We shouldn’t be scared to live a more creative life, says Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, who shares her experiences and advice in a new book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.
Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t wear a badge that says “Eat, Pray, Love”, but she may as well. Nothing she has written before or since has come close to matching the popularity of her best-selling 2006 memoir. Many of its 12 million-plus readers couldn’t give a hoot about her subsequent novel The Signature of All Things or her autobiographical discourse on marriage, Committed: A Love Story. For them, Gilbert is a one-hit wonder, the author of a book about a spiritual and romantic journey that struck a chord with them and was made into a hit movie starring Julia Roberts.
Today, Gilbert faces with equanimity the likelihood that her most successful work is behind her. “It was outrageously successful, a lightning storm on a clear blue day and I don’t have to bother competing with it because it will never happen again,” she says, cheerfully.
“I’m not capable of doing that again. I don’t know how I did it the first time, so it’s not something I can aspire to. As to whether it’s my best work, I suspect the world thinks so, but I believe I’m capable of being a better writer. It doesn’t mean the world will come with me, but I have no hard feelings. I have to do the stuff that makes me want to get up in the morning. Part of the windfall of Eat, Pray, Love is that I’m able to write the most ambitious books I can. There aren’t many women in history who have been given that kind of freedom to take risks.”
For the memoir, Gilbert spent a year in Italy, India and Indonesia. She now lives in Frenchtown, New Jersey, with the husband she met in that last location. Dubbed Felipe in her books, his real name is Jose Nunes. For a while the couple anchored themselves, buying a house in Frenchtown and a large commercial building where they opened a shop, Two Buttons, filled with Asian imports. Now they’re selling up and planning their next move.
“It’s been a really nice hideaway,” says Gilbert, 46. “We did it [at the peak of] Eat, Pray, Love and it was something we could work on together, an interesting experience at the beginning of our relationship. My husband and I have big enthusiasms about things; then one morning we wake up and we’re done with it. We have short attention spans. The next thing is always the most exciting.”
The great constant in her life is writing. It has been her vocation since her rural Connecticut childhood and at 16 she vowed – literally vowed, on her knees beside a lit candle – that she would be a writer forever, regardless of the results. It is the one passion that consistently outguns Gilbert’s love of change. “It’s still what I want to do and I’m grateful for that. Otherwise I’d be the flakiest thing in the whole world,” she says.
Before the book that changed her life, she produced stories, non-fiction and magazine articles, all in relatively anonymity. Then came fame and its attendant noise – head-turning praise, heart-sinking criticism, money, distractions and expectations.
Has she recovered from Eat, Pray, Love yet? “Yes, I have, although I hate to word it that way, as it sounds like an affliction when in fact it was a wonderful thing to happen; something to be managed, yes, but I was at a point where I was able to manage it.
“I was closer to 40 than 20, in my good second marriage not my chaotic first one. I was as ready as I could be.
“My life was crazy before Eat, Pray, Love,” she adds with characteristic frankness.
“My life was a shit tornado. Work was going pretty well, but everything else was a mess. Getting out of that marriage that was never going to work, going off and spending that time with myself, learning another language just to reset my brain. That’s the hinge in the middle of my life. Everything after that has been good because of who I became. So I didn’t need to recover from it … I think it was my recovery.”
‘HUNG A SHINGLE OUT’
In 2009, her fame attracted an invitation to give a TED talk. Nervously, Gilbert spoke to a room full of computer geeks about being creative, introducing some of her more airy-fairy ideas. So far, that talk has been viewed more than 10.6 million times.
“It was as if I’d hung a shingle out on my door,” recalls Gilbert. “Suddenly, everyone wanted to talk to me about creativity. Often people come to me with problems that are above my pay grade. I can’t tell them whether they should leave their marriage or how to improve their meditation practice. But creativity is a subject I feel qualified to talk about. I have long, deep experience.”
And so at last Gilbert embarked on the book she had wanted to write for a long time: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (Bloomsbury). She assumed she would prepare the way she always does, with painstaking research stretching out over two to three years, learning everything she possibly could before starting the actual writing process. Amassing a library of books on the subject, she made plans to talk to neuroscientists about how the brain functions when it is being creative. And then she changed her mind, put all that aside and sat down to make a different sort of book, one based on intuition and experience.
