Calm Down and Get Back to Work
Excerpts from Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert
And so in my continuing efforts to try to rebuild and find my way back, I had a strong sense I should next turn to this book, again. I was first turned onto it by my friend Marianne, who had just heard Gilbert speak; and while I would probably sooner eat my own face than actually read Eat, Pray, Love, I dug this book enormously, finding it a wonderful and genuine chronicle of the journey of a committed artist. She's the real deal.
However, I was coming at it from a very different place this time less as questing, aspiring artist kindling hope and trying to keep rolling and putting successes together, but as one who had fallen far, and was now battling despair, and the overwhelming desire to pack it in. Very happily, I found that it spoke to what I was going through and provided actionable advice even more pitch-perfectly than before. (Also, as I sometimes do with very important books, and even more critically now than at other times, I had to turn to a second highlight colour for this pass. I actually have a couple of books with three shades of highlighting in them; and, as of last month, one with four. In this case, I not only highlit new bits, but also re-highlit some, resulting in an interesting all-new colour…) But, anyway, excerpts from the first colour of highlights would be a whole different dispatch. As usual, I'm recording this stuff for me (trying to figure things out, find my way through, and explain my own experience to myself); perhaps for the amusement of the four of you out there interested to read it; and just maybe for some other tormented artist out there whom, some day, this might also help save.
You're afraid your best work is behind you.
So I don't try to kill off my fear. I don't go to war against it. Instead, I make all that space for it. Heaps of space. Every single day. I'm making space for fear right this moment.
My instincts told me it was time to return to my literary roots and write a work of fiction something I hadn't done in years. In fact, I hadn't written a novel in so long, I feared I had forgotten how to do it at all. I feared that fiction had become a language I could no longer speak.
…or pondering your failures and mistakes…
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; proclaim yourself cursed (not blessed) by your talents; attach your sense of self-worth to external rewards.
Does it work, this method?
Yeah, sure. It works great. Till it kills you.
Because in the end, it's all about the work, isn't it? Or shouldn't it be?
Maybe there's a different way to approach it? May I suggest one?
A different way is to cooperate fully, humbly, and joyfully with inspiration. 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 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. 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 realizing that your demons were never the ones doing the work, anyhow.
Find something else to work on anything, immediately and get at it. Keep busy.
When you've made something wonderful, or done something wonderful, and when you look back at it later, all you can say is: "I don't even know where that came from." You can't repeat it. You can't explain it.
(What was there for Harper Lee to be afraid of, after all? Possibly just this: That she could not outdo Harper Lee.)
"How are you ever going to top that?" But such thinking assumes there is a "top" and that reaching that top (and staying there) is the only motive one has to create. Such thinking assumes that you must be constantly victorious not only against your peers, but also against an earlier version of your own poor self.
But I wish someone had been able to convince Lee to keep writing for the entirety of her life, and to keep publishing all along. It would have been a gift to the world. And it would have been a gift to her, as well to have been able to remain a writer, and to have enjoyed the pleasures and satisfactions of that work for herself.
The most important thing to understand about eudaimonia, though about that exhilarating encounter between a human being and divine creative inspiration is that you cannot expect it to be there for you all the time. It will come and go, and you must let it come and go.
I feel sometimes like my genius sits in the corner and watches me at my desk, day after day, week after week, month after month, just to be sure I really mean it, just to be sure I'm really giving this creative endeavor my whole-hearted effort.
And when it departs, I let the mystery go, and I keep on working diligently anyhow, hoping that someday my genius will reappear. I work either way, you see assisted or unassisted because that is what you must do in order to live a fully creative life. I work steadily, and I always thank the process.
All I know for certain is that this is how I want to spend my life. It's a strange line of work, admittedly. I cannot think of a better way to pass my days.
You want to write a book? Make a song? Direct a movie? Decorate pottery? Learn a dance? Explore a new land? You want to draw a penis on your wall? Do it. Who cares? It's your birthright as a human being, so do it with a cheerful heart. (I mean, take it seriously, sure but don't take it seriously.)
…but I am going to spend as much time as I can creating delightful things out of my existence, because that's what brings me awake and that's what brings me alive.
I've had to keep defining and defending myself as a writer every single day of my adult life constantly reminding myself that I will never stop creating, no matter what the outcome, and no matter how deep my anxieties and insecurities may be.
It's okay if your work is fun for you, is what I'm saying. Do whatever brings you to life. The rest will take care of itself.
