The Creative Life: Elizabeth Gilbert and Process Philosophy
Patricia Adams Farmer
"And while the paths and outcomes of creative living will vary wildly from person to person, I can guarantee you this: 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
The creative life. Who dares live it? I’ll tell you one thing: if you’re a creative soul, but too afraid to create or find excuses for not creating or frozen in terror at the thought of how your creations might be received, I give you Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. It’s a magical read. This is not a how-to on writing or any other form of creativity, but rather her own philosophy of the creative life, that is, a way to re-set the mind and heart for the whole enterprise of creativity, whatever form it takes.
Elizabeth Gilbert believes that “the central question upon which all creative living hinges” is this: “Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?”
It’s all about courage.
And letting go of outcomes.
And gladness. That’s why I fell in love with this book from the very beginning, for her thesis begins and ends with the notion of gladness, dispelling the myth of the Tortured Artist as the entry way into creativity. Creating out of gladness is a radical and refreshing change from the tortured artist archetype that has been the dominant model for artists and creative types. She embraces the philosophy of the late poet Jack Gilbert who taught young poets that the courage to create is inextricably bound to a radical notion of “stubborn gladness.” He wrote, “We must risk delight . . . We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world."
I love that quote. I think I will paste it on the wall over my computer desk.
But life must be torture in order to create, right? One must be a martyr to creativity, yes? Sturm and Drang, angst, despair, misery, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, debt, temperamental behaviors, martyrdom, etc. Don’t I have to be miserable, moody, or at the very least glamorously neurotic to live creatively?
Forget it. That is so last century.
Of course, many of the greatest and most lasting creations emerge out of deep suffering. But self-imposed suffering is something altogether unnecessary and counterproductive, according to Gilbert. Unless you are a poet in prison in North Korea (which few of us are), leave behind the tragic glamor of the tortured artists and go with gladness. You can be a nice person and still be an artist. In fact, you can be a well-adjusted, happy soul and still be wildly creative. You really can.
But wait. Doesn’t my creation have to be perfect?
Don’t make me laugh. Or perhaps you should. We need to take ourselves less seriously because the truth is, perfectionism can murder creativity.
Perfectionism, Gilbert says, is just “fear in fancy shoes . . .”
We’re talking about the author the international best seller Eat, Love, Pray, for goodness sake, and a number of critically acclaimed novels. Apparently, the way of gladness and imperfection works for her. Having been at the heights and in the valley—all over the map in regards to outward success—she makes it clear that “stubborn gladness” keeps her steady. It has nothing to do with outcomes, that is, how a work is received by the world, but everything to do with the creative process itself.
But how does she do it? Why does Elizabeth Gilbert so enjoy her calling to the creative life?
Because she believes in magic. And she will make you believe in magic, too. “I believe that creativity is a force of enchantment–not entirely human in its origins,” she writes. That is, she begs our imagination to think of creativity this way: "I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us—albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the real of the actual."
Elizabeth Gilbert offers us a vision of co-creativity—therein lies the magic. She harkens back to those Greeks and Romans who believed in the idea of an external daemon of creativity, which she describes as “a sort of house elf, if you will, who lived within the walls of your home and who sometimes aided you in your labors. The Romans had a specific term for that helpful house elf. They called it your genius—your guardian deity, the conduit of your inspiration. Which is to say, the Romans didn’t believe that an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius.”
But don’t worry about taking her ideas literally. To do so would kill the magic. It’s like the virgin birth or the resurrection. If you get stuck on the improbable science and the metaphysics of these stories, you lose the whole meaning of the story! You cease to be transformed and become a miserable cynic. Sometimes we philosopher-types need to set aside our metaphysics and relax into the magic. For as Gilbert says—another quote to hang above my computer desk—“Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.”
And yet, there is something familiar about her magical worldview, too. Gilbert’s idea of co-creation, of working with creativity rather than against it, is a notion familiar to any of us who are from the process or progressive religious traditions. What philosopher cannot think of Plato’s forms while reading this? Or Whitehead’s pure possibilities?
As a process theologian, I can’t help but think of Whitehead’s idea that Creativity is the most real thing about the universe. We process folks think in terms of co-creation, too—and of God’s “lure” in each new moment, a creative choice offered, a fresh possibility, a way of working with divinity to actualize novel forms of beauty in the world. In this way, we are all, at every moment, invited to find that sense of magic in co-creation.
But for all this magic to happen, we have to get past the stultifying power of fear. And that is the purpose of Big Magic.
Gilbert’s answer to the problem of fear is to widen out and make room for it: “I decided that I would need to build an expansive enough interior life that my fear and my creativity could peacefully coexist, since it appeared that they would always be together. In fact, it seems to me that my fear and my creativity are basically conjoined twins—as evidenced by the fact that creativity cannot take a single step forward without fear marching right alongside it. . . . I don’t try to kill off my fear. I don’t go to war against it. Instead, I make all the space for it. Heaps of space. Every single day. . . . It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back.”
This is the “amplified life,” as Gilbert calls it, the large life, and one that I would consider a sterling and celebrative example of a philosophy of S-I-Z-E or “Fat Soul” philosophy (inspired by process philosopher Bernard Loomer.) The very metaphor of Fat Soul suggests Gilbert’s amplified life: a life driven more by curiosity than fear—a life that creates “heaps of space” in the soul.
Fat Soul philosophy is counter-cultural, too, a little audacious in these thin-thinking times of religious fundamentalism, racism, homophobia, global warming denial, and cynicism in general. It’s like Gilbert’s audacity to question our culturally imbedded reverence for the artistic “Martyr” and welcome the more playful, mischievous “Trickster” archetype.
Fat Soul is one mischievous expression of process philosophy and spirituality that takes the creative life very seriously. And gladness, too.
And even a little magic. (To feel the magic, check out the Fat Soul Band of Central Arkansas!)
So, go with Big Magic. Create something, anything, and do it with courage and gladness.