I have listened to this TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert more times than I can count:
Elizabeth Gilbert on Nurturing Creativity
At first, I listened because I felt a resonance with her statement that goes…
… I’m only about 40 years old. I still have maybe another four decades of work left in me. And it’s exceedingly likely that anything I write from this point forward is going to be judged by the world as the work that came after the freakish success of my last book, right? I should just put it bluntly, because we’re all sort of friends here now — it’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me.
I understand that kind of neurosis. Despite never having been mistaken for a genius nor experiencing any sort of success that could be seen as being in the same vein, same circulatory system even, as Gilbert with her memoir, Eat, Pray Love, I have felt the anxiety, the fear, the feeling that I did something pretty well in one instance, and I’ll never be able to do it as well again. More often though, I feel that the best of me is behind me. I feel that often.
In this talk, which I suggest you watch before you read this post in order for the post to make the most sense, Gilbert is speaking of the inexplainable “thing” that happens to people at times, and that in its happening, yields remarkable creativity. Her question is, can you ever capture this thing? Can you harness it? Can you establish some sort of routine or environment that brings it about? She doesn’t use the word, but her question is one that artists and creatives have shared as long as there have been artists and creatives, i.e. “Where is my muse?”
On the fourth or fifth time I listened to the Talk, I found myself focusing much more on the latter part of it. It’s during this part that she equates and/or compares the creative process, or more rightly the creative product, with the Divine. She speaks of artists or writers or anyone seeking to produce something born of a creative place, as people on a mission to catch something. I have heard and read others use the same language to describe it. Rosanne Cash does so in her interview with Krista Tippet. Annie Dillard in her writings on writing. I’ve written a few things in my life that I can look back upon and say to myself, “Did I really write that?” I don’t ask the question with a sense of incredulity, but more of wonder. “Did I really write that?”
The past few days I’ve been engaged in a discussion on a good friend’s Facebook page that grew from her simple “contest” to poke fun at something a relative of hers had said. My friend is a self-avowed, staunch atheist. Her relative is a self-avowed, staunch, fundamentalist Christian. I add those qualifiers on purpose, for I know many people who would call themselves atheists in the sense that they hold no belief in any divine being, but who would more rightly be described in the way Joyce Carol Oates describes herself, i.e. indifferent. Similarly, I know people with very assured convictions regarding their faith, but for them too, these beliefs are simply a given, woven into the fabric of their being, not anything they feel the need to ever talk much about, let alone defend outwardly in any dialogue or argument.
My friend and her relative cannot be described that way. They both hold strong beliefs and they have not a whit of a reservation in sharing them. And thanks to these kind of folks, we can get discussions on Facebook that last for days and with comments that number into the hundreds. Depending upon your own convictions, you might find such an activity as funny or offensive, as disturbing or intriguing, or as either disconcerting and disheartening. Personally, I found it a little bit of all of these, less offensive. I was never offended. And I also found it predicable; the comments of everyone, including myself.
And it was really funny.
And also inspiring.
I found myself drawn in to it. I found a part of me that hadn’t engaged in any theological debate over the issues of women in ministry or the problems of unwavering dogmatism in many years, awakened. I trod it out and took my stabs at trying to somehow say, somehow show, where the problems lie in the arguments people make to defend certain narrow understandings of God or god or anything related to the divine.
And I awoke this morning with the need to watch that TED Talk one more time. I wanted to hear the exact words Elizabeth Gilbert used. How again did she describe the poet Ruth Stone’s creative process? I needed to hear it. I cued it up and … oh yes, it goes like this:
I had this encounter recently where I met the extraordinary American poet Ruth Stone,who’s now in her 90s, but she’s been a poet her entire life and she told me that when she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape.And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.” And then there were these times — this is the piece I never forgot — she said that there were moments where she would almost miss it, right? So, she’s running to the house and she’s looking for the paper and the poem passes through her, and she grabs a pencil just as it’s going through her, and then she said, it was like she would reach out with her other hand and she would catch it. She would catch the poem by its tail, and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page. And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact but backwards, from the last word to the first.
