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Showing up for the genie

Has anyone asked about your writing recently in the voice we use for people with illnesses which aren't going to get better? 'How's it going?' they say, consciously radiating willingness to receive a terse 'Fine, thanks,' or a half-hour outburst of gruesome symptoms and existential fears. When you first declared, or mumbled, that you wanted to be a writer, did you get an anxious spiel about how agonising rejections are before you get a deal, and even worse four books down the line when even your agent will drop you? And how lonely it is! And what about the terror of the blank page and the horror of writer's block, (let alone when you've got the rent to pay)? Did they even go so far as to wonder aloud why so many writers have drunk or drugged or committed other forms of behavioural suicide? As a foreign interviewer once asked a middle-aged poet friend of some standing, 'You had success as a poet very young; why have you not yet killed yourself?'

Why is it that we regard creative work as so potentially dangerous to mental health? Surely, that someone is able to spend at least some of their working life doing anything as compelling, life-affirming and generally thrilling as creating art is a cause for celebration. It is, after all, the act which brings us mere mortals closest to God the Creator, and if you think that actually mankind made God in our own image it comes to the same thing, since clearly we endowed our construct with our own most valued attribute. But have you beaten yourself up in the last week (day, hour?) for writing rubbish, or not writing at all? And do you wake, sweating, with the fear that you might one day sit down, and find there's nothing there: that you'll 'let down the bucket into your unconscious,' as E. M. Forster put it, and pull it back up empty? That you'll let loose your slippery double, as Margaret Atwood puts it, your other self who commits the writing, and watch as s/he turns her/his back on you and wanders off into the distance. Forever?

'Don't get it right, get it written' is often good advice, if the pressure that it has to be perfect has made you erase the first sentence fifty times (or the first chapter a hundred times) because today (this year) you can't get it perfect. I think I'm right that it was originally a newspaper hack's saying, but in creative writing it's usually applied to the Shitty First Draft idea that you can't get something perfect till you've got an imperfect start to work on. But what if you can't get even something imperfect down? What if there's nothing, or nothing we can dredge up? No wonder so many of us turn to chemical and behavioural shortcuts to the unconscious, however double-edged they are in their effects.

And then a writer friend pointed me towards this talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, who after years as a good and unknown novelist and journalist, wrote a book which happened to be called Eat, Pray, Love. As she says, at just forty she has had to face up to the fact that her greatest work is almost certainly behind her. What if she can't do it again? What if she can never do anything again? So she went in search of how humans have handled the stuff which animates (in the original sense of 'anima' as spirit and life-force) our creative acts: inspiration, transcendance, the muse, the genius, whatever it is which makes a creative act something greater than its component parts. And she discovered that until the Renaissance it was thought to come from outside: a spirit that lived in the walls of the artist's working space; a divine wind ('inspiration' = breathing); genius as in genie, a magical being with powers; the Muses (though, interestingly, she doesn't use the word). In the Renaissance a genius ceased to be a divine spirit inspiring creation and became the human being who did the creating. We began to think that the creative force was inside ourselves. Which pleased our egos, who always like being the centre of the world, and allowed us to consider, in time, that maybe the seeds of the divine could too easily be processed into an opiate for the people, but leaves us with the problem I've outlined: what if we can't find the genie inside ourselves?

And yet I think almost all creative artists know that sense that the work, in some way, exists outside us, independently of our selves. Whether it's Michaelangelo cutting away the marble to find the figure inside, or a photographer taking a camera and wandering the streets waiting to see pictures to take, or just me or a million other novelists feeling the unwritten novel in our heads, cloudy and insubstantial but undeniably there, it's not entirely created from inside. Something else has spun that story or statue or symphony from the bits and pieces of ordinary existence that we know, in the language of sound or stone or words that we've so painstakingly acquired.

What Elizabeth Gilbert suggests (and I do suggest you listen to the clip, because it's funny and humane too) is that maybe it helps to decide that the Greeks and the Romans and the Moors and everyone till 1500 were right all along: the genie is separate from ourselves. And - oh, how I love it when someone turns the usual idea neatly on its head - that this is liberating. Not because we have to wait - oh, terror! - for the Muse, but precisely because we don't have to wait at all. We can always show up. It's not our fault if the genie doesn't. A failure isn't all our own fault, because the genie had a hand in it too, so we don't have to beat ourselves up. A success isn't solely our brilliance either, it's partly the genie's, so it isn't solely up to us - terror again! - to be brilliant again. In other words, if we show up, we'll have done everything that's our half of the job of creation.

It's that old truth about letting go of the outcome being the way to get the right thing to happen, isn't it? It's another facet of one of my favourite truths about writing: that if you look after the process, the product will look after itself. What you produced may not turn out to be what you set out to produce, but it will be right for itself, it will have integrity, not in the narrow sense of not pinching the petty cash but in the true sense of being whole. Showing up is the process it takes, so that you're there if the genie feels like dropping by. And if it doesn't, not today, never mind. You're sitting there, after all. You might as well scribble something down: so often the genie picks up the vibrations of your pen, and shows up after all. And when we've both shown up, the magic will begin.

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