‘Don’t Be Afraid’: Elizabeth Gilbert on creativity
Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk on creativity has been doing the rounds of the internet for years, passed from one despairing, aspiring (or just plain perspiring) creative person to another since 2009.
In the talk, she said the result of Eat, Pray, Love being an international bestseller is that ‘people treat me like I’m doomed’. She’s constantly being asked whether she’s afraid she won’t be able to top her phenomenal success. ‘Aren’t you afraid you’ll never be able to create a book anyone in the world cares about ever again?’
Her answer? Of course she’s afraid of all these things. She’s talked about Committed, her Eat, Pray, Love follow-up (a memoir-of-sorts about marriage), as being her ‘sacrificial book’. It ‘went out into that aftermath and allowed itself to absorb all the disappointment and all the attacks from people who’d had years of frustration about how much they hated Eat, Pray, Love.’
And in the meantime, Gilbert was working away on her most recent book, the ambitious historical novel The Signature of Things, which tells the story of scientific trailblazer Alma Whittaker, a woman of the Enlightenment Age who stands defiantly on the cusp of the modern. Though her passion for botany and brilliant career are her driving force, she is disappointed in love. While Alma’s careful studies of moss take her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, the man she comes to love draws her in the opposite direction.
Readers and critics alike care very much about The Signature of All Things, which has earned rave reviews. The Guardian’s Elizabeth Day called it ‘quite simply one of the best novels I have read in years’.
Gilbert’s reflections on the creative life, and her suggestions on how to dodge the bullet of crippling creative angst, are well worth a look. (You can watch the whole talk below.)
Creativity and suffering intrinsically linked?
Lots of creative people, she said, seem ‘really undone by their own work’. She quoted the example of Norman Mailer, who said just before he died that ‘every one of my books killed me just a little more.’
‘Somehow we’ve collectively internalised this idea that creativity and suffering are somehow intrinsically linked,’ said Gilbert. ‘I think that’s odious and it’s dangerous and I don’t want to see it perpetuated into the next century.’
She spoke of the need to create a kind of psychological barrier between the creative person and their natural anxiety about whatever the reaction to that writing is going to be.
Creativity as an outside force
Gilbert looks to the past for inspiration, to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who believed that creativity was a divine attendant spirit that visited the creator, rather than an aspect of the creator themselves. ‘If your work was brilliant, you couldn’t take all the credit. Everyone knew that you had this disembodied genius who helped you. If it bombed, it wasn’t your fault. Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.’
She relishes the distance this creates – and says the shift to referring to an artist as being a genius, rather than having a genius, is a mistake. ‘It’s like asking someone to swallow the sun. The pressure of that has been killing off artists for the past 500 years.’
Gilbert said that thinking about genius in the ancient way explains the capricious nature of creativity – which sometimes feels ‘downright paranormal’. It’s also a way of thinking that can keep us sane.
Just do your job
‘I’m not the pipeline, I’m a mule,’ she said. ‘The way my creative process works is that I have to get up at the same time each day, and sweat, and barrel through it really awkwardly. But even I have had work or ideas come through me from a source I honestly cannot identify.’
‘Don’t be afraid, don’t be daunted. Just do your job. If the divine cock-eyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed through your efforts, olé. If not, do your dance anyway.’
‘Keep showing up.’