Eat Pray Write
Posted On April 29, 2020
I started reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert the other day. I know, I know what you’re thinking. “What? You’re reading a book by that pompous-ass entitled white lady who wrote a “guide” on how to get over a breakup?” Yeah. You know the one, that New York Times best selling memoir Eat Pray Love. Yeah that one. She wrote that.
While I still haven’t read that book (maybe I will some day, who knows?), I have watched her really great Ted Talk about the creative process. It’s really good, you should probably go watch it right now. Don’t worry. I’ll wait.
It was about three years ago when I was in Madrid and I was having a beer with Barbara, a new friend I met through the Bumble app. We were talking about writing because I consider myself a writer and at the time I was trying to figure out what the hell I was doing with my life. (Ahh, the never ending process of those blessed (cursed?) with a Moon in Scorpio.)
I was toying with the idea of whether I should throw all else to the wind and stake my claim as a “Writer” and/or a “Musician.” I hated my job at the time working as an auxiliares de conversación, i.e., a conversation assistant. But most of the time I spent sitting in the back of a 4th grade classroom reading the ever-traumatizing Trump America news on my phone because the teacher didn’t know what to do with me. I was so depressed as usual for that time of year, but somehow didn’t expect this to happen to me because I was supposed to be in sunny Spain!
When I moved to Madrid it was much better. And people like Barbara befriended me! It was nice. But when I told her that I wanted to make money as a writer, that I wanted that to be my day job more or less, but that it was so hard, blah blah blah, she said, “Well, Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic, that you can’t expect your art to give you anything. You can’t expect it to pay you.”
Huh? Come again?
Well, needless to say that one sentence has been lingering in the back of my mind for three years now!
I mean, I watched that Ted Talk, but I didn’t hear anything like that come out of Gilbert’s mouth. She did share a funny story about Tom Waites though. And some poet named Rose. (Forgive me for my blasphemy, I don’t know her work.)
In a nutshell, Gilbert is trying to reframe the creative process for people. That it’s not about being a genius, it’s about having a genius. The muse, or creativity or inspiration, is just waiting around for you to get to work so it can bring those ideas to life. Or even that these ideas are just floating around looking for a conduit to bring them into the world. It really doesn’t have anything to do with you as a person, says Gilbert. Please don’t take it so seriously, and also, take it seriously. We are complex, nuanced people, and we can hold these oxymorons, these contradictions.
And so, if you can look at your creative expression as simply pulling these ideas out of the air, it can also liberate you to create more. It takes the pressure off. Now you can say, “Well, my genius wasn’t so hot today. That’s ok. Maybe he’ll be better tomorrow.” But it’s not a reflection of you as an artist. And if it’s amazing, it’s also not really about you. That can salvage your ego, help you not get a big head. You were just open to receiving the ideas that magic had floating around in the ether, and you happened to be working at the time to snatch one or two up. How nice.
I especially liked her ideas around the work of writing itself. And yes, I’ll get to that bit about your art not owing you anything. Etc. But first, I think Gilbert is helping me to get some things clear within myself. And let me tell you, I have read a lot of writing and craft and creative process and self-help books by now. OMG. Just name one.
A short list of creative/self-help/writing-craft books:
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott (the bible for feel-good, encouraging books about writing)
Everybody Writes by some lady who writes (I think I read most of this book. Actually, some of it might have been helpful if I had followed her advice)
On Writing by Stephen King (this really is a super helpful book. He even covers sentence-level stuff. I made a pretty fun exercise once for my students and I think they even got something out of it. I think King is the guy that told everyone to “kill your darlings”)
The Writer’s Portable Mentor by Priscilla Long (I always intend to re-buy this book and complete all the exercises in it, but then I never do…I’d be a damn good writer if I did that.)
The War of Art by somebody really smug and pretension (a small volume about how you basically have to fight against yourself and your art forever and ever amen. It made me kind of tired. And then when I was done, I was like, Ok, he just told me to go write. That was about it.)
