The new rules of creativity


The new rules of creativity

You don’t need to follow your passion, says author Elizabeth Gilbert

By Cheryl-Ann Couto  December 8th, 2015

Raise your hand if you thought about quitting your nine-to-five to go find and follow your dreams again this week. And if, just like last week and all the times before, you chickened out because unlike your Facebook friend/ex-colleague/distant cousin who went ahead and embraced the ravages of creative living (all those awful haircuts), you actually like your nice apartment and the warm flush of a scheduled payday. Those guys are the genuine article, you tell yourself as you morosely pick at your kale-and-chia-seed salad; what right have you to creativity and art-making if you don’t want the suffering that’s obviously inherent to being great? A birthright, if Elizabeth Gilbert, of the 2006 publishing phenomenon Eat Pray Love, has anything to say about it. In her new book Big Magic, a treatise on creativity and how we pretty much need to rethink the whole damn thing, she insists on your entitlement to a creative life. “All of us have descended from billions and billions of human beings who, with their talents and inventiveness, took nothing and made something out of it. That’s the definition of creativity. You’re built for it. The only thing you have to do to lay claim is to say you want to be part of it — and you get to be part of it,” she says. The book is an extension of her wildly popular 2009 TED talk on creativity, and furthers a philosophy we’re happy to get on board with: Creating a way of living that generates the least possible suffering with the most possible satisfaction. “For years I’ve been looking for ways to build  an open, joyful, generative relationship with creativity,” she says. Here are some of the answers she found.

Believe in ghosts

Gilbert asks that you see ideas and inspiration for what they really are: disembodied life forms that roam the world, restlessly looking for the right incubator to take physical form. Um. “It’s not the easiest idea to digest if you’re a rational, reasonable, modern person,” she laughs. “But ask anyone who has encountered creativity in even the mildest possible way and they’ll tell you it feels like you’re wrestling...dancing... conversing with some-thing that is not quite you. You’ll often hear perfectly rational, reasonable, modern people talk of it this way, too: ‘The inspiration came to me’ or ‘It was like a bolt out of the blue sky.’” Our predecessors, she points out, had no trouble digesting this. The Romans even had a word for their external daemon of creativity — they called it a person’s genius, and ascribed his brilliance and failures to this entity. (It all changed during the Renaissance when humans were anointed the centre of the universe and talk of gods became awkward). Gilbert can appreciate that this sounds like “freaky, old-timey, voodoo-style magic” and she asks simply: So what? If believing in a whimsy ghost of creativity can relieve you of the responsibility for the outcome of your work, so you’re free to create without either becoming a sad sack or a megalomaniac — take the fairy dust. “Creativity can often become a casualty of too much rational thinking,” she warns.

Don’t mooch off your creativity

Expecting to get rich off your talents (the official moniker for this kind of person is yuccie; Gilbert prefers “annoying”) is guaranteed suffering. “You are simply not in control of that outcome,” she says. “Eat Pray Love was written in the same spirit as the books that came before and after it, none of which achieved its level of success. I could never fault anyone for wanting the same things I’ve always wanted, which is material success. But it can’t be the deal-breaker.” Look into being the doting, supportive benefactor in your relationship with your creativity instead, she advises. Short talk? Keep your day job so you’re free to reach for your dreams.  “There were years and years where I made no money from my writing, but I kept doing it anyway,” she says. “So if anything were to happen to my life where I suddenly can’t make a living doing this — say the literary world collapses as everyone is always threatening it will — I’ll get by. And I’ll still be writing.” 

Treasure your ego

“I think of our egos as being our personalities, our desires, our identities — without those things, we’re just blobs,” says Gilbert. This is your ego on a good day, filling you with fuzzy feelings of worthiness and helping you navigate through the fog of your inadequacy. On a bad day, you had best stay under the covers. “I know this about my ego,” says Gilbert. “It is limitless, a vacant, hungry hole that requires to constantly be filled. It’s a voice that, no matter how good you have it, always says ‘Ugh, I kinda wanted more.’” The antidote, she says, is simple: Steadily, every single day, remind yourself that the world owes you nothing. “On social media, when people call me names and hate me, I don’t like it. I wish they were praising me instead. But then I ask myself, ‘Who told you you have the right to expect universal praise?’ That was never the deal. Then I get back to work, because I love the work more than I hate the criticism.”

