Life. With its excitement and enlightenment, its drama and disappointment, its magic and its misery - it's a beautiful mess of ups and downs. And within this life, there are buttons that want to be pressed, or "engines that want to be revved,” says Elizabeth Gilbert. Creativity is one of those. "Creativity is the hallmark of our species,” says she, as she explores in Big Magic how we can make use of and sustain that creativity which exists within us all.
On Monday night I experienced the delight of going to see Elizabeth Gilbert's one and only book tour show in the UK. It was (obviously) marvellous and wonderful to hear the best-selling author talk about BIG MAGIC; what it is, what it means and how we might access it.
Contrary to popular belief, BIG MAGIC isn’t simply about finding and pursuing your ‘passion’ in life, rather it's about being open to ideas as they seek you out. And the only way to be open is to stay curious and interested; to "follow your own fascinations, obsessions and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart. The rest of it will take care of itself."
"Creativity is about curiosity rather than passion," says Liz. And the good news?
"Curiosity is accessible to anyone."
I had an important realisation as a direct result of reading BIG MAGIC. That realisation was that it’s not all about pursuing your life’s vocation or passion which gives life meaning. I realised that my father, who passed away aged 67 just two years ago, DID live a creative life after all. Prior to this I had thought it was only the last seven years of his life, where he travelled the world as a dance host on cruise liners, where he had started to truly live and I took some comfort in that. However, even better, what BIG MAGIC revealed to me was, despite being a manic depressive for much of his life, amidst the darkness and gloom, there was light. That light came from his playing the guitar, learning French, going to folk music clubs, learning to dance, gardening, mending, making stuff from wood and generally tinkering. So whilst he grumbled a fair amount, he got to live a lot too – creatively! So yay!
Fangirl warning. Liz doesn't just tell it like it is, she tells it like it is with such magnificent clarity that everything just resonates, and thus she is a queen of 'aha' moments. It’s not just what she says but how she articulates it. I marvel at her words – both written and spoken. So Monday evening was an complete treat.
Another such moment is that realistic realisation that living a creative life, or any kind of life, can be tough and fearful and that this fear should be embraced rather than dismissed. Fear is just part of the experience. Far better to run towards it than run away from it; you have so much more to lose if you leg it – a life void of a creative or curious spark.
"It’s how we are going to navigate the part that is not satisfying that is important," says Liz.
Because there are going to be plenty of moments that suck. As Mark Manson says in his blog and Liz quotes in her book:
"Everything sucks sometimes."
So let’s get used to that and press on.
Yep. To go with the delicious dish of delight and wonder which creativity serves up, let’s place another slice of poo pie on our plates.
POO PIE? Really?
Blogger Mark Manson actually calls it a shit sandwich. He asks: “what do you love doing so much that you don't mind eating a shit sandwich?" – because everything in life, including a creative one, comes with such a sarnie – a metaphor for the trade off that we must endure with any creative endeavour. This is what we must do to figure out what it is that we cannot not do; to uncover the one thing (or many things) that we must get curious about and follow. Instead of considering what we might do if we knew we couldn't fail, (which is the normal question asked of those who seek to follow their purposeful passion) - the question should be: what might we do if we knew we would fail often, but that we still want to do anyway, regardless of that.
What's more - that tough stuff - the poo pie or shit sandwich or whatever you want to call it, that's important.
We need those crappy experiences IN ORDER to create something meaningful. Eat, Pray, Love wouldn't have made such compelling reading had it not been about the dark knight of depression and Liz Gilbert's journey through that; Lauryn Hill's Miseducation album wouldn't have been so darn incredible had she not gone through the hardships and obstacles she faced BEFORE she wrote it.
Hardships educate us and equip us with experiences from which to create beautiful resonant and inspirational art. Eating the poo pie gives us a feast of inspiration from which we can draw upon to create meaningful art. So YAY to poo pie - it's an important part of a balanced creative diet!
Liz also spoke about criticism - one of the main servings of poo pie that is served to all who create art of some kind. We make stuff, it gets pulled apart. That's the nature of the beast. As Liz says in her book:
"If I am allowed to speak my inner truth, then my critics are allowed to speak their inner truths as well. Fair's fair. If you dare to create something and put it out there, after all, then it may accidentally stir up a response. That's the natural order of life; the eternal inhale and exhale of action and reaction.” She continues, “What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence and malign your motives and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest - as politely as you possibly can - that they go make their own fucking art. Then stubbornly continue making yours."
But how we respond to criticism, to what others think about what we do, can affect us, drag us down, cause us to do things differently and even cause us to quit.
In fact, it is as a result of criticism - from peers or teachers alike - that causes many of us stop being creative when we are children; why so many of us put down the crayons and pencils and glue and curiosity and just stop playing and making. Which is what inspired my own 30 Day Playful Arty Challenge group I set up on Facebook on 1st November – to rekindle that creative spark and encourage us to feel the fear and draw anyway. It’s been a remarkably magical experience in which, by giving ourselves permission to pick up those childhood tools of creativity, we’ve surprised ourselves. Giving ourselves permission to be creatively curious is enough to give us that “stubborn gladness” that Liz speaks of; to “interact more vividly with life”.
For some though, criticism of their art just spurs them on to carry on in spite of the vitriol they receive.
However, according to Liz, that 'I'll show you' response doesn't always tend to work. "It's too hot and short-lived," says Liz.
Instead, Liz thinks philosophically about opinions. Everyone is allowed one. "It's naive to think I'm the only person who gets to talk," smiles Liz as she admits that this understanding of freedom of opinion doesn't mean she has to like it.
"It doesn't serve you to pretend you don't care," she adds. And so she does all she can to shield herself or not listen to any criticism that doesn't have her best interest at heart, doesn't know or get what she is trying to do, doesn't have the capacity to criticise kindly or if it's, frankly, too late for her to fix it.
"Honesty without kindness is not a virtue." And how true is that!
We all know people who pride themselves in being "brutally honest" who rant with rabid frequency (but without any sense of empathy) about what you (and the world at large) are doing wrong.
"Fuck them!" suggests Liz.
(I love her).
And Amen to that!
"Having a voice beats being silent," she said. "I'll take the risk of being offended in order to be heard."
And that is part of why we do what we do - partly to serve ourselves, because we enjoy this creative thing that we do (otherwise there'd be no point in doing it) and partly to be heard by others; to express how we feel or what we think and put it out there into the world. Not everyone is going to like what we say, regardless of what medium through which we say it. But that's the poo-pie-part of creativity. That's the rough that we must take with the delightful smooth of "this journey towards a dazzled heart" that the creative process blesses us with.
What I take most of all from BIG MAGIC and Liz Gilbert is this sense of authenticity, of doing what you do regardless of what others may think or say, because you just love to do it. And the reason you love to do it is because you are interested by and engaged in and curious about it.
"I'm just doing what I can with what I have," shrugs Liz.
And that is all any of us can do; work with what we have, go with what we think and create with what we feel.
Liz ended with a poem by Louise Erdrich entitled Advice To Myself, which included some beautifully phrased suggestions about what we might say no to (such as answering the telephone and removing rotten celery from the fridge). And apt way to end, given that one of the most prolific barriers to creativity seems to be people's perceived lack of time.
And so, a question: "What are you willing to start saying no to in order to live the life you want to live?"
Let's say no to those things and say yes to being curious. And, in doing so, let’s just bloody celebrate life people! Let’s celebrate that we get to live it and, unlike animals, live it creatively.
Even though it can sometimes there can be a whole plateful of poo pie to wade through. Let's just celebrate until further notice.