The Creative Impulse: External or Internal?

The other day I watched an excellent TED talk by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love (link here). I’ve never read the book or seen the movie, but Gilbert’s theories about art-making and responsibility have been sitting with me. Her argument is that today we place too much pressure on artists by assuming that all creative genius comes directly from them, somewhere internal to them. She looks back to ancient societies in which people believed that creativity derived from external forces: “geniuses” which acted as forces behind one’s hand, inspiring and lending to the creative process. Gilbert proposes that if modern society were to adopt a practice of perceiving art-making as a process aided by external forces, this would alleviate pressure on artists to make ever-better, increasingly impressive works throughout their career because they would have a sort of scapegoat to blame if the creative lighting didn’t strike, or the work didn’t turn out the way they wanted.

On one hand I can see how a perspective like this makes sense and could be beneficial to artists. Creativity comes in tidal waves or dribbles, and often it does feel like a fairy sitting in the corner of the room either cooperating with you or blocking your inspiration. To place all the responsibility for creative magic on the human being trying to write/dance/paint seems harmful, as then he/she is expected to continually pump out increasingly better work. Gilbert makes an excellent point when she notes that when we elevate artists to a God-like status in our society, we place impossible pressures on them which can often stifle future creative endeavours because they feel as though they can’t live up to our high expectations for novel production. Too often, as she notes, this leads to artists feeling defeated, self-medicating, and ending their own lives.

On the other hand, however, I am deeply sceptical of this idea that creativity is a wholly external entity, that the artist cannot control the creative impulse. In literary studies, New Criticism sought to divorce the artist from his/her work by hailing the “death of the author” (Barthes’ concept) and claiming that we should analyse work without considering the biography of the writer and the context in which he/she was writing. Taken generally, this could be seen to encourage a similar concept of divine inspiration and remove credit from artists who are working from a context; which is to say, all of us. This is perhaps an oversimplification, but the theory almost suggests that work is generated in a process that has nothing to do with an artist’s upbringing, their identity, values, influences, the community in which they work. To me, this is a problematic way of viewing things, particularly in the performance poetry community where so much of our work is deeply personal and dependent on the physical presence of the person speaking the poem for its power.

Furthermore, I think that to remove all pressure from artists so that when a work doesn’t come out the way we want, we can blame it on the cruel Muses – well, that’s a bit like cheating. Gilbert does note that as artists, we shouldn’t do this – we need to show up and do our jobs, no matter what the Muses are up to that day. There is so much truth to the saying that if you create the conditions for success, success is more likely to come. If one works and works, refining his/her craft daily, then he/she is more likely to be receptive to the creative impulse when it strikes. So in this sense I think it is safe to offload some of the responsibility for creative productivity onto an external influence, mysterious as that may be. We just need to ensure that, as artists, we continue to create the conditions so that we can be receptive to that influence when we are feeling inspired; or, conversely, to grit our teeth and march through the work even when we’re not.

Gilbert’s comments are a good sparking point to question: where does the creative inspiration come from, and how much can we place the responsibility for excellent creative production on the individual human being?


Gilbert, Elizabeth. “Your elusive creative genius.” TED. Feb 2009.

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