The result is chatty, accessible, self-help fodder that puts Gilbert firmly into Oprah-esque “live your best life” territory. But it is also an intriguing book, especially in the way she manages to combine the pragmatic with magical thinking. “One foot on the ground and one foot with the fairies” is the way she puts it.
Readers frequently ask authors where their ideas come from. Gilbert says ideas are out there, swirling through the ether, searching for a human collaborator. This isn’t a metaphor, it is what she believes, and it applies to all ideas: artistic, scientific, political, whatever. They will try to flag you down, get your attention, but if you don’t notice an idea, or you do but fail to act on it, then it will move onto someone else.
Gilbert tells a personal story to illustrate how this magic works. After Eat, Pray, Love, she had an idea for a novel set in the Amazon jungle, a very specific idea about a spinster from Minnesota who is quietly in love with her married boss and gets tangled in his ambitious scheme. Distracted by events and another project, she never got around to writing it and the idea faded. About the same time she met fellow author Ann Patchett at an event. They hit it off, exchanged a kiss and stayed in touch afterwards by letter. Some time later, they met again and Patchett told Gilbert about the novel that she was a hundred pages into writing (State of Wonder). Set in the Amazon jungle, it was about a spinster from Minnesota who is quietly in love with her married boss and gets tangled in an ambitious scheme. That is not genre, says Gilbert; that is not a thing. What could it be but magic?
“In a way, history is on my side,” she insists. “Before the advent of the age of reason and the disenchantment of the modern world, that’s what everyone said it was. There are only 300 or so years of people who say it has nothing to do with mystery.”
Gilbert’s faith in a divine creative spirit is somehow easier to take when digested with the earthier advice she offers. Don’t give up your day job, don’t go into debt, don’t expect your creativity to pay for your life, show up and do the work, don’t get hung up on being the best, feel the fear and just do it anyway – she quotes her mother’s pithy saying, “Done is better than good.”
Pragmatism is important, says Gilbert. “But it isn’t going to give you everything you need to practise creativity, because creativity is irrational. You’re saying I’m going to take the most precious currency I have in my life – my time – and use it to create something no one needs and maybe no one will like. That is a fundamentally weird thing to do. Yet somehow we’re called to collaborate with mystery this way, to take nothing and make it into something. So you need pragmatism to get the work done and spirituality as a reason to do it.”
A MORE CREATIVE LIFE
Fear looms large in Big Magic. Gilbert lists 27 ways in which the average person might be scared to live a more creative life. For example, you’re afraid somebody else already did it better, you’re afraid you’re too old to start, you’re afraid you’re too young to start, you’re afraid of being a one-hit wonder … It is a bottomless list, she says, “because what you’re doing is scary. That’s why lots of people don’t do it. Fear is a natural response to what is inherently an insecure pursuit, stepping out into realms where you don’t know what the outcome will be. Fear’s job is to set out all the worst things that can happen. But fear never has an interesting Plan B; it’s always just don’t do anything. So the moment I’m tempted to walk away from a project because it seems overwhelming, I ask myself what the alternative is.”
Her creative manifesto is all about enjoying rather than suffering the process. Gilbert has no time for artistic anguish or pretension, and with some exasperation quotes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer, who claimed that every one of his books had killed him a little more.
“The amount of complaining people do drives me crazy,” she says. “I’d like to ask him: ‘Please tell me what writing didn’t give you? Because it gave you world acclaim, a soapbox, the adoration of women you probably didn’t deserve, it gave you everything and all you want to do is complain.’ I can’t stand people who don’t appreciate how lucky they are.”
POWER AND AGENCY
Gilbert most definitely does appreciate her luck. Big Magic shines with gratitude – as I read it, I scribbled twice in its margins the word “Pollyanna” (a relentlessly glad character in a classic children’s novel).
I suspect Gilbert wouldn’t be too bothered by the comparison. She recounts a conversation with a friend who told her that the pathology of successful women is they chalk it up to luck whereas men own their success.
