A creative person has little power over his own life. He is not free. He is captive and driven by his daimon. — Carl Jung
As a Hollywood studio executive, I have experienced my share of shattered lives. Creative people walk on the razor’s edge to fulfill their gifts and reach their destiny.
Their walk is both glorious and impossible. For the better part of forty years, I have attempted to help these artists achieve their artistic aspirations through the art form of movie-making.
Sadly, I often failed, because, at the time, I did not know enough about the mysterious core of the creative process, even though, as President of Paramount and Production Chief at Disney, I managed that creative process. Through the years, I held a ringside seat to the creative struggle and saw great artists — John Belushi, River Phoenix, and Michael Jackson — fall to the blackout punch of their own daimons.
Pressure is inseparable from the creative process. This stress is built out of a polarity in opposition that is elemental to the human condition. The basic law of physics claims that all energy springs from the release of pressure.
It has been my experience that most artists interpret that process as psychic and/or emotional pain, rather than the natural process of pressure building-up until creative energy bursts forward, and the much-beloved high of “the flow” is found in which the work is largely made.
My intent with this article is to finally bring to bear all that I have experienced in the creative process and to help a new generation of creative people to “Follow their bliss” while maximizing their potential.
What the Heck Is a Daimon?
I can hear it now. Because, years ago, I asked the same question.
Did I get that right? Do you mean demon?
No, I mean daimon. It’s a word rarely used in our modern Twitterverse, but it should be. (It’s usually pronounced like “diamond”, without the “d”.)
The daimon is at the core of creativity. This naming of the concept started with the Greeks. Aristotle, Plato, Socrates and the rest of the tribe called the higher source of inspiration and enlightenment, the “daimon”.
Now, here is the lesson: If you can manage and live with your daimon, you have a shot at a special life.
Happiness is to live in harmony with one’s daimon.
The Creative Life
To live in accord with one’s daimon is difficult but profoundly rewarding. — psychiatrist Rollo May, from Love & Will
A key component in understanding the daimon and utilizing it without crashing and burning can be found in Carl Jung’s own self-assessment of his life with the daimon. He considered himself a creative person. He was one of the foremost thought-leaders in 20th-century psychology.
In his memoir, Carl Jung’s brutal observation of himself is heart-breaking:
There was a daimon in me, and in the end its presence proved decisive. It overpowered me, and if I was at times ruthless it was because I was in the grip of the daimon. ~ Carl Jung
Jung speaks of his inability to turn it off its music. Once he achieved a new discovery, he was on to the next one, and then the next. He could not stop its control over him. Creative people know of what Jung speaks. And yet, there were clues in his own thinking which he seemed to miss.
When the daimon is at work, one is always too close and too far. Only when it is silent can one achieve moderation. — Carl Jung
While Jung wrote of meditation, he never practiced it. He did not believe his “Western” mind could integrate with the “Eastern ethos” of the meditative practice. It is presumptuous of me to take on the great man, but I believe that mediation and quietude would have helped him with the handling of his own daimon.
Based on my experience, a creative person can have a memorable and satisfying life by integrating seven practices into their daily lives:
- Acknowledge the sometimes-grueling incubation period of creation as a necessary part of the process
- Bring order to the process of inspiration. Schedule a consistent work time.
- Control the daimon’s presence in your life. Make a physical entrance and a physical exit to your artistic workplace.
- Construct a productive plan during the incubation or “waiting” period.
- Discover constructive ways — such as exercise and nature walks — to avoid excessive usage of alcohol or drugs
- Carry a pocket notebook to scribble down notes for those random and brief inspirations.
- Forge an attitude of gratitude and respect for the process.
- Remember this a co-creation between you and the daimon. Both are important and must be honored.
Through this article, I will illustrate these healthy practices. At the time of my own years in Hollywood, I was still learning about them and were often not part of my practice.
Pecking at the Eggshell
Pressure needs to build until energy is released and the work can spring forward. A sprout cracks open the seed. A baby expands the birth canal. A chick breaks the eggshell. All creation involves creative energy.
