Creativity and Elizabeth Gilbert

“Send in the artists, mystics, and clowns. Their fertile imagination pours the new wine of the gospel into fresh wineskins. With fresh language, poetic vision, and striking symbols, they express God’s inexpressible Word in artistic forms that are charged with the power of God, engaging our minds and stirring our hearts as they flame and flare.” Brennan Manning – from Ruthless Trust



I spent an entire Spring day sitting in the basement of my college house making my masterpiece. It was the end of the year and the final day of submissions for the school’s art competition and normally, I could care less about it, but for whatever reason, that morning I was eating cereal and looking out the window at my stretching emerald lawn and decided that this was what I would do today. I would paint.


Truth is, I had been painting for several months. I had been throwing myself to the canvas daily because I desperately wanted to be Great and also, I tend toward OCD with new hobbies and also… my therapist thought it a good idea.


I confined myself to my room all day and only left for slews of cigarettes and vitamin D and finally, to watch the dazzling setting of the sun.


We had until midnight to submit.


At some point in that long day of surge and then swell, of frenzy and then form, of plastering white over wrong colors and then intensifying the exquisite ones, I fell into a tempo, a rhythm, a sudden honing in on what beauty was and who I was and what I wanted to create.  I felt what many artists describe as flow. That river of creativity and craftsmanship that you can’t really find, until, at some point, you’re just there.


It was intoxicating.


The grooves of the tiled floor were streaming with crimson and cobalt and evergreen, meeting at the room’s lowest levels and turning murky brown. Dirt-dry paint coated my fingers and face and all over my clothes. If one were to walk in and see this tie-dye uproar they’d be vexed by it. Even more so, if they looked over at me leaning back in my chair, raising a glass of red to my toothy grin, zappy eyes, lunatic sprayed in raving colors, they’d be downright concerned.


But maybe, after a moment, they would’ve known. They would’ve watched the light fall down in the middle of the madness. They would’ve tumbled into a chair beside me and stared in nodding agreement at the best thing I had ever done.


[Its based on this photo by Peter Przybille (thanks Jessica!]

I didn’t win the competition, but I didn’t really care. I was transfixed by this beauty because I had endured many many uglies. And I started to wonder if maybe I picked the wrong major. If maybe I should be an artist. If maybe I was born to paint.


And then I tried to do it again. I tried painting bears and owls, I tried landscape and macro, I tried everything, but I fell far, far short.


And it bummed me out.


This is when I started thinking things like beginner’s luck. And wondered, will I never be able to do anything like THAT again?


And then I got really bummed out.


This same gloomy awareness has fogged in around me whenever I write a really good, well-received post, and then, fail to form a single non-clunky sentence on the next one. I was talking with Steph Spencer several weeks ago and she said, “the hardest post to write is the one following your best.” And it’s true.


And that’s how we often approach this work. Too often, we strap ourselves to it and fly with our balloons and drown with our anchors. We get big-headed and we get bummed out.


I went on a TED Talk binge the other night and I came across something really good. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, was talking about how her book had become this freakish success, how it had become a movie and a-months-on-end NYT Bestseller, and how now, everywhere she goes, people worry about her.


“People treat me like I’m doomed.” She said, and she’s talking about the hard truth that no matter what she writes for the rest of her life, she won’t ever top Eat Pray Love.


She went on to suggest that these pedestrian merchants of death are on to something. That with art comes suffering and a constant feeling of not measuring up. Of not being good enough. And that all we need to do is look down the history of 20th Century art and see all the casualties of it.


And this bothered her, like I’m sure it has bothered every other artist. Why is this? Why this constant coupling of the two? Why must we feel psychologically tormented? Better yet, why have we accepted such a reality?


So she went on a search:


I’ve been sort of looking across time, and I’ve been trying to find other societies to see if they might have had better and saner ideas than we have about how to help creative people, sort of manage the inherent emotional risks of creativity.

And that search has led me to ancient Greece and ancient Rome. So stay with me, because it does circle around and back. But, ancient Greece and ancient Rome — people did not happen to believe that creativity came from human beings back then, O.K.? People believed that creativity was this divine attendant spirit that came to human beings from some distant and unknowable source, for distant and unknowable reasons. The Greeks famously called these divine attendant spirits of creativity “daemons.” Socrates, famously, believed that he had a daemon who spoke wisdom to him from afar. The Romans had the same idea, but they called that sort of disembodied creative spirit a genius. Which is great, because the Romans did not actually think that a genius was a particularly clever individual. They believed that a genius was this, sort of magical divine entity, who was believed to literally live in the walls of an artist’s studio, kind of like Dobby the house elf, and who would come out and sort of invisibly assist the artist with their work and would shape the outcome of that work.

So brilliant — there it is, right there, that distance that I’m talking about — that psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work. And everyone knew that this is how it functioned, right? So the ancient artist was protected from certain things, like, for example, too much narcissism, right? If your work was brilliant you couldn’t take all the credit for it, everybody knew that you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame. And this is how people thought about creativity in the West for a really long time.

And then the Renaissance came and everything changed, and we had this big idea, and the big idea was let’s put the individual human being at the center of the universe above all gods and mysteries, and there’s no more room for mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine. And it’s the beginning of rational humanism, and people started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as being a genius rather than having a genius.

And I got to tell you, I think that was a huge error. You know, I think that allowing somebody, one mere person to believe that he or she is like, the vessel, you know, like the font and the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, eternal mystery is just a smidge too much responsibility to put on one fragile, human psyche. It’s like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all these unmanageable expectations about performance. And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.


And the talk goes on and it’s absolutely brilliant, you should go check it out. But I wanted to stop here and think about what this means for how we, in career or in hobby, approach creativity. Are we the source? Are we particularly built to produce some smidgeon of beauty into this world? Or is this there something greater? Something more? Some sort of interaction? Something whispering behind us?


When I think about painting the perfect picture, writing the perfect post, seeing things clearly for the first time, I also think about the accolades received. About the admiration. About the STATS. About thankful eyes gazing at what I’ve done. And I don’t necessarily think that’s wrong.


But the mistake happens when we hook compliments around our sense of self. It feels like being buttered up, and when you believe it’s because you’re great, it really feels good. But what we fail to see is our versatile selves tangling our feelers in the achievement of it. We fail to see how we lean in and, in a way, lose ourselves.


And what happens is our sense of worth becomes knotted so tightly to our creativity that, when we inevitably flop, we go sinking down with the tossed out work into the pile of perishables, and in a weird way we believe we deserve the drop, because we shouldn’t ever started writing in the first place and we’re just wasting away what little time we have here and I am surprised I have friends at all….




I’m putting an end to that. No longer will I overanalyze why something I worked so hard on resonated so little with readers. No longer will I pat myself on the back 1,000 times for the well-received work because really if I am to believe that I was created, I am also to believe that this is a cooperative effort now. That it is not just me thinking, diving deep, tapping away at the keys, but there is something bigger, One who sometimes shows and sometimes does not.


And the point is to always show up. You never know when something beautiful will tip toe in through the window and chances are, if you commit yourself to just showing up, sitting at the desk, typing out imperfect amateur words, brushing in awful colors, you will catch it. And it will be Great. But it won’t just be you.