“I don’t think we should be emulating the masters of the universe. I’d like to see more men appreciate their luck. Because I know I’m lucky to have been born a woman in a time and place where I’m able to have power and agency over my life. I can’t help but feel gratitude for that.”
TRY NEW THINGS
Having produced such a rousing call to action as Big Magic, Gilbert now has to live up to it. That realisation hit her while she was at a friend’s live band karaoke club in New York. She likes to sing, so signed herself up to perform Total Eclipse of the Heart.
“Then the first people came on and I realised this was a bar full of beautiful young show kids, really talented people, so of course I wasn’t supposed to sing there, it’s not my local karaoke bar,” says Gilbert. “I was walking across the floor to get my name taken off the list when I thought, no, I have written Big Magic, I’m telling people to take risks, try new things, the outcome doesn’t matter; I have to smoke what I’m selling. So I sang and it was scary, but still it was fine. I have to do this stuff. I’m not allowed to back out any more, otherwise I’m full of shit.”
Still, bravery only extends so far before good sense takes over. Publishing a template for creativity founded on her personal philosophies is akin to drawing a great big target on her back for critics to aim at. Sure enough there has been some sneering from those who don’t much like Gilbert or her tone.
“Please don’t quote it to me as I’m very careful not to expose myself to stuff I know I’ll never get out of my head,” she says. “I do take criticism. I listen carefully to the circle of readers I trust, my editors, family members, my writing group from years ago. But once it’s out there, I don’t look any more. It’s hard enough to do this work. I have enough of a chorus of doubters who live between my own ears. I don’t need to feed them. And actually the high praise doesn’t do much for me, either.”
Gilbert hasn’t written anything since Big Magic. She’s been travelling a lot and is researching her next novel. It will be set in 1940s New York, so she has been busy reading novels of the era to get the voice right, interviewing old showgirls now in their nineties and keeping copious and meticulous notes. “I had this incredible social studies teacher in ninth grade who taught me a system of organising notes. Index cards with a few words written on them, then shoe-boxes with dividers … all on paper, very tactile. The great thing about it is you can shuffle cards – I have four inches of cards associated with my main character.”
There is still more travelling to do. Early in 2016, she’ll be in Australia spending time with her husband’s family and in February she’s visiting New Zealand to speak at an Auckland Writers Festival event.
By June, she hopes to be at a stage where she can start writing. “It’s exciting and scary devoting all that time to collecting information; what if I don’t know how to do this?” she says. “But I look at it as a conversation in creativity happening across time. Present Liz is helping future Liz by doing all this work. When I want to know what my characters would be eating in a luncheonette in Times Square, I’ll find it on a little index card.”
The writing is what it’s all about, frustrating yes and often tough, but a commitment to creativity that can besprinkled with fairy dust, Gilbert says.
She mentions a friend in her fifties who has finished her debut novel and is euphoric to be on the verge of having it published.
“There is no way I can communicate to her what I know. Whatever comes of this book – and I hope it does brilliantly – the best part is over. All the hours you spend alone creating something from nothing, walking on the edge not knowing if you can do it, having to push yourself to the limits. I can tell you this having written books that nothing happened to, having been praised, having been criticised, having had Julia Roberts play me in a movie – there is never going to be an outcome as good as the amazing time of trying to do it in the first place.”
Elizabeth Gilbert will give her inspiring talk on how to tap into your creativity at the Bruce Mason Centre, Takapuna, at 7.30pm, Saturday, February 27. Co-presented by the Auckland Writers Festival and Auckland Live. Tickets from ticketmaster.co.nz or 0800 111 999.
How to unlock your inner artist
Sometimes you may need to rewire your brain to be creative, by thinking radically and being playful.
Most of us have the urge to create. You need only witness the soaring sales of adult colouring-in books – they make up eight of the top 20 books on Amazon.com – to see that urge in action. And although it’s easy to dismiss filling in the lines as being an outlet for those without original ideas or real artistic talent, that isn’t entirely fair. Some of the drawings are quite complicated.