How to Get Shit Done or some title like that about organization and shit (didn’t read it, but I read a knock-off book about the same thing that was kind of helpful for like two weeks)
Oh, that Bujo book on Bullet Journaling (I screamed and almost practically cried the first time I tried to BuJo, I was so angry at how stupid it all was. But now I still kinda do it sometimes, especially when I’m having a bad day, and somehow it helps calm me down and realize that my whole existence is not worthless).
You Are A Badass by Jen Sincero (Jen Sincero is a badass, and that is about it)
The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer (this is really a book about how to be a rockstar. It’s pretty awesome really. I enjoy Amanda Palmer, and I’m also insanely jealous of her 🙂
You Are a Badass at Making Money by Jen Sincero (kind of a reprise, but about money, more specifically. I even own it so that I could do the exercises, but I never got around to it.)
Atomic Habits by James Clear (helpful, but like, did I even do one of the things he recommended? Nope.)
The Power of Habit by somebody (goes into the science of habit, but really doesn’t help you at all, James Clear is more practical and step-by-step about this)
Umm, that Flow book? I think I might have cracked it once.
bits of Girl, Wash Your Face, or some other shit like that by someone I don’t care about (I skimmed through it and there were a few useful bits, but mostly just boring stuff about her life and how hard she works and gets shit done, which is also great, but not very substantial)
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg (love her! but also, her book didn’t really help me all that much. Except to say that she views writing as her meditative practice, and she does it every single day, much like Julia Cameron does her Morning Pages)
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron (you all know this one, don’t you? of course you do! everyone has done this book! everyone has done the morning pages for like three whole months in a row and got so elated, and then all of a sudden just stopped doing them…unless you’re my friend Benjamin who never stopped)
Writing is My Drink by my first memoir teacher! Theo Nestor (great, feel-good book about writing)
Those are just the ones that come to mind right now (ok, ok, I thought of a few more the second time through).
I was a bit annoyed at first when I finally cracked Big Magic, cuz I was like, ok, ok, I’ve read all these other books, they are basically all the same. Writing books, they all tell you the same shit. Go write, and that way you’ll become a writer! You just have to do it!
Oh, ok. Sure.
I really didn’t think that Elizabeth suburb-yoga-instructor-looking Gilbert really had anything new to say on the subject. But she did!
First she goes through the whole, “You are the only person that can say it your way, etc, etc” and “Here. I give you permission, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
But then she tells me that, like Barbara said, she never felt like it was right or ok to demand that her art, her writing support her. She made a commitment at 16 years old, she actually made vows like she was getting married to her writing, that she would be faithful, that she would support the writing, that she would continue to show up for the rest of her life!
And she didn’t make any demands on her writing, ever. She continued to work at jobs that I consider soul crushing, like waitressing and bartending, so that she could support her writing habit. And she made it a habit. She made sure to write at least 30 minutes every day. She said that even after her first three published books, she still didn’t quit her day jobs (she had several).
She never got into the whole tortured artist thing, realizing early on that it was toxic, that being a drug addict, or alcoholic, or anxiety and suicidal ideation ridden person was not helpful. In fact, it ruins your art, but that’s the narrative we seem to grab ahold of when we’re young and stupid and sometimes it destroys us.
She writes: “If you’re the Tormented Artist, after all, then you have an excuse for treating your romantic partners badly, treating yourself badly, for treating your children badly, for treating everyone badly. You are allowed to be demanding, arrogant, rude, cruel, antisocial, grandiose, explosive, moody, manipulative, irresponsible, and/or selfish. You can drink all day and fight all night. If you behaved this badly as a janitor or a pharmacist, people would rightfully call you out as a jackass. But as the Tormented Artist, you get a pass, because you’re special. Because you’re sensitive and creative. Because sometimes you make pretty things. I don’t buy it” (213).
I love this paragraph, because it’s so fucking true. I know this total asshole who uses women, refuses to get a job, lives off of his girlfriend, lived off of a woman for years while sleeping with his current girlfriend, sleeping on people’s couches, doing tons of blow and getting belligerently drunk all the time, if not violent, and no one in his life will tell him to stop being such a fucked up asshole because “he’s so brilliant! He’s a genius! He is so talented! I’m basically supporting his art!” Meanwhile, he feeds off his girlfriend like a vampire, sucking all of the creative life out of her until she’s famished. I can’t even listen to her anymore because it makes me so fucking angry. Get a fucking job you worthless piece of shit!
