“There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.” – Pink Floyd
Where do ideas come from? How many of us wake up in the morning and say, Gee, I think I’m gonna to have myself a great idea today!
In general, the harder I try to think up something original, the slower my brain goes until it ultimately screeches to a stop and I have to go play a game of Scramble or eat jelly bellies to get it going again.
Sometimes I abandon the whole effort in frustration and go out for a run, only to have the idea sneak in unannounced around mile three. Hah! You weren’t ready for that, were you? it laughs at me. “Hold this, hold this, hold this,” I chant at a 9-minute a mile pace, until I get home and write it down.
I’ve started carrying a little book around with me to capture stray thoughts, because I don’t trust myself to remember them any more than I can hold a dream in my consciousness for more than five minutes after waking up. They’re precious, because truth be told, most days I come up empty. I despair that I’ll ever have another original thought in my lifetime. I stare at an empty screen and wonder why my particular cerebral apparatus seems to be on permanent molasses mode.
So what is the key to creativity? Where does it come from? Can I get a subscription? The other day I listened to a fabulous TED talk on creative genius by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the runaway bestseller Eat, Pray, Love. She was contemplating the very real possibility that her best work was behind her and facing the paralyzing fear of trying to carry on anyway.
She looked into the history of “genius” and discovered that in ancient Greece and Rome, a genius wasn’t a person, it was a kind of spirit, something that temporarily took you over and used you to express something divine. It is only in our “look at me!” egomaniacal era that we insist on taking personal credit for extraordinary accomplishments. In fact, it’s entirely possible that it has nothing to do with us at all. It’s completely out of our control.
She tells a couple of anecdotes, one about a poet who, while outside walking, would hear a poem coming in on the wind. The poet would run as fast as her feet could carry her ahead of it to get to pen and paper. If she was lucky, she’d be able to capture it as it swooshed through her. Another was about the composer Tom Waits, who received an extraordinary melody in his brain one day while stuck in a California traffic jam. “Can’t you see I’m in the car!?” he railed at the heavens in frustration.
I found a few more examples in an excerpt from my next book purchase, Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain, by neuroscientist David Eagleman.
In 1862, the Scottish mathematician James Clerk Maxwell developed a set of fundamental equations that unified electricity and magnetism. On his deathbed, he coughed up a strange sort of confession, declaring that “something within him” discovered the famous equations, not he. He admitted he had no idea how ideas actually came to him — they simply came to him. William Blake related a similar experience, reporting of his long narrative poem Milton: “I have written this poem from immediate dictation twelve or sometimes twenty lines at a time without premeditation and even against my will.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe claimed to have written his novella The Sorrows of Young Werther with practically no conscious input, as though he were holding a pen that moved on its own.
“Inspirez,” my yoga instructor says, as we stretch our arms to the sky. Breathe in. “Expirez,” we let the air back out, relaxing every muscle in our bodies. At the end, lying in my favorite pose (corpse), it hits me.
“Inspiration” is a breathing in. It comes from without. It’s the air, it’s a spirit, it’s a “genius,” it’s a snippet of grace. I can channel it through my particular set of talents, and make of it something consciously beautiful. But then I have to let it out, as well. And with my final expiration, of course, I die. It’s absurd to think that the idea and the product I create with it “belong” to me.
In the meantime, I need to persevere in my stumbling efforts so that if and when the snippet of grace alights upon me, I’m ready to capture and channel it. As Gilbert says so well:
If the divine cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts, then olé! And if not, then do your dance anyhow and olé to you nonetheless.