Creative energy, the “flow”, can only come from pent-up tension being liberated. For many artists with whom I have worked, this is the intolerable phase of the creative process. They become edgy, nervous, and “ready to explode.” The problem is they believe something is wrong with them. There is another way — a productive way — of reaching the daimon. But first, we must look at the challenge.
For inexperienced or uninformed creatives, this pressure is often unfathomable. Jung called it the “torment of creation.” The psychic pain, the dreadful pressure is not understood. Creatives don’t know its source and yet it is somehow attached to their gift.
Creatives often look for release from the stress so they can experience the flow. For exceptional creative people, the pressure might be even more intense. They visit shrinks. They pop anti-anxiety pills. They drink. They take drugs.
At Paramount, we cast River Phoenix in his first starring role in Explorers. He was 15 years old. He could never understand why he was always “waiting. I never arrive,” he told me when he was still a teenager. “Except when the camera rolls. I never quite know who I am. I am only alive when I am somebody else.”
River, of course, became a star. His agent, Iris Burton, called me and asked if I could meet with him. By that time, he was 23 years old.
“He’s in a bad way,” Iris said. “Help him. He always liked you.” I met with River at my office at Paramount. There was such a cloud of worry and confusion before him. I did not know how to reach him, or how to make an impression. Our get together was inconclusive. I was devastated. Half-heartedly, we agreed to go for a walk in the dog park on Sunday and “talk more.” Two days later, he collapsed on a sidewalk outside a Hollywood nightclub of an overdose and died.
Ernest Hemingway spoke about the limbo-life between creative feats. “It is the wait until the next day that is hard to get through,” he told George Plimpton in his interview for the Paris Review.
It is critical to a satisfying life to recognize the sometimes grueling incubation period of creation as a necessary part of the process. There is nothing wrong with you. It is the pressure building before a creative release.
With articles like this, I hope that creative people (and we are all creative) will be educated to the process and see this pressure as a requisite, and positive, part of the creative practice. Awareness helps to reframe the monster as the muse. It is recalibrating perspective and accepting the tension as part of the gift. It is NOT “something wicked this way comes.” Rather, it is “something beautiful this way comes.”
While at Paramount, I worked with the ebullient John Belushi on the script for his last film, Noble Rot, which he never lived to make. He once told me when he was creating a character he would go off by himself and walk that character until the character came fully formed. “I would play-act the role. If anyone saw me, they would think me insane. ”
To be walking down the road and seeing a man in plain clothes performing Samurai Hitman or Joliet Blues would certainly look like madness. Often, as audience members, we do not know the ardor of the birthing room. Once the curtain opens, we see only the bright baby.
But the daimon does not arrive before the dance of opposites.
The united personality will never quite lose the painful sense of innate discord. — Carl Jung
John would dull the labor pains with cocaine and tranquilizers. Unfortunately, the Hollywood commercial system often looked the other way or covertly enabled the process. Dan Ackroyd, Belushi’s creative partner, on the Blues Brothers movie told Vanity Fair, “we had a budget in the movie for cocaine for night shoots.”
The Spartan Hotel Room, the Juice, and the Green Mask
Part of training the daimon is to create a line of demarcation. Often, writers with a keen sense of awareness will have a special place or time to meet their muse. It’s important to bring order to the process of inspiration, by scheduling a consistent work time and a manner of greeting this special time. This can be a good idea for it gives creatives some control over what Jung called “the towering life force.”
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, has has spent her life “in devotion to creativity”. In her Ted Talk, she called it “showing up. It’s a relationship, it’s a conversation, and all [the daimon] wants is to be treated with respect and dignity — and it will return ten thousand times over.”
Every morning, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Maya Angelou would drive to a hotel room to “do her work.” It was a “tiny, mean room with just a bed, and sometimes, if I can find it, a face basin. I keep a dictionary, a Bible, a deck of cards and a bottle of sherry in the room.” She always worked in the anonymous hotel room. “I try to keep home very pretty, and I can’t work in a pretty surrounding. It throws me.”
Once she would finish for the day, in early afternoon, Maya Angelou closed the door on the hotel room and drove home. There, she kept her self busy in the waiting process with domestic activities, including throwing elegant dinner parties with lively conversations. Dr. Angelou would return the next day to the hotel room and be inspired by her daimon all over again.
