Elizabeth Gilbert on fear and creativity and mental health
Posted Jan 09 2010 12:42pm
In the clip below from her TED conference presentation, writer Elizabeth Gilbert addresses a number of topics related to being creative – including fears and anxieties about “the work you were put on this Earth to do.”
One source of that fear can be the widely-accepted notion that artists are likely to be mentally “unhinged” more than other groups of people, that “creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked.” She goes on to ask if people in the audience are “cool with that idea.”
It is an important question to ask if you want to create, to be an artist of any sort.
She is author of Eat, Pray, Love – a New York Times Best Seller memoir of her spiritual and personal exploration while traveling abroad.
Here is an excerpt – these are, it seems to me, powerful and helpful ideas for enhancing creativity and nurturing your life as a creator.
As for discipline – it’s important, but sort of over-rated. The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness.
Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you. You will make vows: “I’m going to write for an hour every day,” and then you won’t do it. You will think: “I suck, I’m such a failure. I’m washed-up.”
Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness (which comes from a place of kind and encouraging and motherly love).
The other thing to realize is that all writers think they suck. When I was writing “Eat, Pray, Love”, I had just as a strong a mantra of THIS SUCKS ringing through my head as anyone does when they write anything.
But I had a clarion moment of truth during the process of that book. One day, when I was agonizing over how utterly bad my writing felt, I realized: “That’s actually not my problem.” The point I realized was this – I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write. So I put my head down and sweated through it, as per my vows.
I have a friend who’s an Italian filmmaker of great artistic sensibility. After years of struggling to get his films made, he sent an anguished letter to his hero, the brilliant (and perhaps half-insane) German filmmaker Werner Herzog.
My friend complained about how difficult it is these days to be an independent filmmaker, how hard it is to find government arts grants, how the audiences have all been ruined by Hollywood and how the world has lost its taste…etc, etc.
Herzog wrote back a personal letter to my friend that essentially ran along these lines: “Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.”
I repeat those words back to myself whenever I start to feel resentful, entitled, competitive or unappreciated with regard to my writing: “It’s not the world’s fault that you want to be an artist…now get back to work.”
Always, at the end of the day, the important thing is only and always that: Get back to work. This is a path for the courageous and the faithful. You must find another reason to work, other than the desire for success or recognition. It must come from another place. //
In the end, I love this work. I have always loved this work. My suggestion is that you start with the love and then work very hard and try to let go of the results.
Cast out your will, and then cut the line. Please try, also, not to go totally freaking insane in the process. Insanity is a very tempting path for artists, but we don’t need any more of that in the world at the moment, so please resist your call to insanity.
We need more creation, not more destruction.
We need our artists more than ever, and we need them to be stable, steadfast, honorable and brave – they are our soldiers, our hope.
If you decide to write, then you must do it, as Balzac said, “like a miner buried under a fallen roof.”
Become a knight, a force of diligence and faith. I don’t know how else to do it except that way.
As the great poet Jack Gilbert said once to young writer, when she asked him for advice about her own poems: “Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say YES.”
Gilbert writes: “Insanity is a very tempting path for artists.”
That is a provocative idea – implying that there is an element of choice in our mental health.
There probably is – more than I have been willing to acknowledge in my bouts of anxiety and depression, seeking solace over the years from talk therapy and prescriptions – which have been helpful at times – or “controlled substances.” And I still take St. John’s Wort, believing the literature that it relieves mild depression.
But I have come to see there is also an element of habit, of predisposition of my attitudes and reactions to so-called “depressing” or “anxiety-producing” situations in my life, and that the focus and tone of my thinking can have a deep impact on my emotional health.
For a variety of perspectives on mental health and creating, on being a creator with anxiety, depression and other challenges, see these sites and pages, among many others on this site :