The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without the work.
That’s a quote from French writer Émile Zola, and I’m John Fanning and this is the Create with John Fanning podcast.
How’s it goin out there. Hope all is well with this crazy Corona virus.
This is Episode 9 of my series of episodes on Imagination and creativity, based around my book Create.
Last time I talked about black sheep and difference but today I want to talk about a few Walls that build on each other, genius, talent and originality. In a later episode I’ll talk more about talent, but today I want to talk about these three ideas in an inter-connected way.
“I don’t know if I’m talented enough. I don’t know if I have a gift.”
Christ. The amount of times I’ve heard that one. Even from established creators in their fields. The mind/ego loves this I’m not talented I’m not original I’m not a genius crap. Again more Walls it throws in front of your creation.
In school I was convinced too, convinced I was talented at nothing. I was thrown out of classes, except a few like English. I never got good grades at English when I was younger, but when I was fifteen I wrote a story for a competition a bank held in connection with schools. I mentioned this before when I talked in an earlier episode about family. Anyway, I got third prize. My immediate reaction: they must have made a mistake. The usual imposter syndrome Wall. Then I went up to get my prize. Coming back down I still couldn’t accept it as reality. It was only when a friend started to say well done that I realized, there was no mistake. And that’s when the maybes started slipping in. Maybe I’m alright at writing essays, not school ones, but ones I like writing? I secretly started writing bad poems.
Everyone’s talented at something. Everyone’s gifted, original, at something. Again, artists and writers don’t own creativity. They don’t own Imagination. Some of us think visually, others through sound, others again through movement. However, what makes the difference is some people persist, keep doing that something, whether it’s writing code, novels, movies or painting canvases.
The fear of not being original, of being laughed at, of creating something awful, has crept into the heart of every creator since we first started putting hand prints on the walls of caves or telling stories around open fires, in the same caves.
Fact: Nobody’s original. This podcast is not original. I’m sure there are many like it. “Hamlet”, “King Lear”, “Macbeth” are not original. They were all plays before Shakespeare ever wrote his versions. Take up Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations”. Look up Churchill. Nearly every famous quote attributed to the man can be found somewhere else, said a little differently, by someone else, usually by someone who lived in ancient Greece or Rome. Look at the footnotes to his quotes.
Mozart in one of his letters says he never aims for originality. Mark Twain, also in a letter, to Hellen Keller, said all ideas come from other “sources” and that we color them differently because of our moral and mental character. He wrote that every great orator re-interprets centuries and the thousands who went before them when they write a speech, like Churchill with the ancients.
Steve Jobs, in a “Wired” interview in 1996, talked about this. He said creation is “connecting things” by creators with “very diverse experiences”, but that most people cut themselves off from these experiences by not being curious.
We all create from the past, what went before us, those sources Twain wrote about. Past is prologue. When I finished the first draft of my Create book I started reading other books on the same wavelength. Why? To see what I’d forgotten to talk about. To inspire me to add and take out things that made no sense. It’s a good thing to be curious. Instead of something to be frightened by we should embrace it, embrace new experiences, books, ideas.
Why? Because nobody has read everything, and every human being has a different way of expressing their “it”, because everybody is different. And new creations nearly always come from breaking with the past, by changing the way something used to be done, to form something new, a new individual clarity. Like Picasso said,
“Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.”
Einstein once said he had no real talent, just that he was passionate about being curious, like a child, and that the intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational one a faithful servant, where we have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift. At the same time he also supposedly said genius is one percent talent and ninety-nine percent hard work.
This is one of the key things I’ve seen over the years: the people who keep doing the work and evolve with their work, succeed. I’ll get into work more in a later episode, but when I say succeed I don’t just mean from a capitalist perspective. Creators who keep doing the work feel they succeed because they get better at what they love creating. The work makes them better at the work. They don’t let anyone or any amount of frustration stop them. When they see they’re comparing themselves to other people then they know they’re not in their work, but creating a Wall. They know talent is identifying their own talent and then getting into the work, for a lifetime.
You can be talented and never create a body of work. How many creative writing professors, art professors, CEOs have I met who told me the most successful people they ever met, the most creative people, were persistent, dogged hard workers.
The blank page no longer becomes frightening. You’re not the first to look at it. Find historical friends in your creative field. Then look for connections in other fields that inspire you. Oftentimes originality comes from seeing original combinations others never have. But be selective. Only stuff you really love, stuff your soul loves.
A friend of mine sees talent, originality and genius as gifts. She sees a painting as a gift, waiting to be born, not herself, not her being talented, original. Michelangelo liberated his creations from Carrara marble. He never saw what he did as creation, but more as gifts from the stone, gifts he had to set free. The mind/ego disappears and the creation, the gift comes through the creator. In a sense, it wasn’t Michelangelo who created “David”, but “David” who reveals himself to Michelangelo. The talent and originality come out of the creation. I see my books the same way.
Whatever it is you create, they’re all there, waiting, gifts. But, you have to be open to them. You have to switch off the self-sabotage of talent and originality and genius long enough to allow them to present themselves, a lot of the time in bits and pieces.
As I said in a previous episode, Rodin would make thousands of sketches of a model moving before deciding on the pose, “the” moment to sculpt. As with Michelangelo, the sculpture is held within the stone. Just like the chair is in the tree, the painting in the field, what the impressionists called the motif. We, the creators, have to discover these gifts. They’re out there waiting for us to discover them. As Henry Miller once said, everything is out there already, and as intermediaries we have to make use of what’s in the air.
One of the greatest Walls that moves us away from accessing these gifts is this one:
“Oh, I’m not a genius, like Mozart, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Rodin.”
Modern society has adopted genius as a noun for an individual. Certain creators are inspired to have many moments of genius, one after another. Mozart had many. Einstein too, although he said he arrived at Relativity by steps, work.
However, Einstein wasn’t a “genius” when it came to his social life. You only have to look at how he treated his wife as an employee or how he treated his sons. He’s not alone. Many famous scientists have had unhealthy personal behavior. Nobody’s a perfect genius.
Mozart was terrible with his money. They say it led him into an early grave. Is Warren Buffet a genius because he made so much money? Could he come up with the theory of Relativity or compose a symphony at the age of eight? What’s the criteria?
But again, what do these creators have in common? Work. They were, are, all passionate about what they love. They’re obsessed by what they love. But then someone says Warren Buffet only does a couple of hours of work a day, but what does he spend the rest of his time doing? Reading journals, financial statements, reports, newspapers, books. To some that seems like a lot of extra work. Not to him. He loves it.
There are no geniuses, only moments of genius. And genius comes with hard work, every day. Every so called “genius” worked consistently, and got better with each new creation they created. The word itself comes from the Latin verb “to bring into being, create, produce”. It’s not the person but what comes into being, the creation itself, the act of creation, which is genius. The ancient Romans saw it another way, that everyone has their own genius, even whole communities, but that genius is a guide. We create the conditions for it to bring creations, gifts, into reality.
So thanks for listening. I started with a quote from a wonderful French novelist and activist and I’m going to end on another Irish proverb. This one literally means:
Deep is the hole of doubt. And of course this is relevant because genius, talent and originality can be deep dark holes when we let them be. So he hole of doubt is deep.
Is doimhain é poll an amhrais.
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Slán libh agus go n-éirí an bóthar libh.