Give yourself permission 

Not nearly enough women enter — or stay standing in — the creative arena; countless surveys worldwide have proven this. But putting aside institutionalised gender inequality and the millennia of history that have collaborated to keep women silent, are we the teensiest bit complicit, too? Gilbert thinks so. “One thing that frustrates me is to see people who have power pretending they are powerless. Because there is such a thing as a powerless human being, and most of us are not it. If you are a woman in the world with agency over your life, unlike millions of other women, you should put your forehead to the ground for how incredibly lucky you are to have been born into this moment in history. You have the best chance of any woman who’s ever lived.” Then you must get to work, using your freedom to push back against the shackles of your own fear. “What I really want to see is women flexing their power much more than they oftentimes seem willing to do. We must let go of a perceived idea of fragility and delicacy and allow ourselves to engage wholly in the arena in which we’re finally free to engage.”

Be authentic, not original

How awful to realise that the things you want to say and the art you want to create, don’t lend themselves very easily, or at all, to clickbait, that gateway to modern consciousness. If it can’t consistently blow minds or make them ‘never believe what happened next’, is it even worth putting out there? You’re asking the wrong question, Gilbert says. Ask instead, Is this what I want to say, anyway? “I think you can tell the difference between originality and authenticity if you hold both concepts in the middle of your stomach and see how they make you feel. If someone tells you to create work that is original, the amount of anxiety that would immediately generate is crippling. But if they say, ‘Make something authentic’, you immediately feel different, your breath changes, you’re more relaxed, because this you can do. As a consumer too, of books for instance, I’ve read things that are daringly new and I’m very impressed by their cleverness. But I’m looking in there for the humanity and often I’m not feeling it. And I would rather love something than admire it.”

Lower your standards

Perfectionism is a ruse, according to Gilbert, a virtuous-looking front for fear and insecurity. “Think about the perfectionists you know — do they make for fine company? Do they seem to enjoy their own life? Are they creating interesting things? Are they completing things?” She offers a joyful alternative to this moody, pedantic, all-or-nothing school of creativity: “Be a deeply disciplined half-ass. I was raised by a mother who was very efficient and productive and who ran our house by the adage ‘Done is better than good’. It was always more important to her that something be finished rather than be perfect.” So set deadlines and then try like hell to power through both brilliant bursts of inspiration and vast swathes of hair-ripping tedium and frustration — to meet them. What if the result is not nearly perfect, just good enough? Gilbert, at least, will be swooning. “My god, I love those words! They may carry a whiff of resignation, but to me ‘good enough’ is the song of liberation. How freeing to think your friendships are good enough, your body is good enough, your house is good enough, your work is good enough. Everything I do comes to completion when I can say, ‘Okay, this is good enough.’”

Eat the sh*t sandwich

Think about all the bad, horrible parts that come with doing the particular work you love, the shit sandwiches, if you will. Punishing diets, soul-sucking investor meetings, living out of a suitcase, a mounting pile of rejection slips, airy networking, 4am training schedules  — sometimes an entire buffet of bad, horrible parts. “We have an expression in our house we borrowed from Jennifer Aniston,” Gilbert says. “When she was asked in an interview how she felt about being tailed by the paparazzi and having horrid things written about her, she replied, ‘Hey, it comes with the free lunch.’ That’s the shit sandwich that comes with being a famous movie star, having a great house and being married to Justin Theroux.” Recently, on a particularly tough hiking trail in the Italian Alps with her 73-old-year father, Gilbert had this lesson reinforced. “Our bodies were shaking with exhaustion. That was no fun and we’d come on this trip expressly to have fun. I looked at him and my dad said, ‘I just asked myself, would I still rather be here than anywhere else? And the answer is still yes.’” It’s a question she now asks herself often with her writing. “And if the answer is still yes, then you hold your breath and swallow.”

Forget passion, find your curiosity

“I don’t tell people to follow their passion any more because I’ve realised it’s a very empty piece of advice. If you have a burning passion, you don’t need me to tell you to follow it. And if you don’t have one, you can end up feeling even more exiled by this advice,” says Gilbert. A better plan is to follow your curiosity. “Ask yourself if there is anything in the world you’re even a tiny bit curious about and if the answer is yes, then you turn your head a quarter of an inch and you follow it as a clue.” Passion can make you stupid if it’s the wrong kind. The stakes are  dangerously high. “Passion without curiosity is an empty mania. It demands we make a full commitment, sell our belongings, shave our heads, move to Nepal and open an orphanage. Not everyone is meant to live that way,” she says. But curiosity, equally exciting, yet much more discerning, will never hurt you. And it might lead you to your passion — “Or it might not. You might spend your life like a hummingbird instead, moving from field to field and flower to flower, trying this and tasting that, and by the end you would have lived a rich, satisfying existence and I think that should be, you guessed it, good enough.”  