Despite the drunken, seemingly reckless escapades of his popularized life, Ernest Hemingway rose every morning to meet his inspiration at the very edge of night, before “first light.” It did not matter what kind of wild, drunken binge he had been on the night before. Showing up at the time of first light was his daily ritual. There he would eventually find his ultimate fix: creative flow.
Hemingway said it would be cool or cold at that time of day, but he “warmed” as he wrote. It would not be long until he grew into the flow where “nothing can hurt you, nothing can happen, nothing means anything until the next day when you do it again.” As with many, the rest of his day was marked as ordinary. Meeting this moment of inspiration is a wish-fulfillment.
“The goal of life is to match your heartbeat to the beat of the universe.” — Joe Campbell
T.S. Eliot maintained one of the oddest approaches. He would paint his face green to face the upcoming flow. For the poet laureate of England, the emerald mask gave him an “exalted” sense of being. According to Eliot’s biographer, Peter Ackroyd, the green mask made Eliot “ feel like a poet even though he looked like a banker.”
The Need for Banality and Regularity
There is a lot to be said for making that daily appointment with the muse. For artists, it was a way to open and close the door on the “grip” of the daimon (as Carl Jung aptly described it. )
The prolific writer Stephen King sits in a chair every morning at his keyboard. He tied his daily session to a mathematical formula. He could not get out of the chair until he had written 2,000 words. Now, for those who are not writers: 2,000 words is a lot. By comparison, Hemingway was satisfied with 600 words at a session. Stephen King’s math-practice is one reason he is one of the most prolific writers in the modern world.
Victor Hugo wrote with his daimon every day after breakfast. Like Maya Angelou who shut the hotel room door, Hugo had his own specific exit. He ended his time of inspiration by taking a bath on his rooftop. It is important to establish an entrance and an exit with your daimon. Otherwise, the muse can take over your life with distraction, confusion, and obsession.
Hugo installed a bathtub on the rooftop of his Parisian home. His mistress, Juliette Drouet, lived in an adjacent building, so she could have a peep at him through her window as he bathed. The first part of Victor Hugo’s morning was creative. The last part moved into Eros with a warm but sensual bath. Bathing was a clear exit from the day’s earlier inspiration.
In Mark Twain’s case, his early morning and 6-day-a week writing rituals were fear-based. He locked his door and put a ribbon on the knob to stop potential visitors from knocking. He wrote every day at the same time, except Sunday, because he feared “losing the thread” of his narrative.
Living Inside the Daimon
Unlike the Greeks with daimon, the Romans called the source of inspiration Genius. In Roman culture, every man was born with Genius, every woman with Juno. The genius was very much like the daimon. It was a spirit that allowed a human to know their divine nature. So, the daimon (and we will stay with the originating name from the Greeks) was tied to each man and woman, and was tied to the divine within oneself and outside of oneself.
The daimonic can be either creative or destructive
and is normally both. — Rollo May, psychiatrist
As Carl Jung stated, daimonic inspiration is akin to nature for “nature is not only harmonious, but she is also dreadfully contradictory and chaotic.” In both Roman and Greek cultures, the daimon is both your friend and a trickster. The daimon contains both light and shadow. You must respect it but you must never fall completely under its spell. You must close the door on it as Dr. Maya Angelou did when she exited that hotel room every day.
The Greeks had a way of dealing with the daimon. They created the methodology of the Golden Mean to find the middle ground between excess and deficiency. A perfect example is a virtue the Greeks called “courage.” In excess, courage is recklessness; in deficiency, it is cowardice. Part of training your daimon is to bring reason into the process as the Greeks did.
“You can’t just blow, you’ll be in pieces,” said Joseph Campbell, “you have to add some form.” For the brilliant Michael Jackson, he wanted to stay in the “flow” of peak inspiration. In his case, the daimon filled him with such wonder that he chose to live in that magic world of childhood 24–7.
In 1985 at Paramount, we developed Peter Pan as a movie to be directed by Steven Spielberg. We were heavily invested in the project, building sets at Pinewood Studios outside of London. I was the executive on the project. Michael Jackson wanted to play the titular character.
