Choosing Curiosity over Fear: Elizabeth Gilbert on Creativity

HT_elizabeth_gilbert_jef_150923_12x5_1600

Elizabeth Gilbert. Via: (ABCNews)

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.
She said:
“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.”
Author Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert. © 2006 Ryan Donnell. Via: (RyanDonnell)

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.
 
Gilbert said:
“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.

 

 

Maslows-Hierarchy-of-Needs

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.

 

 

Maria Popova of BrainPickings on Creativity, Cynicism, and Information Curation

 

mariapopova_bg-2-1000x667

Maria Popova. Via: (theoneyoufeed)

 

“A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” E.B. White once said to The Paris Review for their fall edition in 1969.

          Thirty-seven years later in 2006, someone who at the time was an intern at an advertising agency, started an internal office project where she sent a weekly newsletter for seven of her coworkers. She did not send about what she had eaten or her daily routine as a college student, but the newsletter contained thought-provoking articles across time, disciplines, and culture that was aimed to inspire her coworkers and mainly herself. It was everything from neuroscience, photography, art, philosophy, design, and any other counterintuitive ideas outside of advertising world. At the time, she perhaps had not heard about what E.B. White had said to The Paris Review, but across the years since she started her project in 2006, she is truly the embodiment of E.B. White’s description of a good writer. She is good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, and not full of error.

          I am talking about Maria Popova and her labor of love website called Brainpickings.org. She describes Brainpickings as “human-powered discovery engine for interestingness” or “an inventory of cross-disciplinary interestingness, spanning art, science, design, history, philosophy, and more.”

          Popova had two strong impulses when she started BrainPickings. First, she wanted to inspire her seven coworkers. Second, she wanted to heal her profound dissatisfaction with her own college education. Having come from Bulgaria to the U.S. to study at the University of Pennsylvania, she was fascinated with liberal art education but soon she grew jaded and unfilled about it. Liberal art educations that was being promised to teach her how to live only prepared her to ace standardized exams. She firmly believed that the combination of large-sized lecture halls, standardized exams, and memorization was not an ideal way to learn. On the top of her course loads and four other jobs, she started Brainpickings by transforming the newsletter into a simple website on WordPress. 

 

Screenshot (353)

Brainpickings’ current homepage as of July 2017

 

          Now, ten years later, Brainpickings has transformed into a massive literary palace on the internet. It has more than six million readers a month and its twitter feed (@brainpicker) has 737,000 followers. Her site stands as inspiration to those who have grown fatigue of a website that only rewards mediocrity and standard public appetite. Despite millions of readers rejoice her thoughtful curation each month, she insists that she writes and will always write for herself. Sometime in July of 2015, she offered advice on The Tim Ferris Show for people who want to start a blog or any creative endeavors:


“Write for yourself. If you want to create something meaningful and fulfilling, something that lasts and speaks to people, the counterintuitive but really, really necessary thing is that you must not write for people. The second you begin to write for or to a so called “audience” and this applies equally to podcasting and filmmaking and photography and dance and any field of creative endeavors, the second you start doing it for an audience, you’ve lost the long game because creating something that is rewarding and sustainable over the long run, requires most of all keeping yourself excited about it, which in turn of course requires only doing the things that you yourself are interested in, that enthuse you.”


 

Then the question becomes: how do we make something more interesting? She answered:


“I think the key to being interesting is being interested and enthusiastic about those interests; that’s contagious. That’s what makes people read you and come back, which by the way should and can only ever be a byproduct of your own willingness to keep coming back to your work, to your creation because if you do it for other people, trying to predict what they’ll be interested in and kind of pretzeling yourself to fit those expectations, you soon begin to begrudge it and become embittered and it begins to show in the work. It always, always shows in the work when you resent it. And there’s really nothing less pleasurable to read than embittered writing (…)”


 

Maria popova's home office

Maria Popova’s home office in Brooklyn, NY. Via: 99u

Offering advice on what it means to have a successful life in conversation with The Great Discontent, she said:

“Again, this is a cliché, but it’s been true for me. Don’t let other people’s ideas of success and good or meaningful work filter your perception of what you want to do. Listen to your heart and mind’s purpose; keep listening to that and even when the “should” get really loud, try to stay in touch with what you hear within yourself.”

          Maria Popova is still in her early 30s but her mind stretches across time, culture, and era. Most of the articles found in BrainPickings are taken from old-forgotten books such as: Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s A Rap on Race, Albert Camus’ Lyrical and Critical Essays, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. She repackages old-fashioned ideas in fresh digestible ways for our modern minds. The articles are addictive to the point of causing her readers asking bigger and meaningful questions at the end. One article leads to two and three leads to hours in front of the computer. 