Big Magic (Bloomsbury India) is out now

Raise your hand if you thought about quitting your nine-to-five to go find and follow your dreams again this week. And if, just like last week and all the times before, you chickened out because unlike your Facebook friend/ex-colleague/distant cousin who went ahead and embraced the ravages of creative living (all those awful haircuts), you actually like your nice apartment and the warm flush of a scheduled payday. Those guys are the genuine article, you tell yourself as you morosely pick at your kale-and-chia-seed salad; what right have you to creativity and art-making if you don’t want the suffering that’s obviously inherent to being great? A birthright, if Elizabeth Gilbert, of the 2006 publishing phenomenon Eat Pray Love, has anything to say about it. In her new book Big Magic, a treatise on creativity and how we pretty much need to rethink the whole damn thing, she insists on your entitlement to a creative life. “All of us have descended from billions and billions of human beings who, with their talents and inventiveness, took nothing and made something out of it. That’s the definition of creativity. You’re built for it. The only thing you have to do to lay claim is to say you want to be part of it — and you get to be part of it,” she says. The book is an extension of her wildly popular 2009 TED talk on creativity, and furthers a philosophy we’re happy to get on board with: Creating a way of living that generates the least possible suffering with the most possible satisfaction. “For years I’ve been looking for ways to build  an open, joyful, generative relationship with creativity,” she says. Here are some of the answers she found.

Believe in ghosts

Gilbert asks that you see ideas and inspiration for what they really are: disembodied life forms that roam the world, restlessly looking for the right incubator to take physical form. Um. “It’s not the easiest idea to digest if you’re a rational, reasonable, modern person,” she laughs. “But ask anyone who has encountered creativity in even the mildest possible way and they’ll tell you it feels like you’re wrestling...dancing... conversing with some-thing that is not quite you. You’ll often hear perfectly rational, reasonable, modern people talk of it this way, too: ‘The inspiration came to me’ or ‘It was like a bolt out of the blue sky.’” Our predecessors, she points out, had no trouble digesting this. The Romans even had a word for their external daemon of creativity — they called it a person’s genius, and ascribed his brilliance and failures to this entity. (It all changed during the Renaissance when humans were anointed the centre of the universe and talk of gods became awkward). Gilbert can appreciate that this sounds like “freaky, old-timey, voodoo-style magic” and she asks simply: So what? If believing in a whimsy ghost of creativity can relieve you of the responsibility for the outcome of your work, so you’re free to create without either becoming a sad sack or a megalomaniac — take the fairy dust. “Creativity can often become a casualty of too much rational thinking,” she warns.

Don’t mooch off your creativity

Expecting to get rich off your talents (the official moniker for this kind of person is yuccie; Gilbert prefers “annoying”) is guaranteed suffering. “You are simply not in control of that outcome,” she says. “Eat Pray Love was written in the same spirit as the books that came before and after it, none of which achieved its level of success. I could never fault anyone for wanting the same things I’ve always wanted, which is material success. But it can’t be the deal-breaker.” Look into being the doting, supportive benefactor in your relationship with your creativity instead, she advises. Short talk? Keep your day job so you’re free to reach for your dreams.  “There were years and years where I made no money from my writing, but I kept doing it anyway,” she says. “So if anything were to happen to my life where I suddenly can’t make a living doing this — say the literary world collapses as everyone is always threatening it will — I’ll get by. And I’ll still be writing.” 

Treasure your ego

“I think of our egos as being our personalities, our desires, our identities — without those things, we’re just blobs,” says Gilbert. This is your ego on a good day, filling you with fuzzy feelings of worthiness and helping you navigate through the fog of your inadequacy. On a bad day, you had best stay under the covers. “I know this about my ego,” says Gilbert. “It is limitless, a vacant, hungry hole that requires to constantly be filled. It’s a voice that, no matter how good you have it, always says ‘Ugh, I kinda wanted more.’” The antidote, she says, is simple: Steadily, every single day, remind yourself that the world owes you nothing. “On social media, when people call me names and hate me, I don’t like it. I wish they were praising me instead. But then I ask myself, ‘Who told you you have the right to expect universal praise?’ That was never the deal. Then I get back to work, because I love the work more than I hate the criticism.”

