“We all spend our twenties and thirties trying so hard to be perfect, because we’re so worried about what people will think of us. Then we get into our forties and fifties, and we finally start to be free, because we decide that we don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of us. But you won’t be completely free until you reach your sixties and seventies, when you finally realize this liberating truth–nobody was ever thinking about you anyhow. –Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic
I’ve never read Eat Pray Love, and when I saw the movie in theaters I thought it the most painful experience (if I don’t count seeing Eyes Wide Shut with my father in the theater–now that is torture). However, I was a part of group of literary types who thought we were cool for shooting someone else down. We thought Gilbert frivolous, privileged, deserving of side-eyes and media roasts–and we hadn’t even read her book. We eviscerated a stranger who was brave enough to wake in her sleeping life and see an entire book through–all because she didn’t write the big books, the important books.
Whatever the fuck that means.
For much of my twenties (and I dare say my early thirties), I was a judgmental asshole who surrounded myself with other judgmental assholes. It’s true, you are the company you keep. We thought ourselves smarter than everyone else; we were insufferable, self-indulgent, ANNOYING. Art wasn’t art unless you were creating something important, something that would endure, even if the judgment of that art is wholly subjective. Even if the books we revered were ridiculed in their time but went on to mark the period in which they were published. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was laughed off the Parisian stage and yet it’s one of Beckett’s most memorable plays. How could one predict which stories will endure?
So I dare say that much of that vitriol toward Gilbert was rooted in jealousy over her sweeping success, and the fact that we were angry that our weird little books didn’t reach quite as large of an audience. We were only privy to the success, not the lifelong struggle that accompanies it, because people don’t want the ache, boredom, frustration, and pain–they only ferret out the fairytale ending. They crave the fanfare and confetti of the overnight success without realizing that it’s a myth. We were also frustrated that our cultural was shifting from type to reality television; everyone became tethered to their devices and their emails and social media networks were phantom limbs. Pay no mind that people have been bemoaning low culture since Shakespeare. Pay no attention to the fact that us literary types tinkered with our phones at book parties and readings.
In an 1978 interview with Rolling Stone, Susan Sontag rallied against the mythical divide between high and low culture. For her, there was no high/low, right/wrong books, rather we needed to absorb the totality of experience to create meaningful work. Sontag said,
I really believe in history; that’s something people don’t believe in anymore. I have very few beliefs, but this is certainly one: that most everything we think of as natural is historical and has roots — specifically in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, the so-called Romantic revolutionary period. We’re still essentially dealing with expectations and feelings formulated at that time. So when I go to a Patti Smith concert, I enjoy, participate, appreciate and am tuned in better because I’ve read Nietzsche. –Susan Sontag
This isn’t to say that Elizabeth Gilbert is low brow, at all (and who cares if she is?), this is more about us judgmental assholes who were myopic in our world view. We forgot that those who we revere created their work not in a vacuum, but in observation of everything in the world around them. Most of the writers we treasured barely finished high school.
It took me a really long time to change. And even now I sometimes fight the knee-jerk impulse to judge the low. It’s hard, but I remind myself that what we need is balance and contrast. We need our world to be complex, strange, insufferable and interesting for it to be remarkable. I’m reminded of that Twilight Zone episode, “Mind Over Matter,” where a curmudgeonly man, Archibald Beechcroft, uses his mind to rid the world of people. And when he populates New York with photocopies of himself (because he can only truly tolerate fellow Archibald Beechcrofts), his vision come to pass startles him. A world full of Archibald Beechcrofts is an insufferable one, and in the end, he returns the world to what it was–even if most of it annoys him.
It took me years to enjoy low-brow without guilt, and it took me even longer to realize that if someone pours their heart into a work it doesn’t matter if it’s a pink book jacket or a dark one–what matters is that someone saw a story through. Because who really finishes anything? It’s noble to admire a fellow writer who’s able to write that book in small pockets of time during the day, and it’s cowardly to admonish him/her for the kind of work they produce. If someone writes a mass-market thriller and it gives them joy, who am I to take that away?
What right do I have to judge the worth of someone else’s labor?
Today I read a post by Dr. Andrew Weil, on why he likes to cook–the alchemy of imagination and creation:
There is another reward of cooking that fascinates and motivates me: it is excellent training in practical magic. By that I mean that cooking gives you a chance to practice the esoteric art of manifestation — bringing something from the imagination into physical reality. –Dr. Andrew Weil
It’s not about plating or cookbooks or competitions–Weil simply cares about creating something from nothing, and there’s nobility in that simple, tactile truth.
If you would’ve asked me five years ago if I would write a blog post inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert, I would’ve thought you INSANE, however, Big Magic is a real treasure. I like it because it’s simple, honest. Where so many other self-help books focus on a platform, use jargon that serves only to distance writer from reader, and I invariably feel empty, sold-to. With Gilbert, I felt as if she were in my home, whispering courage in my ear. Take your work seriously, but PLEASE do not take yourself seriously. Because my writing a novel is not going to save lives and cure cancer.
And about that elusive success? No one really enjoys insane fame and fortune and if that’s your motivation to create art, you really need to think about your life. Even if we’re not going to win big, that doesn’t mean we completely take ourselves out of the game. In Play it as it Lays, BZ folds. And even though the game is rigged and L.A. is a wasteland, Maria keeps on playing. Because Kate, because why not?
In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert shares her insights, tools and stories on how we can truly live our most creative life. Fear? Have it come along for the ride but never let it take the wheel. Perfection? It doesn’t exist, rather focus on being done. The tortured artist? Stop this. Who wants to consciously inflict pain on ourselves? Gilbert shares how one can be confident, inspired, and passionate about their work and generating ideas. And even though I’m nearly 40 and have published, I still found her words inspiring. A yoga teacher once told me that the mark of an advanced practitioner is someone who doesn’t have an ego about returning to a basics class. The advanced yogi re-learns downward-facing dog. An advanced yogi knows the hardest pose isn’t handstand, but savasana. We never stop learning, and sometimes it’s important to return to the core, the fundamentals, and I feel as if Gilbert gives us that through the lens of someone who knows how to tell stories.
This is a world, not a womb. You can look after yourself in this world while looking after your creativity at the same time — just as people have done for ages. –Elizabeth Gilbert
Up until last year I really cared what strangers thought of me. I was wounded when they hated my writing or my book. I was hurt when former coworkers unfollowed me on Twitter. And then it occurred to me that it took a lot of time and energy shouldering other people’s opinions of me and my work. People will always find a reason to pull out their scalpel and do their picking. They’ll always hate something about you or what you do for a lot of reasons. Calling it jealousy would be simplistic and reductive because feedback is not always related to envy, but I realized I’m human and I’m flawed like everyone else. There are aspects of my personality that even I don’t like, so how do I even think that I’m able to control other’s opinions of me if I’m admittedly a work in progress? Did Elizabeth Gilbert care that people HATED Eat Pray Love? No. She kept on working.
I’m fresh out of fucks.
I don’t care if people hate me, hate my writing. I have a tough book coming out next year and I’m sure some people will hate it. I write things here that people will hate. I cook food that people will hate. I have friends that people don’t like. But I DON’T CARE.
Here’s what I care about:
I care about enjoying the work I do. I spent over two and a half years on my novel and I learned so much from the process, and that won’t be erased by someone’s opinion of the work. What matters is that I created something I loved; I saw a story through. I care about being a good friend to the people in my life–I hold myself accountable to them. And if I’m not being a good person or a good friend, I rely on the people whom I love to give me that feedback. I take that which is constructive to work on getting better because we’re always learning and growing, and I can’t spend my time on people who will never like me regardless of how hard I try.
Not only did the plot of my third novel crystallize while I was reading Big Magic, but I finished the book feeling liberated. I felt I’d granted myself permission to take in what is necessary, all that matters, and discard that which doesn’t.
All I can do is keep writing, keep learning, keep moving and see what happens. I can’t believe how excited I am to be turning 40 this year!
Quote Image Credit: Elizabeth Gilbert