          Unpredictability is the term that I would like to use to describe BrainPickings. On the site, one day we will learn about the daily routines of great writers and the next day we will read Adrianne Rich’s poem on Marie Curie or even what moss can teach us about life. The topics are perpetually changing but the general theme of the site will stay the same, which is how to live a meaningful life. She has warned public that Brainpickings is not a place where one can find an article about “22 signs that you have a spiritual animal” or “17 reasons your college roommate is your best friend.” She does not only curate the information that matters for us, but she also cross-pollinates ideas–between art and science, history and social justice, music and psychology, literature and psychology, and so on. Indivisibility is Popova’s style. Her work, as she said, is trying to “help people become interested in things they didn’t know they were interested in, until they are.” She pulls her readers into deep waters of her own immense and diverse curiosities. 

          She is a rational optimist and very vocal about it. Whenever she talks about optimism, she does not mean blind optimism as it does not necessarily help us to move forward in the world. Her notion of optimism is a mixture of critical thinking and hope. In conversation with Krista Tippett on her podcast On Being ,she explained:

“Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. But hope without critical thinking is naivete. And I try to live in this place between the two to try to build a life there because finding fault and feeling hopeless about improving our situation produces resignation of which cynicism is a symptom and against which it is the sort of futile self-protection mechanism.”

Then she went on:

“Believing blindly that everything will work out just fine also produces a kind of resignation because we have no motive to apply ourselves towards making things better. In order to survive, both as individuals and as a civilization, but especially in order to thrive, we need to bridge critical thinking and hope.”

 

nypl.digitalcollections.69542a05-4e08-e8f1-e040-e00a18063d59.001.w

Mary, Mary, quite contrary, How does your garden grow? Smith, Jessie Willcox (1863-1935). Via:  (The New York Public Library Digital Collections)

 

In a commencement address that she delivered at her alma mater, she said poignantly:

“Cynicism is a poverty of curiosity and imagination and ambition.”

 

        

          Aside from being vocal about her identity as a rational optimist, she is a defender of creativity as a combinatorial concept. To her, being creative is about soaking up learnings from multiple disciplines and then insert them into our already existing ideas. It is not being the expert but it is more about being the great generalist. Popova is not the only firm believer of this concept. Einstein extolled the same concept years ago when he said, “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought. In 1975, Buckminster wrote an essay decried specialization and voiced his strong opinions on the value of generalist knowledge. Steve Jobs also said that “Creativity is just connecting things”.

In a lecture given at Creative Mornings, she spoke about Networked Knowledge and Combinatorial Creativity, Popova said:

Creativity is combinatorial, that nothing is entirely original, that everything builds on what came before, and that we create by taking existing pieces of inspiration, knowledge, skill and insight that we gather over the course of our lives and recombining them into incredible new creations.

 

 

          What makes me and other millions of people keep returning to her site is because she eschews ads on her website. Brainpickings’s visual is clean and refreshing. Openly, she takes donations from her devoted readers and earns a percentage through Amazon from books purchased based on her wide and diverse recommendations. She has a keen ethos behind removing ads on her website. She explained:

“As long as it’s an ad-supported medium, the motive will be to perfect commercial interest, to perfect the art of the listicle, the endless slideshow, the infinitely paginated article, and not to perfect the human spirit of the reader or the writer. And I think that journalism is moving further and further away from — you take something like E.B. White’s ideal, which he said that the role of the writer is to lift people up, not to lower them down. And so much of what passes for journalism today lowers.”

          On the reasons behind our appetite for listicles and laziness reading long articles, Popova explained that we are failing to recognize the difference between claiming knowledge and having knowledge; a concept in which she drew largely from Adrianne Rich’s powerful commencement address:

“I remember there’s a really beautiful commencement address that Adrienne Rich gave in 1977 in which she said that an education is not something that you get but something that you claim. And I think that’s very much true of knowledge itself.”

Then she went on explaining the intersection between time and knowledge:

 “The reason we’re so increasingly intolerant of long articles and why we skim them, why we skip forward even in a short video that reduces a 300-page book into a three-minute animation — even in that we skip forward — is that we’ve been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it. I mean, the true material of knowledge is meaning. And the meaningful is the opposite of the trivial. And the only thing that we should have gleaned by skimming and skipping forward is really trivia. And the only way to glean knowledge is contemplation. And the road to that is time. There’s nothing else. It’s just time. There is no shortcut for the conquest of meaning. And ultimately, it is meaning that we seek to give to our lives. “

 

nypl.digitalcollections.68dded8b-2b41-8ec9-e040-e00a18066cdc.001.w

School is over, oh what fun! Greenaway, Kate (1846-1901) (Artist). Via: (The New York Public Library Digital Collections)

 

          Brainpickings is indeed an antidote of the culture of listicles. The utility of the site, along with the insertion of Popova’s skills as an information curator, reader, and writer are overwhelmingly impressive.

      Someone wise one time said that there are two kinds of people in our culture: first, people who advance themselves by excluding other people because they are wary of other people’s motives and their definition of success is very individualistic. Second, people who advance themselves by celebrating other people’s work and generously invite them to be architects of meaning and value. Maria Popova indeed falls into the latter category. She is the talent, the celebrator,  and the wisdom curator; I just reaffirmed it in words.  

For more insights behind BrainPickings and Popova’s intellectual life, treat yourself with her unedited conversation with Krista Tippett of On Being below: