I saw Liz Gilbert speak in Lebanon, Illinois this week. I still can’t quite believe my luck. Gilbert’s best-selling memoir, “Eat Pray Love” has sold ten million copies to date. The world-renowned author has a financial net worth of 25 million dollars. She presumably doesn’t need more money. So what on earth was she doing in the improbably quaint, pear blossom-lined, Midwestern town of Lebanon, Illinois (home of McKendree University) on a Wednesday night in April?
I admit that I felt a certain sense of vague anxiety and writer’s envy as Gilbert stepped out onto the stage. Here was a beautiful, successful woman who has achieved the kind of creative life and writing career that most of us can only dream about. I quickly realized that she’s about the same age as me and I could feel that queasy sense of “not-enoughness” that Brené Brown speaks about rising up in me. Yet she comes across as so genuine, self-deprecatingly funny and present that it’s impossible not to instantly like, even love Elizabeth Gilbert in person.
Most of the 90-minute talk centered on the themes of her book “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear”. Gilbert makes it clear: she’s here because this is her passion project. She’s not about judging you, shaming you or making you feel “less-than”. She wants to meet you exactly where you are. She believes that each individual has a sacred right to honor the call to create that lies deep inside us. So here are a few of the take-aways:
Be open to the ideas that come to you. Never dismiss them as “silly, unworthy or frivolous.”
Elizabeth Gilbert literally believes that ideas are living, intelligent sentient beings. She charmed and disarmed the audience before she launched into this topic saying, “I know we’re heading into some pretty ‘woo’ territory here guys, so be prepared”. As she writes in “Big Magic”:
“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 … And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.
The author joked that a “very serious” NPR reporter attempted several times during the course of an interview to give her an “out” on this philosophy and admit instead that it’s simply a metaphor for the creative process. Gilbert laughed and insisted that this is a matter of both fact and faith for her.
On a practical level, this means that we need to be consciously aware and “listening” for the inspiration that comes to us from the universe. We need to take ideas seriously. To give them our attention and respect. For a writer, that might mean taking notes as soon as an idea comes to you. For an artist it might mean making a quick sketch (the same applies if you’re an entrepreneur). Then comes the hard work. You need to show up for a certain time each day to develop and complete the idea.
As Gilbert explains, if you can’t or won’t “collaborate” with the idea, it might move on to another person who’s more willing to “birth it” into the physical world.
There’s something freeing in this “democratizing” approach to creativity. We’re no longer tethered to the notion that only “gifted” people can generate ideas due to their own particular genius. It also brings responsibility. There are an abundance of ideas. It requires those who wish to be creative to actively and consciously honor those ideas with our time and available talent.
Speaking of the eternal question of “making time” to be creative …
One of the many stories Liz shared with us, is that as a young writer in her twenties, there was a creative, artistic older woman in her neighborhood that she looked up to. Gilbert often went to her with questions and concerns about the writing life. At some point Liz complained to her that she simply didn’t have enough time. Liz was busy working three jobs, and trying to maintain a social life. Her mentor responded that she was continually making excuses not to live the life she was “pretending to want”.
After being offended and then thinking it over, Gilbert answered, “I get it, I have to start saying no to things I don’t want to do”. The response she received was something along the lines of, “No Liz, you don’t get it. Sometimes you have to say no to things you want to do”. One thing I know is true: making those kinds of sacrifices for our creativity doesn’t come easy to any of us. The only question is whether we find it worth the effort.
Meanwhile over here in the real world …
The truth is I’m too much of an agnostic to truly believe along with Gilbert that ideas are literally “disembodied, energetic life-forms”. I agree with the NPR reporter, however, that it’s a great metaphor. I’ve found it incredibly helpful in my own creative life to act as though it were true. Many artists, whether writers or musicians speak of their creativity flowing “through” them onto the page or onto a keyboard. I’ve found that when I keep a notebook faithfully and write ideas as they come, soon it’s surprising just how many different subjects come up.
I wonder too about this idea that it simply takes saying “no” to the things we want to do in order to make time for creative pursuits. Gilbert makes passing mention of the social and economic realities that shape people’s lives, but refuses to dig deep into those or allow us the luxury of using them as an excuse. She herself continued to work her “day jobs” until the massive success of Eat Pray Love made it unnecessary.
What Gilbert does almost without parallel is communicate her deep sense of awe, enthusiasm and pure, childlike wonder at the mystery of life and creativity. There’s no doubting her generosity of spirit. I think anyone who can come up with the words, “The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them” deserves to be read and listened to. Those of us who seek to live creatively need a champion, and she’s one of the strongest voices we have right now.
I leave you with the one of questions that Liz experimented asking people on her last book tour:
“What are you most excited about in your life right now?”
I think perhaps in the answer to that question lies the key to the creativity and joy we seek.