But the arts are not a profession, in the manner of regular professions. There is no job security in creativity, and there never will be.
Be careful with yourself, is what I'm saying.
But we need you to do your work.
Stop whining and get back to work. There is a simple question of self-respect at play here. First of all, it's annoying. Every artist complains, so it's a dead and boring topic. Of course it's difficult to create things; if it wasn't difficult, everyone would be doing it, and it wouldn't be special or interesting. Every time you express a complaint about how difficult and tiresome it is to be creative, inspiration takes another step away from you, offended.
I started telling myself that I enjoyed my work the agony and the ecstasy, the success and the failure, the joy and the embarrassment, the dry spells and the grind and the stumble and confusion and the stupidity of it all.
So try saying this: "I enjoy my creativity." It's such a gangster move, because hardly anybody ever dares to speak of creative enjoyment aloud, for fear of not being taken seriously as an artist. So say it. Be the weirdo who dares to enjoy.
It will only weigh you down and trouble your mind, and we need you to stay as light and unburdened as possible in order to keep you creating.
I can only be in charge of producing the work itself. That's a hard enough job. I refuse to take on additional jobs, such as trying to police what anybody thinks about my work once it leaves my desk.
Maybe I won't always be able to make a living out of my writing, but that's not the end of the world, either, because there are lots of ways to make a living besides writing books and many of them are easier than writing books.
Over the years, Tom Waits finally found his sense of permission to deal with his creativity more lightly without so much drama, without so much fear. He had been lost in the cult of artistic suffering, but he called that suffering by another name: dedication. Waits had an epiphany: It wasn't actually that big a deal. Songwriting became less painful after that.
So relax a bit, is what I'm saying.
When I was about sixteen years old, I took vows to become a writer. I didn't make a promise that I would be a successful writer, because I sensed that success was not under my control. Nor did I promise that I would be a great writer, because I didn't know if I could be great. Nor did I give myself any time limits for the work, like, "If I'm not published by the time I'm thirty, I'll give up on this dream and go find another line of work." My deadline was: never. Instead, I simply vowed to the universe that I would write forever, regardless of the result. I promised that I would try to be brave about it, and grateful, and as uncomplaining as I could possibly be.
It's never too late. You can start whenever you decide to start.
I kept working. I kept writing. I kept not getting published, but that was okay, because i was getting educated. The most important benefit of my years of disciplined, solitary work was that I began to to recognize the emotional patterns of creativity or, rather, I began to recognize my patterns. "Ah," I learned to say when I would inevitably begin to lose heart for a project just a few weeks after I'd enthusiastically begun it. Or: "This is the part where I tell myself that I'll never write a good sentence again." "This is the part where I panic that I'll never be able to make anything again."
I heartened myself with reminders that these fears were completely natural human reactions to interaction with the unknown. If I could convince myself that I was supposed to be there, then I could usually get through my emotional minefield without blowing myself up before the project was finished.
Learning how to endure your disappointment and frustration is part of the job of a creative person. If you want to be an artist of any sort, it seemed to me, then handling your frustration is a fundamental aspect of the work perhaps the single most fundamental aspect of the work. [Ed: Pretty strikingly, she seems to be saying exactly what Godin did on Koppelman just a few days ago. He called this "the only hard work we do." Also, exactly what I need to hear, and somehow figure out how to do.] Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process. The fun part (the part where it doesn't feel like work at all) is when you're actually creating something wonderful, and everything's going great, and everyone loves it, and you're flying high. But such instants are rare. You don't just get to leap from bright moment to bright moment. How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren't going so great, is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation, and how equipped you are for the weird demands of creative living. Holding yourself together through all the phases of creation is where the real work lies.
Because if you love and want something enough whatever it is then you don't really mind eating the shit sandwich that comes with it.
From an outside perspective, it might have looked like I'd already made it. But I wasn't taking any chances, so I kept my day job. Over the years, I have watched so many other people murder their creativity by demanding that their art pay the bills. Look, if you can manage to live comfortably off your inspiration forever, that's fantastic. That's everyone'd dream, right? But to yell at your creativity, saying, "You must earn money for me!" is sort of like yelling at a cat; it has no idea what you're talking about, and all you're doing is scaring it away, because you're making really loud noises and your face looks weird when you do that.
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 passionate lover.
