The Galloping Horse: Beyond Creative Fear and Pain

4 Feb
Galloping Horse by Neff, See:

Galloping Horse by Neff, See:

Jorge Luis Borges, or at least his character, in his short story Shakespeare’s Memory makes the following observation that  t’s 

‘Pain and fear that makes us creative’

and this got me thinking, got me querying as to whether this actually is the case and whether it’s actually sensible and healthy for us to think of creativity as like that? Is that a good way look at something that is so fundamentally amazing and life giving and affirming? What would be wrong in shifting this view? What would be wrong in shifting the idea of the tortured artist? 

Elizabeth Gilbert in her inspiring TED speech addresses this question in a far more articulate and sensitive way than I probably can, so   I have used her talk as a springboard from which to formulate my response. I’ve embedded the video at the bottom of this post, and I heartily recommend that you watch it all. It’s well worth it.

She draws our attention to the way the origins of creativity/ art  were perceived before the age of rational humanism. In ancient Greece and Rome creativity came to us through ‘daemons’:  divine, attendant spirits who are also known as geniuses. Entities who like coaches rest on our shoulder, or inside us and direct our creativity. Creativity was seen as something outside of us and directed through us. We are the conduit of creativity and not the creativity ourselves. Rational humanism came along (placing huge emphasis on using reason to shape our world and not religion); and there was a shift in thinking and the idea of BEING a genius instead of HAVING a genius came about. Gilbert suggests that this paradigm shift is what has consolidated this notion of the relationship between creativity and pain.

Now admittedly I’m not drawn to lighter literature. all the authors, poets and artists that I value aren’t generally ‘happy chappies’. There is something profoundly compelling and attractive and even romantic about the idea of a tortured self, squeezing words out like blood, or the complete opposite where you’re in flow and time goes by and you’re just living and breathing words and images. Both conceits are attractive.  But the value of Gilbert’s observations lies in fighting against the former and latter perceptions; in the separation of the work from the artist. Two separate entities.

She says our job , as an artist, writer, poet, is to show up. Genius comes and goes, inspiration comes and goes and it’s our role to step up for when it’s there. But to think that we are the entire source of  our creativity puts too much pressure on us. It, as she says, ‘warps and distorts our expectations’ and actually the pressure can kill; kills the creativity; kills the pleasure.

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog 1818

Caspar David Friedrich :Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog 1818

This pressure can also disconnect us from reality, can create a vast chasm between us and the real world. Our imaginations can keep us distant from reality. Think of Caspar David Friedrich and his picture, (left) of the lone artist on the mountaintop. Remember how lonely and isolated we can feel when writing, shaping something. And this notion of isolation has been contemplated and explored by a variety of poets. Alexander Pope’s Ode To Solitude. Philip Larkin’s poem Best Society,  that I put up a couple of weeks ago. Here

And just like there’s a difference between having a genius and being a genius, there’s also a  difference between loneliness and solitude, with the two terms sometimes being conflated and blurred and their difference being dismissed. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with solitude. As psychologist Rollo May says:

‘In order to be open to creativity one must have the capacity for constructive use of solitude. One must overcome the fear of being alone.’

There’s a real  difference between the two terms.

As philosopher Paul Tillich puts forward:

‘Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the story of being alone.’

Although I agree with what May and Tillich are expressing about ‘the two sides of being alone’ they still do (to my mind) embrace a rational mindset and are perpetuating a particular perception of the artist as ‘a solitary figure perpetually at the mercy of their creativity’. Their views are still feeding the myth that Gilbert was warning us against. Despite their distinction between the pain of aloneness and and solitude they are clearly very much aligned with a notion of ‘beingness’. Being the source.

The two distinctions can rest side-by-side, no problem; it then just becomes comes a matter of where we place value.  How we see it. How we shape our story. There is nothing essentially wrong with needing space and alone-time as long as we don’t pressurise ourselves within it. It’s up to us. 

Ruth Stone, 1915-2011

Ruth Stone, 1915-2011

In the Gilbert speech she describes an interview she had with a particular poet Ruth Stone who when describing her poetry to Gilbert described it as rumbling up inside of her,  vivid,  like a galloping horse. All she had to do, she told Gilbert, was to hold steady of the reigns with one hand whilst holding a pencil in the other and let the words charge through. A wonderful metaphor for the writing process (sometimes). A wonderful metaphor for those moments of creative genius. Something wonderful, mystical and totally coherent that sometimes gallops through us when we create. But it comes and goes. It often feels ethereal almost god-like, pure sparkle, in the moment.  But it ebbs and flows. Most of the time it’s about stepping up, and creating regularly. ‘It’s our job’ as Gilbert puts it. It’s just a job and when that galloping horse moment comes we have to be thankful of it, and welcome it but not make it our be all and end all. Our job  as creatives is to show up and revel in that moment when it does come. Creativity is a gift. To castigate ourselves and put ourselves down when it doesn’t come is a sheer waste of energy and a misunderstanding of the nature of creativity and our relationship to it. 

To continue to think that pain and fear are necessary to create is to proliferate an idea and a way of being that correlates our creativity with something strictured and tortured. Creativity and the lives we shape around our  specific identity as a creator doesn’t have to be self-punishing or full of ‘shoulds’. We can give ourselves places and spaces for grace- whether our art comes or goes.

When we create something a precious moment has been given to us; when we create something it usually has formed from a  deep personal space from within but always needs to be outed (somehow); when we create something in that moment of flow a particular need to express and communicate is released. It is  given to us (sometimes) and why should we feel it necessary to dismantle this perception (as we tend to) or turn ourselves into self-castigating, pressurised souls. There’s no need.

  • You can hear Borges’ short story Shakespeare’s Memory being read on The New Yorker Fiction Podcast by Hisham Mater HERE
  • Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Speech


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