I tend to romanticize problems. It explains a lot about my childhood. Like most Harry Potter fans I aspired to be an orphan. In first grade I met my best friend by tragically recounting a fantasy in which both my parents had died horribly in a car accident. We hit it off when she exclaimed that her fantasy-world parents had gone the same way.
It is for this reason that I am terrified of being an artist. For me, fiction and art have always been about the romanticizing of adversity. Crying in the rain is pathetic, but top it off with an epic score and it becomes glorious, moving. Suicide is horrific and illogical, but in iambic pentameter it is beautiful, meaningful.
In the past, songwriting was a tool not to solve my problems, but to validate them. If I felt hurt, a melancholy tune would authenticate my feelings until they felt raw and powerful. Sometimes I would revel in feelings of sadness simply because I knew that they could lead to a song.
Inspiration, and the quest to find it, can be a dangerous thing, but it is also a beautiful thing. Everyone has felt it before. It’s like that moment, when you’ve been trying to remember a name or a place and it’s on the tip of your tongue. And then it comes to you. Like it was sitting somewhere up in your brain biding its time until called, and slowly it trickles down your conscious thoughts.
Inspiration is like that. That moment. You reach and reach and instead of looking for something specific like you do when you’re trying to remember, you reach blindly. And you feel silly and your arms hurt but you just keep reaching because something’s there. You can make out its edges but it’s not quite in your grasp. And then suddenly it’s there, and you’re holding it. A perfect little newborn idea.
In that moment you feel so proud and satisfied and excited but the moment is horribly fleeting, and you are left with a sense of intense yearning. There is nothing more elusive and addictive than creation, and the involvement of melancholy in the creative process often seems essential. Does this mean an artist must sacrifice their own happiness in order to create anything of value?
In 2009, Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, gave a speech on the elusive creative genius. She discusses how the “freakish success” of her memoir has launched her into a reevaluation of her role as an artist now that she must consider the possibility that her most successful work is behind her.
She goes on to talk about how the Greeks and Romans did not believe in the idea of a person being a “genius,” creative or otherwise. They believed that every person had a genius or a muse and in this way the artist or the philosopher could not take full credit for their work because half the credit went to their disembodied genius.
I think the idea is revolutionary. It is not creativity that kills the artist. It is certainly not inspiration or even the lack thereof that has the potential to rip apart my own self-esteem. It is pride. By tethering the artist to the art, the creators are pulled back and forth by their own creations.
When a piece is received well their egos are launched skyward; when it is received poorly the artist is dragged into a state of depression. That is why the connection must be severed if the artist is to survive.
If inspiration is a separate entity, free to come and go, then searching for it desperately no longer has to be a part of the process. If creativity is tethered to a muse and not the artist, then creation can be used not to validate problems and wallow in sad feelings, but instead to set them free.
Norman Mailer, just before he died, said, “Every one of my books has killed me a little more.” As alternately phrased in the Potterverse, Neither can live while the other survives.
This is why the muse is the missing piece in the modern artist’s process. Whether your muse is the stray cat in your neighborhood or Meryl Streep or even a disembodied voice in your head, it is this separate counterpart that keeps you humble and that takes some of the burden away from finding inspiration.
But a good idea is not enough. You aren’t just picking fruit here, you’re making lemonade. And as an artist, your responsibility lies in squeezing the idea for all it’s worth.
To see what ELLY OLTERSDORF is up to after the column, check out her music channel at LYLE1324 on YouTube or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.