“I AM Peter Pan,” Michael told me with confidence. Peter Pan was the magic boy who refused to grow up. Michael lobbied hard for the part, but he was 34 years old. He shaved. He was no kid. The motion picture’s big screen would only enhance his age. I spent time with him. I went to his ranch called “Neverland,” a world of child-fantasy he created and lived in.
As an adult, Michael spoke with a boyish voice. “But, Michael,” I told him. “The role should be played by a child who is just on the cusp of puberty.”
“But I am a child,” he replied. When I looked into his eyes, there was such complete sincerity there, it was impossible to argue with him. It was his belief. Aristotle suggested that happiness was to walk hand-in-hand with the daimon. Not to be consumed by it. Michael’s lobbying became so pervasive that Steven Spielberg did not know what to do. It was hard for him to say no to an artist with such staggering talent. Perhaps, Michael was right. Eventually, Spielberg bowed out of the movie and the picture fell apart.
Like Alice, Michael fell into the rabbit hole. He was so complete in the world of his imagination he constructed it as his reality — hanging out with pre-pubescent boys and building a world of carousels, roller coasters, and cotton candy machines.
One Saturday, I spent three hours waiting for Michael at the Neverland Ranch. I was 35. His handlers suggested I enjoy the amusement park until Michael was available. I hung out Michael’s chimp, Bubbles. I rode the Ferris wheel and the roller coaster. I ate cotton candy. There were many staff to operate the park, but I was the only guest. I rode throughout Neverland Park alone.
The reason so many people fall to a blackout punch to the daimon is they don’t comprehend is power and its danger. It’s vital to control the daimon’s presence in your life by making a physical entrance and a physical exit to your artistic workplace as Maya Angelou or Victor Hugo did. To live within the daimon is to blur reality and self-assessment. The need for measured reason with the daimon is blown away by the passion of the muse.
One of the seminal differentiators in humanity — which separates us from chimps like Bubbles and all other mammals — is our ability to imagine what is not there. In his breath-taking account of the history of humanity, Sapiens, historian Noah Yuval Harai writes of human imagination as being the why behind Humanity’s survival.
We are still here because the human mind could imagine things that do not really exist. ~ Noah Yuval Harari
Homo sapiens were not as strong or big as Neanderthals or Denisovans. Still, we created tools and weapons from our visions. We painted in caves. We constructed language to communicate our ideas to one another. Sapiens continued to thrive while the stronger Hominins dwindled into extinction or were massacred. This was only 30, 000 years ago.
Humans could not only see what was not there, but they built what was not there. We conspired against the “way it is”. Through story and myth-making, Humanity found cooperation with one another. They worked together to build empires of pyramids, ocean-liners, and rocket ships.
The Untrodden Path
There is no road. The road is made by walking.
— Anthony Machado
Philosophers speak about the solitary road for a creative person. Writers write of the precariousness of the “razor’s edge.” Religious leaders speak of the “narrow path”. The very definition of creativity, according to Merriam- Webster, is to “to make or bring into existence something new.”
That can be an arduous and lonely feat. Often, but not always, creation will go unrewarded or unappreciated.
Unlike Europe, American streets are named after politicians and generals, not poets and painters. Futurists like Phillip K. Dick, creator of Blade Runner and Minority Report, sustained themselves on canned dog food as they could afford little else.
In Somerset Maugham’s classic The Razor’s Edge, the hero Larry Darrell, an American pilot traumatized by war, seeks a nonconformist path in an attempt to discover existential meaning. His wealthy social circle laughs at him. The title comes from a translation of a verse in the Upanishads which appears in the book’s epigraph: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus, the wise say the path to salvation is hard.”
I have found it useful to always carry a pocket notebook while walking the razor’s edge. Inevitably, an insight arrives that needs to be jotted down when the inspiration presents itself.
Thought leader and mythologist Joseph Campbell famously commanded, “Follow your bliss.” But that call can be dangerous unless you “keep your head about you.”
The creative ones who are successful in life, not just their art, have learned to open and close the door on their muse. It is not wise to stay alone on the road for too long.
