Where Does Creativity Come From?

Oct 7, 2014
Originally published on May 6, 2015 10:57 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Source of Creativity

About Elizabeth Gilbert's TED Talk

Writer Elizabeth Gilbert muses on the impossible things we expect from artists and geniuses. She shares the radical idea that, instead of the rare person "being" a genius, all of us "have" a genius. She explores creativity further in her 2014 TED talk.

About Elizabeth Gilbert

Writer Elizabeth Gilbert is best know for her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, which has sold over 10 million copies.

She's a longtime magazine writer — covering music and politics for Spin and GQ — as well as a novelist and short-story writer. Her books include the story collection Pilgrims, the novel Stern Men, and a biography of the woodsman Eustace Conway, called The Last American Man.

In 2010, Elizabeth published Committed, a memoir exploring her ambivalent feelings about the institution of marriage. Her 2013 novel The Signature of All Things is a wide-ranging tale of botanical exploration in the 19th century.

Gilbert also co-owns and runs the import shop Two Buttons in Frenchtown, New Jersey.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

So it's safe to say that everyone has some degree of creativity. And as a species, we've had it for a pretty long time.

ELIZABETH GILBERT: To me, the greatest evidence of that is that human beings have been making recognizable art for 30,000 years. And we've been, for instance, making agriculture for 10,000, which just shows you that somehow it was more important to the human evolutionary spirit to make superfluous, pretty things than it was to figure out how to regularly feed ourselves. (Laughter) So, you know, it's in us.

RAZ: Before we get ahead of ourselves, can you introduce yourself, please?

GILBERT: Oh, my name is Elizabeth Gilbert. The swiftest point of identification is that I am the author of the book called "Eat, Pray, Love."

RAZ: A book that has sold over 10 million copies, which means it basically went viral.

GILBERT: And feral (laughter), just beyond, you know, way beyond any expectation that I had ever had in my life for anything that I was ever going to do. It had taken on a life of its own.

RAZ: And while all that success was incredible, it put Elizabeth in a peculiar place. I mean, how was she supposed to follow such a huge, monster hit? So when she was asked to give her TED Talk, she started to think.

GILBERT: What is the magical thinking or mindset that I'm going to have to fall into to make sure that this isn't the last book I ever write.

RAZ: Because something funny happens when you write a hugely successful book.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GILBERT: Everywhere I go now, people treat me like I'm doomed.

RAZ: Here is Elizabeth on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GILBERT: Seriously, doomed. Doomed like they come up to me now, like, all worried, and they say, aren't you afraid? Aren't you afraid you're never going to be able to top that? Aren't you afraid you're going to keep writing for your whole life, and you're never again going to create a book that anybody in the world cares about at all ever again? So that's reassuring, you know.

The answer - short answer - to all those questions is yes. Yes, I am afraid of all of those things. And I always have been. And I'm afraid of many, many more things besides that, you know, people can't even guess at like seaweed and other things that are scary. But when it comes to writing, the thing that I've been sort of thinking about lately and wondering about lately is why, you know? Is it rational? Is it logical that anybody should be expected to be afraid of the work that they feel they were put on this earth to do, you know?

I should just put it bluntly 'cause we're all sort of friends here now. It's exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me. You know, so, Jesus, what a thought. You know? Like, that's the kind of thought that could lead a person to start drinking gin at 9 o'clock in the morning.

(LAUGHTER)

GILBERT: And, you know, I don't want to go there. You know, I would prefer to keep doing this work that I love. And so the question becomes how, you know? And so it seems to me - upon a lot of reflection - that the way that I have to work now in order to continue writing is that I have to create some sort of protective psychological construct, right? I have to sort of find some way to have a safe distance, you know, between me as I am writing and my very natural anxiety about what the reaction to the writing is going to be from now on.

RAZ: I mean, it seems like this would be the part where, you know, a lot of people just shut down and not even attempt to do something creative.

GILBERT: Right. I think the thing that stops people from doing it is always exactly the same thing, which is fear. And what I've discovered over the years is not that you have to be fearless - because I don't believe in fearlessness, and I don't advise it. I think the only truly fearless people that I've ever met were full-blown psychopaths or really reckless 3-year-olds. And I don't think we want to aspire to be either of those things.

I think instead what you have to do is recognize that fear and creativity are conjoined twins. And what I see people doing in their lives is they're so afraid of their fear that they end up trying to kill it. And when they kill it, they also kill their creativity because creativity is going into the uncertain, and the uncertain is always scary. And so what I've had to figure out how to do over the years is to create a sort of mental construct in which I make a lot of space to coexist with fear, to just say to it, hey, fear, listen, creativity and I - your conjoined twin sister - are about to go on a road trip. I understand you'll be joining us (laughter) because you always do, but you don't get to decide anything about this journey that we're going on. But you can come. And I know that you'll be in the backseat in panic but we're going - mommy's driving. (Laughter) And we're going anyway. And you just take it along with you. And that seems to work for me.

RAZ: There's a story in your TED Talk about a woman named Ruth Stone. Can you tell me about her?