Give yourself permission 

Not nearly enough women enter — or stay standing in — the creative arena; countless surveys worldwide have proven this. But putting aside institutionalised gender inequality and the millennia of history that have collaborated to keep women silent, are we the teensiest bit complicit, too? Gilbert thinks so. “One thing that frustrates me is to see people who have power pretending they are powerless. Because there is such a thing as a powerless human being, and most of us are not it. If you are a woman in the world with agency over your life, unlike millions of other women, you should put your forehead to the ground for how incredibly lucky you are to have been born into this moment in history. You have the best chance of any woman who’s ever lived.” Then you must get to work, using your freedom to push back against the shackles of your own fear. “What I really want to see is women flexing their power much more than they oftentimes seem willing to do. We must let go of a perceived idea of fragility and delicacy and allow ourselves to engage wholly in the arena in which we’re finally free to engage.”

Be authentic, not original

How awful to realise that the things you want to say and the art you want to create, don’t lend themselves very easily, or at all, to clickbait, that gateway to modern consciousness. If it can’t consistently blow minds or make them ‘never believe what happened next’, is it even worth putting out there? You’re asking the wrong question, Gilbert says. Ask instead, Is this what I want to say, anyway? “I think you can tell the difference between originality and authenticity if you hold both concepts in the middle of your stomach and see how they make you feel. If someone tells you to create work that is original, the amount of anxiety that would immediately generate is crippling. But if they say, ‘Make something authentic’, you immediately feel different, your breath changes, you’re more relaxed, because this you can do. As a consumer too, of books for instance, I’ve read things that are daringly new and I’m very impressed by their cleverness. But I’m looking in there for the humanity and often I’m not feeling it. And I would rather love something than admire it.”

Lower your standards

Perfectionism is a ruse, according to Gilbert, a virtuous-looking front for fear and insecurity. “Think about the perfectionists you know — do they make for fine company? Do they seem to enjoy their own life? Are they creating interesting things? Are they completing things?” She offers a joyful alternative to this moody, pedantic, all-or-nothing school of creativity: “Be a deeply disciplined half-ass. I was raised by a mother who was very efficient and productive and who ran our house by the adage ‘Done is better than good’. It was always more important to her that something be finished rather than be perfect.” So set deadlines and then try like hell to power through both brilliant bursts of inspiration and vast swathes of hair-ripping tedium and frustration — to meet them. What if the result is not nearly perfect, just good enough? Gilbert, at least, will be swooning. “My god, I love those words! They may carry a whiff of resignation, but to me ‘good enough’ is the song of liberation. How freeing to think your friendships are good enough, your body is good enough, your house is good enough, your work is good enough. Everything I do comes to completion when I can say, ‘Okay, this is good enough.’”

Eat the sh*t sandwich

Think about all the bad, horrible parts that come with doing the particular work you love, the shit sandwiches, if you will. Punishing diets, soul-sucking investor meetings, living out of a suitcase, a mounting pile of rejection slips, airy networking, 4am training schedules  — sometimes an entire buffet of bad, horrible parts. “We have an expression in our house we borrowed from Jennifer Aniston,” Gilbert says. “When she was asked in an interview how she felt about being tailed by the paparazzi and having horrid things written about her, she replied, ‘Hey, it comes with the free lunch.’ That’s the shit sandwich that comes with being a famous movie star, having a great house and being married to Justin Theroux.” Recently, on a particularly tough hiking trail in the Italian Alps with her 73-old-year father, Gilbert had this lesson reinforced. “Our bodies were shaking with exhaustion. That was no fun and we’d come on this trip expressly to have fun. I looked at him and my dad said, ‘I just asked myself, would I still rather be here than anywhere else? And the answer is still yes.’” It’s a question she now asks herself often with her writing. “And if the answer is still yes, then you hold your breath and swallow.”

Forget passion, find your curiosity

“I don’t tell people to follow their passion any more because I’ve realised it’s a very empty piece of advice. If you have a burning passion, you don’t need me to tell you to follow it. And if you don’t have one, you can end up feeling even more exiled by this advice,” says Gilbert. A better plan is to follow your curiosity. “Ask yourself if there is anything in the world you’re even a tiny bit curious about and if the answer is yes, then you turn your head a quarter of an inch and you follow it as a clue.” Passion can make you stupid if it’s the wrong kind. The stakes are  dangerously high. “Passion without curiosity is an empty mania. It demands we make a full commitment, sell our belongings, shave our heads, move to Nepal and open an orphanage. Not everyone is meant to live that way,” she says. But curiosity, equally exciting, yet much more discerning, will never hurt you. And it might lead you to your passion — “Or it might not. You might spend your life like a hummingbird instead, moving from field to field and flower to flower, trying this and tasting that, and by the end you would have lived a rich, satisfying existence and I think that should be, you guessed it, good enough.”  

Big Magic (Bloomsbury India) is out now