In Defense of Creativity (and an Ode to Big Magic)

“A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner—continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you—is a fine art, in and of itself.”

– Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

Late last September I read Big Magic while flying from Portland to Orlando to present at a national conference. I was on medical leave from my job, but this presentation was a must-do, and Orlando was a must-see.

I spent my days during that period battling a crippling anxiety and tendency toward panic attacks. My nervous system was out-of-whack and my tried and true coping mechanism of working out was constantly aggravating my chronic back pain. I was looking long and hard at my life, and doing so with the help of a team of medical and mental health professionals.

You may wonder what creativity has to do with a total life breakdown, or a good life in general. You may wonder if it applies to you. You may have already tuned me out, ascribing this entire topic to those “artsy types” or well-supported divorcées with the time and means to paint, study interior decorating, or play with clay.

You may think this is not about you. Elizabeth Gilbert says—and I agree–this is about all of us.

Why creativity?

“Pure creativity is magnificent expressly because it is the opposite of everything else in life that’s essential or inescapable…Pure creativity is something better than a necessity; it’s a gift. It’s the frosting. Our creativity is a wild and unexpected bonus from the universe.” -Liz Gilbert, Big Magic

As I read these words one year ago, I was neck-deep in resurrecting my identity as a person who writes. A writer, I say on days I’m less steeped in fear.

Looking at creativity as a particular life force—rather than yet another to-do for me to mold and control—was both perplexing and liberating.

Creativity lived constantly within me. Creativity fed me, held me, and dared me. Creativity moved me when I was stuck, and directed me when I felt aimless.

Understanding that creativity is as natural to our existence as breathing and breeding can be a game-changer. It can free us. It may pressure us. It will undoubtedly terrify us.

Ideas

“Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest.” -Liz Gilbert, Big Magic

It’s tough to be creative without a decent idea. In fact, forced creation actually steers us away from the realm of creativity and into: dedication, perseverance, and work ethic. Creativity resides in other, often more subtle, signals within our brains and bodies: intuition, instinct, and innateness.

Creative inspiration–also known as an idea–is that fleeting thought, a long-held dream, or a nagging vision.

Ideas are an interesting topic. I find it easy to grab onto when I’m carrying a fistful of them–and nearly impossible when I’m stumbling around empty-handed. Why can’t I will an idea into fruition? Where is that inspiration when I actually have time for it? What the hell am I going to write this damn speech about?

Ideas come when they are ready–and they are visible (or visceral) when we have opened ourselves up to paying attention. Opening yourself up to ideas can be a creative process in and of itself. Perhaps movement ignites you, or nature. Maybe meditation unlocks your creative juices, or perhaps a raucous dinner party is more your personal style.

Inspiration comes at it’s own pace and we are but the vessels.

So, what is it that gets in the way of our creative voyages?

One answer: Perfectionism

“I think perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear.” -Liz Gilbert, Big Magic

I am a self-described Brené Brown fan girl. Brené Brown is a social worker who does research out of the University of Houston on shame. Through interviewing thousands of people, Brené has put together what she terms the 10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living. One of the guideposts is Cultivating Creativity. Another is Letting Go of Perfectionism.

Brené’s definition of perfectionism starts like this: “Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.”

You can imagine how harmful perfectionism can be when it infiltrates the whole of one’s life. Perfectionism damages most of what it touches, but it is especially detrimental to creativity.

Have you ever written, or delivered, a perfect speech? Or have you instead battled perfectionism to allow you to create an imperfect, but good-enough product?

What I love about Toastmasters* is that I know you all get it. People who gather in a room of others, ranging from strangers to friends, to stand up alone, face fear, and deliver an inevitably creative endeavor are in many ways birds of a similar feather.

While I was in Orlando last year I got an email that an essay I’d submitted had been accepted for online publication. It was a pivotal moment in my creative process.

As the excitement faded, all my vulnerabilities began to emerge. Was what I wrote worth reading? Was what I said okay to say? Would there be fallout or backlash or…silence? All the outcomes seemed ominous. Fear began to set in. Perfectionism reared it’s annoyingly put-together head.

What I learned from reading Big Magic last year was that all of this is  normal. This is to be expected. This is to be creative. This is a part of the process one cannot escape. Only through avoiding creativity all together–and Liz Gilbert, Brené Brown and I would argue, blunting the very essence of one’s life–can this discomfort be avoided.

“Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred. What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all. We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits. We are terrified, and we are brave. Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege. Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us. Make space for all these paradoxes to be equally true inside your soul, and I promise—you can make anything. So please calm down now and get back to work, okay? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

*This post originated as the second speech for my Toastmasters club. I highly recommend Toastmasters as a creative outlet that will scare the shit out of you.

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