves.) Some, though, refer to the tortured artist as a myth or stereotype as opposed to a real, tangible thing. In any case, the stereotypical tortured artist is often characterized by loneliness, despair, and suffering, and sometimes regarded as pretentious in their inability to experience everyday happiness and pleasures.
The examples here are endless. For one, poor Dostoyevsky! What would you do if you, too, grew up with an alcoholic father who worked as a surgeon at a mental hospital in a troubled neighborhood in Moscow? That’s some tough stuff. Then there’s Sylvia Plath who famously turned on the gas in her home and stuck her head in the kitchen oven. That’s also some tough stuff, albeit very different, hot stuff. And then there’s John Keats, the youngest to die of the English Romantic poets at age twenty-five, killed by a heart overflowing with love. Or, perhaps you prefer the lives and turmoil of Beethoven, Hemingway, Kurt Cobain, Tennessee Williams, or van Gogh. The list goes on and on, really, and sadly so.
So why people do it? Create, that is. Write. Paint. Film. Whatever. I hate the answer I’m about to give, which is that I really can’t answer that question. Some do it out of obligation because they “just gotta write.” It’s their calling, or “call to adventure” in the words of mythologist Joseph Campbell. (Campbell’s stages of the archetypal hero in mythologies actually remain quite parallel to those undergone by writers. See for yourself: http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/smc/journey/ref/summary.html.) On the other hand, some may do it purely for financial reasons because they’re good at it and it puts green stuff in the bank place.
Or, if you’re really lucky, you do it for yourself and happen to inspire millions of people in the process. Case in point: Pixar. Out of all the classes I’ve ever sat through, the most inspiring of all was taught by Andrew Stanton, writer and creative mind behind many of Pixar’s best such as “Toy Story” and “Monster’s, Inc.” He told us Pixar doesn’t make films for a specific audience but instead makes art just for itself because it feels good to do so. And that’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard.
In my life, then, the magic elves upstairs have been informed by figures like Gilbert and Stanton and the countless other ideas that have been so kindly released into this world via the business people down on Planet Earth. While the screenplay juices have yet to flow, I’m currently in the process of developing a thirty-minute sitcom with a friend of mine and we’re trying to turn into a fun process as opposed to a stressful one. (After all, we don’t want to stick our heads in an oven. It’d be hot in there.) We’ve started living like our characters and turned the pre-production process into somewhat of a game: What would Tyler eat right now?; what would Jamie want to buy at the grocery store?; would Jamie go out with friends on a Friday night or stay in and study her psychology lab notes? And if a day goes by when they aren’t speaking to us, that’s OK. Because maybe tomorrow, or the next day, or even the day after that, they’ll speak to us, maybe even louder than the day before.
Now we’ve come full circle and returned to the conclusion. So. This creative thang? Eh. It ain’t so bad.
So what if I graduate college with over $200,000 in loans and then don’t get any paid work in writing and subsequently have to move in with my parents until (maybe) ten or twenty years later when I (maybe) get attention from an agent and (maybe) get to shop my work around and have it rejected time and time again until (maybe) some business person believes enough in me to give me the greenlight? In spite of all the uncertainty, at least I’ll be creating. Yup. Creating.
Oh my god I take that back. I need a pen. An idea is flying around the room! Got to. Get. To. Paper. OK, here we go:
Dear Mom and Dad,
Hello Mom and Dad, are you there? It’s me, your son, and I’m coming home and building a blanket fort in my room and never leaving.
With a love much greater than that for the magical elves hovering invisibly in my surroundings,
Phew. Got it. Now I shall put down my pen (“put down my pen” sounds so much cooler and less pretentious than “stop typing on my MacBook Pro”) and journey forth into the real world, where I shall wait patiently for any and every idea to fall my way.
Come on, Dobby. Wake up and spread the magic.