Elizabeth Gilbert’s Radical (and Slightly Glib) Approach to Creativity

Last summer I did something I never would have imagined. I found a quote on Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert’s Facebook page and immediately shared it to my best friend’s page. In the post, Gilbert warned her female followers away from the word “balance.” “The word BALANCE has tilted dangerously close, I fear, to the word PERFECT — another word that women use as weapons against themselves and each other,” Gilbert wrote to her followers, later adding: “The world is like a dropped pie most of the time. Don’t kill yourself trying to put it back together. Just grab a fork and eat some of it off the floor. Then carry on.”

A dropped pie! my pal and I thought. That is brilliant. It was a comforting thought made of comfort food, one that metaphorically captured the way we already lived or often feel compelled to live by circumstance. After that, I can’t say I ever stopped myself mid-chaos to say, “Hey, this is just the dropped-pie effect,” but I did begin to follow Gilbert on social media, where I discovered an incredibly, almost irritatingly likable person, one who clowns around, admits that she has given up the meditation practice that readers of Eat, Pray, Love might have assumed she maintained, and frequently Instagrams the sunrise with the caption, “Oh, good morning, world.” And you get the sense that she is actually happy to greet said world, for some strange reason (it’s a pretty dark world, but she really seems to like it!).

Can one person really have it all this figured out, or is this a branding exercise? This is the question that arises as you follow Gilbert’s (sometimes literally) Sound of Music-like traipses across the fields of social media. But you’re so disarmed by the dropped pies, the forgetting to meditate, that it’s hard to begrudge her her joy.

Besides, though I never felt inspired to go back and read Eat, Pray, Love, I did read Gilbert’s 2014 novel The Signature of All Things, which was sophisticated, imaginative, strange, and even moving. She can write, I thought. She can back it up.  And I began to feel embarrassingly hyped up for her newest nonfiction endeavor, Big Magic, which arrives in bookstores today. It’s a self-help book about creativity, based on a few TED talks (of course) and coming at a banner time for books of all types that attempt to, well, capitalize on late capitalism by getting us back in touch with our authentic creative urges, even as the world at large grinds away at our time and freedom. Big Magic is aimed mostly at writers and artists but is also, its author swears, for figure skaters, potters, knitters, anyone who wants to inject that magic into their lives. The questions Gilbert asks about what form that creativity should take are simple ones: What are you curious about? And what would you keep doing if you knew you would fail at it? A whole book of dropped-pie-like wisdom. Count me in.

Gilbert’s approach to creativity is a tad mystical and Oprah-inflected (they are pals), but it’s also deeply democratic, even radical, at the very same time. In other words, it will make you roll your eyes, then pump your fists in solidarity, and back again. I can imagine many a coffee-sipping literary fellow in spectacles turning absolutely green at Gilbert’s ideas. “Are you one of those people who believe that the arts are the most serious and important thing in the world?” she asks about 100 pages in. “If so, my friend, then you and I must part ways right here.” She thinks creativity can be meaningful, sure, but she wants you to get off your high horse about it.

And I can’t help but note that many of the sacred cows she goes on to destroy are created and embodied by white men. Reading her chirpy book is like watching her blithely knocking over these old canards with enthusiasm and love. Gilbert’s persona in Big Magic is in many ways the anti-Franzen. Obviously, she loves social media — she’s quite a maestro at the form. More importantly, she rejects the idea of certain people being geniuses, instead claiming that most people have a genius that comes and goes, and our job is to work humbly and never expect it to arrive (she’s convinced “her genius” “moonlights” as other artists’ genius too) but be at the ready when it does. She blames the Renaissance for foisting this Great Man model on us. And she she wishes Harper Lee had continued writing mediocre follow-ups instead of being hamstrung by the genius label after To Kill a Mockingbird. Done is better than perfect, she says.

But what about talent? What about innate ability? “I cannot even be bothered to think about the difference between high art and low art. I will fall asleep with my face in the dinner plate if someone starts discoursing to me about the academic distinction between true mastery and mere craft,” she writes. “I don’t ever want to confidently announce that this person is destined to become a great artist while that person should give it up.” In other words, Gilbert believes every single person has innate creative ability, and it’s our job to tap into it.

