Your Elusive Creative Genius

What’s the source of human creativity? Where’s the house of imagination? The plane of intelligence where endless thoughts are stored and originality is delivered upon demand?

I’m sure every writer—alive or long gone—has pondered these questions, and I’m not sure if anyone’s discovered the truth. The truth, that is, whether there’s one single answer. I sure don’t pretend to have that answer, but I’m comfortable there’s some sort of… call it a non-tangible muse.

What got me going on this morning’s piece is spending the past two months experimenting with artificial intelligence (AI) as a writing aid. A creativity tool to help with writing research and, to some degree, with creative content production. The result is a new release titled OpenAI/ChatGPT—A Fiction Writer Talks Shop with a Bot.

My conclusion was simple. Although AI is a game-changer in the content writing world, it in no way comes close to what an inspired human being can produce. So that circles back to my opening questions. What’s the source of creativity, imagination, and original  thought? I’m certain it’s certainly not a bot.

I’ll defer to Elizabeth Gilbert. She’s the author of the successful (by anyone’s standards) book Eat, Pray, Love that became a movie starring Julia Roberts. I just rewatched a marvelous TedTalk given by Ms. Gilbert called Your Elusive Creative Genius. You can view it here.

Gilbert reflects on why her book was so successful. She also ponders a psychological follow-up where she felt she was doomed in never being able to produce better work. “I was afraid to top that. Paralyzed by rejection where I’d die on a scrapheap of broken dreams, my mouth filled with the ash of dismal failure.”

She felt her greatest success was behind her, and she talked of why artistry leads to anguish with so many creative minds fading away into a tragic death count.

Elizabeth Gilbert discusses the source of creativity. She talks of Greek and Roman history where the Greeks believed Damon entities inspired creativity and the Romans believed creativity dwelled with the Genius. Gilbert then speaks of the Renaissance where the enlightened were certain all human creativity existed right inside the person themselves, not with outside inspiration from their muse.

As Gilbert says, believing humans were at the center of the creative universe brought with it unimaginable expectations because the creative process doesn’t always behave rationally. Isn’t it better, she asks, to share responsibility with another force. Can we divide both success and failure with our muse and credit it when things go right and blame it when things go wrong?

Gilbert’s grasp shows as she speaks of African dancers who transcend into a detached state when inspired by a deity—an inspirational force not of this world. Then she brings it back to earth and wraps up with a look at writing reality.

To be creative and imaginative, Elizabeth Gilbert says, consistently do your job. Show up, do your piece, and the inspiration—the elusive creative genius will come to you.

Kill Zoners—What’s your creative source? Where does your creativity come from?

30 thoughts on “Your Elusive Creative Genius

  1. Great subject, Garry. I read somewhere that Thomas Harris dealt with a similar type of creative paralysis. How could he top Silence of the Lambs?

    I always try to top my previous book (not another writer’s work), and that drive produces results. The trick is to let go of that goal till after you’ve completed the first draft. Otherwise, you’ll drive yourself crazy.

    • Hi Sue! I was walking past a drug store bookshelf the other day and saw a new title by Thomas Harris. I didn’t pick it up but the thought went through my mind that I hadn’t seen anything new from him for a long time. I don’t know how he could “top” SOTL, and maybe he doesn’t try. That might be the sign of a true writer – you don’t worry about trying to top anything especially, like you say, another writer’s work.

  2. I don’t know where it comes from, it’s just there. A few years ago I had a conversation with my sister about writing and she asked me how I came up with ideas. I said, “You know, the stories in your head.” She said, “Becky, I don’t have stories in my head.” That was the first time I realized that not everyone has crowds of people in their minds, demanding that their stories be told. I have read about writers who had one incredible story inside, and were never able to complete another book. There are others who use some type of formula and brainstorm for each plot point. My stories plop into my consciousness fully formed, and there are so many that I struggle with concentrating on one long enough to get it on the page. The good news is that once a story is written, the characters exit. 😀

    • “The stories in your head”. Well put, Becky. I have no idea where the stories come from but, for me, the characters just show up and demand to be written about. Maybe I have a bizarre imagination. Hopefully Harvey Stanbrough shows up this morning. I’d like his take on where he gets his stories from.

      • Yes, I thought about Harvey. He must have a veritable marathon of characters with stories running through his brain.
        I admire anyone who can sit down day after day and keep writing one story until it’s finished.

  3. I’ve always believed that my writing ability is a gift from God. After all, he is the great creator. Does that mean writing is easy for me? Ha! It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done.

    • I have to agree that God is the ultimate creator. After all, we humans are His created entities. Come to think of it, God must have a great sense of humor 🙂 Enjoy your day, Patricia, and keep on doing that hard work.

  4. I’ll admit to being a nostalgia addict. One of the things I miss is shortwave radio. Before the internet, satellite communications, and cell phones, the shortwave spectrum was a lawless realm always full of surprise and mystery. I wrote my story Winter Star as a tribute to those days. To convey the sense of wonder shortwave once kindled in its fans, I adapted Flannery O’Connor’s advice about shouting to the hard of hearing and drawing startling figures for the almost-blind by centering the story around a UFO sighting. There’s no better way to spark your creativity than to start with a deep-seating feeling and expressing it in larger-than-life images.

  5. Garry, great question that’s eternal and probably unanswerable b/c it’s different for each person. Each of us is a collection of experiences, beliefs, genetics, and environment that is unique to us.

    The subconscious is my best writing tool and creativity generator. It’s a well wi/o a bottom. The more times I run the bucket up and down the pulley, drawing water out of it, the smoother and more easily it operates.

    Not to say I don’t sometimes wind up with an empty bucket. Generally, that means it or I need a breather. So far, fortunately, the well eventually refills.

