Befriend Your Daemons

I was prompted by one of my writers to go check out Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk, “A Different Way to Think about Creative Genius.”

I was not a fan of Eat, Pray, Love, but this talk gave me new respect for Gilbert herself. Here’s a woman who understands the “freakishness” (her word) of her own success. And she eloquently addresses something I see ALL THE TIME, which is the way we approach writing—and many creative pursuits—from a place of fear.

She poses this question: “Is it rational to be afraid of the work we feel like we were put on this planet to do?”

In the talk, she shares how so many people, in response to her “freakish” success, approach her with their own fears about the inevitability of future failure. They wonder if she’s afraid that she’ll never be able to live up to the success of Eat, Pray, Love. And, refreshingly, her answer is of course she’s afraid!

Our creative pursuits scare us because nothing is guaranteed. When Gilbert asks why no one ever asked her father if he was afraid of being an engineer, the answer is obvious enough. There’s stability and assurance in certain jobs. Even if I lose my job tomorrow, I can go out and find another job. But if you write a book, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to be able to sell it. This is why so many creative pursuits are passions of the heart or soul. You have to have incredible stamina and perseverance to make a living in the creative arts. There’s actually good reason why parents worry when their child decides they’re going to major in Poetry.

I know, however, that creative pursuits are not solely about making a living. For Gilbert, this is not the case. But many many many creative people are holding down fulltime jobs and writing or creating after hours and on the weekends. And many of these people are still scared of their creative pursuits.

What if I fail? What if I can’t do it? What if I don’t get published? What if no one likes what I’m doing? All this before they’ve even begun.

Gilbert tells of the moment when she decided that she needed a protective psychological construct to guard herself against the inevitable backlash or failure she too feels is inevitable as she realizes that her greatest success may indeed be behind her. And the constructs she finds, which I loved, are Daemons and Geniuses.

Daemons and Geniuses, in ancient Greece and Rome, respectively, were the entities or gods or voices that were given credit for successes or blamed for failures. Gilbert talked about how, in these societies, the people didn’t believe that creativity came from human beings, but rather from these distant entities—people’s daemons or geniuses. She then calls on her audience to take heed here, and to reject the current belief, which is around “being a genius” rather than “having a genius.”

Here’s where I disagree with her, however. Here’s where Gilbert is playing to her own fear daemons. Because in saying she would rather be credited with “having” a genius—her own entity upon whom she could assign blame or success—she in fact distances herself from her own genius. I believe that these geniuses or daemons are part of us. The Greeks and Romans, brilliant as they were, didn’t have the modern psychological sophistication to articulate the complexity of the human personality construct. These daemons and geniuses were simply ancient names for the parts of us—or saboteurs, gremlins, superego, whatever name you wish to give them—that sit in our head and alternately fuel the flames of our creativity or knock us down and tell us we can’t do it.

Learning to harness the power of your daemons, saboteurs, geniuses is where the solution lies. The connection to our creativity can be blocked or promoted by our daemons. But they are absolutely a part of us. We “are” them; we do not “have” them. The trick is in deflecting their power by inviting them in. Ask them what they need in order to stop blocking you. Invite their insight rather than fighting against them. That’s the way to ensure a different path to connecting to our creativity. And connecting to it without fear.

For those of you who are interested in delving into this idea a little deeper, check out Feeding Your Demons, by Tsultrim Allione. And watch Gilbert’s talk. It’s a good jumping off point, and I certainly encourage everyone who has creative aspirations to make their daemons their allies.

Until next month,


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