Taking Tea in the Kasbah

Recently, I watched the TED talk that Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed) gave in 2009 on creativity, the creative process and how the concepts of being a genius and the tormented artist construct were created.

As I listened to her speak, I thought about the many times I’ve heard people say things like “She’s a genius at that” or “What a genius he is.” I know I’ve certainly said it. In fact, I’ve said it right here in the kasbah when referring to a certain classy British actor. But what does is really mean to call someone a genius? And what kind of pressure does that place on an artist?

According to Elizabeth, quite a lot, so much so that writers and other artists tend be afraid of trusting their own creative process. When someone reveals she is an artist of some type, she’ll often get asked if she’s afraid of not succeeding, of not being the next great artist in her genre, of not being able to control and bend her creative process at will. Because of this doubt and fear, artists have developed the unfortunate reputation of being a mentally unstable group driven to self-destruction over the results of their work.

The tormented artist construct is one that has persisted over the last several centuries. Elizabeth explains in her talk why she is not willing to accept this construct anymore and what she proposes as an alternative. (I know, 19 minutes is a big chunk out of your already busy day, but I found it to be very thought-provoking and fascinating to listen to and I hope you do, too. Also, the rest of the post will make more sense if you do.)


According to Elizabeth, the ancient Greeks and Romans didn’t believe that creativity came from human beings. Instead, they believed that creativity came from “divine attendant spirits that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable places.”

The Greeks called these attendant spirits daemons and the Romans called them geniuses, “the magical divine entities that lived in the walls of an artist’s studio and would come out to assist the artist with their work.”

Winged genius facing a woman with a tambourine and mirror, from southern Italy, circa 320 BC. Photo credit ~ Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons

This externalization of the creative process allowed artists to have a psychological construct outside of themselves that served to protect them from the results of their work. In other words, if your work was amazing and brilliant, everyone, including the artist, knew that the artist couldn’t take all of the credit for it. Likewise, if your work totally sucked, then everyone knew you had a lame genius assisting you on that project.

I’ll admit I didn’t buy into the external genius construct right away and had to give a lot of thought to it after hearing her talk. Maybe it was because the tortured artist construct is such a pervasive one that it took me some time to deconstruct it in order to fully understand it and then decide to reject it.

Or perhaps it was because I wasn’t sure if I could buy into the concept of an external genius construct. It felt a little too removed, too distant, too lacking in responsibility for my own actions. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was already finding inspiration outside of myself when writing. So, was it that big of a leap to consider a divine attendant spirit that would give me guidance, inspiration and support?

Not really.

I rather like the idea of seeing the creative process as one of collaboration. I like knowing I’m not alone in the process. The fear of failure, the fear that I’m not a good enough writer, the fear that I’m only capable of creating craptacular prose not fit for human consumption, is so crippling and isolating. But, if I don’t have to be the genius and can instead have a genius for a writing partner, if I can let go of the notion that everything I create must come out perfect and stellar and brilliant ALL THE TIME, then maybe I can shake off some of that nasty fear and loathing.

Still, I wondered about where my personal responsiblity lay in the process. If I’m not taking sole credit for the bad or the good that I create, what do I hold myself accountable for? Elizabeth answered this for me at the end of her talk:

“Olé to you nonetheless for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up and doing your part.”

Getting my butt in the chair, my fingers on the keyboard, and the words on the page. That’s my job. That’s what I’m responsible for.

And that genius lounging over there in the corner? I’ll allow myself to partner up with him (especially if he has a British accent). I’ll keep myself open to the words and ideas he wants to send through me. And if they happen to be sucktastic and lame? Well, at least I can say I showed up for my part. Olé to me for doing so and for continuing to do so every day.

And olé to you, fine readers, for showing up and doing your part in your own creative endeavors, whatever they may be.


What are your thoughts about Elizabeth’s talk? Do you accept the tortured artist construct? What about daemons, geniuses, and divine attendant spirits hanging out with us while we work? What do you think about having a genius vs. being a genius? Olé to y’all for hanging out in the kasbah and leaving your comments below. As always, I love hearing from you.

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22 thoughts on “Being a Genius vs. Having a Genius: Creativity and the Tormented Artist Construct

  1. on ,
    livrancourt said:

    There needs to be a ‘love’ button for this post.

  2. This is amazing food for thought. I love the way you wrote this, Tami – your genius is on his game today! 🙂
    I’m bookmarking this for future reference… Thanks for sharing the video & your thoughts!

    • Thanks, Laird. I have to say this post took me much longer to write than others. My genius kept teasing me with lots of ideas that needed to be sorted out. I’ll let him know you liked it. 🙂

  3. Interesting, I like the idea of the external genius construct. I will be giving this one more thought! Thank you for posting such an interesting topic!

  4. Great post, Tami. I confess I most often feel like a tortured and imcompetent artist, although I’m trying to shake off the negativity 😛 The whole divine attendant spirit concept sounds cool — but where do I find one?

    • You’re hardly an incompetent artist, Ellen. Far from it. Where can you find a divine attendant spirit? I’m not sure, but I had thought about including in my post an ad for one. It would have gone like this:

      Help Wanted: A genius to assist and inspire fledgling writer. Qualifications: Must enjoy repeatedly listening to Bach’s Cello Suites, Beethoven’s Piano Concertos, the Fleet Foxes, and moody playlists named uncreative things like “Haunting Memories” and “Musings 2010”. Must be able to make a good cup of green tea, strong coffee, and a tasty quesadilla. Have to possess a weird sense of humor, a bottomless well of inspiration and a British accent. Hours: 24/7, inconsistent and demanding.

