by Isaac Hoffman ||
There is a common and harmful fable told about the creative process which has been hounding writers since the Renaissance: namely, that creativity is a purely human attribute; that the accountability for the creation of art weighs solely on the shoulders of its human progenitor. As if the writer were the prophesied Chosen One upon whom all hope for the world rests, forgetting entirely the Samwise Gamgees and Hermione Grangers who play their own crucial roles. The fiction follows reality more closely than our cultural disposition, for inspiration comes and goes in waves, driven by a fickle but collaborative force. As Elizabeth Gilbert argues in her TED Talk “Your Elusive Creative Genius,” writers need to reconcile themselves with a philosophy which will allow them to distance themselves from their work, to protect themselves from the psychological onus—the fear of not living up to past work or of never doing quality work at all—that is the power of creation.
Gilbert builds her own philosophy on a framework of ancient myth. The Romans believed that each person had their own divine spirit, called a “genius”—a Latin word closely related to several ancient words pertaining to birth and ancestry, and most literally means “creator” or “parent”—and thus the divinity serves its purpose as an aid in the creative process. Much as epic poets after Homer credited their work at least in part to the Muses, for whom they were conduits, Roman genii and the Greek equivalent, “daemons,” inspired artists and shaped their work (Dictionary of Creativity: Genius). The conception of these spirits made the act of creation a collaborative process, and, in Roman thought, was a scapegoat for poor work. While we should not think of collaboration as a scapegoat for our purposes, this philosophy is not only helpful to alleviate the anxiety and albatross of writing, but it also helps to define the role of the tutor in the creative process.
Writing center tutors serve two roles: genius spur and genius translator. When the student’s genius is simply not pulling its weight, for reasons ranging from the writer’s own anxiety, disinterest, or confusion, to accidents of fate itself, it is the tutor’s job to coax out the writer’s genius. Sometimes all this requires is the reassurance that the genius exists at all, but other times, tutors must help the student towards their own inspiration, or, in worst case scenarios, teach students how to continue without the guidance of the genius, because it is not guaranteed to make itself known. The genius, being a creature of collaboration, is often stimulated by conversation, and so this is the best tool in the tutor’s arsenal.
Other times, tutors act as translators for the genius. No writer can perfectly encapsulate the sentiments of the genius on the first try, so the concept is rarely perfectly clear. The silent conversation the student has with their genius is not always easy to transcribe or form into a coherent argument, so the voiced discussion with the tutor can help fill in many gaps, topically or organizationally. Tutors work as test audiences and auxiliary sounding boards for making the genius as clear as possible to readers. Thus, at times tutors help with the organization of thoughts at a topic level, but at other times they assist in making sentences more understandable. In these cases, tutors are like Hermione Grangers, correcting the “leviosas” necessary to knock out the trolls in the dungeons. Or rather, in true Roman genius spirit, like a new Triumvirate in which tutor, writer, and genius work in tandem to make the writing the best it can be.
Writers might at first worry that they would then be giving credit to some magical creature of inspiration, but the genius does not diminish the difficulty of writing. Its presence (or lack thereof) provides a useful explanation of writer’s block which alleviates harmful nervousness. The work is still the writer’s own, and none fault the one who sets the table for a guest who never shows, nor do they praise the guest for the meal, despite their crucial role. Anxiety over writer’s block seems more often to hurt than help, and so explaining it via absence of the genius can help the writer set aside their fear and move towards breaking the null spell.
This philosophy could create an environment in which writers are praised for their success but not harmed by their insecurities. It allows writers and tutors alike to foster creativity without fear. By acknowledging the inherent collaborative nature of creation, writers can release some of their anxiety, whether that force is rationalized as a genius or a Muse or circumstance. Fate is up to the individual. Students can learn to say, “I am having a hard time finding inspiration for this,” rather than “I can’t write this.” Thinking about inspiration as another being in and of itself allows writers to focus on the aspects of their writing which they do control, and ones which the tutor can best help improve, like finding inspiration or making that inspiration a reality in writing.
So how does the tutor communicate this philosophy to the student without lecturing them about it? The first step is in being encouraging. This is helpful for several other reasons as well, but it is perhaps the most crucial step in the process of creating a safe space for writer and genius to commune. If the student feels at all as though they are being judged for their work (or lack thereof), then the tutor cannot help the student to separate their writing ability from their writing itself. Aside from common sense tutoring methods, however, the other key step in communicating this philosophy is to talk in terms of inspiration (which sounds cliché, so it might be a good idea to frame it in a more congenial manner). It might also help to talk about some personal experiences, for example, I know that the greatest portion of my time in writing something is spent discovering what I can get excited writing about. That time is far more important than the time I spend writing, and it takes longer as well. In each piece of writing, try to find the topics about which it seems the student is most excited. These are the areas in which the genius will be most clear, and if the student builds their paper or argument on these then the genius can make itself known throughout the entire paper.
Using this philosophy tutors can teach confidence in writing by showing students how to enjoy the creative process. Whether tutors explain the genius is less important than that they explain that inspiration is not guaranteed nor is its absence something to fear, but there are ways to find the genius, and going to the Writing Center is one of the best methods to do so.
Gilbert, Elizabeth. “Your Elusive Creative Genius.” TED. Feb 2009. Lecture.
Genius. Dictionary of Creativity: Terms, Concepts, Theories & Findings in Creativity
Research/Compiled and edited by Eugene Gorny. Netslova.ru, 2007
Isaac Hoffman is an Honor’s College student at Hofstra University, class of 2019. He is majoring in Classics and Latin with a concentration in Classical Languages and Literature and is also a Latin tutor and a Writing Center tutor in training.