Big Magic is mostly dismissive towards MFAs, urging people to live deeply instead of collecting arts degrees. Furthermore, we should stop searching for the idea no one else has had. Gilbert thinks people are way too obsessed with “original” ideas and would do better to find authentic ones.

In particular, she rails against the idea that creativity and misery must be entwined, chucking the Tormented Artist archetype into the rubbish bin. “I do not deny the reality of suffering — not yours, not mine, not humanity’s in general,” she writes. “It is simply that I refuse to fetishize it. I certainly refuse to deliberately seek out suffering in the name of artistic authenticity.” Again, this all feels quite feminist to me.

Of course, she has a recipe for success — dozens of recipes. Have an affair with your work, sneaking it in at times when you’d see a lover, she advises. Banish perfectionism, aiming for finished work rather than a masterpiece. Instead of seeing ourselves as The Martyr while being creative, let’s envision ourselves as the Trickster, a playful sprite rather than a saint at the stake. Along those lines, reject the cliché of “following your passion,” allowing the “quieter” curiosity to guide us. Passion puts too much pressure on people (affairs with our work aside, I guess). And Gilbert definitely hates it when people call their novels, or paintings, or projects, their babies. “Guys, don’t mistake your creative work for a human child, okay?” she says. If we are that attached to our work, we won’t be able to edit it, paint over it, or put it aside when it needs to be abandoned, she explains. It’s just our work.

When we fail, Gilbert prefers that we not waste our time overanalyzing our failures. She says we should just carry on, start the next project. (This feels particularly revolutionary to me in a media landscape obsessed with failed artists, actors, and creatives). She wants us to accept that fear is always going to be part of a creative journey, and asks us to — yep — take a road trip with our two pals, fear and creativity, but never to let fear control the radio. That’s what she does, after all. She gives fear a stern talking to, and it behaves.

This is where her radical ideas start feeling a little too “Power of Positive Thinking” for me. I find the “just put your neuroses aside!” instruction to be somewhat akin to the ultra- thin model who looks at the normal-sized women around her and says, “I don’t understand why you just don’t eat!” To which the obvious response is, “Easy for you to say.”

Gilbert also has a metaphysical belief that ideas and inspiration float around in the universe, knocking on the doors of creative people and waiting to be taken in. To illustrate this, she tells the story of an idea for a novel that she had and then lost, around the same time her buddy Ann Patchett got a very similar idea which became her novel, State of Wonder. The lesson is that if we don’t catch those ideas that knock on our doors, they will float on and find someone more receptive. Many of Gilbert’s woo-woo metaphors are benign, although this one has a sinister edge (if you don’t follow your inspiration, you will lose it forever to Ann Patchett!).

But this is trivial. What’s most frustrating about Gilbert’s book isn’t any of her advice, which is on the whole both solid and potentially transformative. The frustration originates with the platform from which she delivers this advice, which is the land of  guru-dom. She presents herself  to us as someone who has it all figured out and is genuinely happy, and it’s hard not to feel intimidated by this. I mean, if it were as simple as saying: “Hey fear, you can’t control the radio,” and “I’m a trickster now, not a martyr,” we’d all be writing symphonies during our lunch break. But it’s not. Gilbert’s ideal mindset goes so firmly against so much of what we’re taught, what’s ingrained in us, and even what some moodier types might be naturally inclined to do or think, that it would be tough for anyone to adopt it permanently.

Even if one conquers fear and self-seriousness with one project, chances are those demons will bounce back with the next.  And I know — I know — it hasn’t been that easy for Gilbert, either. If only she’d let us see her own darkness, or admitted some baser inclinations. For instance when Patchett’s idea materialized after Gilbert’s failed, what if she was horribly jealous, at least at first, before gratefully accepting the supernatural majesty of her idea being transferred to her friend? And though she claims she wasn’t bothered much by the backlash to Eat, Pray, Love, what if she acknowledged that it really hurt, and then showed herself doing the work of overcoming hurt that to write her next book? She’d be so trustworthy if she let us further in. Because if she was genuinely happy from the outset to learn from the negative developments in her life, we petty mortals can never expect to be like her.

Big Magic is ultimately quite valuable, but it would be even more so if it didn’t breezily gloss over the fact that much of the work its author asking us to do — important work, for creativity and for life — is at times less magical than excruciating.