      What would yours look like? 🙂

  5. I gotta say, Tami, this post is absolute, genius!!!

    I am a firm believer in the gifts bestowed on each of us via the Divine. What’s more, I live by the faith and sure conviction that these gifts aren’t exclusive, in that we’ve all been given a dusting of inspiration and creativity via the Divine (aka genius tonic) to nourish us along the road toward achieving our hearts desire. The trick is to recognize, trust, and USE this gift. (Don’t we all know someone who is wildly, incredibly, talented at something, but for whatever reason they’ve chosen to abandon their gift to molder in a dark closet rather than pick it up and run with it?)

    There is a strange and potentially dangerous attraction to “Tortured Artist” constrict, as it too easily becomes a vessel for holding all the not so cool glitches in the creative process: writers block, laziness, weak ideas, and blank pages.

    I pretty much love Elizabeth’s summation:
    “Olé to you nonetheless for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up and doing your part.”

    Those are some fine words, and really, isn’t that really what it’s all about? Abundant love for what we do and the necessary stubbornness to keep on doing it no matter what.

    • Thanks, Barbara. Your comment is full of genius-inspired things. I know a few people who I believe aren’t fully utilizing their gifts, but then it is their journey and not mine to judge, even though I wish they would do things differently for their sake.

      And I totally agree – “abundant love for what we do and the necessary stubbornness to keep doing it no matter what” is exactly why we call ourselves artists.

  6. Ooh, I like the idea of having another entity to blame when all goes wrong! 😛 On serious note, I do like the idea of having a psychological barrier to protect creativity and the creative process. It’s a very fragile thing, and remarkably unsuited for the world of capitalism, with its emphasis on monetary rewards and competition. Thanks for this great post. I’m bookmarking the vid to watch it later. 🙂

    • You bring up a great point – the creative process is a fragile thing and definitely not suited to capitalism. That surely plays a part in the continuation of the tormented artist construct in our culture.

  7. It’s tough to be brilliant. I’m glad I’m not tagged with that label that would be difficult to live up to! I think it is a combination of right-brained gymnastics and openess to the muse that gives writers the tools.

    • Ooh, I like that idea – “right-brained gymnastics and openess to the muse.” I guess it doesn’t matter what you call the source of inspiration – a daemon, a genius or a muse – as long as you show up and do your part. 🙂

  8. I have come to believe that genius and creativity are all around us waiting to be accessed. We just have to be willing to be quiet and open enough to let it in. I studied fine art in college and noticed that my creative ideas came when I went to a still place inside and then set to work with the process of “doing”. Now that “doing” is writing, rather than drawing and painting. With writing though, I see the creative process as an inclusion of others who critique and make suggestions. I’ve come to embrace the collaborative creative process of writing, and see the finished product as richer. I’d seen Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk a while back, and enjoyed it even more a second time. Thank you for that!

    • Writing is indeed a collaborative process, though I tend to forget that when I’m sitting alone with my thoughts and my laptop. That’s when I could use a genius to help me out once in a while.

      I agree that the finished product is richer when you get feedback, critique and suggestions. I wouldn’t dream of doing it any other way.

  9. on ,
    Kim Griffin said:

    She was so personable that I hardly noticed how long the video was! I’ve always heard when speaking of artists like VanGogh or Bach, that they would say the art/music would come from another place and they would simply record what they saw or heard.

    I can definitely see that ~ like a pool of all knowledge, art, music, words, stories existing and being shared with those who have the ability to listen and record.

    ..and it’s nice to share some of the blame, should it not work out as expected 😉

    Great post!

    • I love listening to her speak. I felt the same way when I listened to one of her books on CD. She has such warmth and personality in her voice, it’s like listening to a good friend talk to you.

      I think there a number of geniuses out there for any one of us who have the willingness and ability to hear it and record it. Remaining open to hearing the what they have to say and showing up to record it is *all* we have to do. 🙂

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  11. This is one of my all-time favorite TED talks and I am a TED groupie. It is incredibly self-centered to think we are singularly responsible for the “genius” in our art. We may learn skills and practice them, work hard and complete works, but God is in everything (and I say God but mean metaphysical inspiration because you don’t have to believe in God to believe in those forces that we cannot name and that impact all we do). I know that when I am on my game, hours pass like seconds and the work I’ve created is so far beyond anything I could have consciously concocted.

    Thanks for bringing this talk back to me and reminding me that I don’t have to beat myself up for every part of what I write that isn’t well received or that confuses me. Maybe it is genius and that is why it isn’t well received and I am confused OR maybe the genius is that metaphysical things aren’t always for us to understand on a human level.

    So glad to be back to reading your blogs. I’ve truly missed your insights and perspective. Kudos to your genius inspiration.

    • Thanks, Sara. I totally agree with everything you said. I’ve certainly found some comfort – and strangely, some confidence – after listening to her talk and in conceptualizing having a genius as a partner in my writing.

      And I’m glad you’re back, too. You’ve been missed here in the kasbah. 🙂

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