While I beavered away at my awkward, disappointing short stories, this brilliant young man somebody who I thought was a far more talented writer than me refused to write a word. He felt there was nobility in his choice never to write a book, if it could not be a great book. He said, "I would rather be a beautiful failure than a deficient success." Hell, I wouldn't. I don't see this path as heroic. I think it's far more honorable to stay in the game even if you're objectively failing at the game than to excuse yourself from participation because of your delicate sensibilities. But in order to stay in the game, you must let go of your fantasy of perfection.
"The perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it's also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun." Perfectionism stops people from completing their work, yes but even worse, it often stops people from beginning their work.
Possessing a creative mind, after all, is something like having a border collie for a pet: It needs work, or else it will cause you an outrageous amount of trouble. Give your mind a job to do, or else it will find a job to do, and you might not like the job it invents (eating the couch, digging a hole through the living room floor, biting the mailman, etc.) It has taken me years to learn this, but it does seem to be the case that if I am not actively creating something, then I am probably actively destroying something (myself, a relationship, or my own peace of mind).
Perhaps creativity's greatest mercy is this: By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, it can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are.
Because the truth of the matter is, most people don't finish things! Look around you, the evidence is everywhere. People don't finish. They begin ambitious projects with the best of intentions, but then they get stuck in a mire of insecurity and doubt and hairsplitting… and they stop. So if you can just complete something merely complete it! you're already miles ahead of the pack, right there.
But now that work was finished, and it was time for me to shift my attention to something new something that would also, someday, be released as good enough. This is how I've always done it, and this is how I will keep doing it, so long as I am able. Because that is the anthem of my people. That is the Song of the Disciplined Half-Ass.
It is for these reasons (the difficulty, the unpredictability) that I have always discouraged people from approaching creativity as a career move, and I always will because with rare exceptions, creative fields make for crap careers. Even if things work out for you in the arts, parts of your career will likely always remain crap. Trust me, if you want to complain, you'll always find plenty to complain about, even when fortune appears to be shining her favor upon you.
Because nobody ever told us it would be easy, and uncertainty is what we sign up for when we say that we want to live creative lives. Will the inevitable difficulties and obstacles associated with creativity make you suffer? That part cross my heart is entirely up to you.
You must search tirelessly and faithfully, hoping against hope to someday experience that divine collision of creative communion either for the first time, or one more time.
Addicted to Suffering
Are you beginning to see how screwed up this is? It is not only aspiring writers who feel this way. Older, established authors say exactly the same dark things about their own work. Norman Mailer claimed that every one of his books had killed him a little more. Philip Roth has never stopped talking about the medieval torments writing inflicted upon him for the duration of his long-suffering career. Oscar Wilde called the artistic existence "one long, lovely suicide." (I adore Wilde, but I have trouble seeing suicide as lovely. I have trouble seeing any of this anguish as lovely.)
Suffering has a reputation for killing off artists, for one thing. But even when it doesn't kill them, an addiction to pain can sometimes throw artists into such severe mental disorder that they stop working at all.
My instincts drove me in the opposite direction toward light, toward play, toward a more trusting engagement with creativity but I'm a lucky one.
During my own periods of misery and instability, I've noticed that my creative spirit becomes cramped and suffociated.
These lost prodigies were unhappy for an infinite variety of reasons, to be sure, though I'm willing to bet that they had all at least for one flowering moment of their lives once loved their work.
I don't ever choose to believe that I've been completely abandoned in the creative wilderness, or that there's reason for me to panic about my writing.
But is it any more delusional than believing that only your suffering and your pain are authentic? Or that you are alone that you have no relationship whatsoever with the universe that created you? Or that you have been singled out by destiny as specially cursed? Or that your talents were given to you for the mere purpose of destroying you?
Martyr says: "I will sacrifice everything to fight this unwinnable war, even if it means being crushed to death under a wheel of torment."
Trickster says: "Okay, you enjoy that! As for me, I'll be over here in this corner, running a successful little black market operation on the side of your unwinnable war."
Martyr always ends up dead in a heap of broken glory, while Trickster trots off to enjoy another day.
But somewhere in the last few centuries, creativity got kidnapped by the martyrs, and it's been held hostage in their camp of suffering ever since. I believe this turn of events has left art feeling very sad. It has definitely left a lot of artists feeling very sad.
