I admit, I wasn’t an instant fan of Elizabeth Gilbert’s. I remember picking up a copy of Eat Pray Love in the university campus bookshop when it had just come out. “I should have written that book,” my 50 something Italian male colleague muttered under his breath, putting the offensively popular book back on the shelf.
I couldn’t quite see how that would have worked with the audience she’d captured, but I shared his sentiment. In fact, everything inside me screamed “I should have written that book!” I’d lived in Ubud for a year when Elizabeth Gilbert was still in high school. I’d just come out of my own crisis that had me on the bathroom floor at 3 am. I’d eaten my way through Italy over the years as a scholar and lecturer in Italian Studies. I’d done time on a meditation cushion in India. What made her the authority on all of that?
The simple answer is, because she wrote the damn book and I didn’t.
Elizabeth Gilbert sat down every day and worked to become a writer, and I hadn’t. I’d only fantasised about it. I had hundreds of excuses for why I didn’t sit down to write my version of Eat, Pray, Love. She’d had the same excuses, but she had confronted her fears and she had bravely and diligently followed her passion. That was the difference. No doubt, she also had a lot of talent, but that alone, does not make a good writer.
In her latest book Big Magic Elizabeth Gilbert tells us exactly why she succeeded, and my colleague and I hadn’t. It’s not only because she is a damn fine writer. She wasn’t born that way, she made herself that way. Sure, not everybody has the talent she has, but she worked hard at creating her distinctive voice, at honing her craft.
“This, I believe, is the central question upon which all creative living hinges: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?” Elizabeth Gilbert
I don’t think neither my grumpy colleague nor I had ever thought about it that way. Because if we had, maybe we would have put away our arrogance and just sat down day after day to write. But we were so busy being authorities in our scholarly fields, there simply wasn’t any time for creative writing after hours. Well, guess what? Until Eat Pray Love made her rich, Elizabeth Gilbert always kept her day job, just to be on the safe side.
“Every time you express a complaint about how difficult and tiresome it is to be creative, inspiration takes another step away from you, offended.” Elizabeth Gilbert
Precisely. If only I hadn’t made up excuses to explore my creativity, inspiration would have remained my close ally. Now that I do an hour of free writing each morning, I know that inspiration is there always, lurking in the background. If I just continue putting one word in front of the other, if I allow the flow to happen, suddenly, when I least expect it, inspiration comes out of its hiding place. Like a mouse from its hole, it shows me tricks my conscious mind would have never found.
“Creativity is a path for the brave, yes, but it is not a path for the fearless, and it’s important to recognize the distinction. Bravery means doing something scary. Fearlessness means not even understanding what the word scary means.” Elizabeth Gilbert
I am brave enough now to admit to myself that I was an arrogant coward. I wasn’t brave enough to start a committed writing practice years ago. I’d run a mile the moment my fear showed up alongside with my creativity. I’ve been a fearless solo traveller all my life. I was brave enough to take on a PhD and finish it, but somehow, until now, I wasn’t brave enough to take on creative writing and see it through to the end.
“Work with all your heart, because—I promise—if you show up for your work day after day after day after day, you just might get lucky enough some random morning to burst right into bloom.” Elizabeth Gilbert
That’s were the big magic of the title comes in. Elizabeth Gilbert believes that ideas are a disembodied energy that wants to manifest. To do so, an idea needs a collaborative human partner, who will commit time and energy to bring an idea “out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.” She tells the story of how the idea for a big novel set in Brazil got away from her and magically found its way to Ann Pattchett. She asks us to delve into a bit of magical thinking here, and it will not convince everybody.
“Creativity is a force of enchantment – not entirely human in its origins.” Elizabeth Gilbert
I am still undecided about Gilbert’s claim that creativity is some kind of divine force. But I do know what it feels like when your unconscious mind becomes hijacked by a powerful idea. It happened to me a few months ago. I sat down to write something I’d been meaning to tackle for a long time, and suddenly, out of nowhere, a totally different story forced its way through me.
All I had to do was open a document, put my hands on the keyboard and write. I felt like I was a scribe and the story was being dictated to me from another place I could never consciously tap into. Don’t get me wrong. I have yet to be visited by an idea big enough for an epic novel, but Gilbert has made me appreciate the importance to trust in the subconscious flow and to give it voice by simply writing, day after day, even when we don’t feel inspired.
Big Magic can feel a little repetitive in hammering home its essential message. But I loved it all the same. I read it over a number of weeks, like a special treat to remind myself again and again why it was her, not me, or my grumpy colleague, who wrote that blockbuster travel memoir.
So my new mantra is this: stop complaining, stop procrastinating, just show up every day, give yourself permission and just write. Every day, no matter what!
“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 compassionate lover.” Elizabeth Gilbert
I love this. How often do we silence our creativity by procrastinating, getting lost in social media or simply running a mile from it. This year I’ll be leading a writing retreat in Bali. It’s an invitation to myself and others to take our creativity on a honeymoon. We should do it once a year, at least!
By the way, when I finally read Eat Pray Love, I didn’t read it just once, I read it twice, I loved it that much. It’s intelligent, wise and witty. It’s written from the heart. It crackles with raw pain and authentic passion. It hits the spot. Big time. And it’s flawlessly researched. She get’s full marks for her Italian from this former scholar of Italian Studies, no question!