(Really, if you’ve gotten this far in reading this post and NOT listened to the Talk, stop now and do so.)
I listened to Elizabeth Gilbert again this morning. I also read Karen Armstrong again. Just a little bit. The introduction to her last book, The Case for God. For me, Karen Armstrong is the clearest voice we have today for explaining the history of the monotheistic religious traditions. She likewise gives the surest argument, solid and grounded, for the existence of anything divine. She wrote this last book, in part, as a response to the modern voices of atheism, the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris. They all dismiss her work, as expected, but I’m still waiting for one of them (the latter two, now) to counter her in the same manner, i.e. with the same level of scholarship and objectivity, with the same nod to the history of humanity.
The reason I’m drawn to Gilbert’s description of creativity and Armstrong’s description of the divine is because for me, they strike upon the characteristic and quality of these “things” that I understand best and that I appreciate most. Armstrong traces humanity’s experience of both logos and mythos, and how they were once – and for a VERY long time – held in parallel, held not as opposites, but as complements. They both operated within and throughout the history of us together:
In most premodern cultures, there were two recognized ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge. The Greeks called them mythos and logos. Both were essential and neither was considered superior to the other; they were not in conflict but complementary. Each had its own sphere of competence, and it was considered unwise to mix the two. Logos (“reason”) was the pragmatic mode of thought that enabled people to function effectively in the world. It had, therefore, to correspond accurately to external reality. People have always needed logos to make an efficient weapon, organize their societies, or plan an expedition. Logos was forward-looking, continually on the lookout for new ways of controlling the environment, improving old insights, or inventing something fresh. Logos was essential to the survival of our species. But it had its limitations: it could not assuage human grief or find ultimate meaning in life’s struggles. For that people turned to mythos, or “myth.” (p. xi)
Then humanity entered the modern age. The entrance itself is pretty much defined by a rise and/or preference for logic, rationale, scientific understanding, and the subsequent dismissal of myth. One tragic consequence of this, for Armstrong’s and my own belief, is that the monotheistic religious traditions chose to follow suit, and theologians of each began to argue for their faith within the parameters of logos. They, too, dismissed the biggest reason we had religious beliefs in the first place, i.e. to explain what couldn’t be explained. Theologians began to argue with words, because words are the foundation for reason, over experience. They insisted upon describing, defending, and explaining the words of their traditions with more words.
But the experience of the divine is not captured in words. It’s the poem roaring at you across the field. It is the feeling of the song. It is the sound of joy. It is the silence of grief. It is the essence of love. It is the thing that cannot be described with words. It’s the experience of “words fail me.”
As I typed those last two paragraphs, the song “Valentine” by Ruth Moody shuffled across the My Space player running in the background of my morning writing:
I must have been crazy,
Lost in your blood-shot eyes again,
But love she marches in,
And takes us like an army now and then.
I could dissect the words, do an exegesis of them as we’d say in theological circles, but doing so would not describe for you the feeling that I experience when I hear the song. There is Ruth’s voice, the guitar, the words, the mood, the context, the ritual; there is all of this and more. There is all that words fail.
For me, “all that words fail” is the divine. It is why I believe in something that cannot be explained. And I don’t particularly want it explained. I want it experienced.
This is what was missing in the Facebook discussion. It’s what is missing in all of the dialogue that goes around the talk of religion, of whether or not God exists, of theology and atheism (which could never exist, one without the other). It is what leads us to arguments, to misunderstandings, to name-calling, and in the saddest circumstances, to violence. Our dependance upon logic, our necessity for ego, and our dogged determination to understand and explain everything fails us. Just like the words.
I love words. I am a fairly verbose person and I enjoy talking about this topic more than most, but at the end of it all, my 284th comment on my friend’s discussion thread ought to be no words at all. Because words fail us in this debate. Thank goodness.