Elizabeth Gilbert: The Key to Being Creative Isn't What You Think It Is
Maybe you didn't receive this kind of message when you were growing up. Maybe your parents were terrified of risk in any form. Maybe your parents were obsessive- compulsive rule followers, or maybe they were too busy being melancholic depressives, or addicts or abusers to ever use their imaginations toward creativity. Maybe they were afraid of what the neighbors would say. Maybe your parents weren't makers in the least. Maybe they were pure consumers. Maybe you grew up in an environment where people just sat around watching TV and waiting for stuff to happen to them.
Forget about it. It doesn't matter.
Look a little further back in your family's history. Look at your grandparents: Odds are pretty good they were makers. No? Not yet? Keep looking back, then. Go back further still. Look at your great-grandparents. Look at your ancestors. Look at the ones who were immigrants, or slaves, or soldiers, or farmers, or sailors or the original people who watched the ships arrive with the strangers onboard. Go back far enough and you will find people who were not consumers, people who were not sitting around passively waiting for stuff to happen to them. You will find people who spent their lives making things.
This is where you come from.
This is where we all come from.
Human beings have been creative beings for a really long time—long enough and consistently enough that it appears to be a totally natural impulse. To put the story in perspective, consider this fact: The earliest evidence of recognizable human art is 40,000 years old. The earliest evidence of human agriculture, by contrast, is only 10,000 years old. Which means that somewhere in our collective evolutionary story, we decided it was way more important to make attractive, superfluous items than it was to learn how to regularly feed ourselves.
The diversity in our creative expression is fantastic. Some of the most enduring and beloved artwork on earth is unmistakably majestic. Some of it makes you want to drop to your knees and weep. Some of it doesn't, though. Some acts of artistic expression might stir and excite you, but bore me to death. Some of the art that people have created across the centuries is absolutely sublime, and probably did emerge from a grand sense of seriousness and sacredness, but a lot of it didn't. A lot of it is just folks messing around for their own diversion—making their pottery a little prettier, or building a nicer chair or drawing penises on walls to pass the time. And that's fine, too.
You want to write a book? Make a song? Direct a movie? Decorate pottery? Learn a dance? Explore a new land? You want to draw a penis on your wall? Do it. Who cares? It's your birthright as a human being, so do it with a cheerful heart. (I mean, take it seriously, sure—but don't take it seriously.) Let inspiration lead you wherever it wants to lead you. Keep in mind that for most of history people just made things, and they didn't make such a big freaking deal out of it.
We make things because we like making things.
We pursue the interesting and the novel because we like the interesting and the novel.
And inspiration works with us, it seems, because inspiration likes working with us—because human beings are possessed of something special, something extra, something unnecessarily rich, something that the novelist Marilynne Robinson calls "an overabundance that is magical."
That magical overabundance?
That's your inherent creativity, humming and stirring quietly in its deep reserve. Are you considering becoming a creative person? Too late, you already are one. To even call somebody "a creative person" is almost laughably redundant; creativity is the hallmark of our species. We have the senses for it; we have the curiosity for it; we have the opposable thumbs for it; we have the rhythm for it; we have the language and the excitement and the innate connection to divinity for it.
If you're alive, you're a creative person. You and I and everyone you know, we are all descended from tens of thousands of years of makers. Decorators, tinkerers, storytellers, dancers, explorers, fiddlers, drummers, builders, growers, problem solvers and embellishers—these are our common ancestors.
The guardians of high culture will try to convince you that the arts belong only to a chosen few, but they are wrong and they are also annoying. We are all the chosen few. We are all makers by design. Even if you grew up watching cartoons in a sugar stupor from dawn to dusk, creativity still lurks within you. Your creativity is way older than you are, way older than any of us. Your very body and your very being are perfectly designed to live in collaboration with inspiration, and inspiration is still trying to find you—the same way it hunted down your ancestors.
All of which is to say: You do not need a permission slip from the principal's office to live a creative life. Or, if you do worry that you need a permission slip—
THERE, I just gave it to you.
I just wrote it on the back of an old shopping list.
Consider yourself fully accredited.
Now, go make something.
This excerpt was taken from Elizabeth Gilbert's new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.
How to Get Unstuck: Oprah.com Talks to Elizabeth Gilbert
We sat down with the author of Big Magic to talk about how to make your passion a reality (no matter how scary it feels).
Leigh Newman: What are *THE* three biggest reasons you think people don't pursue their dreams?
Elizabeth Gilbert: We'll start with the idea: "I don't believe I'm invited. This is something other people do. I'm not allowed to be a part of it." That's the first savage demon that stops people. The second is: "I'm not good enough." And under that category goes the belief that if you had been born into different circumstances and had followed a path, you would have been ready to make something, but because you didn't, you aren't. You think to yourself, "I didn't go to a good enough school. I didn't get to go to a new city. I don't have the right contacts. I don't have the right kind of money. I don't have the right studio space. Nothing in my life has gone right. So I'm not worthy. The third and last demon is: "Why bother? Why should I try to be an actor when there are 27,000 people who look just like me? Does the world really need another book of poetry? Does the world really need another watercolor artist? Definitely not."
LN: What happens when these people let these demons take over? What goes on?
EG: A really wise teacher in India told me years ago that the talent you have and do not use becomes a burden on your life. It will make you feel heavy and depressed and pained. And I would add—for people who mistakenly believe that they do not have talent—that any curiosity that you have in your life that you do not pursue will become a burden on your life, as well. Because you will again feel blocked and paralyzed and passive and bored. The great writer Andrew Solomon famously said, "the opposite of depression is not happiness. The opposite of depression is vitality." And a creative life is a vital life; it doesn't mean that you have to write a symphony. It doesn't mean that you have to win at the Kim Sun Festival. It doesn't mean that anybody has to see your work. It just means that you are in active engagement with your curiosity and your creation. That you are not just a passive witness to things that are happening to you, but that you are deciding to be a co-creator and a co-participant.
LN: But let's say you do try—what happens if you fail?
EG: When we all start our creative project, whatever it might be—writing a book, trying to learn how to salsa, attempting a meditation practice—we all start with the same impulse of excitement, nervousness and butterflies. We're like "I'm doing it! I’m doing it." That's what day one is. Day two, we go back and we look at what we did on day one and we hate ourselves. Because what we did on day one is pretty terrible because we don't know how to do it! And of course, it's disappointing, humiliating. And so, on day three, we stop.
The difference, I've found, between the people who go back to work on day four and the people who don't, is that the people who go back to work forgive themselves for falling short of their idea. We're always told the most important part of creativity is discipline. But I think it's self-forgiveness, because all the discipline in the world is not going to make you sit down in a pool of self-hatred and create anything—because you can't, you won't be able to, you can't whip yourself toward that. And whenever people speak of needing more discipline, all I see is anxiety, fear and imprisonment. But self-forgiveness is a meadow opening up to infinite possibility. It's only thing that's kept me writing for 25 years. Nothing I've ever written is as good as I wanted it to be. Our dreams are so aspirational—as they should be—but the actuality of what we create always falls short of what we imagine. And I would rather be engaging with this mysterious force of creativity even in a lackluster way than living a life of stagnation and nonaction. I would rather do—even in a lackluster way—than not do. It is, for all us, always a choice.