Creativity guru Rod Judkins says when there is an urge to create but no idea how to express it, there’s nothing wrong with copying other people’s ideas. It’s a starting point. It gets the ball rolling.
Judkins is an artist and writer who lectures on creative thinking at London’s Central St Martins College of Art. He also works as a business consultant. His latest book, The Art of Creative Thinking (Sceptre), looks at how we can transform our lives by unlocking our imaginations and inventiveness. In a series of short essays he examines the lessons to be learnt from creative leaders ranging from Andy Warhol to Steve Jobs.
Much of it is boldly contradictory. At one point Judkins declares that a sparse office or studio keeps the brain sharp; then later he tells us that orderly surroundings force us to think in an orderly way and that a chaotic space is more productive. He writes of the importance of empty time and doing nothing. But he also says if you’d rather go on holiday than go to work, then you need to change your life.
Still, creativity is rich in contradictions, he says. It’s about thinking radically, staying playful, avoiding routine, searching for the weird and different, being provocative but at the same time dedicating yourself to constant self-improvement, painstaking revisions and long hours of work.
His theory is that all of us are born with creative intelligence, but school and society have trained us not to use it. And his book is about changing that mindset, letting go of other people’s dogma, embracing change and losing any fear of negative reactions or failure. Whether you’re an artist, writer, business leader or entrepreneur, the principles are the same.
“I’m teaching students on the Advanced Medical Sciences degree course at University College London,” says Judkins. “UCL has decided to be very innovative and produce science students who have a more creative approach. It’s interesting for me because I’m used to preaching to the converted. At UCL the students are sceptical about creativity. So I have to try to convince them it will be useful. They think very logically – and I don’t mean that as any kind of criticism, it’s in the nature of scientific processes. But it’s much harder to get them to be playful and experimental. I recently did a project with them where they had to create an artificial liver from random materials such as straws, plastic cups and other unlikely materials.
“Their challenge was to be led by the randomness of the materials rather than by logic and they created some interesting and unexpected results.”
Like Elizabeth Gilbert, he advocates following your curiosity and acting on ideas before they get cold. He also suggests several brain-rewiring exercises. These include spending a day doing things the opposite way to usual. Setting aside time to sit alone in a room and let your thoughts wander. Eavesdropping on conversations in a cafe or on a bus, then writing them down. Watching a film to deconstruct its elements rather than for entertainment. And going into a public space to study people and write down observations about them.
Creative success is not always twinned with happiness, of course. Writer F Scott Fitzgerald may have been exemplary at developing ideas into stories, but he destroyed his health with heavy drinking. Fashion designer Alexander McQueen may have been a fearless maverick when it came to creating catwalk shows, but sadly he took his life at 40.
“In my books I never use the word happiness and never discuss it,” says Judkins. “That’s because creativity is often about struggle. You’re usually trying to create something from nothing or improve things that already work perfectly well.
“In the book I use James Dyson as an example as he is constantly trying to improve every aspect of the Dyson vacuum cleaners. I think creativity is not about happiness but about finding deep fulfilment and living a lifestyle that is satisfying. What would make me unhappy is working in a pointless job and feeling a valuable day had been wasted.”
For many creative minds, success is punishingly limiting. Hence best-selling authors such as JK Rowling, John Banville and Julian Barnes at times choose to write under pseudonyms so they can explore different genres and styles without the burden of their reputations.
“There is freedom in being nobody,” says Judkins. “We live in a culture where everyone is obsessed with getting credit for every little thing they do. Many writers have written books using pseudonyms to give themselves the freedom to experiment and make mistakes. They don’t want the credit for writing them – they simply want to enjoy writing.”
And many other people simply want to enjoy colouring in someone else’s drawings. As Judkins points out, Michelangelo didn’t paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling alone. He had a team of highly skilled helpers to fill in the lines.
