Creative living beyond fear, by Elizabeth Gilbert (a summary by Pat Evert)
Students told me Jack Gilbert was the most extraordinary man they’d ever encountered. He had seemed not quite of this world. He seemed to live in a state of uninterrupted marvel, and he encouraged them to do the same. He didn’t so much teach them how to write poetry, they said, but why: because of delight. He told them that they must live their most creative lives as a means of fighting back against the ruthless furnace of this world. Without bravery, they would never know the world as richly as it longs to be known. Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you? I say this with all confidence, because I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure. I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. When I refer to creative living, I’m talking about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear. A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Creative living is a path for the brave. I noticed that my fear never changed, never delighted, never offered a surprise twist or an unexpected ending. I also realized that my fear was boring because it was identical to everyone else’s fear. And that’s the thing I wanted to build my entire identity around? The most boring instinct I possessed?
Here’s how I’ve learned to deal with my fear: I made a decision a long time ago that if I want creativity in my life—and I do—then I will have to make space for fear, too. Plenty of space. My fear and my creativity are basically conjoined twins. Fear and creativity shared a womb, they were born at the same time, and they still share some vital organs. This is why we have to be careful of how we handle our fear. So I don’t try to kill off my fear. I don’t go to war against it. The less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes, too. “Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. But above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.” It isn’t always comfortable or easy—carrying your fear around with you on your great and ambitious road trip, I mean—but it’s always worth it, because if you can’t learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you’ll never be able to go anywhere interesting or do anything interesting.
When I refer to magic here, I mean it literally. Like, in the Hogwarts sense. I am referring to the supernatural, the mystical, the inexplicable, the surreal, the divine, the transcendent, the otherworldly. I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us—albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. You can believe that you are neither a slave to inspiration nor its master, but something far more interesting—its partner—and that the two of you are working together toward something intriguing and worthwhile. In such let your old idea go and catch the next idea that comes around. Don’t fall into a funk about the one that got away. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t rage at the gods above. Follow your curiosity. Remain open. Trust in the miraculous truth that new and marvelous ideas are looking for human collaborators every single day. Ideas of every kind are constantly galloping toward us, constantly passing through us, constantly trying to get our attention. Let them know you’re available.
Ann has a preternatural ability to render herself very small—nearly invisible—in order to better observe the world around her in safe anonymity, so that she can write about it, unnoticed. It was as if she’d thrown off her invisibility cloak and a full-on goddess stepped forth.
Ideas are alive, and they seek the most available human collaborator, that ideas do have a conscious will, that ideas do move from soul to soul, that ideas will always try to seek the swiftest and most efficient conduit to the earth (just as lightning does). Consider Harper Lee, for instance, who wrote nothing for decades after the phenomenal success of To Kill a Mockingbird. In 1962, when Lee was asked how she felt about the possibility of ever writing another book, she replied, “I’m scared.” She also said, “When you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go.” The most important thing to understand about eudaimonia, though—about that exhilarating encounter between a human being and divine creative inspiration—is that you cannot expect it to be there for you all the time. It will come and go, and you must let it come and go. Sometimes that assistance will not arrive until two years into a project. Sometimes that assistance will not last for more than ten minutes. Which left me with nothing but a dazzled heart and the sense that I live in a most remarkable world, thick with mysteries. It all called to mind the British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington’s memorable explanation of how the universe works: “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.”
The arrogance of belonging pulls you out of the darkest depths of self-hatred—not by saying “I am the greatest!” but merely by saying “I am here!” This proclamation of intent and entitlement is not something you can do just once and then expect miracles; it’s something you must do daily, forever. I have the right to be. Your art not only doesn’t have to be original, in other words; it also doesn’t have to be important. You’re scaring away inspiration. Every time you express a complaint about how difficult and tiresome it is to be creative, inspiration takes another step away from you, offended. It’s almost like inspiration puts up its hands and says, “Hey, sorry, buddy! I didn’t realize my presence was such a drag. So try saying this: “I enjoy my creativity.” And when you say it, be sure to actually mean it. Inspiration will overhear your pleasure, and it will send ideas to your door as a reward. More ideas than you could ever use. Whether you think you’re brilliant or you think you’re a loser, just make whatever you need to make and toss it out there. Let other people pigeonhole you however they need to. Never delude yourself into believing that you require someone else’s blessing (or even their comprehension) in order to make your own creative work. And always remember that people’s judgments about you are none of your business. Pure creativity is something better than a necessity; it’s a gift. It’s the frosting. Our creativity is a wild and unexpected bonus from the universe. It’s as if all our gods and angels gathered together and said, “It’s tough down there as a human being, we know. Here—have some delights.” In conclusion, then, art is absolutely meaningless. It is, however, also deeply meaningful. It matters/It doesn’t matter.
