What Elizabeth Gilbert Can Teach Us About Creativity

In her 2014 TED Talk “Success, failure and the drive to keep creating”, author Elizabeth Gilbert shares with her audience the ultimate key to success in life: not giving up. Even though she says she had a lot of success with her book Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert felt that she would never become successful again and would fail with her next work. However, even though she at many times felt like she wanted to just quit writing and do other things, she realized that what she considered her home, her sanctuary, the thing that made her the woman she was, was writing. She tells the audience that she has been writing since she was a child and would often send her work to established publishers. She busted her butt as a waitress at a diner and got rejected multiple times by publishers. Nevertheless, she kept writing and writing even if it wasn’t perfect to the publishers who rejected her because she loved writing more than anything else, even more than herself. Gilbert has made me understand that writing is not a selfish pursuit and you’ve really got to not only create your own work, but read and learn from others. Gilbert, like many writers, read a lot growing up. According to her biography, she worked several different jobs at bars, diners and ranches and used these experiences from her life to inspire her fictional works.

In the TED Talk she reveals that even as a successful woman she still worried about feeling like a failure, and points out that too often we associate failure with feelings of shame and success with money, prosperity and recognition. However, she says that no matter what, you cannot be swayed by failure and just have to keep getting yourself to work. And she didn’t even need to quit her job as a waitress to write full-time because if you don’t have a lot of money, it’s okay to work a day job to pay the bills while getting yourself out there as a creative. Many creatives do it, and unless their financial circumstances are perfect and somehow they can just spend their lives just pursuing their passion, they have to just keep doing it no matter what the inner critic tells them in their head. In an earlier TED Talk on creative genius, she talks about how people would tell her she was going to fail after being so successful after Eat, Pray, Love as an adult, but realized that people have been telling her this ever since she was a teenager and declared she wanted to become a writer. She admitted to being afraid of failure among other things, but understood the social deep-rooted stigma around creative careers.

Often creatives do struggle with mental health issues, but not all creatives do so, and yet the media has constantly associated being a creative with suffering and having all sorts of mental health issues. Mental health can affect one whatever career they find themselves in, whether it be as a chemist, businessperson, waiter, you name it. However, even as artists it’s okay for us to take care of ourselves and not feel like we should fit society’s misconceptions of what an artist truly is. Even as a musician and writer, I need to take care of my mental health, whether that’s continuing to work at my day job or eating dinner or reading a book for fun. As an artist I realized I need to transcend my own ego to create value from my work. In the TED Talk on genius, Gilbert explains how notions of creativity changed over time; she says that the ancient Greeks and Romans believed creativity came to human beings from daemons, or an external entity, like an outside muse who would help shape the artist’s work and provide them inspiration. They did not believe in human creatives taking all the credit for their genius, but then the Renaissance came and people started replacing muses and daemons with an more “rational” artist philosophy centered on the human individual as the ultimate creator of art. Gilbert says that this shift from daemons to an ego-centered art philosophy has forced a lot of artists to place enormous pressure on themselves to the point where it becomes emotionally destructive for them to produce such high-quality art (we clearly saw this in the film Black Swan, where Nina places enormous pressure on herself to succeed as a dancer and ends up destroying herself in the process).

Indeed, when she was writing Eat, Pray, Love she hit an impasse and thought that her work was doomed to fail and that she should just stop writing. However, she sought inspiration from the poet Ruth Stone and the musician Tom Waits, because both of these artists heard inspiration from outside themselves and caught it before it disappeared. She says that Ruth Stone would literally envision a poem running after her and so she ran to her house and furiously “grabbed” the poem by writing it on the page as fast as she could before it went flying off looking for another poet. Tom Waits, as he got older, heard a melody in his head while driving his car and, instead of worrying about whether he’d lose that idea, literally looked up at the sky and said for the idea to let him drive and come back to him later. So what Gilbert did was actually look up from her manuscript at a empty spot in a wall and tell that spot that it needed to help her find inspiration instead of letting her do all the work, and that if it doesn’t show up, then she’s going to keep writing because that’s what she loves.

I really like what she said in both of these TED Talks because I think as creatives we tend to get really hard on ourselves. We consume a lot of other people’s work and while that’s good for inspiration, if we use it to compare ourselves to these other artists, we won’t really get a chance to bring our brilliant ideas to the table. While at work, I had a lot of down time, so I sought out fodder I could use for my blog, in the form of news articles, pieces on personal finance, YouTube videos. However, I came to a standstill and realized that I was consuming a lot of material and not really forming my own opinions on that material. So that’s why it helps me to get off the computer, get off my phone for a while, so that I can think without too much external stimuli. Looking up from my work or taking a break from practicing my instrument to just walk around has helped me find inspiration that I didn’t think I had before. I went the other day to a garden store and even just being outside with nice-smelling plants and fresh air helped me get out of my head and come back to why I was doing all this creative work in the first place. I really like how Gilbert talks about the history of creative philosophy because I didn’t understand why I felt so selfish pursuing writing or music, and understood that there was, along the course of history, a development of thought that began to emphasize a more self-focused approach to creativity, one where the artist takes all the credit. However, I think it’s hard to take all the credit because as artists we constantly influence one another. Lady Gaga influenced the musical styles of several artists, just as Lady Gaga herself had numerous musical influences growing up. When we approach the works of others with a healthy mindset that we are going to learn from their works and then critically think about their work from our point of view, and how these works can inspire us in some way to create our own work, then we can each let our muses work at their finest and contribute to our creativity in life-changing ways.

To seek inspiration from Gilbert’s two incredibly inspirational TED Talks, these videos are below.

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