When Sylvia Plath wrote her perennial classic The Bell Jar, we imagine she was overcome by a burning passion for her subject, that she was obsessed with the repressive patriarchy of the 1950s, mental hospitals and electro-shock treatments. But what if she wasn’t immediately infatuated with her concept? What if The Bell Jar began as a simple attempt to recreate that “queer, sultry summer” in 1953 when she was a guest editor at Mademoiselle and the Rosenbergs were electrocuted?
I write often about how we romanticize the artist’s life. We glamorize the tired and trite “suffering artist” archetype, we worship the myth of the “muse.” But perhaps one of the most persistent (and pernicious) myths about art is that the artist only creates because he “has” to. To write— we think— the writer must be seized by a Big Idea. In a sudden burst of ecstatic inspiration, he has no choice but to obey the callings of the muse. His productivity is frenzied, fiery. He can’t sleep, he can’t eat. All his thoughts unceasingly circulate around one thing: his idea. His work most closely resembles a passionate love affair.
I myself rarely have this experience. Indeed, at first, I almost never am “in love” with an idea. A topic might interest me like a handsome, mysterious man in the corner of a bar. Do I want to dramatically kiss him like we’re Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca? No, but I’m intrigued enough to walk across the room, spark a conversation and buy him a beer.
In her wondrous Big Magic, the ever-endearing Elizabeth Gilbert makes an unconventional argument: if you want to write, you need curiosity, not passion. In our passion-crazed culture, we believe our work should be a consuming love affair as steamy as a clandestine kiss stolen in an elevator. However, our next idea rarely (if ever) arrives in a lighting bolt of inspiration— it comes in hints, murmurs, and whispers.
In one of my favorite chapters “The Scavenger Hunt,” Gilbert describes the process of writing her page-turning period piece The Signature of All Things, a tale of adventure and discovery that traces the story of Alma Whittaker, a brilliant botanist during the 19th century. Before she embarked on The Signature of All Things, Gilbert was experiencing a dry spell. What— she wondered for months— did she want to do next? Did she want to write a sweeping historical novel? a piece of non-fiction? another Eat, Pray, Love-style memoir?
Like many of us, Gilbert longed for irrepressible desire; she wanted her next project to give her goosebumps and butterflies, to sweep her off her feet, to court and woo her. When such an idea never came, she decided to settle for curiosity. Rather than wait for the idea to magically fall from the sky, she asked herself a simple question: was there anything she was interested in? anything at all? As Gilbert writes,
“I kept waiting for a big idea to arrive, and I kept announcing to the universe that I was ready for a big idea to arrive, but no big ideas arrived. There were no goose bumps, no hair standing on the back of my neck, no butterflies in my stomach. There was no miracle.
Most days, this is what life is like. I poked about for a while in my everyday chores— writing emails, shopping for socks, resolving small emergencies, sending out birthday cards. I took care of the orderly business of life. As time ticked by and an impassioned idea still hadn’t ignited me, I didn’t panic. Instead, I did what I have done so many times before: I turned my attention away from passion and toward curiosity.
I asked myself, Is there anything you’re interested in right now, Liz?
Even a tiny bit?
No matter how mundane or small?”
Once Gilbert decided to let go of the need for passion and instead follow her curiosity, she realized she was interested in something: gardening. Was she obsessed with gardening? Would she die for a field of red carnations? No, but she was curious. She had just moved to a small town in rural New Jersey and wanted to plant a garden. So she planted heirloom irises and lilacs and tulips. In the process, she discovered that many of the gorgeous flowers in her garden actually originated in faraway, exotic places. Her tulips were from Turkey; her irises were from Syria. Every little flower in her garden contained a history she had not been aware of.
The more Gilbert learned, the more her curiosity bloomed. She read books about botanists and explorers; she trekked across the globe from her small town in New Jersey to the horticultural libraries of England to the medieval pharmaceutical gardens of Holland to the moss-covered caves of Polynesia; she poured over historical documents and interviewed experts. Soon Gilbert was so fanatically obsessed with botanical history that she decided to write a book.
Had Gilbert disregarded her interest in gardening, she would have never written The Signature of All Things. As she confesses with equal parts humor and humility,
“It was a novel I never saw coming. It had started with nearly nothing. I did not leap into that book with my hair on fire; I inched toward it, clue by clue. But by the time I looked up from my scavenger hunt and began to write, I was completely consumed with passion about nineteenth-century botanical exploration. Three years earlier, I had never even heard of nineteenth-century botanical exploration— all I’d wanted was a modest garden in my backyard!— but now I was writing a massive story about plants, and science, and evolution, and abolition, and love, and loss, and one woman’s journey into intellectual transcendence.
So it worked. But it only worked because I said yes to every single tiny clue of curiosity.”
If you’re feeling stuck and having trouble choosing your next project, heed Ms. Gilbert’s advice: stop romanticizing the drama and excitement of passion and instead follow the not-so-obvious clues of your curiosity.