Hard Labor vs. Fairy Dust
Ibelieve in it, because I believe we are all capable at times of brushing up against a sense of mystery and inspiration in our lives. Maybe we can’t all be pure divine channels like Ruth Stone, pouring forth unadulterated creation every single day without obstacle or doubt . . . but we may be able to draw nearer to that source than we think.
Most of my writing life, to be perfectly honest, is not freaky, old-timey, voodoo-style Big Magic. Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous, disciplined labor. I sit at my desk and I work like a farmer, and that’s how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least.
But sometimes it is fairy dust. Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of writing, I feel like I am suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks that you find in a big airport terminal; I still have a long slog to my gate, and my baggage is still heavy, but I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force. Something is carrying me along—something powerful and generous—and that something is decidedly not me.
You may know this feeling. It’s the feeling you get when you’ve made something wonderful, or done something wonderful, and when you look back at it later, all you can say is: “I don’t even know where that came from.”
You can’t repeat it. You can’t explain it. But it felt as if you were being guided.
I only rarely experience this feeling, but it’s the most magnificent sensation imaginable when it arrives. I don’t think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state, except perhaps falling in love. In ancient Greek, the word for the highest degree of human happiness is eudaimonia, which basically means “well-daemoned”—that is, nicely taken care of by some external divine creative spirit guide. (Modern commentators, perhaps uncomfortable with this sense of divine mystery, simply call it “flow” or “being in the zone.”)
But the Greeks and the Romans both believed in the idea of an external daemon of creativity—a sort of house elf, if you will, who lived within the walls of your home and who sometimes aided you in your labors. The Romans had a specific term for that helpful house elf. They called it your genius—your guardian deity, the conduit of your inspiration. Which is to say, the Romans didn’t believe that an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius.
It’s a subtle but important distinction (being vs. having) and, I think, it’s a wise psychological construct. The idea of an external genius helps to keep the artist’s ego in check, distancing him somewhat from the burden of taking either full credit or full blame for the outcome of his work. If your work is successful, in other words, you are obliged to thank your external genius for the help, thus holding you back from total narcissism. And if your work fails, it’s not entirely your fault. You can say, “Hey, don’t look at me—my genius didn’t show up today!”
Either way, the vulnerable human ego is protected.
Protected from the corrupting influence of praise.
Protected from the corrosive effects of shame.