Elizabeth Gilbert

The author who taught us all to eat, pray, love and be happy is now the poster girl for creativity

Big Magic Elizabeth Gilbert

At the Power Up conference in Vancouver on May 3, Elizabeth Gilbert strode onstage in shiny bronze oxfords to dazzle a room of HR professionals with “Creative living beyond fear,” the subtitle of her latest book. Big Magic is packed with strategies for creative living, even for (maybe especially for) non-creatives. In a rambling talk, she referenced “creativity and fear and perfectionism and anxiety and crustaceans and butterflies and body surfing... It’s a lot.”

Here are a few of her colourful brushstrokes, and tips for painting with them in everyday life...


1. Creativity is not macrame and ceramics

Gilbert laments how, from the earliest days of school, some are singled out as artistic and others are... not. She insists that every person does have a creative bone in their bodies: if you disagree, try replacing the c-word with “curious,” she urges. Creative living is “consistently choosing the path of curiosity over fear, almost as a spiritual practice.” Be that way in the world and “your life itself becomes a work of art.”
Tip: Instead of waiting around for a grand creative passion to strike, ask yourself: What is interesting to me? What do I want to know more about? That’s your creative path.


2. Don’t fear your fear

Gilbert insists that everyone, universally, is touched by inspiration... followed instantly by fear that prevents them from acting on it. Whether something brings success, money, recognition, satisfaction or changes the world shouldn’t dictate whether you do it. “You will be a different human being at the end of that experience than you were at the beginning of it, and there will be something you have learned about yourself that you couldn’t have learned any other way.”
Tip: A safer life will be a smaller life. Go big.


3. Pluck an idea out of the air

Gilbert defines creativity as “A human being’s labour interacting with the mysteries of inspiration,” and Big Magic is full of you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up anecdotes about the confluence of ideas and people, flitting around the globe and the ages. She believes ideas have a life of their own. “They circle the earth looking for a human collaborator.” She distinguishes between ideas that come from you, and ones that come to you in an almost supernatural way that “feels like falling in love.”
Tip: If you’re distracted and busy, and not present in the moment that an idea is desperately trying to flag you down, you’ll miss it. Reach out and grab it.


4. Say yes

It’s hard to believe, coming from a woman who’s splashed her life story on hundreds of pages and can hold an audience captive for an hour, but Gilbert says she was an extremely anxious and fearful child. “I was born terrified” of board games, stairs, snow, other people body-surfing in the ocean... She realized as a teenager that her life was going to be very limited if she kept saying no to things she was afraid of. “Fear is really boring,” she says, calling it a one-note song that just says: “No.”
Tip: Listen to your creativity, the voice in your head that says a million different things, among them: “Yes.”


5. Don’t be fearless

Gilbert, who calls fearless people “sociopaths,” says fear is a useful feature of the human OS. Don’t try to aggressively conquer or defeat it; waltz with it. “I decided to create a big enough landscape within my imagination that my fear and creativity could coexist.” The two forces are “conjoined twins”: kill fear, and you kill creativity.
Tip: Let fear come along on the joyride of life. Let it pipe up from the back seat. But don’t let it choose the playlist, the snacks or the destination.


6. Perfectionism is fear in high heels and a fur coat

Avoid people who are apathetic, cynical or perfectionist. They’re all terrified, Gilbert says. Perfectionism is the ultimate humblebrag, “One of those rare life obstacles that describes itself as a virtue.” Perfectionists find it impossible to take life-changing risks: their effort won’t be good enough, so they never start. Nothing you do will be an “amethyst butterfly,” as Gilbert calls the perfect creative vision. But it will be unique, and yours.
Tip: Gilbert’s mother, a resourceful Midwestern farm wife, was a pragmatist who always said: “Done is better than good.” Get it done.


7. Conserve time and energy

Gilbert scoffs at people who say they don’t have time to be creative. She said it once herself, as a young aspiring writer (and waitress, bookstore clerk, and boyfriend-babysitter...) in New York. An established artist that asked Gilbert what she says has been the defining question of her life: “What are you willing to give up to have the life you keep pretending that you want?” Creating boundaries for your creativity to thrive is, Gilbert says, a creative act in itself.
Tip: Give up your TV set. Stop going out for brunch. Cancel your beach vacation. Say no to things—even things you want to do—to direct time and energy at what intrigues you.


8. There is such a thing as too much change

New things can be shiny, seductive and flirtatious: especially when you’re in the middle of something that starts to feel difficult and boring. “I love change more than anyone,” says Gilbert, who has turned her life upside-down more than once. (For instance, she’s no longer with the man she famously met during the writing of Eat, Pray, Love, and according to New York and other sources, she now has a girlfriend.) But make a change change for the right reasons. “Are you on record yet as somebody who can finish a thing?” she asks. “Or are you somebody who constantly and promiscuously engages with idea after idea without ever completing a thing?”
Tip: Stay in a city as long as you said you were going to, finish a project, stay in a job until your goals are complete. Then consider change.


9. Be the biggest lobster in the room

You read that right: lobster, not loser. Gilbert spins an elaborate anecdote that includes the son of a Boston bricklayer in Paris, French aristocrats and a party at a duke’s Loire castle.
Tip: For the ultimate crustaceon punchline, you’ll have to read the book.