TED is a conference where scientists are at the top of the food chain. The discussions about global warming, malaria, hunger, and other global issues tend to be front and center.
But then, just as you think you've seen every cool robot, or the latest adhesive wall-climbing robotic gecko - then TED goes and surprises you with one of the most unexpected and most moving emotional talks of the conference so far. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, began by explaining somewhat off-offhandedly that Eat, Pray, Love is already thought by her friends to be her best work ever. Simply put - her best days were already behind her.
Gilbert, who's dedicated her life to writing, talked about the frustration of working in a profession in which disappointment, alcoholism, and looming failure were considered acceptable. She pointed out that her father - a chemical engineer, was never asked by his friends if he was facing "Chemical Engineering" block, or if he ever thought that his latest Chemical Engineering achievement would be his last. Simply put, authors find themselves facing failure every day. No other career puts that kind of pressure on process.
"I think it might be better if we encouraged our great creative minds to live," Gilbert suggests. "It's exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me. That's the kind of thought that can lead a person to start drinking gin at 9:00 in the morning."
For Gilbert, creativity is a demon. A demon she wrestles and keeps in check. For her, writing and creativity is collaboration between self and the force of the idea.
Elizabeth weaves a story of artistic success and pressure. She asks if she's doomed. What if she never replicates the success of her past book? Is it rational or logical to be afraid of the work that we were put on this earth to do? Why do artists and writers have this history of manic depression and mental illnesses? Why is artistry synonymous with mental anguish?
Perhaps most striking is the image that Gilbert creates of creative ideas as living breathing creatures. She imagines them flying by - taunting their potential scribe. If you don't grab an idea or a poem when in flies by, then it will go looking for another muse. The lesson, grab an idea, or know that it will be fleeting.
Viewing this as a writer, a filmmaker, and creative person, Gilbert's evocative description of the creative process as both capricious and fleeting hits home. The idea that creative demons burst on the scene, often at wildly inopportune moments, and then dash off if not captured was such a visceral description that it caught almost everyone in the TED auditorium by surprise. While Gilbert was talking about writing and poetry, I got the sense that anyone who's been taunted and haunted by the glimmer of something extraordinary could connect with her demon.
Rarely do you get to see the troubled driven inside of a writer's soul. But in Long Beach, for 18 minutes yesterday, Elizabeth Gilbert shared that complex painful place with me and 1,300 of her new found friends at TED. In the end, the room rose in appreciation. The demon, at least for a moment, was satiated.