On the Hummingbird podcast which I co-host with writer and teacher Jessica Outram, we’re talking a lot about fear and confidence as it relates to the creative process. It’s made me pause and reflect on my own journey.
I came across something this past week that reminded of an Aha I had while viewing the Matisse exhibit a few years back.
I can’t compare my rough drafts with someone else’s finished masterpiece.
Yet I fall victim to this all the time and people in my workshops often do the same thing. We’re too hard on ourselves. We forget we aren’t seeing the process and the experiments of the masters. We don’t ever see the bits and pieces lying in closets, sitting on a hard drive or consigned to the trash.
Our work is as unique as our signature and that comparison can be helpful. I never worry that my signature doesn’t look like someone else’s. It doesn’t even cross my mind. (Not to mention that would be illegal.)
That’s why we shouldn’t compare our efforts to the person sitting next to us in a workshop or even worse, hanging in a gallery. We are learning about tools and techniques, just like we did in school as we learned to sign our names. Be gentle with your inner artist.
There IS a lot to learn by studying the work of others who have mastered their craft. Just don’t try to BE them.
Let’s be ourselves
So next time my inner voice says “I wish I could paint like…” I’ll remind myself that it’s better if I let myself paint like me.
Today, I welcome Elizabeth Cottrell to the blog. She is a writer and creative friend who generously offered to share her review of “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear”.
From the book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert:
“Q: What is creativity?
“A: The relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration”
There are a few books in my life that I want to buy several copies and share with my dearest family and friends. Brené Brown’s books are among them, and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert is another. I was surprised how much I enjoyed this, because I didn’t jump on the bandwagon for the author’s famous book Eat, Pray Love, which took the world by storm many years ago ( some loved it, some hated it). I have recently started following Elizabeth Gilbert again — she has grown up; she’s a marvelous and engaging writer with a wicked sense of humor; and she is motivating and inspiring. I follow her Facebook page and enjoy her posts.
Who is this book for?
As with most books, timing is everything, and while I could blithely say this book is for everyone, it is probably going to resonate with you more at certain times than others. However, Elizabeth Gilbert is not so timid in her introduction:
I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure…The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.
The hunt to uncover those jewels—that’s creative living.
The courage to go on that hunt in the first place—that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.
The often surprising results of that hunt—that’s what I call Big Magic.
So right from the beginning, she throws down the gauntlet with that challenge…because who wants to live just a mundane existence, right? And who isn’t tantalized by a good treasure hunt? With those words, I was hooked and ready for the adventure.
Creativity Myths Busted
While this book flows well and is an easy read, it can also be put down and picked up without losing continuity. It’s like a necklace of jewels strung together, each beautiful or interesting itself, but even more lovely as a necklace.
Myth-busting is an entertaining and enlightening part of Big Magic. Gilbert takes on some of the myths about creativity that hold us back or paralyze us.
- We have to kill off our fear of our creativity. No, she says. It’s too likely that when you kill off your fear, you kill off your creativity too. She advocates acknowledging and leaning into your fear. “The less I fight my fear, the less it fights back.”
- Our worth is measured by our successes or failures. No, our worth is measured by our dedication to our path.
- Your muse is yours alone. Gilbert believes inspiration is energy seeking a human partner to be made manifest. So if one human refuses to embrace and cultivate it, it will move on elsewhere. She shares a fascinating personal story to demonstrate this.
- There are creative geniuses. She would say there are people who embrace genius.
- True creatives must do something original. Gilbert says, “Most things have already been done—but they have not yet been done by you.”
- True creatives must suffer and starve. “There is no dishonor in having a job.”
Question the common wisdom
One of Gilbert’s gifts is taking common/trite sayings and turning them on their ear. A good example of this is the question often asked by motivational types in an attempt to help their students identify their true calling: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” Gilbert sees this differently and asks instead, “What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail?” That’s a question to test your passion, for sure.
One of the reasons I particularly enjoyed this book is because of my own conflicted feelings about creativity and how narrowly I used to define it. I’ve written about it before (See “Are You An Artist?”), but for years, I was sure I wasn’t the least bit creative. I was a science major with no obvious aptitude for drawing, painting, or thinking up fiction plots. My only skills were all about logic, productivity, business, or common sense.
Or so I thought.
