Recently I have been reading what has become my new favourite book: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic – a book on how to live creatively and courageously.
Both myself and Elizabeth are on personal journeys with writing but the same principles apply to any art form from pottery to pole dancing to playing in a rock band. The outward medium you use to express your inward humanity is less significant than the human journey pursuing creativity takes you on- we all experience inspiration, passion and fulfilment as well as frustration, disappointment and at times maybe even painful soul searching in pursuing our creative endeavours.
The book in summary: Create what you enjoy for your own pleasure and live in the joy of transporting your thoughts into physical form regardless of whether that pays the bills.
Not beating about the bush, Liz lays our options out for us: We may believe in the right to create simply for our own enjoyment or we may associate creating with inner turmoil and pain – to ‘enter a contract of creative suffering’ and become another archetypal tormented artist:
‘Jealously compete with your peers; begrudge anyone else’s victories; proclaim yourself cursed by your talents; attach your self worth to external rewards; be arrogant when you are successful and self pitying when you fail; honour darkness above light; die young; blame creativity for having killed you.’
When presented this brutally to us the idea of choosing artistic suffering is laughable, yet it is easy to recognise in myself (and perhaps it will also be for you too) ways in which my desire to create has devolved into becoming a creator of my own misery.
As a 23 year old who has sometimes considered the physical progress her life path less than ideal I found immense comfort in Gilbert’ recounting of her 20s, working in various day jobs from the flea market to bartending in order to save money. She would then travel to feed her inspiration, taking notes everywhere and collecting rejection letters but fiercely refusing to give in, knowing that her commitment to write was lifelong.
Now at age 47 she has published 7 books, has a hit podcast Magic Lessons and her bestseller Eat, Pray, Love has spent over 200 weeks as a New York Times Bestseller! Undoubtedly this is a phenomenal outward success but despite this she emphasises of Big Magic:
I did not write this book for you; I wrote it for me because I truly enjoy thinking about the topic of creativity… If what I’ve written here ends up helping you… that would be a wonderful side effect. But at the end of the day I do what I do because I like doing it.
Another few choice words of relevance here from American novelist Toni Morrison:
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
My own personal abbreviation around the theme of writing for self expression over proft and recognition is
Write what you need to write for yourself.
It’s cliched but true that writing can be therapeutic to the soul. To have our ideas on paper can free us from them – we can examine them from another perspective and see things about them that was never clear when they were chained to our consciousness. It’s as if we and the thought were once conjoined twins but the act of pen to paper frees the idea to become a separate entity with a life of its own.
Gilbert indeed describes this phenomenon in her own words:
Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life form. They are completely separate from us yet capable of interacting with us – albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness and they do most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest…. The idea, sensing your openness, will start to do its work with you. It will send the universal physical and emotional signals of inspiration (the chills up the arms, the hair standing up on the back of the neck, the nervous stomach, the buzzy thoughts, that feeling of falling in love or obsession…)
Writing is therapeutic in the same process as saying something aloud and hearing how ridiculous we sound. It’s realising our worries seem small and trivial yet comfortingly relatable. It’s fearfully confiding in a friend only to find them exclaim enthusiastically “THANK YOU. YES! ME TOO!”
I like to think of writing as throwing a fishing hook into my mind and pulling out the creatures I no longer want to live there. The thoughts once swimming in the darkness are brought to life- then the lake in my mind once again is tranquil.
I have recently been nudged by the universe to move towards the writing that I want to make. I’ve found myself becoming frustrated that the hours I put into sharing my mind creatively can go unnoticed.
Most of my life I have been writing for someone- writing school assignments, sending messages to friends… writing advice for people of certain demographics such as chronic and mental illnesses… I like to feel that my writing has a purpose- that it educates or inspires or brings positivity to people in some way. We all want to feel important and special in some way – that’s human nature.
But I have come to notice the pieces of writing that have moved others are the ones that also moved me – the pieces that I felt I had no choice but to write, the words that it felt I was compelled by some magic force outside of my own brain to bring to life. The things that I think are so important that I myself needed to hear them are often coincidentally the things that other people can experience most elation in exploring with us.
If you write for other people you will by default fail. When the words you intend for others are met by silence you will feel the crushing emptiness of bitter disappointment. Even if you are fortunate and your following grows and you are inundated with praise from your readers there is the inevitable dip that follows every great success. Your number one bestseller may not be followed by another bestseller. Your next album may be wildly unpopular. Your next blog post may get less likes than last. Every negative comment will be a resounding call of ‘You failed to make an impact. Your art is useless.’
This is the hole that I have found myself in – because I have been seeing my writing as a hand into the world and as a conversation. And this it can be – but we have to take care of our happiness first.
This is how I’m personally doing it:
At this point in my own writing I am at something of a crossroads. I have a series of novels that I have richly imagined but put aside as there are some plot holes and I don’t feel it is their proper time. I’ve been dealing with chronic illness and slowly recovering and I feel like something that I can write with more ease and that will take less time to complete is the best choice to ease me into having more of a schedule and to bolster my confidence in my productivity. I have a folder of poems that doesn’t yet feel full or ripe in style enough to consider publication and I add to that weekly. I also have three ideas for non fiction books – all of which span the self-development sphere. I intend to publish all three of them in some order unless something louder to my heart seizes me but knowing which one to begin to consistently commit to has been difficult. So instead or forcing myself to decide I have given myself the creative freedom to write ANYTHING. The peach notepad which was once exclusively a bucket list has become an amalgamation of short story, blog post ideas, spiritual musings and observations on humanity. I am rediscovering every scrap of my creative juice that was accidentally conceived such as old Twitter and Facebook statuses, advice I sent to friends, comments on Youtube and Tumblr and Reddit and tracing the trail of my thoughts across time in schoolbooks, notepads, folded up corners of leaflets. Anything that still sings to me I copy or print and place in a folder which truly represents my creative stamp. Not only does it give me fodder to copy and edit into new projects but it also allows me to see where my true passions lie – to see what I often did without even feeling I was trying. These were the things I passionately brought into existence without even being aware that I was producing material for a further future cause… the effortless creativity that we all embark on, often without our awareness. It can be in letters or doodles or even something as simple as rearranging the confetti on a table into a shape. But each of these fully immersed experiences show us something about the direction our creativity can take without the boundaries of money and recognition. They can help us find a niche or discover our true passions.
This has been immensely helpful for me as I often feel that my lateral thoughts are too disjointed and too abstract and envy the gushing, fierier, enthused tones of some writers. Now I can see that their way of expression isn’t always the best way to present my message and see the value of my natural tone for the thought-area I inhabit naturally: somewhere around the theme of understanding the truth of humanity, nature and existence and encouraging inward harmony as a tool to outwardly transform the world.
If you keep a journal or collect your thoughts in some way, have you identified your main interests or creative vocation?
If we want to enjoy a lifetime of writing we must be guided by that inner light. We have to learn to see those external rewards as the optional icing on the cake. We must instead live by the infamous quote: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’
As a point of interest, Gandhi’s actual words were:
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”
We must make the intent of our writing be to bring about the change in ourself that we wish for others: Write to share what you know not only to teach others but to teach yourself; Write about your incredible soul journey on your world travels so you may watch yourself grow and smile; Write your embarrassing story so you can laugh until your belly hurts; Write about your depression to understand your mind; Write the characters you would wish for yourself as friends or that carry your demons so you don’t have to.
There is a quote of mine that I shared to the internet that ironically, received little acknowledgement first time around. But life unravels in mysterious ways… And even if I am the only person who finds value in it, I think this is just what I need to hear right now:
Why would we not be writing for ourselves and our own joy? That is after all, what a child would do. Imagine the pride of a toddler presenting his stick man drawing to his mother and father. Unless his parents are to belittle his efforts as this young age he knows only the delight of his own creation. He draws out of no obligation to others- he answers only the obligation of his own pleasure. As adults we can become so distanced from the original intention we had for our creations, that is the state of flow- just being.
So why are we afraid to write for ourselves? Writing for ourselves is vulnerable and requires a fierce confidence that says our own purpose is not selfish but divine, that recognises that our inner world will be reflected outwards at every step. So we may as well do our best to take care of the inside – which in our life becomes the source of all things we experience. We must stubbornly say ‘my needs are need enough.’ If our writing does nothing but transform ourselves it has served its purpose for we cannot transform ourselves without transforming the world in some way even if quite by accident.
Writing for ourselves also requires us to withdraw our identify from the world of external things. It requires us to throw our hungry ego out the window, for it is the ego that demands for more views, more likes, more praise, more positive reviews, more fame and money in the bank.
No doubt if your first motivation was to become rich or famous, you would have abandoned the pursuit of writing long ago. There are far easier paths to either of those pursuits. No, part of you chose writing was possibly because of an awareness of some level of talent but primarily for the joy of finding letters to express the language of your soul. Possibly if writing or another creative pursuit is your career ambition you are wrestling between the desire for status and riches and for the freedom of living a life of flow.
What has perhaps helped me the most is reminding myself that any interpretation of my consciousness is not the consciousness itself. Even if I were to get the most dreadful review possible, one which told me in magnificent language that I was the most worst writer they ever encountered, complete with impressively specific personal attacks, I could become aware that this opinion, like every opinion I receive, has filtered though each person’s specific biases. By the time our most precious thoughts are transformed from mind to paper to another eye and mind, their meanings and intentions have always to some degree become warped. Our own perceptions of reality, our own experiences and judgements will govern the message we receive when we attempt to take in another’s reality. Even on a basic sensory level we can tell that our perception is not reality as our view of the visible light spectrum is confined to only three colour receptors. Yet we know from scientific discovery that there are wavelengths such as ultraviolet and infrared that we cannot see. A mantis shrimp has twelve colour receptors in its eyes – I wonder how life looks to them! Imagine, there could even be an alien species out there that sees radio waves!
Though of course we can be gracious in our acceptance of constructive criticism, if we define our purpose for writing as improving our experience of life we will only let in comments which encourage ourselves and our life to flourish. Other comments can be irrelevant to your self worth only if your purpose is not to be loved, but to love what you do.
And if that isn’t your purpose, here’s some news you already know: Your worst fears are going to come true. Your writing will not always resonate with others. It will sometimes make them bored and even angry! They will scroll past your words and to some people your words will hold as much reverence as the pouring of crumbs into a bin.
But have you ever picked up money from the street? Have you ever thought that the item that went so unnoticed it could roll away from its owner has now become the fixation of your attention, even the highlight of your day?
Your words can be that note that brings a smile to one face but that receives indifference from another.
Does all of this mean that if you aren’t well received (or received at all) at present you should give up sharing your writing with the world or resign yourself to obscurity? Of course not. But chances are you didn’t come here for tips on how to advertise your writing. Of course there are many blogs that do an awesome job of this. One thing I will offer on a practical level however is this question:
Do you really believe that everyone in the world who might be interested what you have to say has had the chance to come across your work? If the answer is no then your effort to put yourself out there is not hopeless. Be persistent and get creative with the ways you distribute your creativity!
This article has been the advice I needed to give myself. What are some words you could gift yourself with?
Do you write or have any other form of art that you’d like to share? Leave a comment with your links below and we can all support each other!