GILBERT: Yeah, Ruth Stone was an incredible American poet. And she told me a story about when she was a child growing up in rural Virginia. She used to be out working in the fields, and she would hear a poem coming at her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GILBERT: And when she felt it coming - because it would, like, shake the earth under her feet - she knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to - in her words - run like hell. And she would, like, run like hell to the house. And she'd be getting chased by this poem. And the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times, she wouldn't be fast enough. So she'd be, like, running and running and running and the - she wouldn't get to the house, and the poem would, like, barrel through her. And she would miss it. And she said it would continue on across the landscape looking, as she put it, for another poet.

Which is not at all what my creative process is like. You know, I would love to have that experience someday, but I've never had it.

RAZ: Right.

GILBERT: But I believe in it.

RAZ: Yeah.

GILBERT: And I believe there are people who are sort of mystical in that way. I had it happen once where I was sleeping on a commuter train on Metro-North, and I had a dream. And a short story came to me in a dream kind of word-for-word. And I woke up and took dictation and wrote it down. And that was in 1995. And it has never happened again, and I've taken a lot of naps on a lot of trains (laughter) since then. So if I - and, you know, that was just this one off. The rest of time for me, it's - it's just been about showing up every day for the work. And I find it - actually what happens is that you begin the work just from a place of diligence and discipline, and then if you're lucky, through that process, you'll have moments where inspiration will come in and meet you. And what that feels like to me is that it feels like I'm lugging my suitcase through a giant airport terminal, and then all of a sudden, I'm on one of those movable sidewalks. So I'm being assisted. And all - I'm still walking. I'm still working. I'm still carrying my suitcase, but it's easier. And then that movable sidewalk ends, and then it comes again. And then it ends, but I keep moving regardless of whether the sidewalk is moving under me. That's how I feel about my work.

RAZ: I mean, I'm just sort of imagining you, like, work at your desk. Or you know, starting to write something and just hitting a wall where you feel like you're not tapping into your best, most creative self. And that can last a long time, right? I mean, that can last days, weeks, months.

GILBERT: It can, but motion works, and moving toward motion means do something.

RAZ: Even if the creative output that day just sucks.

GILBERT: Yeah, it's fine.

RAZ: Yeah.

GILBERT: And most days, it does.

RAZ: Yeah.

GILBERT: You know, and - and I think I am also lucky 'cause my mom had this adage that we grow up with in our household which is this simple statement, done is better than good. Like, you win already just by having shown up. That's a victory enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

GILBERT: When I was in the middle of writing "Eat, Pray, Love" and I fell into one of those sort of pits of despair that we all fall into when we're working on something, and it's not coming. And you start to think, this is going to be a disaster. This is going to be the worst book ever written - not just bad - but the worst book ever written. And I started to think I should just dump this project, you know. So I just lifted my face up from the manuscript, and I directed my comments to an empty corner of the room. And I said aloud, listen, you thing, you and I both know that if this book isn't brilliant, that is not entirely my fault, right? 'Cause you can see that I am putting everything I have into this, you know. I don't have any more than this. So if you want it to be better, then you got to show up and do your part of the deal. OK? But if you don't do that, you know what - the hell with it. I'm going to keep writing anyway because that's my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: It seems like this word, creativity - this term that we ascribe all this meaning to, isn't that huge, right? It's not, like, this crazy, out-of-reach, elusive kind of thing, right?

GILBERT: No, everybody's invited. Everybody's invited. When you say creative people, it's redundant. We are creativity. And we've done a great disservice to bifurcate it. And one of the things I've been saying a lot to people is that we keep telling people to follow their passion. And I feel like that can be an intimidating and almost cruel thing to say to people at times because first of all, if somebody has one central, powerful, burning passion, they're probably already following it because that's sort of the definition of passion - is that you don't have a choice. If you don't - which is a lot of people, have one central, burning, passion and somebody tells you to follow your passion, I think you have the right to give them the finger (laughter) because it just makes you feel worse.

And so I always say to people, forget it. Like, if you don't have an obvious passion, forget about it. Follow your curiosity because passion is sort of a tower of flame that is not always accessible. And curiosity is something that anybody can access any day. Your curiosity may lead you to your passion or may it not. It may have been for, air quotes, nothing, in which case all you've done your entire life is spend your existence in pursuit of the things that made you feel curious and inspired and that should be good enough. Like, if you get to do that, that's a wonderful way to spend your time here.

RAZ: Writer Elizabeth Gilbert. Her most recent book, a novel, is "The Signature Of All Things." She has two great talks that you can find at ted.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MUSE BLUES")

LOUDON WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) I'm a dead firecracker. I ain't got any fuse. I ain't got no inspiration since I lost my muse. I'm a table with two legs. I'm a spider with five, going down slow, muse when will you arrive? Oh, muse, where were you? You know I eat, drink and I smoke stuff. I don't know what to do.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on "The Source of Creativity." If you missed any of it or you want to find out more about who was on it, check out ted.npr.org. You can also find many more TED Talks at ted.com. You can download this show on iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app. I'm Guy Raz, and you have been listening to ideas worth spreading on the Ted Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.