Hahaha. Well, I think Elizabeth Gilbert is much kinder and more compassionate than I am. And she says it better. She also says that, it isn’t our demons that bring us inspiration and creativity, she says, “our creativity grows like sidewalk weeds out of the cracks between our pathologies–not from the pathologies themselves. But so many people think it’s the other way around. For this reason, you will often meet artists who deliberately cling to their suffering, their addictions, their fears, their demons. They believe that if they ever let go of all that anguish, their very identities would vanish.”
Instead of falling victim to the Tortured Artist complex that she is convinced is just a lie that most contemporary artists have been sold, she decided to cultivate her writing as if it were a relationship, because it is. She decided to cultivate a healthy relationship with it. She says, What if instead, we made love to our art, treated it like a passionate affair. What if we believed that our art also loved us in return, and so we’d try to steal little moments throughout the day to be with it, to tend to it, to have hot passionate make outs with it in a quiet stairwell.
But I also acknowledge that I, too, am that asshole at times. I’ve been walking around for perhaps decades (ok maybe like a decade and a half?) with a giant chip on my shoulder, expecting this and that and complaining. Oh. My. God. So much complaining! I love to complain. It’s true. Ask Rae.
Oh, and did I tell you that I have anxiety? LOL! It’s not just depression! Well, it’s mostly depression, but it’s also sometimes anxiety! My anxiety mostly surfaces around money and having a place to live and pay my bills on time. When I feel that tension and pressure, then I go apeshit. And when I’m working too much (read: 40+ hours a week, the average that most people work) I get more anxious and depressed because I have no energy and time left to create things. Ensue onslaught of complaining that best friends have to listen to.
Gilbert doesn’t feel sorry for me. She basically says, Stop your fucking complaining and get back to work. Also, don’t quit your day job.
And to be honest, I really appreciated reading that.
She also said that you should be a writer (or any kind of artist, it’s about creativity and inspiration in general) because you love it and all the hard work and, I quote, because you love to eat those “shit sandwiches” that come with it. You have to even enjoy those shit sandwiches. Because if you don’t, then you should go find another vocation. Because it’s really not about being a “success” in the classic sense, of getting published, making a bunch of money, being famous/having your name known. It’s really just about the enjoyment that you get from making things, from saying yes to inspiration and ideas, from allowing that “big magic” to move through you.
She says that maybe you (I) should reevaluate what you consider success to be. Abso-fucking-lutely. I have been thinking this for some time now. Since returning to the States to get back to my life cuz I felt like I had ripped the creative rug out from under me, I felt like a complete and utter failure. I had no job, I had no place to live, I was working on a weed farm, and then my dad died. I felt utterly destitute. I wasn’t creating consistently. Hell, I didn’t even have any musical instruments! Ok, I had a cheapish classical guitar with a too-fat neck. I think I wrote a short piece about my grief but that was about it. And then I got a horrible job as a teacher at a community college, which is about the worst job you can get. More complaining. I might have written a blog post around then about how much I loved my job. Ha!
I have such angst about my jobs. I think I too closely align them with ones vocation. Gilbert makes an important distinction. There’s all these words floating around–work, job, vocation, career–but which one should you pick? Which one is for you?
Gilbert would say that a career is something you’re doing for money. A vocation is something that you love, that you feel called to, that you would do anyway, no matter what.
She calls her writing her devotional work. I really like that idea, like it’s a spiritual practice, much like Natalie Goldberg’s meditation practice or Julia Cameron’s morning pages. They are all spiritual practices. After learning from a friend who asks her environmental students if they think that the earth loves them, Gilbert asks young writers (or art makers or creators), does your writing love you back?
That’s a question I have never stopped to consider. But when I think about it, yes, I think that writing does love me! Because I love it.
