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At the RISD exhibit (Photo by Jan Baker)

It’s an it.

It is a simple insight but a huge one, that an entity exists outside of yourself that is your inspiration. Some call it the artist’s gift, some call it creativity. But the idea that it is separate from you—that it can be addressed and spoken to (and cajoled and tousled with as well)—changes the dynamic considerably.

As an idea, this is rooted in the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome. But it does run counter to canonical views of contemporary psychology that everything is you, all the time, just you.

For those of us with a mystic’s bent, stepping away from that point of view isn’t much of a stretch. But I am always heartened when I hear a similar idea expressed by people I wouldn’t guess were ever members of my tribe.

In a recent RadioLab podcast, Liz Gilbert describes an experience she had several years ago when she interviewed the musician Tom Waits. Surprisingly, the crusty Waits shared his belief that every song has its own distinct identity and each comes into the world in its own way. He had learned this over years of struggling with the creative process. Some songs, he said, require that you sneak up like stalking a rare bird; some arrive fully formed “like a dream taken through a straw”; some are like bits of chewing gum you scrape off the bottom of a chair and wad into a new form; some have to be bullied and cajoled and given lots of tough love.

In a memorable anecdote, Waits tells about the day he finally took control of his creative anxiety. While driving down a crowded freeway in Los Angeles, he heard a melody in this head. No pen, no paper, no recording device, no way to capture this exquisite nugget of sound.

At first he dropped back into that old place of creative anxiety. But this time he looked up at the sky and said, “Excuse me. Can you not see that I’m driving? If you’re serious about wanting to exist then remember I spend eight hours a day in the studio. You’re welcome to come and visit me when I’m sitting at my piano. Otherwise, leave me alone and go bother Leonard Cohen.”

Gilbert contends that this external entity actually wants you to jostle and rub up against it, to give it some edge. Pushing back is part of it and one of the ways you demonstrate that you are serious. Like Waits, she envisions a Gulf Stream of creative ideas circling the planet looking for available portals through which they can find expression. You get “portalized” by being at the studio, at your desk, doing your work on a regular basis.

As for the popular phrase, genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, Gilbert’s analogy is a memorable one: It’s 99% oyster and 1% pearl. But to get the pearl makes the rest of it a bargain.