Elizabeth Gilbert has never wanted to be anything else in her life but a writer. When she was young, with nothing but a candle, under the dim lights in her room, she took a vow to be a writer. She was married to writing. Until now, she is still a writing’s faithful wife. For almost two decades of her career as a writer, Gilbert has done so much more than one could have imagined. Her memoir of a journey that she embarked on following to her devastating divorce titled Eat Pray Love was a wild success. Prior to Eat Pray Love, when she was still an obscure writer, she had published a novel about Maine Fishermen and a short story collection. She had also done a deep investigation of the live of Eustace Conway, an eclectic man who abandoned the comfort of his suburban environment to live in the wilderness of Appalachian mountains. His story appeared in her book titled The Last American Man (Her essay about him on GQ is epic). In 2013, her most ambitious novel came out. It is a novel that revolves around the live of Alma Whittaker, a brilliant female botanist living in the 19th century. Recently in 2015, she had just published her newest book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, a self-help book for aspiring creators, not necessarily for those who will devote their lives to the arts, but it is a guide for “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.”
In conversation with Krista Tippett in her show, On Being, Elizabeth Gilbert was invited to share what she knows about creativity. They started off the conversation with the distinction between passion and curiosity. Gilbert is not a fan of the word passion–one of the most overused words in today’s lexicon. The reason is simple for her. The word passion gives so much pressure and too daunting for people who are still uncertain about their aspirations in life. Instead of advising people to start following their passion, Gilbert invites others to trust their curiosity, wholeheartedly.
“I think curiosity is our friend that teaches us how to become ourselves. And it’s a very gentle friend, and a very forgiving friend, and a very constant one. Passion is not so constant, not so gentle, not so forgiving, and sometimes not so available. And so when we live in a world that has come to fetishize passion above all, there is a great deal of pressure around that. And I think if you do not happen to have a passion that is very clear, or if you have lost your passion, or if you are in a change of life where your passions are shifting or you are not certain, and somebody says, “Well, it is easy to solve your life, just follow your passion.” I do think that they have harmed you because it just makes people feel more excluded, and more exiled, and sometimes like a failure.”
Gilbert loves to follow her curiosity. It has led her to discover the main ingredient for her newly published novel about a female botanist living in the 19th century. The idea of this story started as she was obsessed with gardening. Being an ardent gardener herself, she started to grow curious about the history of every plant that she had in her garden. Her curiosity about plants and their history amplified. As a result, she decided to write a novel about the live of a female botanist from 19th century.
Living in a culture that glorifies passion over curiosity, Gilbert spoke to Tippett about the reason why people are ambivalent to follow their curiosity:
“. . .and I think the reason people end up not following their curiosity is because they are waiting for a bigger sign. And your curiosities sometimes are so mild and so strange. And so–almost nothing, right? It is a little trail of breadcrumbs that you can overlook if you are looking up at the mountain top waiting for Moses to come down and give you a sign from God.”
One of the interesting stories that Gilbert shared in this conversation was when the idea that she had hoped would give her a book went suddenly missing and strangely was captured by her beloved novelist friend, Ann Patchett.
Gilbert initially set out to write a book about a middle aged spinster woman and her adventurous Amazon expedition. She neglected the idea for so many years because things distracted her mind and she eventually wrote a completely different book. When she returned to her initial idea of this book, she had realized that the vital impulse of the book had disappeared. In other words, the idea left her. It was not too long after she had lost the idea, she met the novelist, Ann Patchett. Patchett told Gilbert that she had been working on a novel about a middle aged spinster woman and her Amazon expedition–the exact idea that Gilbert once had (This idea became Patchett’s novel State of Wonder).Gilbert was shocked. It was a revelatory moment that made Gilbert believed that once an idea feels neglected, it will seek another human collaborator because every idea longs to be made.
“Ides are conscious and living, and they have will, and they have great desire to be made, and they spin through the cosmos looking for human collaborators.”
