Thursday, June 24, 2010

Futurama, Daemons, and brain monkeys

Today, Futurama premiers for the second time, this round courtesy of Comedy Central (the comedic gods favor us!). It already feels like a red letter day. In anticipation of the great event, creators Matt Groening and David X. Cohen answered often asked questions, including 'What is one fan question you never want to be asked again?'

They said they are sick of being asked, 'Where do you get your ideas?' Their response to anyone who asks is, 'We steal them. We watch other TV shows.'

So, all you creative geniuses...where do your ideas come from? Have your answer ready, because chances are, someone will ask.

In this video, Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love talks about where ideas come from, and how to have these ideas without becoming a drunk manic depressive, like so many modern artists tend to do these days. If you are an artist of any kind, it is worth twenty minutes of your time to watch the whole thing. And just in case you don't feel like it, I offer the cliff note version of good quotes from the first half. (Disclaimer: some quotes may be off by a few words because I am a writer, not a court reporter or transcriptionist. Plus, I tend to gloss over details and occasionally get lazy).

Creative people across all genres have this reputation, it seems, for being enormously mentally unstable. Somehow, we've completely internalized and accepted collectively this notion that creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked, and artistry, in the end, will ultimately lead to anguish.

Are you guys all cool with that idea? I think it's odious. I think it's better if we encourage our great creative minds to live.

For me, it's exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me. That's the kind of thought that could lead a person to start drinking gin at nine o'clock in the morning. So, I have to create some kind of protective psychological construct, to figure some way to have a safe distance between me as I am writing and my very natural anxiety about what the reaction to that writing will be.

I've been looking across time and culture for better and safer ideas to deal with this problem. The people of ancient Greece and Rome did not believe that creativity came from human beings, but rather came to human beings from distant and unknowable sources for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks called this disembodied creative spirit a Daemon. The Romans called it a Genius, which was a magical divine entity, a lot like a house elf.

Brilliant, that distance, that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work. Back then, everyone knew this was how it worked, so the ancient artist was protected from things like too much narcissism; if your work was brilliant, you couldn't take all the credit. If your worked bombed? Not entirely your fault; everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.

And then the Renaissance came, and everything changed and we had this big idea: let's put the individual human being at the center of the universe, above all gods and mysteries, with no more room for mystical creatures who take notation from the divine.

People started to believe creativity came completely from the self. And, for the first time in history, you start hearing people referring to this or that artist as being a genius, rather than having a genius. And I gotta tell you, I think that was a huge error. I think that allowing somebody, like one mere person, to believe that he or she is the vessel, the font, the essence, the source of divine, creative, unknowable a smidgen too much to put on one fragile human psyche.

So, boiled down to one sentence, in order to keep your sanity, never, ever say the ideas come from you. Your fragile human psyche just can't handle it. Make up another source. God, your muse, whatever. Even TV (Homer Simpson worships it like a god, why can't you?) Gilbert goes on to tell you how to talk to your creative entity, especially if it comes to you at inopportune times (like while driving) or gives you total crap to work with.

Maureen Johnson calls her entity the Brain Monkeys (scroll halfway down to enjoy the Brain Monkey conversation). And after reading what MJ endures just to get ideas from her brain monkeys, I feel a little sorry for her. But not too sorry for her, being a published author with brilliant Brain Monkeys. What I wouldn't do for such monkeys in my head.

My college creative writing professor said his muse stuck a piano in the middle of a scene and messed up his whole plot. Muses, Brain Monkeys, or whatever, can do that. They can do anything. They can also leave town at the drop of a hat and not write to tell you when they will return.

Cruel, cruel Brain Monkeys. I hate you.

But I also love you to pieces. Please don't leave me. Stick around and tell me how to transform all those useless hours of TV watching into something as brilliant as Futurama. (I also envy Matt Groening's Brain Monkeys, but then, who doesn't?)

What do you call your creative entity and what kind of relationship do you and that entity have?

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