And he loves doing it, because the Trickster (in all his cleverness) understands the one great cosmic truth that the Martyr (in all his seriousness) can never grasp: It's all just a game. A big, freaky, wonderful game. The martyr hates freaky. The martyr wants to kill freaky. And in so doing, he all too often ends up killing himself.
Brené writes wonderful books, but they don't come easily to her. She sweats and struggles and suffers throughout the writing process, and always has. She took a closer look at her own work habits and realized she'd been creating from far too dark and heavy a place within herself. She had already written several successful books, but all of them had been like a medieval road of trials for her nothing but fear and anguish throughout the entire writing process. Like so many creators before her, she had come to trust in that pain above all.
Then she figured out how to trick the process. "I'm done with all that. Never again will I write about the subject of human connection while suffering in isolation." And her new trick worked like a charm. Never had Brené written faster, never had she written better. Her book came out on the page as deep and serious as it needed to be. It's just that she had a good time writing it, because she finally figured out how to game the system.
Be careful of your dignity, is what I'm saying. It is not always your friend.
But I don't sit around waiting for passion to strike me. I keep working steadily, because I believe it is our privilege as human beings to keep making things for as long as we live. So how do you find the inspiration to work when your passion has flagged?
Sometimes I think that the difference between a tormented creative life and a tranquil creative life is nothing more than the difference between the word awful and the word interesting.
They quit just when things are starting to get interesting. Which is to say, they quit as soon as things aren't easy anymore, as soon as it gets painful, or boring, or agitating. They quit as soon as they see something in their minds that scares them or hurts them. Whatever it is you are seeking, whatever it is you are creating, be careful not to quit too soon.
Don't let go of your courage the moment things stop being easy or rewarding. Because that moment? That's the moment when interesting begins.
You will fail. By this point in my life, though, I've learned how to navigate my own disappointment without plummeting too far into death spirals of shame, rage, or inertia.
What the Buddhists call "a hungry ghost" forever famished, eternally howling with need and greed. Some version of that hunger dwells within all of us. We all have that lunatic presence, living deep within our guts, that refuses to ever be satisfied with anything. I have it, you have it, we all have it.
Since creativity is my most efficient pathway to wonder, I take refuge there, and it feeds my soul, and it quiets the hungry ghost thereby saving me from the most dangerous aspects of myself.
I choose to block out all the external (and internal) noise and distractions, and to come home again and again to creativity. Because without that source of wonder, I know that I am doomed. Without it, I will forever wander the world in a state of homeless dissatisfaction nothing but a howling ghost, trapped in a body made of slowly deteriorating meat.
Do Something Else
So how do you shake off failure and shame in order to keep living a creative life? First of all, forgive yourself. Remember that you're nothing but a beginner even if you've been working on your craft for fifty years. So let it go. Forget about the last project, and go searching with an open heart for the next one.
Next, next, next always next. Keep moving, keep going.
You don't need to know what anything means. Someday it might all make sense to you why you needed to go through this botched-up mess in order to land in a better place. Or maybe it will never make sense. So be it. Move on, anyhow. Whatever else happens, stay busy.
Find something to do anything, even a different sort of creative work altogether just to take your mind off your anxiety and pressure.
I once had a friend who was a gifted baseball player as a young man, but he lost his nerve and his game fell apart. So he quit baseball and took up soccer for a year. After a year of kicking around a soccer ball for laughs, he want back to baseball, and suddenly he could play again better and more lightly than ever.
He couldn't imagine how he would get up the courage to write anything else ever again… while the great man sat there, wondering what on earth he was going to do with himself next. He realized that "failure has a function. It asks you whether you really want to go on making things." To his surprise, James realized that the answer was yes. The failure had departed; the creator had returned. By doing something else and doing it with all his heart he had tricked his way out of the hell of inertia and straight back into the Big Magic.
As I have said, and as we all know deep in our hearts, there is no guarantee of success in creative realms. Not for you, not for me, not for anyone. Not now, not ever. Will you put forth your work anyhow?
Anyhow, what else are you going to do with your time here on earth not make things? Not do interesting stuff? Not follow your love and your curiosity? But seriously: Really? Because, think about it: Then what?
What you absolutely must not do is turn around and walk out. Otherwise, you will miss the party, and that would be a pity, because please believe me we did not come all this great distance, and make all this great effort, only to miss the party at the last moment.
We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits. We are terrified, and we are brave. Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege. Make space for all these paradoxes to be equally true inside your soul, and I promise you can make anything. So please calm down now and get back to work, okay? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.