Showing up for work

July 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

Elizabeth Gilbert, writer of Eat, Pray, Love, gives a TED talk on her impressions on genius and the creative process.
Gilbert describes herself as a mulish writer–the kind that is mired in the laboriousness of the creative process. The hard worker, the grunt, the slave. Other creative minds she interviewed describe themselves more as vessels–the entities that creativity just magically passes through and imposes itself upon.

I’m neither of those.

My creative process is more likened to a clumsy, self-loathing, utterly obsessed treasure hunter. I’m the bumbling old man in Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, black socks, and Birkenstocks on the beach with his heavy and unreliable metal detector. Or maybe I’m the truffle pig, snuffling around the base of myriad trees until I finally locate the true gem I’m searching for. Creativity does not come naturally to me, nor does it come like a bolt from the blue. I have to sniff it out, believe it’s there, fail at finding it, and stubbornly keep looking.

Writing a dissertation is no different.

Every two days or so, I have some sort of “breakthrough.” And those “breakthroughs,” while exciting, fizzle and melt away into the ooze of fear. What if I’m wrong? What if everyone on my committee thinks my “breakthroughs” are naive, immature, unimaginative?

I feel awkward, heavy-footed, ham-fisted, bull-headed, and dogged. My argument feels delicate and fragile, as though a single touch could disintegrate the whole thing. It doesn’t quite exist in its own body yet, and that is terrifying. I’m afraid to handle it for fear of ruining it, but I’m also afraid that not handling it will guarantee it will flit away into the cosmos.

So, here’s my plan. I have been recording my thoughts and general observations on notecards and in outlines. Bumbling as I am, I have no other option than to make every attempt to cultivate these little “breakthroughs” into bits of genius, these little well-developed points. But I have to take them one at a time.

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