Several years ago, I had the startling revelation that creativity manifests itself in lots of different ways, including business, marketing, networking. When I have a blank piece of paper and colored markers in front of me, I may not want to make a picture, but what I DO want to put on the paper is WORDS. So now that I’ve embraced the notion I’m creative after all, I can’t get enough of reading about creativity. Gilbert’s words on the back of this book’s dust jacket are compelling:
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.
The work wants to be made, and
it wants to be made through you.
Elizabeth Gilbert, through Big Magic, made me want to say YES to the adventure of uncovering the hidden treasures within me. What books have you read that motivate and inspire you to live your most creative, wholehearted life?
Elizabeth Gilbert has been a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her latest novel, The Signature of All Things, was named a best book of 2013 by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and O: The Oprah Magazine.
Elizabeth Cottrell, author of this review, hales from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She is a freelance writer and blogger at Heartspoken.com.
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The opposite of courage is not cowardice, it is conformity. Even a dead fish can go with the flow. –Jim Hightower
Reasons or excuses?
Matisse’s famous quote “Creativity takes courage” is almost a cliché, we’ve heard it so often. It’s everywhere in memes and posters but maybe that’s because as artists, we know it’s true. If fear wasn’t part of the creative experience, we’d be neck-deep in new art, products, recipes, gardens, etc., etc.
Sadly, fear holds too many of us back from our creative potential.
It took me a long time to get past my own fears, most of which were related to perfectionism. However, I called it “being responsible”. After all, I had a family to care for and a business to build.
They turned out to be my excuses.
Not what it seems
We all have our own justifications but if you actually look at what’s lurking behind our wall of words, we find fear.
It took me a long time to understand that staying in my comfort zone robbed me of too much. The price is high. Actually, not to put too fine a point on it, it costs our lives.
By avoiding the full creative life available to us, we simply keep repeating what looks (falsely) safe and sure. The same thing, over and over. We never actually live. We become dead fish.
It’s okay to be afraid
Think of your fear as a gift. It’s a signal that you’re up to something and it’s the only way to experience that courage Matisse speaks of. Working through it builds confidence, stretching our capacity to create.
Each of us must come to terms with it because it’s an integral part of the process. The truth is, not one of us can grow creatively without some stress and learning to live with discomfort. Answering the call means a willingness to be seen, warts and all, because art is deeply personal and uncertain. There’s no such thing as ‘fearless creating’, no matter what the gurus say.
Don’t tell me exposure isn’t scary! And, after accepting the risk and doing our work, nothing is guaranteed except a need to continue creating.
How to manage the fear
After all my years of excuses, I finally realized the work itself (and the risk) could be “chunked down” again and again until the fear felt manageable. It needed to be small enough not to wake up my flight-or-fight mode.
With practice, I built a tolerance for discomfort and found myself able to take bigger creative risks. The blank canvas stopped looking like a chasm and more like an opportunity.
If you’re avoiding your own creative nudge, start with small steps. Three years ago, I committed to 15 minutes of creative action every day for 30 days. Often it was just a doodle in a sketchbook but if I spent those 15 minutes, it counted.
I ended up with a book of little sketches but I also built my creative muscle and developed a habit. And I still refer back to those sketches for inspiration.
What you choose may be different (although if my example works for you, please use it!) The point is to make it small enough that it doesn’t scare off your inner child, the muse or whatever you want to call that urge.
Courage is not the absence of fear.
Like sunshine and shadow, we need fear to experience courage. When we tiptoe past our fears, something pretty amazing waits for us. Our real life.
As I look back on the early part of my adult life, it seems like I was always stuck, waiting for “permission”.
…be creative rather than “practical”.
…take time to do something about my dreams.
…create visions rather than set goals.
…be different and do things my way.
…explore many projects at once.
…start projects and not finish them.
I’m sure you have a few of your own you could add to my list.
It’s funny really, when you think about it. As kids we think being an adult means doing whatever we want. Then we become adults and we get stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for someone to tell us it’s okay to do the thing we long to do.
But who did I think would tell me to go ahead? I’m not sure I ever really thought that far. I just said things like “I could never…I can’t…Not right now…etc, etc.”
Until the day I asked myself, “Who’s making these rules?”
Oh. Right. Me.
Here’s what I realized:
There was no one else to go to for this elusive ‘permisson’. It was my fear that withheld consent to go-ahead.
Oh and by the way? While you’re at it, you might inspire someone else to get out of their own way, too.
Cool beans, eh?
As we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence actually liberates others. – Marianne Williamson
What are you waiting for?
Fill in the blank and share in the comments :
I give myself permission to _______________________