How to Create a Storytelling Genius
When I was younger, I, like many others, was at one point convinced I needed to suffer to be an artist. I wanted to be great and memorable and someone people talked about, and if I'm being honest it's still something I want. Who wouldn't? We all want to have meaning in this world, and a lot of us storytellers find that via writing, so it'd be nice to make a living and maybe then some off of that.
But what I don't want anymore?
To be the Suffering Artist. To be the person who seeks out suffering and holds on to it, to be the person who purposefully sees their work as miserable yet "for the greater good" like some martyr. I want to love my craft and I want to be happy about that.
But is that crazy? Is being an artist synonymous with being miserable? And if not, then how can we continue to create and love our craft yet still face the emotionally trying life as an artist? Face the rejection, the pressure, yet still sit down and write with joy everyday? How can such a thing be possible, if it even is?
My answers to these questions came by way of a lecture by Elizabeth Gilbert just last week. My brother sent me her TED talk on the "elusive, creative genius" and I was hooked by her approach to creative living. So inspired by what I saw, I proceeded to buy her book Big Magic and read it within two days, shaking with excitement at this tomb teaching me how to find joy constantly in my storytelling as well as encouraging rejection of the martyrs' path.
If you haven't read her book or seen this TED talk, I highly recommend doing both, especially the latter as that will be the principal focus of this post. With that said, I want to further thank Gilbert for being the muse to this post, especially given that nearly all the ideas listed below come from her.
Before I begin, let's talk about the word genius. The word is defined by Wikipedia as "a person who displays exceptional intellectual ability, creative productivity, universality in genres or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of new advances in a domain of knowledge." Phew! Talk about a lot of pressure. Yet everyone wants so badly to be a genius in their field! We all want to be great masters who know everything and who everyone respects greatly for said mastery. But according to Gilbert, this word once had a different sort of meaning, and that's the meaning I hope to reclaim:
[In] Ancient Rome -- people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then, OK? People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity "daemons." Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar.
The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist's studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work."
Why You Need a Genius
So with this new definition in mind, let's think about why the idea of having a genius versus being a genius makes the creative process seem so much more welcoming. The first obvious one as mentioned by Gilbert in her TED talk is when she says that by having a genius (instead of being one), the artist "was protected from certain things,like, for example, too much narcissism, right?If your work was brilliant, you couldn't take all the credit for it,everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you.If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know?"
Doesn't that sound wonderful? (Even if it doesn't, just go along with me here.) Other perks about having a genius versus being one is that you are much more willing then to do things in your work that scare you and that your mind will begin to open itself up to new possibilities because you've got your genius there taking care of you. And maybe, if you're really weird, you have a new friend to talk to about your stories with.
However, it' one thing to talk about definitions, but how do we go about changing the definition and desire of something that has been grounded in us since birth?
Given that we are all raised to say things like "He's a genius," or "I'm a genius," or anything to such a degree that puts all the pressure on the individual, I believe it's quite hard to stray from this mindset. We want all the fame and glory for ourselves, but such glory and the journey towards such glory comes with immense pressure, self-loathing and if you are lucky enough to be successful, a bit (or a lot) of narcissism. So the more I thought about this, the more I wondered: How can we change the way we perceive the genius in a society that inherently wants to give all the credit to the individual?
Want to create your own genius from scratch? My worksheet makes it easy!
It's easy to suggest we just "try" and stop thinking about the word in that way or use it differently in dialogue, but we're all storytellers here and such a change should be fun and inspiring in my opinion. So with that in mind, I'm suggesting you imagine your own genius and what he or she looks like.
Creating Your Genius
Now that I've laid it all out there for you, it's time to create your genius! I've provided a worksheet you can download below that will help guide your imagination, however feel free to just create your genius from the heart. After all only you know what he/she/it looks like! Maybe your genius is Divine or maybe it's your favorite pet who died ten years ago or maybe it's just the opposite gender of you or maybe it has no gender. The sky is the limit! Look to history and the muses, look to mythology and literature. Find a genius that inspires you and sign yourself up for a lifetime partnership!
How to Meet Your Genius
In Big Magic, Gilbert talks about how much like the character Tristram Shandy in the book by Laurence Sterne, she would get dressed up to become a sort of magnet for inspiration. She would clean her house, do her make up, and dress into her finest clothing all so she could invoke the muses towards her. Being a believer that ideas exist in this universe searching always for the perfect creator, this behavior to her served as a way to make herself the most attractive option to the realm of ideas, shouting to the ideas "Hello! Look at me! I'm serious about this craft look how fancy I'm dressed!" or something of that sort. With that in mind, I believe that if you want to meet your genius for the first time, you should try spiffing up for him or her. Wear perfume, slip on a fancy pair of shoes, braid your hair. Do anything! And better yet, try incorporating some of these aspects into your writer's ritual so that you are always prepared for the genius to show up (as they are very prone to showing up unexpectedly).
What to Do When the Genius Doesn't Show
Your genius is more than likely a flake. Don't be upset. This will happen and it will happen often. Just like Gilbert said in her TED talk, the best you can do is just shout and your genius and let them know that you're still there, typing away at your story, doing your job while they are very clearly neglecting theirs'. If this shouting doesn't work, go for a walk, try dressing up fancy for it, or go enjoy a nice dinner. Do anything to call the genius back to you as sometimes, they get a little lost. ♥
Want to create your own genius from scratch? My worksheet makes it easy!
Enjoyed this exercise? Describe your genius to me below! Think this is a total sham? Explain to me why I'm wrong (well really why Elizabeth Gilbert and the Romans are)!