Elizabeth Gilbert on Creativity and Suffering

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, leans into the audience of the 2009 Ted Conference as she describes the questions people would ask upon learning of her desire to be a writer. She says, “Aren’t you afraid that you’ll never be a success? Aren’t you afraid the humiliation of rejection will kill you? Aren’t you afraid that you’re going to work at this craft your whole life and you’re going to die on this crap heap of broken dreams with your mouth filled with bitter ash of failure?” The audience laughs. But really? What artist isn’t familiar with those questions and doubts?

As a society, we have gotten very comfortable with the idea that being a professional creative and suffering go together. Gilbert points out the truth that creatives do indeed have a reputation for being manic-depressant alcoholics while other professionals such as engineers or managers do not. She goes on to say, “All you have to do is look at the grim death count of the twentieth century alone of really magnificent creative minds who died young and often at their own hands. And even the ones who didn’t literally commit  suicide seemed to be really undone by their gifts.”

But it’s not just observers or outside spectators that come to such a conclusion. The artists themselves say the same:

“Every one of my books has killed me a little more.” – Norma Maylor

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” – Red Smith

“Great artists suffer for the people.” – Marvin Gaye

“I am a great artist and I know it. The reason I am great is because of all the suffering I have done.” – Paul Gauguin

“Are you guys all cool with that idea?” Gilbert asks. She calls this notion that is embedded deep in our culture, both odious and dangerous. However, upon researching other societies and how they dealt with this, she came to the conclusion that what is needed is a “psychological construct to distance the artist from the results of their work”.

For example, in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome people believed that creativity didn’t come from within a human being but a divine entity or spirit. The Greeks called it a “damon”. The Romans had a similar idea but called it a “genius”, which was believed to live in the walls of the artist’s studio. The genius would then come out to assist the artist in his or her work.

This idea is perfect for providing that psychological distance because the artist can no longer take all the credit. It protects the artist from narcissism if things are going well. However, it also protects the artist from feeling like a total failure if things are bad because it’s no longer entirely their fault. When you think about your creative process in this way, it releases the anxiety involved and instead, the process becomes a wonderful and bizarre collaboration between the artist and this strange, external thing. Although, this idea may sound implausible, most artists would admit that they have brushed up against that “something” in the creation process that doesn’t come from within, but some strange unknowable source.

Do not assume that the artist has no responsibility as a result of this notion of collaboration. Gilbert emphasizes the need for the artist to show up regardless of whether or not that “thing” shows up. Creating art can be a scary, vulnerable process, but this perspective can help.

“Don’t be afraid. Don’t be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cock-eyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some wonderment be glimpsed through your work then ‘Ole!’. If not, do your dance anyhow. And ‘Ole!’ to you none-the-less… Ole to you none-the-less to have the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.” – Elizabeth Gilbert

Watch the full Tedtalk below. Believe me, it’s worth 19 minutes of your life. I’ve watched it 3 times now and I learn something new every time. (Not to mention that her self-deprecating and witty humor make it worthwhile even if only viewed for laughs.)

Imahni Dawson is a writer and musician, with a great passion for Jesus, learning, and helping others reach their full potential.

2 thoughts on “Elizabeth Gilbert on Creativity and Suffering

  1. Elizabeth G. changed my life. Her words and observations teeter on a religious study for me. I’ve chatted with her in person, but had not seen this piece. Thanks for sharing!

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