Author Elizabeth Gilbert Talks Creativity, Fear and the Myth of Perfection

The best-selling author catapulted to fame following the overwhelming success of her 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love. Now, as she treads into the self-help genre for the first time with the September release of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert pauses to dissect the “mysterious forces” that brought her this far. Below are a few outtakes from my original interview with her for Southwest: The Magazine’s October issue.

What is a commonly held misconception about creativity?

All you have to do is look back on the entirety of human history to see that creativity is our shared inheritance. It’s something that all people did: make things, embellish things, tell stories, dance with music. To be a creator has been the common human experience, until very recently when it became a specialty. With that sense of specialization came the idea that artists be singled out not only for their talent, but for their anguish. I’m not committed to that idea, and a lot of the book is about breaking its spell.

How do you keep your own fears or feelings of inadequacy at bay?

I don’t try to keep them at bay. I think that’s part of the problem. To keep something at bay you have to shove it out of the way, and when you’re talking about fear you’re talking about a part of you. It may seem like war against this external entity, but it’s really war against yourself. How is that possibly going to end well? So I don’t try to push it away. I just invite it to come with me, because it’s going to anyway. It’s always there, and it’s certainly always there whenever I begin a new thing with an uncertain ending, because fear hates new things and it hates uncertain endings. I spend a lot of time talking to it the way you would talk to a really freaked-out friend. I say, “Thank you so much for all the times you spend looking after me, but I just want to let you know I’m only writing a novel so it’s not going to end in anyone’s death.” If I can talk to it, it seems to calm down, and then it kind of falls asleep like a toddler in a car seat.

Do you have a routine when you sit down to write?

The most powerful tool in an artist’s arsenal is a common kitchen timer. Just set it for 30 minutes and do the thing. Just do it. Beginning is so hard, but usually once you start you’ll find you can do it for an hour or an hour and a half.

You talk a lot about the concept of genius in Big Magic. Can you explain your thoughts on the topic?

It’s not even my thoughts; it’s hearkening back to a much more ancient way of seeing the creative process. In the modern world we say that this person or that person is a genius, but back in the day—and by the day I mean like, 1000 BC—they would have said that a person had a genius. They considered a genius to be an external, mysterious, disembodied life force that interacted with the human being and gave inspiration and instruction and correction. Essentially, creativity was thought of as a collaboration between a human and an otherworldly force.

Why do you subscribe to this definition?

One, that’s what it feels like. Two, it absolves you from 100 percent responsibility for the work you’re doing, which I think is a very generous thing to do. When you take that magic away and the work isn’t going well, it’s all your fault. Or, if the work is going well, then suddenly you’re a raging narcissist—both of which are really bad for you and really bad for your work. The concept of having a genius is about showing up and doing your part and letting the mystery show up and do its part.

Many creative types are often guilty of seeking perfection. I know I am. In the “perfect is the enemy of the good” debate, which side are you on?

Any time in my life I’ve ever aspired to the impossible it’s ended very badly for me. But only every single time.

That’s quite the case study.

It’s just irrational. You’re aspiring to something that’s not only the enemy of the good and the enemy of the fun and the enemy of the lighthearted and the enemy of the productive, you’re also aspiring to something that literally does not exist. It kind of reminds me of that Anna Freud line: “In our dreams we can have our eggs cooked exactly how we want them, but we can’t eat them.” For me, I’d rather have my weird burnt eggs that are real, that I can actually eat, than spend my life living in some dream of perfect eggs that I’ll never be able to touch.

Besides throwing perfection out the window, what do you want readers to take away from the book?

More than anything I hope it will be just a giant permission slip for people to engage in creative exploration. You don’t have to have particular degrees in order to do it, and you don’t need to have huge resources of time or money; you don’t need professional contacts; you don’t have to live in New York or Los Angeles. All you have to do to participate in [creative living] is lay claim to it. Personally, I don’t want to be somebody who only consumes things that other people make. I want to share in that story, that really ancient, interesting story of human beings’ relationship with the mystery of inspiration. I don’t just want to be a witness to this ever-creating universe. I want to be a constituent, and I’m hoping this book will allow others to do the same regardless of the outcome. Just because of the joy and the strangeness of the process. And also, what else are you going to do, not make stuff? That just seems boring. Go make something!

For more insights on creative living, tune in to Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast, and check out the October issue of Southwest: The Magazine.

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