I will never be a fan of the tortured artist trope, but it used to, quite frankly, bother the hell out of me. It implied that in order for my art to be legitimate, I had to be unhappy making it; and the truth was, if enjoying making art was a crime, I was guilty as charged. Writing is an organic byproduct of my existence in the world that I couldn’t suppress if I tried. Sometimes I am so saturated with thoughts, feelings, and ideas that the words beg me to write them so they can be set free. Other times, my heart is open, but my mind is dry like a desert, and the world whispers to me to simply live for a while. My creativity may ebb and flow with the currents of my life, but it is the most reliable healer, the most exciting lover, and the most steadfast friend I will ever have. And the world of artists wanted to convince me that because I wasn’t pulling my hair out and cultivating a toxic, drug-addled relationship with art, I wasn’t a real writer? No, thank you. That’s not to say I never had my moments of doubt about the topic; but at the end of the day, I wasn’t going to let anyone steal my joy, no matter how illegitimate it made me.
Turns out, I had an esteemed colleague all along in the form of Elizabeth Gilbert. Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of the worldwide phenomenon Eat Pray Love, as well as seven other big-hearted books in various genres that I would personally recommend even more highly. In her newest book, a self-help book for the creator in all of us called Big Magic, Gilbert tackles the living, breathing beast that exists at the center of all artists’ lives: creativity. She argues that creativity is not just some magical trait possessed by painters and poets, but a force within all of us. It can manifest itself in a thousand different ways, from the mania of the artist, to the innovation of the entrepreneur, to the quiet voice inside us all that whispers to us, while stuck in a rut or after a failure, to try something new. Creativity is not a privilege accessible only by “creative people,” Gilbert says. Creativity is the simple act of looking at the way things are and imagining that they could be different. It is the “arrogance of belonging” that allows us to have enough pride in our existence to dare to leave a mark on the world. We are all creative, and we are all creators.
But I was most excited to find that Gilbert agrees with me about that very aspect of creativity that resonates with me the most: delight. Gilbert isn’t buying the tortured artist trope, either. In fact, she argues vehemently against it, claiming that it is her patient and passionate love for writing, despite the ups and the downs of the craft, that has made her into the writer she is today. Gilbert has always approached creativity with the reverence and reserve of an explorer on safari approaching a lion on the savannah. She held onto her day job even after publishing two successful books, determined not to scare away the wild creature that is creativity, wise enough to give it the space it needs to come to her. She didn’t want to make writing a chore in order to pay the bills. She didn’t want to lose the sense of wonder that comes with putting words that long to be written on a page that longs to be filled. It wasn’t until Gilbert published Eat Pray Love that she realized that she could be a full-time writer without endangering the loving and respectful relationship she had cultivated with creativity.
The fact of the matter is, you can do a great many things to attract your creativity, from cajoling it, to seducing it, to training it to respond to your will, but you can never completely control it. You can choose to hate making art because of this if you want. You’ll be in good company. Many of history’s best writers have fit the tortured artist trope, and, though they lived miserable lives and died early, were no less successful as writers for doing so. Or; and I’m inclined to think this is a much more compelling option; you can embrace the mystery, the chaos, and the sheer magic of interacting with creativity, and allow it to make you happy and, if you’re lucky, make you a living, as writers like Elizabeth Gilbert have done. If you choose the second option, you will be on the path to cultivating a lifelong love affair with art that will make creativity your friend rather than your enemy.
At the beginning of Big Magic, Gilbert shares an anecdote about Jack Gilbert, a critically acclaimed poet who happened to share both her last name and her teaching position at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville before his death. Jack Gilbert was an enigmatic and marginally known figure who could have, had he wanted to, been well-known today. Instead, he shied away from the limelight, following each award-winning anthology with a long period of absence from the publishing world that served to muffle any fame his awards drummed up. Fame was simply boring to him, Elizabeth Gilbert recalls. He wrote for one reason only: because he loved to write. And his students, in turn, loved him. “He didn’t teach them how to write poetry, they said, but why: because of delight.” He showed them that creativity is not a response to existing, or a way to cope with existing; it is the very essence of existence. It is the opposite of stagnation and the child of destruction. He told them, in words so beautiful they break my heart, “We must risk delight. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”
What is the moral of this story? For a full (and inspiring) view, I recommend you read Big Magic. But for my part, I believe the moral of this story is that to deprive yourself of the joy of creativity is to deprive yourself of the very thing that makes life worth living. Make your art, dedicate yourself to your art, and do everything you can to make your art great, but at the end of the day, don’t take it so seriously. Let it bring you joy. Have the courage to risk delight. “Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred. What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all.” The world isn’t going to stop turning because your poem never becomes what you wanted it to be; but your world might make a little more sense, and shine a little more brightly, because of the person you became while writing it.