    Really enjoyed Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk. Thanks, Garry, for an inspiring start to the morning.

    • A lot of times my bucket springs a leak, Debbie. Or the pulley seizes up 🙂 Yes, Ms. Gilbert’s TedTalk is one of the best out there. Very inspiring and a good way to start the day. Enjoy yours!

  6. Great post, Garry!

    For me, I think my story imagination gets its impetus from my insatiable curiosity to know. Know what? Lots of stuff. Mostly what makes folks tick.

    Someone does or says something odd, and I ask myself, “Now why did he do that?” I ask him, then he tells me. Voila! A story, long or short, is born.

    In my next novel, my MC (Annie) routinely removes the family’s dirty laundry from the hamper, neatly folds all of it, then puts it back in the hamper until laundry day. I asked her why. She told me, and her answer blew me away.

    Maybe my readers will want to know why. 🙂

  7. Terrific, thought-provoking post, Garry. I read this and then had to think a while about my response, which shows just how thought-provoking it was 🙂

    In some respects, this is the ultimate question for writers. What is my creative source? I believe deep from within me, which also means from without, since we are part of the greater whole, and can’t help being affected and inspired by all that is around us.

    Where does my creativity come from? It springs from a desire to bring these imaginings, these emotions, these characters to life in story. They don’t emerge fully formed , not for me, but they do emerge and I want to realize them in story.

    Thanks for another fascinating, thoughtful post, Garry.

    • Nice to hear you felt it was thought provoking, Dale. I guess that was the purpose of putting this post together. I have a Stephen King quote from “On Writing” posted in my studio that I read every morning as an affirmation to be creative. It goes:

      “There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do al the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, this muse guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly a bunch of surly grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you have to do all the hard work and burn the midnight oil, because the guy with the cigar and the little wings has a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me. I know.”

  8. Good morning, Garry. Great subject matter.

    Like Patricia, I believe God is the source. In that sense, I’m not creating–I’m a partner in re-creating something that was instilled in me. But it requires a lot of hard work to get the thought to the page.

    Btw, did you use AI to write any part of your post today?

  9. That’s a real interesting question, where do creative impulses spring from.

    What’s interesting to me is that all this stuff comes out of a two pound chunk of meat that doubles as a recording device and is always on. Plus, there’s a 170 pound (more or less) body that it has to run consciously although the brain has outsourced a number of functions. All these things are pouring in rivers of data to process and warehouse in endless feedback loops.

    It’s the mind. We’re all the sum total of our experiences from conception up to the present moment. It helps to have an inquiring mind and have lived an interesting and challenging life.

    So there’s all this material, and you either play with it like finger painting, or maybe you don’t. I’m a finger painter.
    All I know is creativity is addicting like no other drug or booze ever was.

    With me personally, the ideas appear and disappear from everywhere, and I liken them to a kid chasing fireflies on a summer evening. Catch them or they’re gone. My characters are like that. I’ll draw out a location and the characters appear and start telling their stories.

      • Studying consciousness is a lot like navel-gazing. I’m not sure it can be comprehended from inside it. In my short story, “The Song of Jorex,” the mega-being was able to create sentient life (Jorex) by using some part of his own consciousness.

  10. Carl Jung once asked, “Does the Unconscious have consciousness of its own?” Well, it does. I once asked myself, “Why do sober alcoholics relapse and die? It can’t be lack of willpower. Most of the alcoholics I’ve know had tons of self-will.” The thought came (don’t ask from where) “It’s like there is a second will present.” Bingo. But why doesn’t evolution cast out this dangerous thing? Another thought: “To last, it must have some survival value. What if it’s the emergency survival center, itself?”

    So I call it “the Guardienne” (hereinafter “⅁”) and have mentioned it here more than once. The ⅁ is a brain network that includes the limbic system and has the ability to bypass the frontal cortex to varying degrees in response to an emergency and take control of the motor cortex. It has autonomy, so it won’t be delayed by waiting for permission to take control. It is semi-sentient or better. It has no conscience, which could hamper it. It is 🂮🂾🃎🃞 dangerous!

    When athletes are “In the Zone,” they are under full control of the ⅁. They experience not mere confidence, but absolute certainty of success. Writers, too, can get into the Zone. Creativity is a survival skill, thus the ⅁ is also the creative center of the mind. Respect it. Fear it.
    The bigger the ⅁, the greater its ability to take control, in order to lift that Chevy off your friend, to hit that ball, score that goal, or drink you under the table. It is the seat of addiction. But it galvanizes your creative power, too. It’s no accident that writers and alcoholics overlap.

    This is already too long. If you want to learn more about my Guardienne Hypothesis, google Guenther+Guardienne+ResearchGate and see the six monographs there. I’ve had over 3000 people read part or all of them. So far, there’s been very little engagement. My MS is in Chemical Engineering. I’m looking for a co-author with a PhD in Psych in order to publish in a relevant journal. Or write a book.

    • I always enjoy your comments, JGA. You must be fascinating to converse with in person, and maybe some day we’ll get the chance. You mentioned the Guardienne before in a comment. I’ve got to revisit this and just jotted the link down in my journal. Maybe tonight after my compulsory five o’clockerer (my writer relaxer) I’ll go down that rabbit hole.

      • Thx, Garry! I have my moments. ‘Twould be nice to chat f2f; who knows. I was on Vancouver Island in ~1966, shopped at Smith’s Grocery Store in Victoria. Enjoy the ride down the ⅁’s rabbit hole! I have two more monographs planned, but finding a co-author with Psych credentials is the priority.

  11. God who made me and is *the* ultimate Creator gave me the gift of creativity. I believe in part to have a positive impact on others and in part to help me puzzle out life and all the strange things and situations humans get themselves into. It’s hard to resist playing ‘what if’ with characters.

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