“Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.”
~ Sir Arthur Eddington
First, let’s nerd out about Elizabeth Gilbert’s friendship with Ann Patchett. Their long-distance, almost romantic, penpalship. I won’t lie, I am totally jealous, not just that these two powerhouse women get to hang out with each other, but that they get to communicate in such a deep and intimate way about their lives and work.
Also, a panel discussion about libraries?! swoon
I have not read State of Wonder, but I can believe that the muses of the Universe sent this idea to both women and that Patchett was the one to accept the ticket and work for the prize. (Also, when Gilbert writes about “multiple discovery” I couldn’t help but think of her main character, Alma, in the novel The Signature Of All Things.)
There is a lot in this chapter and I’m not going to cover it all. Instead, I want to put it out there that I want to believe Gilbert’s beliefs about creativity and inspiration. While it focuses on the mystical, it also gives me a sense of relief – creativity requires work and inspiration can be a partnership in which I choose to participate. It is comforting to imagine entering the flow of ideas and saying yes to the ones that make me feel like I’m “looking over a precipice at something beautiful and mesmerizing, but dangerous”. Working with “some external divine creative spirit guide” or, the more scientifically comfortable label of “flow”.
Gilbert unabashedly writes about how “creativity is a force of enchantment – not entirely human in its origins” and follows it up with “I am aware that this is not an especially modern or rational way of seeing things”. I love how she writes about the magic/magical experience of creativity with the acknowledgement that it makes her sound like a crazy person and the humor to play down the crazy and play up the importance of “the quiet glory of merely making things, and then sharing those things with an open heart and no expectations.”
Gilbert believes “ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form” and they “spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners”. It is up to us to say “yes” or “no” to the ideas that fly by us.
(This reminded me of a book I read about spirit babies – how they hang around potential parents, waiting for the time when the parent says “yes” to their conception, and only then do they manifest as pregnancies. Super woo-woo, but still, what is conception and birth if not the ultimate creative journey?)
While reading, I could feel all of the times I said “no” to inspiration, mostly out of fear. I probably didn’t even give my ideas the courtesy of a “no” – instead I just blatantly ignored them by checking email, bitching about work or vacuuming my house. Gilbert addresses this regret: “This may vex you, but it really shouldn’t, because you didn’t deliver! You didn’t show up ready enough, or fast enough, or openly enough for the idea to take hold within you and complete itself.”
While much of this feel otherworldly, it’s important to note that Gilbert’s approach is one of daily, straight-forward, showing-up-to-do-the-work. “I work either way, you see – assisted or unassisted – because that is what you must do in order to live a fully creative life.” And that working staves off entitlement. “Inspiration is allowed to do whatever it wants to, in fact, and it is never obliged to justify its motives to any of us.” Removing expectations means that we can just get down to creating. It’s a lovely little cycle.
Most of all, be ready. Keep your eyes open. Listen. Follow your curiosity. Ask questions. Sniff around. Remain open. Trust in the miraculous truth that new and marvelous ideas are looking for human collaborators every single day. Ideas of every kind are constantly galloping towards us, constantly passing through us, constantly trying to get our attention. Let them know you’re available.
- When it hits you, what does inspiration feel like in your body?
- How have you said “yes” and how have you said “no” to ideas and inspiration in the past?
- Is there an idea trying to “wave you down” right now? What’s keeping you from saying “yes” to it?
- Do you identify with the tormented artist or the cooperating joyfully approach more? What can you do to make creativity more of a partnership?
- What are your expectations surrounding your creative genius? Are you showing up consistently, upholding your end of the partnership?
I would love to hear your thoughts about this chapter and any of the reflection prompts above. Feel free to leave a note in the comments or email me at justine(dot)taormino(at)gmail.com.
Catch-up on all of the posts here.
Thanks for reading!
All quotes are from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, chapter 2 – published 2015.