Not so long ago, I dated a writer who was in constant agony over every single word and sentence he would set down on a blank screen. It really was utter torture when he wrote. He would metaphorically bang his head against a wall, and his hands would fly up to his forehead and he’d press the heels of his palms there in anguish. It was painful to watch sometimes. The first time I ever met him he said, “I hate writing. I’m never writing again.” But then, of course, he went back to it. I asked him a few different times why he wrote if he hated it so much. He said it was because he felt like he needed to do something to contribute to the world and that was the only thing he could think of to do, or the only thing he felt like he could do. But he acted all the Tortured Artist about it. He often talked about how stupid he was, and how long it took him to get anything done or finished. And it really did seem agonizing.
I always felt like, if writing was that hard for me, I probably wouldn’t do it. It’s kind of like when I see people agonizing over their polyamorous relationships. I always think, God, that looks fucking awful. If it was that hard for me, I just wouldn’t do it. But then, what am I saying? I do it anyway.
But writing really isn’t that hard for me. It’s more of the dread just before getting started. And yet, when life gets crazy, when I feel like I have to make more money to survive, when I get all crazy-stressed about bills and I cry every day from the weather (why do I live here!?, sometimes the writing is the first thing to go.
No, actually, it’s usually the music that goes first. I haven’t played music or written a song for perhaps years until today (omg I wrote a stupid song today!). And it’s sad and tragic. I get all weird and depressed and like overwhelmingly sad about it at times. Like my long lost lover that I miss, but it just didn’t work out.
I think the main message I took away from Big Magic was that this should be fun! And if it’s not, then maybe I should find another vocation. If I’m not doing it for love, then what the fuck am I doing it for?
She says to stop being a martyr about your art and start inviting the trickster energy into your life.
Honestly, that’s a relief. Because I don’t think I really have that much fun with music anymore. It feels like dread a lot of times (which is probably another blog post).
My therapist gave me a good metaphor today about my creativity and depression. She said it’s like a tree that starts growing over a big rock. It’s not that the rock is in the way necessarily, or that it would be better without it, it just is the way it is, it’s the way my creativity works, perhaps even where it comes from. I like that image.
I don’t know, I know that I am a very depressed person, and I constantly am fighting against that, and it’s something I also just have to lean into and accept about myself. It’s my challenge of not becoming a martyr about my obstacles, or the rock in the way of the soil. It’s just something I have to learn to grow around and flourish anyway. Or perhaps even use to my advantage.
I think really what Gilbert was offering for me at least, was a bit of tough love that I needed to hear. My friend Rae said it just the other day. “You know, you’re really talented. You just have no discipline.”
Ugh. That fucking word. It’s the bane of my existence, and I don’t have time to go into it here. But again, Elizabeth Gilbert has something to say about that, too (What, was she reading my mind?!). She says, be a disciplined half-ass. What she means is, sometimes our perfectionism gets in the way, and we just have to know when to fucking finish the damn thing. But also, perfectionism is just a fancy word for fear. Don’t let your fear get in the way, commit to the work, and just fucking get it done. Good enough is better than not at all.
And I have to agree. So instead of binging on TV all day, I decided to finish my thoughts on this book (before binging on TV again). It’s good practice. I like the idea of writing as meditation, writing as a spiritual practice, like yoga, or writing and music as devotional work. I love that.
So I vow to begin a new relationship with my creativity and inspiration. From now on, I vow to cultivate my relationship with music and writing in a loving, healthy and healing way. I don’t want to wallow in self-pity, victimhood, and martyrdom anymore. I want to be happy. I’ve always just wanted to be happy. Art doesn’t owe me anything. But I do owe it a great deal. I’m pretty sure I’m not exaggerating when I say that art has saved my life many times over, and a lot of other peoples lives.
That might be the only thing I disagree with Gilbert on. She says it doesn’t really matter. But then she also says it matters a great deal. That contradiction of, “Take it seriously, and don’t take it seriously at all.” So what? It’s not a big deal. And also, keep doing it until you die. Because, she makes a great point, what else are you gonna do?