The man, driven by his daimon . . . enters the ‘untrodden, untreadable regions,’ where there are no charted ways and no shelter spreads a protecting roof over his head. — Carl Jung
So many artists I have worked with view liquor and drugs as important aspects of the creative toolkit. But the untrodden path can be just as exciting in sober mode. Peak flow needs no outside enhancements. While in flow, hours can pass by without notice.
Waiting for the pressure to build can be hard. I have found that exercise and nature walks are a great way to avoid excessive usage of alcohol or drugs.
In Western Civilization, our worldview has placed the emphasis on the interior struggle between good and evil. Here is an illustration by William Blake of the character Job who, while sleeping, is visited by both God and the Devil.
“A very interesting thing is our… interpretation of the word ‘demon’… it refers to the dynamic of life, your daimon is the dynamic of your life, and we are so against the dynamic of life in our tradition that we have turned it into a devil. The word ‘demon’ has negative meaning in our tradition.”
— Joseph Campbell
This notion of the struggle of good and evil created a limitation that has made the creative process often difficult for Westerners. It brings feelings of guilt and shame into the process. Never has that been better realized than the musing from the Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.
“If my devils are to leave me,
I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.”
— Rainer Maria Rilke
Yet this pushing and pulling, this tension of “waiting” until the daimon arrives — from a psychological perspective — is beyond good and evil. It is at the heart of scientific law. Polar opposites are at the heart of our psychological construct. In psychological terms, the daimon is not sacred alone, but also contains the opposite of sacred: the profane. From the push of both comes the creative spark which ignites flow, allowing the work to be made.
There is no consciousness without discrimination of opposites. — Carl Jung
In the Christian ethos, there is the concept of the “Holy Spirit” which, when it descended upon Jesus’s disciples, filled them with a sacred fire. Even Jesus hints at its power and chaos in the Holy Spirit in John 3: 8 when he says: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So, it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
These are the actions which can help you to both encourage and manage the daimon:
- Acknowledge the sometimes-grueling incubation period of creation as a necessary part of the process. Once you understand that this is unavoidable, it makes the gestating phase much easier to deal with. That understanding turns the unknowable monster of waiting into a friendly hassle.
- Bring order to the process of inspiration. Schedule a consistent work time. To avoid extreme behavior in oneself, train your daimon to meet at a certain time every day. All the daimon wants is to be treated with respect and dignity. It will always return if you treat it right.
- Control the daimon’s strong presence in your life. Make a physical entrance and a physical exit to your artistic workplace. It’s important to “put a lid” on it, just as Aladdin did. He called his genie up, and when he was through, Aladdin shut the lamp. As the daimon contains all the polarity found in life — doubt and conviction, light and darkness, rage and rest — you don’t want that power hanging around all day. Eventually, dancers leave the studio space. Musicians close the case that holds their instrument. The parable of The Red Shoes is clear: put the shoes away occasionally. Otherwise, you’ll be killed by a moving train.
- Construct a productive plan during the incubation or “waiting” period. During the downtime before the next daimon “download,” schedule your life. Be productive with other “work.” Love your family. See your friends. This pressure must build up again. There is nothing you can so about it. It will happen whether you are active or in respite. Get on with it. Have a life, as best you can.
- Discover constructive ways such as exercise and nature walks to avoid excessive usage of alcohol or drugs. I worked long hours at Paramount. At night, I would get drunk at the office so the written notes on scripts and projects came easier. It was not until after I received two DUIs coming out of the studio gates that I changed my habits. I substituted liquor with exercise, a good night’s sleep, and a morning meditation. If you’re prone to use drugs or alcohol in the creative process, I think it’s best to follow the philosophy established by the Golden Mean. Discover the middle ground between excess and deficiency.
- Carry a pocket notebook to scribble down notes for those random and brief inspirations. You may put a lid on the lantern, but smoke sometimes escapes. During the waiting period, a glimmer will seep through and shake you. You’re still in control when you carry a jot-pad. Write the inspiration down and then you can forget about it. You lose control when you don’t write it down. You spend the rest of your day under the grip of trying to remember it! Be wise and be prepared. Carry a paper pad or have a note app at the ready on your smartphone.