I held on to those other sources of income for so long because I never wanted to burden my writing with the responsibility of paying for my life. I knew better than to ask this of my writing, because over the years, I have watched so many other people murder their creativity by demanding that their art pay the bills. The essential ingredients for creativity remain exactly the same for everybody: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust—and those elements are universally accessible. Which does not mean that creative living is always easy; it merely means that creative living is always possible. Stop treating your creativity like it’s a tired, old, unhappy marriage (a grind, a drag) and start regarding it with the fresh eyes of a passionate lover. Don’t think of it all as burdensome; think of it all as sexy.
Perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun. Perfectionism stops people from completing their work, yes—but even worse, it often stops people from beginning their work. Perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, “I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.” So if you can just complete something—merely complete it!—you’re already miles ahead of the pack, right there. But since the right moment is unknowable, you must maximize your chances. Play the odds. Put yourself forward in stubborn good cheer, and then do it again and again and again . . . you keep seeking, and then sometimes, in the least expected place and time, it finally happens. You must keep calling out in those dark woods for your own Big Magic. You must search tirelessly and faithfully, hoping against hope to someday experience that divine collision of creative communion—either for the first time, or one more time.
Suffice it to say that the modern language of creativity—from its youngest aspirants up to its acknowledged masters—is steeped in pain, desolation, and dysfunction. Far too many creative people have been taught to distrust pleasure and to put their faith in struggle alone. Too many artists still believe that anguish is the only truly authentic emotional experience. When did creativity become a suffering contest? My desire to engage with my creativity as intimately and as freely as possible—is my strongest personal incentive to fight back against pain, by any means necessary, and to fashion a life for myself that is as sane and healthy and stable as it can possibly be. I’m willing to bet that they had all once loved their work. Yet if you’d asked any of these gifted, troubled souls whether they’d ever believed that their work loved them in return, I suspect they would’ve said no. Nature provides the seed; man provides the garden; each is grateful for the other’s help. My entire life has been shaped by an early decision to place my trust in the crazy notion that my work loves me as much as I love it.
My favorite meditation teacher, Pema Chödrön, once said that the biggest problem she sees with people’s meditation practice is that they quit just when things are starting to get interesting. Which is to say, they quit as soon as things aren’t easy anymore, as soon as it gets painful, or boring, or agitating. They quit as soon as they see something in their minds that scares them or hurts them. So they miss the good part, the wild part, the transformative part. As my friend Pastor Rob Bell warns: “Don’t rush through the experiences and circumstances that have the most capacity to transform you.” I have come to understand what part of me is suffering when I fail: It’s just my ego. Your ego is a wonderful servant, but it’s a terrible master—because the only thing your ego ever wants is reward, reward, and more reward. And since there’s never enough reward to satisfy, your ego will always be disappointed. An unchecked ego is what the Buddhists call “a hungry ghost”—forever famished, eternally howling with need and greed. Some version of that hunger dwells within all of us. We all have that lunatic presence, living deep within our guts, that refuses to ever be satisfied with anything. I have it, you have it, we all have it. I know that my soul doesn’t care a whit about reward or failure. My soul is not guided by dreams of praise or fears of criticism. My soul, when I tend to it, is a far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than my ego will ever be, because my soul desires only one thing: wonder. I have learned to watch my heated emotions carefully, but I try not to take them too seriously, because I know that it’s merely my ego that has been wounded. As long as I’m still moving in that direction—toward wonder—then I know I will always be fine in my soul, which is where it counts. And since creativity is still the most effective way for me to access wonder, I choose it. Whatever you do, try not to dwell too long on your failures. You don’t need to conduct autopsies on your disasters. You don’t need to know what anything means. Fierce trust asks you to stand strong within this truth: You are worthy, dear one, regardless of the outcome. You will keep making your work, regardless of the outcome. What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant? What do you love even more than you love your own ego? Just put it out there, whatever “it” is. You must hold your head high. You made it; you get to put it out there. Never apologize for it, never explain it away, never be ashamed of it.
Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred. What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all. We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits. We are terrified, and we are brave. Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege. Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us. Make space for all these paradoxes to be equally true inside your soul, and I promise—you can make anything. So please calm down now and get back to work, okay? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.