by Geoff Watkinson
In the opening pages of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, she asks the following question
about creative living: “Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?” If someone had asked me that question a few years ago, I would have felt incredibly uncomfortable, not believed I had “treasures that are hidden within” me and disregarded the notion all together. I have come to learn, however, that development of spiritual growth is paramount to creativity.
Since the fall of 2011, I’ve been working on a biography about the superintendent of a
mental institution in western Virginia during the first half of the twentieth century. I have published approximately 3000 words; another 4000 words are pending. Dozens of pages of single-spaced notes need to be transformed into narrative. Hundreds of archival documents need to be catalogued in some fashion. A half-completed book proposal needs another half.
I can get bogged down with my writing. I’m fearful. Insecure. Lazy. I’m my own worst critic and executioner, afraid that I’ll never be able to get it just right or that I won’t finish or that I’m not a good enough writer. I can be impatient, preferring to believe that that writing one paragraph is futile rather than a necessary advancement towards the greater whole. I can lack narrative insight, and so I don’t work at all because I can’t seem to grasp the cohesiveness of the larger project. I can lose vision, become nihilistic, and start believing that the project is pointless anyway.
Thankfully, that isn’t happening so much right now, or when those feelings do surface, I
embrace them. I’m producing, more-or-less. I believe that what I’m doing matters, if not for any other reason than it matters to me. But I know the desolate landscape of creative insecurity will come back. It always does. And when that artistic anxiety returns, I need to be prepared to walk with those feelings. In Big Magic, Gilbert, writes that “…the trickster [or the artist] trusts the universe. He trusts in its chaotic, lawless, ever-fascinating ways—and for this reason, he does not suffer from undue anxiety. He trusts that the universe is in constant play and, specifically, that it wants to play with him” (224). That belief has become essential to me. If I trust that this is all just a game that I want to play, things are much easier.
The thing is, trying to take creative action is hard. I know I’m not alone in sometimes
thinking that that I just don’t have it—that creativity is for geniuses, not for me—even if it sometimes feels that I am alone. I’m reassured when I read the following from John McPhee in his book Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process: “To lack confidence at the outset seems rational to me. It doesn’t matter that something you’ve done before worked out well. Your last piece is never going to write your next one for you” (McPhee 19). And it’s okay to feel unconfident as long as I don’t shy away.
In Big Magic, Gilbert reminds me that creativity is hard work and I am perfectly capable
of completing the projects I conceive of:
…this is how it feels to lead the faithful creative life: You try and try and try, and nothing
works. But you keep trying, and you keep seeking, and then sometimes, in the least
expected place and time, it finally happens. You make the connection. Out of nowhere, it
all comes together. Making art does sometimes feel like you’re holding a séance or like
you’re calling out in the night for a wild animal on the prowl. What you’re doing seems impossible and even silly, but then you hear the thunder of hooves, and some beautiful
beast comes rushing into the glade, searching for you just as urgently as you have been
searching for it. (Gilbert 195)
In the last couple of months, I’ve been working more consistently than I ever have in my artistic life, and I believe it is because I’ve come to terms with the artistic existence I’ve chosen, embracing curiosity and the deliberateness it takes to pursue my craft. Gilbert writes, “Curiosity is the truth and the way of creative living. Curiosity is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end…curiosity only ever asks one simple question: ‘Is there anything you’re interested in?’” (237-238). To that I say, “Of course there is!”
If I’ve decided to pursue my curiosities by writing (and I have!), then I need to sit down
and do it, even when it’s hard. Gilbert writes, “…how I choose to handle myself as a writer is entirely my own choice. I can make my creativity into a killing field, or I can make it into a really interesting cabinet of curiosities” (218). The best advice I’ve ever received was not about narrative structure or character development or style or voice. Those things come with time. The best advice came from my MFA thesis advisor, Mike Pearson, who told me, “Just keep writing. Most people quit. You’ll do just fine if you keep writing.” And he was right, of course. If I keep writing, reading, and sending out my work, everything is fine in the universe. I continue to navigate the labyrinth of curiosity, grow as a human being and writer, and have creative breakthroughs I wouldn’t have had otherwise. “I believe,” Gilbert writes, “that our creativity grows like sidewalk weeds out of the cracks between our pathologies—not from our pathologies themselves” (211).
I’ve come to believe the following from Gilbert: “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” (12). Why would I choose to be miserable when I can choose to live in that space of curiosity and wonder?