Van Gogh cut off his ear. Sylvia Plath put her head in an oven. Amy Winehouse overdosed. For centuries, artists have suffered for their creative genius. Many of them describe it as a fury of activity beyond their control that makes them feel most alive and incredibly miserable. Best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert rejects that notion, and believes that the creative process should be rewarding, not agonizing.
“The cool thing about creativity is that everyone throughout history who has reported on creativity has experienced it the same way,” Gilbert said. “You get this waking you up in the middle of the night jolt and you feel excited. The idea won’t leave you alone, your palms sweat and then a whole bunch of coincidences start to occur and you feel like the whole universe is pushing you toward it. All of us who have done anything creative in our life know that it’s a divine feeling.”
In her latest book, “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear,” Gilbert reflects on the creative process and what she calls creative living. Creative living as described in “Big Magic” is a life where you make choices based on your curiosity and not your fears. She will give a talk, “Thoughts on Creative Living,” at Unity North Atlanta in Marietta on April 24.
The book is part practical guide and part spiritual revelation for people who have creative energy inside of them that needs to be released. She writes, “This is a world, not a womb.” Gilbert held on to the idea of “Big Magic” for 12 years, but after the success of “Eat Pray Love,” she says she was put into a spotlight and people had a lot more questions for her about the creative process. Then, she delivered two TED Talks — “Your Elusive Creative Genius” and “Success, Failure and the Drive to Keep Creating” — on creative genius, and she wrote the book to answer people’s questions.
“I felt like I had to have some more work under my belt before I felt I had the authority to talk about the creative process,” Gilbert said. “I had been living by the principles in the book for years, but it took me until I was in my late 40s and had the self-confidence to lay it out there.”
According to Gilbert, there are two thoughts about creativity in the Western world — one that says that there’s no mysticism and the artist is in control, and the other that says that the artist is just a vessel and things pour through them. She believes that the first thought takes away the magic and the second one makes it seem as if creative work is effortless.
“You get to be the administrator of your own creativity,” Gilbert said. “People will often say that they have many ideas, but you have to pick one and commit to it.”
The most common question other writers ask her is about what to do when they’re stuck, and Gilbert often surprises them when she says that she does not believe in writer’s block.
“Writer’s block is a placeholder term we give to fill in the place of other conditions,” Gilbert said. “When people say they have writer’s block, I like to unthread it. The main thing is fear, and it is almost always fear of failure and fear of criticism. They’re trying to find a motive to spend a lot of time on something that people might not like.”
One of the most prolific parts of “Big Magic” is Gilbert’s section ideas. She personifies them as living things that will move from person to person until they find the person who will take hold of them.
“I spent 12 years being approached by the idea to write ‘Big Magic,’ and every time I asked the idea questions, it didn’t have enough details, so it had to wait,” she said. “It might sound crazy, but I think that it’s a great way to stay sane in the creative process.”
Right now, the latest idea is a novel she is working on about New York City showgirls in the 1940s. The book, which is in its early stages, is told from the point of view of an elderly woman who is reflecting on her life as a showgirl, and Gilbert has been interviewing former burlesque dancers for research.
“It’s hard to find a novel about promiscuous girls that doesn’t end with them in ruin,” Gilbert said. “So many of those books are written by men — ‘Anna Karenina,’ ‘Portrait of a Lady,’ ‘Hedda Gabler’ — those are some of my favorite books, but all of the women end up punished or dead. But I know a lot of women who went through wild stages of their life and they are still here.”
At the talk, Gilbert will share stories from her life and her creative process that are not in the book. She also will take questions from the audience, which she says is her favorite part.
“The talk will have the same themes of the book, but there are different stories and ideas,” she said. “I will be dishing out inspiration, and hopefully motivation, for people to give themselves permission to engage with creativity and take risks with the understanding that we are not just here to pay bills and die. There are things you want to do in your life, and the time is now.”