by J.D. Roth
Over the past couple of years, author Elizabeth Gilbert has been something of a joke in our house. We read her book The Last American Man for book group, and neither Kris nor I were impressed. It was certainly well-written, but the subject was lame, and we felt as if Gilbert were writing a love letter rather than a biography.
We’ve had friends read Gilbert’s subsequent memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, and their reactions have mostly been ambivalent, as if they couldn’t understand the hype.
So, Kris and I are unimpressed.
Yesterday, however, Andy pointed to Gilbert’s talk at this year’s TED conference. (The TED talks are amazing. They’re like little nuggets of brainfood.) Her subject? Creative genius.
My opinion of Gilbert has changed. After viewing her presentation, I have new-found respect for her and her process. What she describes is similar to what I experience. I’m not saying that I’m a genius, but what glimpses of genius I may have often seem to come from somewhere outside myself. (I think of it as possessing a muse, but maybe that’s because I don’t really understand the word.)
Gilbert tells the story of a poet who, as a young woman, would feel poems coming at her from across the landscape. She would run to the house to grab pencil and a paper before the poem would pass her by. I experience something similar. I am not joking.
When people ask me where I get my ideas, I tell them the best ones come from mowing the lawn. It’s true. For some reason I cannot fathom, when I am mowing the lawn (or doing other yardwork), I come up with the most brilliant ideas. For a long time, I would lose these ideas. I wouldn’t remember them by the time I was finished with my work. Frustrated, I developed a system. Now I keep a pencil and a pad of paper near the door. If I’m working outside and the muse comes to me, I stop what I’m doing, and I go to my pad of paper to write it down. I capture these bits of genius.
Gilbert’s talk is brilliant — at least to me, as a writer. It captures some bit of writerliness, and for that I am grateful.
(On a sidenote: Kris and I watched Almost Famous the other night. I knew the plot going in, so I expected the film to be “about” rock bands. Sure, that’s a main theme. But I was impressed that this is one of the best films I’ve ever seen about what it’s like to be a writer. Capote? That’s a film about a writer, not about writing. Almost Famous is about writing, and I love it for that.)
Updated: 11 February 2009