A stack of new books provides fresh inspiration for budding stitchers and crafters.
by Anne Scott
Legendary colourist and textile artist Kaffe Fassett returns to our shores from January 22 to February 4, teaching and lecturing on knitting and quilting. Fassett’s professional career spans more than 50 years and he is considered the most influential and accessible textile designer of our time. Now 78, Fassett continues to travel widely, teaching and lecturing. He is a prolific author of books on knitting, needlepoint, mosaics and quilting, publishing at least one a year. His work has been exhibited all over the world and he was the first living textile artist to have a solo exhibition at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. Personal commissions include costumes for ballet and theatre productions and a garden design that won a gold medal at the 1998 Chelsea Flower Show. He also collaborates with leading companies, designing knitting wools for Rowan, needlepoint kits for Ehrman Tapestries and quilting fabrics for Oxfam.
Born in California, Fassett abandoned a scholarship to Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts and moved to London, to paint, in 1964. A fascination with colour and pattern first attracted him to textiles. While visiting Scotland, he was inspired by the subtle hues of the traditional Shetland yarns and learned to knit – taught by a fellow passenger on the train back to London. His first design was bought by Vogue and he quickly became an influential knitwear designer, known for his intricate colour work and glorious colours. A hand-knitted Fassett waistcoat was part of the Bill Gibb ensemble chosen by Vogue as 1970 Dress of the Year, elevating traditional handcrafted garments into the realm of fashion.
Throughout his career, Fassett has pushed the boundaries. Unafraid of using bright or clashing colours together, he has encouraged generations of stitchers to eschew safe pastels and embrace a brighter palette. In the 1970s, in a strangely cyclical story, Fassett transformed traditional pieced quilt patterns into intricate and gloriously coloured knitted garments. In KAFFE FASSETT’S HERITAGE QUILTS (Rowan, $55), he returns to designing quilts inspired by quilts. Fifteen antique quilts from the unparalleled collection of the Quilters’ Guild of the British Isles have been updated in contemporary colours and fabrics, while retaining the essential energy and flavour of their forbears.
Danish designer Tone Finnanger (also known as Tilda) has a vast range of fabrics and patterns for everything from dolls to quilts to her name. Her signature quirky style has attracted a faithful following and her latest book, TILDA'S TOY BOX (David & Charles, $48), is a charming collection of patterns for fun things to make for children. They include plump, soft dolls and animals, quilts and furnishings for children’s bedrooms, and accessories for the young. It comes with full-size patterns and simple instructions, so all you need is a bag of scraps and a sewing machine.
Simplicity and a Swedish aesthetic permeate the designs of Lotta Jansdotter, found in fabrics, stationery, homewares and a host of products sold worldwide. In LOTTA JANSDOTTER'S EVERYDAY STYLE (Stewart Tabori & Chang, $60), she focuses on home sewers and shows how you can build and sew your own wardrobe based on simple shapes and staples: the dress, blouse, long or short pants, skirt and coat or jacket. These five easily made garments can be dressed up or down with simple accessories. This is a clearly written and well-illustrated primer suitable for newbie sewers and beyond – with plenty of advice to inform and inspire.
Forget the ubiquitous multicoloured woollen rugs and dingy beige doilies of the past, crochet has had a makeover in recent times and is enjoying a renaissance. And for good reason – it is easy (there are only two basic stitches) and it doesn’t unravel or fall off the needles. LEARN TO CROCHET, LOVE TO CROCHET, by Anna Wilkinson (Quadrille, $45), updates the look with stylish projects designed with the beginner in mind, and more complex designs once you’re hooked. The poodle slippers are something else!
We have come a long way since the kitsch paua souvenirs of the past. Now we celebrate our flora and fauna as well as our place in the Pacific, emblazoning these images on homewares and clothing. But there’s a dearth of good New Zealand-inspired and kiwiana designs for stitchers. Hot off the press is Cherry Parker’s self-published CROSS STITCH BALL: NEW ZEALAND FLOWERS (cherryparker.co.nz, $30). Twenty-six small designs of no more than 30 stitches square, that can be made quickly for small projects – or combined to make a soft ball. So when you’ve done with those colouring books, consider some contemplative stitching.
Anne Scott is editor of New Zealand Quilter magazine and owns Minerva bookshop in Wellington.
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