Elizabeth Gilbert: When a magical idea comes knocking, you have three options
The author of Eat, Pray, Love has spent her life in devotion to creativity. In an extract from her new book, Big Magic, she writes about the ‘transcendent’ world of ideas – and how we should respond to them
Elizabeth Gilbert. Photograph: Johnny Louis/Wireimage
“When an idea thinks it has found somebody – say, you – who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit.” Illustration: Thinkstock
I’ve spent my entire life in devotion to creativity, and along the way I’ve developed a set of beliefs about how it works – and how to work with it – that is entirely and unapologetically based upon magical thinking. And 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. Because the truth is, I believe that creativity is a force of enchantment, not entirely human in its origins.
I am aware this is not an especially modern or rational way of seeing things. It is decidedly unscientific. Just the other day, I heard a respected neurologist say in an interview, “The creative process may seem magical, but it is not magic.”
With all due respect, I disagree.
I believe the creative process is both magical and magic.
Because here is what I choose to believe about how creativity functions:
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. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.
Therefore, ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners. (I’m talking about all ideas here: artistic, scientific, industrial, commercial, ethical, religious, political.)
When an idea thinks it has found somebody – say, you – who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit. It will try to get your attention. Mostly, you will not notice. This is likely because you’re so consumed by your own dramas, anxieties, distractions, insecurities, and duties that you aren’t receptive to inspiration.
You might miss the signal because you’re watching TV, or shopping, or brooding over how angry you are at somebody, or pondering your failures and mistakes, or just generally really busy. The idea will try to wave you down (perhaps for a few moments; perhaps for a few months; perhaps even for a few years), but when it finally realises that you’re oblivious to its message, it will move on to someone else.
But sometimes – rarely, but magnificently – there comes a day when you’re open and relaxed enough to actually receive something. Your defences might slacken and your anxieties might ease, and then magic can slip through. The idea, sensing your openness, will start to do its work on you. It will send the universal physical and emotional signals of inspiration (the chills up the arms, the hair standing up on the back of the neck, the nervous stomach, the buzzy thoughts, that feeling of falling into love or obsession). The idea will organise coincidences and portents to tumble across your path, to keep your interest keen. You will start to notice all sorts of signs pointing you towards the idea. Everything you see and touch and do will remind you of the idea. The idea will wake you up in the middle of the night and distract you from your everyday routine. The idea will not leave you alone until it has your fullest attention.
And then, in a quiet moment, it will ask, “Do you want to work with me?”
At this point, you have two options for how to respond.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU SAY NO
The simplest answer, of course, is just to say no.
Then you’re off the hook. The idea will eventually go away and – congratulations! – you don’t need to bother creating anything.
To be clear, this is not always a dishonorable choice. True, you might sometimes decline inspiration’s invitation out of laziness, angst, insecurity or petulance. But other times you might need to say no to an idea because it is truly not the right moment, or because you’re already engaged in a different project, or because you’re certain that this particular idea has accidentally knocked on the wrong door.
I have many times been approached by ideas that I know are not right for me, and I’ve politely said to them: “I’m honoured by your visitation, but I’m not your girl. May I respectfully suggest that you call upon, say, Barbara Kingsolver?” (I always try to use my most gracious manners when sending an idea away; you don’t want word getting around the universe that you’re difficult to work with.) Whatever your response, though, do be sympathetic to the poor idea. Remember: All it wants is to be realised. It’s trying its best. It seriously has to knock on every door it can.
So you might have to say no.
When you say no, nothing happens at all.
Mostly, people say no.
Most of their lives, most people just walk around, day after day, saying no, no, no, no, no.
Then again, some day you just might say yes.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU SAY YES
If you do say yes to an idea, now it’s showtime.
Now your job becomes both simple and difficult. You have officially entered into a contract with inspiration, and you must try to see it through, all the way to its impossible-to-predict outcome.
You may set the terms for this contract however you like. In contemporary western civilisation, the most common creative contract still seems to be one of suffering.
This is the contract that says, I shall destroy myself and everyone around me in an effort to bring forth my inspiration, and my martyrdom shall be the badge of my creative legitimacy.
If you choose to enter into a contract of creative suffering, you should try to identify yourself as much as possible with the stereotype of the Tormented Artist. You will find no shortage of role models. To honor their example, follow these fundamental rules: Drink as much as you possibly can; sabotage all your relationships; wrestle so vehemently against yourself that you come up bloodied every time; express constant dissatisfaction with your work; jealously compete against your peers; begrudge anybody else’s victories; proclaim yourself cursed (not blessed) by your talents; attach your sense of self-worth to external rewards; be arrogant when you are successful and self-pitying when you fail; honour darkness above light; die young; blame creativity for having killed you.
Does it work, this method?
Yeah, sure. It works great. Till it kills you.
So you can do it this way if you really want to. (By all means, do not let me or anyone else ever take away your suffering, if you’re committed to it!) But I’m not sure this route is especially productive, or that it will bring you or your loved ones enduring satisfaction and peace. I will concede that this method of creative living can be extremely glamorous, and it can make for an excellent biopic after you die, so if you prefer a short life of tragic glamour to a long life of rich satisfaction (and many do), knock yourself out.
However, I’ve always had the sense that the muse of the tormented artist – while the artist himself is throwing temper tantrums – is sitting quietly in a corner of the studio, buffing its fingernails, patiently waiting for the guy to calm down and sober up so everyone can get back to work.
Because in the end, it’s all about the work, isn’t it? Or shouldn’t it be?
And maybe there’s a different way to approach it?
May I suggest one?
A DIFFERENT WAY
A different way is to co-operate fully, humbly, and joyfully with inspiration.
This is how I believe most people approached creativity for most of history, before we decided to get all La Bohème about it. You can receive your ideas with respect and curiosity, not with drama or dread. You can clear out whatever obstacles are preventing you from living your most creative life, with the simple understanding that whatever is bad for you is probably also bad for your work. You can lay off the booze a bit in order to have a keener mind. You can nourish healthier relationships in order to keep yourself undistracted by self-invented emotional catastrophes. You can dare to be pleased sometimes with what you have created. (And if a project doesn’t work out, you can always think of it as having been a worthwhile and constructive experiment.) You can resist the seductions of grandiosity, blame, and shame. You can support other people in their creative efforts, acknowledging the truth that there’s plenty of room for everyone. You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures. You can battle your demons (through therapy, recovery, prayer or humility) instead of battling your gifts – in part by realising that your demons were never the ones doing the work, anyhow. 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 towards something intriguing and worthwhile. You can live a long life, making and doing really cool things the entire time. You might earn a living with your pursuits or you might not, but you can recognise that this is not really the point. And at the end of your days, you can thank creativity for having blessed you with a charmed, interesting, passionate existence.
That’s another way to do it.
Totally up to you.
- Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear is published by Bloomsbury