We often think of creativity as experience that can only be cherished by the originals, the gifted, and the privileged. In fact, Gilbert believes that our world has been altered for millions of years by our ancestors who shaped or altered things as they liked and everyone, regardless of who they are, has a tremendous agency within themselves to voluntarily participate with creativity. Believing that creativity is a “shared human inheritance”, Gilbert spoke to Tippett:
Ms. Tippett: And it seems like people are coming — a lot of people come to you with precisely that longing [longing to be creative] and feeling of being left out of the experience of creativity.
Ms. Gilbert: Yeah. Most people are left out of it, which is not even the right way to say it. Most people are cast out of it because I think it is innate. And I think the evidence that it is innate is pretty airtight. And that evidence is multifold, but here’s some pieces of it. One, all of your ancestors were creative–all of them. You and I and everybody we know were descended from tens of thousands of years of makers.
The entire world, for better or for worse, has been altered by the human hand, by human beings doing this weird and irrational thing that only we do amongst all our peers in the animal world, which is to waste our time making things that nobody needs, making things a little more beautiful than they have to be, altering things, changing things, building things, composing things, shaping things. This is what we do. We are the making ape. And no one is left out of the inheritance of that. That’s our shared human inheritance.
And another really strong piece of evidence is that every human child is born doing this stuff innately. It’s an instinct. There’s no child that you put crayons and paper in front of who doesn’t get it, what you’re supposed to do. No four-year-old boy was ever sat in front of a pile of Legos and said, “I don’t know, I’m just — I’m not feeling it.
I do believe that creativity is not exclusively reserved for the recreation of the privileged. This suddenly makes me think of the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in which he said that if a person’s deficiency needs such as psychological, safety, love/belonging, and esteem, have not yet fulfilled, the road to self-actualization (the fifth level of the pyramid) that consists of creativity, is a little bit hard to obtain. I have heard that his theory has received a lot of criticism as it lacks of scientific grounding, but it gives us some perspectives to think about.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Via: (Storify)
Believing that the most authentic creative process is a collaboration between one’s own diligent labor and the invisible magic hands of inspiration, Gilbert spoke eloquently:
“It’s [creative process] a collaboration between a human being’s labors and the mysteries of inspiration. And that’s the most interesting dance that I think you can be involved in. But you are very much an agent in that story. You are not just a passive receptacle. And also, it is not entirely in your hands. And standing comfortably within that contradiction is, I think, where you find sanity in the creative process if you can find it.”
At the end of the conversation, Gilbert shared the technique that has helped her to get through the unglamorous and dull part of a creative process:
“What gets me through those 90 percent of it being boring part of creativity without turning it into angst anymore — and I say “anymore” because I used to do it — is that faith that the work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through me. And so when it’s not coming, and it’s not working, and it’s not being good, and I’m stuck in a problem around the creativity, it’s a very important shift in my life over the years to not think that I’m being punished or that I’m failing, but to think that this thing, this mystery that wants communion with me is trying to help me.
And it hasn’t abandoned me. It’s nearby. And it wants — it came to me for a reason. That’s what I always think when I’m working on a project and it’s not working. I think — I will speak to the idea and say, “You came to me for a reason.” But in the meantime, I’ll come to my desk every day with the faith that you are also at my desk every day.”
I have a literary debt to Gilbert. She has taught me to sit in discomfort whenever I can not solve a narrative problem in my own writing. She certainly does not wait for any inspiration to strike. Eat Pray Love and her six other best-seller books would have not flooded bookstores, had she waited for any inspiration to dictate her to write. Her work ethic reminded of a line from E.B. White, “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”
To enjoy the full conversation between Tippett and Gilbert on creativity, treat yourself with this podcast:
Also, do not forget to read Gilbert’s wise thoughts on self-kindness, and her Ted-talk is one of the things that have altered my relationship with creativity.