“In Ancient Greece and Rome people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings. People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity ‘daemons’… The Romans had the same idea but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius…”
~ Elizabeth Gilbert, from her 2009 TED Talk “Your elusive creative genius”
Over the years I’ve learned a few things about the writing process.
Understanding its natural ebb and flow has been empowering for both me and the writers I mentor.
One of my favourite quotes about the process comes from Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear author, Elizabeth Gilbert:
Frustration is not an interruption of the process, frustration is the process.
It’s worth remembering that our frustration is not unique or worse for us than for anyone else. We writers (and all creatives) will inevitably find ourselves stuck at different times, for different reasons.
Be kind to yourself when the journey from initial spark to final draft challenges you. After all, until you’ve written your story, how can you possibly know the way?
Sometimes we just need to learn a bit more in order to make headway. We gather information, confirm details, talk to someone who can help us remember what we can’t recall. Once we have what we need, we can continue on our way.
Resistance is a very normal part of the writing process — especially as you make your way into vulnerable territory. But if you recognize resistance for what it is — an invitation to keep going, and go deep to find out what’s on the other side — something interesting will be revealed.
That dreadful, disheartening, and often sudden feeling of paralysis we sometimes experience is something else. I believe writer’s block occurs when we come up against unacknowledged fear. Once we identify what we’re afraid of and address the fear appropriately, the work can start to flow again.
Unfortunately, if we don’t know why we’re stuck it’s easy to stay that way
In my experience, when you aren’t sure you’ll ever be able to write again, what your writing needs is more writing.
But a different kind of writing. Writing that is open and attentive to your process. A curious, reflective approach that taps into your built in creative support: your Genius.
What do I mean by Genius?
In ancient Rome an artist of notable skill or talent wasn’t considered a genius — rather, artists were understood to have a Genius (known in Ancient Greece as a “daimon”).
A Genius was an unseen helper of unknown origin — what Liz Gilbert calls a “divine attendant spirit of creativity” — whose job was to assist artists with their creative work.
Your Genius might appear to you in the form of an artist whose work you love
When I was a young artist, just out of high school, my Genius made himself known to me. He was a musician I admired, with blonde shoulder length hair and pale green eyes, who wasn’t averse to wearing skirts and make up on stage.
The attraction felt different than a crush; it was a touch magical. Our meetings were a bit uncanny.
I was surprised once to turn up at a show with my hair dyed the exact same shade of fire engine red as his. Another time, we were both wearing the same style of white stitched black Fluevog boots. A few years ago I noted we both have ring tattoos on our left wedding fingers.
His occasional appearance in my dreams felt Jungian, meaningful, somehow connected to my own creativity. There seemed to be a pattern.
When I was engaged with my creativity, writing poems and working at my painting, he’d show up and we’d chat. During a period of time when I was depressed and wasn’t able to write or paint I’d get a glimpse of him and want to talk, but he’d turn away and disappear.
I understood my dreams as a kind of bridge back to myself. My dream visitor was a projection of my creativity who quite cleverly appeared in the form of someone I would listen to.
Being in conversation with my Genius about my creative work, in dreams and more consciously, helped sustain my art
It was also kind of fun to have a picture in my mind of someone who represented my inspiration, my muse, my writing. Someone I could address when the work was, or wasn’t, going well.
My partner took it as metaphor when I’d complain, already sleep-deprived with two young children, that my muse woke me up at 3 am and pulled me out of bed to write a poem — but for me it felt more like truth.
In her TED talk, Liz Gilbert shares a story about Tom Waits addressing his inspiration, or Genius, directly. Driving in L.A. one day, with no pen, paper, or recording device to catch it, he told a new idea for a song: “Excuse me, can you not see that I’m driving? If you’re serious about wanting to exist, come back and see me in the studio. I spend six hours a day there, you know where to find me, at my piano. Otherwise, go bother somebody else. Go bother Leonard Cohen.”
Incidentally, some years ago I came across the work of a Jungian scholar, Caitlin Matthews, whose research explored the relationship some creative women have with a male muse archetype. Many women, it seems, talk to, dream about, and work with their “daimon” as part of their creative practice.
Matthews’ interesting book on the subject is called In Search of Women’s Passionate Soul: Revealing the Daimon Lover Within.
Ready to meet your Creative Genius?
If you invited your Genius into your life, who would he, she, or they be?
The next time you’re feeling stuck, try this.
Open a new notebook. Bring to mind an artist or writer you admire whose help you’re curious to receive and advice you’re willing to take.
Write a letter to your Genius about your stalled project. Your hopes for the work, the ways it is and isn’t working. Complain about how stuck you feel, then ask what your writing needs from you to take it where it needs to go.
You might be surprised by what your Genius can tell you.
I still go to my Genius’ music for inspiration and recently listened to a podcast where he talked about creativity in a way that resonated with me. He described being an outlier, his songs not really fitting into any genre, and allowing himself to move into new creative spaces by just following his own curiosity.
Over the past few years, I’ve started asking my story directly what it needs.
Why is this so hard right now? What can I do to make the work easier?
What is missing in this draft?
Why does that image feel like it needs more exploration?
What does this piece want to teach me?
Having a relationship with my writing in this way makes the process feel less like work and more like collaboration.
It puts me into a positive and receptive frame of mind that helps the work keep moving along.
And it’s a relief to know there are no walls I can’t push through — that I can just ask my questions and the answers I receive will guide me along.
I’d love to hear your own strategies for making progress with your writing when the work challenges you.
Do you talk to your writing? Collaborate with a muse who reminds you of an artist you admire, or someone you know?