My mother Alice Pfeif was an artist. In middle age when all her daughters were grown and gone, she blossomed as a painter. A deep lover of horses and most animals, Mom painted hundreds of pictures of animals using photos and her imagination. Gradually she evolved into sculpting, working with paper, clay and bronze. Although she sometimes created art true to life, nearly half the time she made playful, funny art with animals doing unexpected things. One of her best was a huge circus elephant sitting on a couch with a trainer holding court. Unfortunately, her art teacher at the time had the gall to tell her that her elephant sculpture wasn’t art at all. He claimed, “Art is supposed to be serious!” Fortunately, she ignored him, entered the piece in a local art show, and won first place. Although I was oblivious at the time, I now know my mom created her art with tremendous courage and stubborn delight. I desperately hope to follow her example.
Still, while I applauded my mother’s artistic urges, I didn’t always understand them. One piece, a small paper horse sitting on a toilet with his hind legs crossed reading a book insulted my young adult sensibilities. But after I read the recent book Big Magic by author Elizabeth Gilbert, I discovered a deeper appreciation for both my mother and myself. Not that our creations are necessarily masterpieces, but because we both found the courage to offer our art to the world in the first place and in spite of what others said. While Mom did eventually sell some of her art, she never, ever, EVER did it for the money. Mom made art because as a creative person she enjoyed the process and wanted to contribute something unique to the world. According to Gilbert, every single one of us ought to do the same.
As a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert, it’s no surprise that I loved her new book. What was surprising was how deeply it resonated with so many of my beliefs about creativity and life in general. Here are ten of the most powerful messages I found in her book.
#1 Living creatively is what separates “a mundane existence from a more
enchanted one.” Regardless of what we do to express our creativity—and yes every single human on the planet is a “creator” of some sort—having the courage to manifest those gifts is the only thing that keeps our lives from being small and routine.
#2 Fear is normal when you create anything new—but it should never stop us from living creatively in all things.
What we are striving for is not fearlessness, but instead the courage to embrace the creative edge of something new and uncertain wanting to be born through us. Is it scary to live with such uncertainty? Yes! But as Gilbert says, “…if you can’t learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you’ll never be able to go anywhere interesting or do anything interesting….we simply do not have time anymore to think so small.”
#3 Ideas are energy and information seeking to be made manifest with anyone open and receptive to their call. Most people treat creative ideas like a scarce commodity similar to precious jewels that are exceedingly rare and finite. Instead, Gilbert teaches that ideas are fluid and abundant, with more than enough for all of us if we stay accessible and willing to share them with our world.
#4 We don’t need anyone’s permission to create. As most of us know, the world is constantly attempting to make us conform. It asks, “Who are you to think you can write, paint, cook, build, etc., etc.? The world is perfectly happy making us believe we need its permission to do whatever we feel inspired to do. But we don’t need its permission. Let me repeat that. We don’t. According to Gilbert, “The earliest evidence of recognizable human art is forty thousand years old.” Was it any good? Who cares? People have always wanted to create things that never existed before and “for most of history people just made things, and they didn’t make such a big freaking deal out of it.” Just by being alive, each of us owns the right and privilege to express ourselves creatively any way we choose.
#5 Your art doesn’t have to be important. Simply put, we don’t have to justify our desire to create. Mom tried to show me this, but it took Elizabeth Gilbert to drive the message home. Mom made the kind of art she liked and proudly hung it all over her house and populated her yard with an assortment of characters. Another couple of falsehoods we all too commonly believe is that art has to be unique and earth-shattering. Who says? And while it’s okay to want that for our art, if we let those beliefs hold us back (or anyone else we know) from creating, then we stifle ourselves. Instead, create what we want for the shear joy of creating something that pleases us—and then yes, sometimes others will be pleased too.
#6 Art is a paradox that matters intensely and at the same time, not at all. Although I have not found where this originated from, I’ve always been drawn to the idea of, “Act as though the future of the world depends upon every one of your actions, all the while laughing at yourself for thinking you could make a difference.” Gilbert confirms that with, “The fact that I get to spend my life making objectively useless things means that I don’t live in a post apocalyptic dystopia. It means I am not exclusively chained to the grind of mere survival. It means we have a enough space left in our civilization for the luxuries of imagination and beauty and emotion—and even frivolousness.”
#7 Create because of the gifts and benefits it brings to your life, NOT to make money. In other words, if you don’t love your creative outlet, don’t do it. Find something else. Gilbert is extremely clear that the artist’s life is not about creating things so you can eek out a living. She says, “…to yell at your creativity saying, ‘You must earn money for me!’ is sort of like yelling at a cat; it has no idea what you are talking about.” Instead, Gilbert claims that she took various other jobs while perfecting her craft, in order to keep her creativity free and safe. She advises we do the same. Never hold our creativity hostage when it comes to money.
#8 The creativity within us longs to be made manifest in our lives. Another
quote I’ve always loved comes from the Gospel of Thomas found in the Nag Hammadi Text. It says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Gilbert, who refers to this quote, goes on to say, “Not expressing creativity turns people crazy.” Instead, like my mom, we should all just make our art whether or not anyone else gets it in order to keep ourselves sane.
#9 Art does not require that we suffer unless we believe it does. One of my personal philosophies is that we are all co-creators with life. We get to “make it up” at least in our own minds. Gilbert insists that it is a great fallacy to believe that anyone has to suffer to create. She goes on to say, “ If you are going to live your life based on delusions (and you are, because we all do), then why not at least select a delusion that is helpful?” In other words, learn to love your creativity, enjoy the process, and embrace the incredible gift it brings to your life.
#10 Curiosity is the secret to creativity. Even further, Gilbert says, “Curiosity is the truth and the way of creative living. Curiosity is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.” Don’t wait for passion to inspire you, just follow anything that tickles your curiosity. Like a scavenger hunt, follow your curiosity and you’ll likely be amazed at the richness you discover.
Many more golden nuggets from Gilbert’s book are floating around in my head and offering inspiration. But more than anything, I appreciate how she reminded me of my mother and her art. Mom had very little formal training, but she didn’t care. Throughout her life, she only sold a few of her pieces—but again she didn’t care. The outcome of her creations didn’t matter—mom created because it brought her stubborn delight. In the end, maybe it comes down to knowing that the right question isn’t, “What would you do if you could not fail?” Instead, the SMART question could be the one Gilbert asks, “What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail?” Whatever you answer is what you came here to create.