- Forge an attitude of gratitude and respect for the process. It’s important to calibrate a mind-and-heart set where creativity is viewed as a pleasure, not a burden. Creativity needs to be seen as a gift, not a curse. It can be daunting, but there is nothing like the flow experience. All my life, I have worked with creative people. I have encouraged, edited, guided, and prompted them. Editing is also a creative act. I have lived with my daimon since the beginning. I am grateful for a life devoted to imagination.
- Remember this is co-creation. Nothing ever arrives fully formed. Sometimes, when the daimon leaves, only the clay remains. It is up to the creative to discover the artistic means to carve and shape it — whether the clay be in the form of music, dance, painting or writing.
In today’s world, there are no muses known as “genius” or “Juno”. Now, “you are it,” as Joseph Campbell claims with irony and frustration. The list of civilization’s modern geniuses includes Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and the controversial Elon Musk. Data is the new god. Streaming is often seen as the new life force. The end result is heralded. The often challenging process of the creativity which is still being conducted in homes, offices and labs on the streets named after politicians and generals is not even considered.
The daimonic belongs to that dimension of experience where rational language can never tell more than a small part of the story. Thomas Jefferson, a rigorous devotee to the Age of Reason, ponders that Socrates was under the “care and admonition of a guardian daimon.”
Jefferson writes with disdain, “How many of our wisest men still believe in the reality of these inspirations, while perfectly sane in all other subjects!”
The daimonic is the enemy of reason, but we need a reason to manage its power and its duality. The daimonic will not accept clock-time or 24–7 schedules. The daimonic will never take a rational “no” for an answer.
The walk with the daimon is a life-long pursuit. “One never finishes this battle once and for all,” wrote Rollo May.
Sadly, human relationships also suffer. “A creative person has little power over his own life. He is not free,” wrote Carl Jung. “This lack of freedom has been a great sorrow to me. Often I felt as if I were on a battlefield, saying, ‘Now you have fallen, my good comrade, but I must go on.’ For ‘shamefully a power wrests away the heart from us.’ I am fond of you, indeed I love you, but I cannot stay.’ There is something heart-rending about that. And I myself am the victim; I cannot stay.”
By not staying, by pressing forward, Carl Jung became a prime mover in the understanding of modern psychology.
The life of the creative is never fully understood by friends and family. “You often stand alone,” I recently told a room of fiction writers at the Rocaberti Retreat in France. “You are often strange to them. You want to work in your studio or office because you are in the flow, rather than go out with them for a burger and a movie. You explain it to them and they nod politely, but you know you are not getting through. The worst is when they call your writing ‘typing’.”
I spoke a great deal about the daimon. It was gratifying for so many artists to finally understand that waiting was requisite and no great work was ever accomplished without what Socrates called, “a kind of voice.”
The daimon can be driven by political unrest, injustice, by the power of nature. Beatrix Potter, Georgia O’Keefe, Ansel Adams, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir rose to that voice from nature. It can be driven by the void, existential depression. By music. By dance. But the daimon is always there, if not seen. It is waiting to touch you with its power whether at first light or while wearing an emerald mask.
It can be compelled by difficult circumstances. When young Jerry Siegal, 15, learned that his father, an owner of a convenience store, was killed by a bullet in a gunman’s hold up, he ran all the way home. For three days, he feverishly holed up in the 3rd-floor attic of his home in Cleveland Ohio (pictured above). There he wrote of a special man who could not fall to a gun, who could not be killed by a speeding bullet. For almost a century the world has known that character as “Superman.”
These books helped shape my understanding of the daimon and could be helpful in your own deeper dive of the subject:
The Courage to Create by Rollo May
Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey
The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
Iron Man John by Robert Bly
Love and Will by Rollo May
Man and his Symbols by Carl Jung
Memories, Dreams, and Reflections by Carl Jung
An Open Life: Joseph Campbell in Conversations with Michael Toms | selected and edited by John Maher and Dennie Briggs
I recently put together this audio excerpt about the Daimon from Carl Jung’s autobiographical work, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections.