I really did not want to read this book. I mean the author wrote Eat, Pray, Love for crying out loud! No, I did not actually read that book, but they made a movie out of it and cast Julia Roberts in it! As far as I was concerned, that’s an automatic “must miss”–right up there with The Celestine Prophecy, 50 Shades of Gray, and The Titanic (yes, I am aware that this was a movie and not a book).
Then, I happened to catch the tail end of an interview with her (can’t for the life of me remember on what show–Tim Ferriss?), and I was intrigued. Here was a very well spoken, smart woman. A little too happy for my taste, but intelligent and interesting. She was promoting her new book, Big Magic, about creativity, and had this to say about the creative life.
“When I talk about creativity, I am talking about a life driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.”
I bought the book.
Big Magic is one of those books that you can zip through quickly and enjoyably. The author has a breezy style that is easy and approachable and (deceptively) light. It’s the kind of book that reads like a magazine article where you go yeah, yeah, I know, I know . . . except every so often you have to stop and go back a few pages (in my case, rewind since I was listening to it on Audible) and reread what she had just said, digest it.
Don’t be fooled (or put off) by Elizabeth Gilbert‘s warm and goofy persona. Here is a woman who has lived the creative life (continues to live it through commercial successes and failures) and has some very incisive and insightful things to say about life and fear and living wholeheartedly.
What are some of our biggest fears around creativity? That we are not good enough? That our work is somehow not inspired? Not original? Not important? That we will have to suffer for it to be any good? That we will die in ignominy or, worse yet, anonymity? Gilbert tackles it all.
She reassures us that “most things have been done, but they have not been done by you.” This is an interesting take on originality–the idea that the creator is what makes something unique, something valuable. We have become accustomed to objectifying the things we make as if they are somehow separate from the maker. But take this book, for example. How many books have been written about creativity, yet none quite like this one. The beauty, then, the value of any work of art is original as any creator is original. You are good enough. Your work is original because you are original.
Still, she realizes that fear will always be with us because “creativity asks [us] to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome.” Makes sense right? Maybe the thing we like least about engaging our creativity is that uncertainty–What is this thing I am making? Am I doing it right? Will I finish it? and, of course, the age-old, Will people like it? The thought of making something can be daunting, paralyzing. Our first instinct, then, is to shut fear out, pretend it doesn’t exist, drown it out with busyness, or worse yet, never let it in by never attempting anything creative. But that would be a mistake, says Gilbert.
Fearlessness is not the solution.
When people try to “kill off their fear,” they might also inadvertently “murder their creativity in the process.” She tells us, instead, to make room for our fear, to invite it in, set a place at the table for it. Our fear does, after all, play an important role in our lives–it’s there to keep us safe. So let your fear have a voice, but never, never let it get behind the wheel of your creativity.
Okay, I’m guilty. I’m one of those people who thinks that there are Writers and then there are people who write. Writers are gifted, artists, touched by the genius stick. They are the chosen ones. But Gilbert reminds us that genius is something you have, not something you are.
So apparently, both the Greeks and the Romans conceived of “genius” as a sort of external deity (guardian angel) of creativity, a conduit for inspiration, which when present helped you with your creative endeavors. This is a relief. I like the lighter image of tapping into source far better than the more onerous “I am genius” image, especially since I am so acutely aware that I am not genius. It allows me to feel like hey I can catch that wave, swim in that pool, too. It reminds me of something Robert Holden says about happiness–it’s always there; sometimes we are connected to it and sometimes we are not. I like that. Sometimes genius graces us with her presence, and sometimes not. Either way, we still have to show up and do the work, says Gilbert, but at least this way we don’t have to hide under the covers when we blow it, nor do we get to be all cocky and annoying when it turns out well. Because genius is something external to ourselves, something we can hook onto, something that is not us, we are, as she says, “protected from the corrupting influence of praise . . . and the corrosive effects of shame.”
Enjoy your creativity! Approach your work as you would a lover–eagerly and with delight!
Wait, what? No self-loathing? No crippling self-doubt? No tormented artist trope?
Now I’m not saying I fall into your stereotypical writer box, but “enjoy” your creativity? That seems like a bit of a stretch. The only three things I enjoy are sleep, a shower, and Krispy Kreme donuts (and if I could just figure out how to do all three at once, I’d pack in all this creativity crap). Now, now, Liz Gilbert, I was thinking to myself, get a grip. But no, she was dead serious. Okay, I thought, let’s see how she digs herself out of this one.
And she did. Here’s how.
First, she threw in a little history (always a good move against nay-sayers like me). Did you know, for instance, that the earliest evidence of people making art (cave paintings) predates the earliest evidence of people engaging in agriculture by 30,000 years!!!? No, really. From this Gilbert concludes that “it was way more important to make attractive, superfluous items than it was to learn how to regularly feed ourselves.” Making art is that important to humans. Pretty amazing, right?
The thing is that few of us come to creativity in order to torture ourselves. Yes, we may have some ulterior motives (fame, fortune, nobility, legacy), but mostly we come because we want to make something–hopefully something beautiful. How did we lose sight of that? How did I lose sight of that? I get so caught up in the “thing” of it, the end product being just so, that I lose sight of the process, the actual making that gives me so much pleasure. I get so attached to the destination, that I cannot enjoy the ride. Many times, I don’t even hop on the train.
“What are you passionate about? What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” some ask, hoping to spark people to action, to motivate them to find that one thing, that passion in their lives. But Liz Gilbert asks a different question: What are you passionate enough about that you could endure and survive even if you did fail? What do you love so much that you would do it all–the spit up, the 3:00 a.m. feeds, the tantrums–and still love it? Quoting Mark Manson, author, blogger, and entrepreneur, Gilbert writes, “‘What’s your favorite shit sandwich? . . . Everything sucks some of the time.’ You just have to decide what sort of suckage you’re willing to deal with . . . because if you love something enough–whatever it is–then you don’t really mind eating the shit sandwich that comes with it.”
This is true. I didn’t mind eating the parenting shit sandwich, so why do I balk at the writing shit sandwich? Surely the stakes are much lower with the writing sandwich, just the lightest of schmears as compared to the parenting sandwich. Maybe it’s time to go, Writing: It’s mmm, mmm, good!
I have this fantasy (come on, you do too!) that IF I had more time, IF I were independently wealthy, IF I didn’t have to work at this Goddamned nine-to-five job, IF . . . I would be writing all the time. But really I wouldn’t. I know me. I’d just find something else to complain about. The town I live in is not inspiring enough. I don’t travel much, so what the hell am I supposed to write about. I don’t read enough. I read too much. I have dry eyes. The dog ate my paper. I think I have an acute case of A Moveable Feast and have romanticized the whole artist’s life fantasy. I have this idea that in order to write I need to have time–which is surprising, really, because I’ve managed to raise two kids, earn three degrees, and stay married all the while holding down two jobs, so time has not previously been a barrier to getting shit done. So what then?
I circle back to fear. “No time” is just a proxy for fear. But fear is so “boring,” as Gilbert says. I discovered this a long time ago when I was afraid of heights of water of bugs of the dark of riding bikes of loud noises of crowded spaces of being alone . . . of pretty much everything. Then one day (or maybe one year) I just thought enough. This is ridiculous. I had, as Gilbert puts it, built my entire identity around the most boring instinct I possessed–fear, “a song with only one note, one word . . . and that word was Stop!”
I’m not going back there.
And nor should you.
Really though, you should read this book. I have barely scratched the surface (mostly to harp on about fear–yup, my issue for sure)–there’s so much more like the story about the poet Ruth Stone and her galloping horses, but mostly the story about Ann Patchett and what Gilbert calls “Big Magic.”
I’m not going to give it away. You have to read it for yourself.
I liked this book so much, that after I listened to it on Audible, I sprung for a print copy as well.
I liked this book so much, I think I’m going to read Eat, Pray, Love.