Elizabeth Gilbert on the Scavenger Hunt of Curiosity

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?

Anything?

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.

Elizabeth Gilbert: What’s Your Favorite Flavor of Shit Sandwich?

In her radiant, resplendent Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert, who taught us how to embrace the paradoxical principles of creative living and rejoice in the marvels and mysteries of existence, tells the story of one of her friends who was an aspiring writer.  Much like her, he wanted nothing more than to be published.  Despite his determination, the only thing in his mailbox were rejections.  As time went on, the young writer got more and more discouraged.  What was the point?  Why write at all if he wasn’t going to “make” something of it?  “I don’t want to be just sitting around,” he grumbled to Gilbert, “I want this to all add up to something.  I want this to become my job!”  Tormented by the thought that all his hard work would come to “nothing,” the young writer sank into a serious depression.  Eventually, he put down his pen and paper and gave up.

Why did this young man stop writing?  Simple: he wasn’t willing to eat the shit sandwich.

What’s a shit sandwich?

The shit sandwich is a concept Ms. Gilbert borrowed from the four-letter-word-loving provocateur Mark Manson.  The idea goes that anything worthwhile comes with its own stinky brand of shit sandwich.  Every relationship, every city, every job, every profession has disadvantages.

The man of your dreams may possess everything you’ve ever wanted— a sharp mind, a good sense of humor, a gentle, sensitive nature— but have one serious flaw; perhaps he has an obnoxious obsession with recounting movie plots or has children from a previous partner.

The city you’ve always romanticized may be picturesque on postcards but have sidewalks littered with heroin needles and a serious homeless problem.

No matter how glittery or glamorous a job may seem, there will always be tedious things lurking beneath its glossy exterior.  A fashion editor, for instance, may get free Prada handbags and sip champagne in chiffon, but she may also have to work on a tight deadline and deal with constantly being chewed out by her tyrannical boss.  A famous musician may get to play in front of thousands of screaming fans but also have to live out of a suitcase on a tour bus.  A doctor may possess the prestige of a PhD and make a six figure salary, but also have to rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt before he can call himself a doctor.  As Gilbert writes:

“What Manson means is that every single pursuit…comes with its own brand of shit sandwich, its own lousy side effects.  As Manson writes with profound wisdom, “Everything sucks, some of the time.”  You just have to decide what sort of suckage you’re willing to deal with.  So the question is not so much ‘What are you passionate about?’  The question is ‘What are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?'”

elizabeth gilbert #2

Gilbert’s friend claimed he wanted to be a writer but he wasn’t willing to do what it took to be a writer.  The demoralizing rejection letters, the lack of respect or recognition, the concerned looks of sensible relatives: this is the stomach-churning shit you have to eat if you want to be a writer.  Writing isn’t just Pulitzer prizes and interviews with Oprah: it’s years of toiling away in obscurity, it’s hurtful criticism, it’s losing contest after contest, it’s impersonal form rejection letters.  But if you love writing— or anything— enough, you can tolerate the shit sandwich that accompanies your sumptuous feast of a three-course dinner.  The joy of writing— of simply putting one word against another— makes up for the heartbreaking years of being a nobody and the sting of a harsh review in the New Yorker.

The Paradoxical Principles of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Philosophy of Creativity

When we talk about our writing lives, we often exist in the confining black and white binary of either/or.

Either we write the next Great American Novel or a trashy paperback. 

Either we quit our jobs and be “real” artists or suffer the soul-sucking 9-to-5 and slowly lose our will to live in a dreary gray cubicle

Either we write a massively successful New York Times best seller or fail.

Either we’re darlings of the critics or dismissed, shunned and ignored. 

Either we catapult to literary superstardom or toil away for years, pathetic and unknown. 

Either art sparks revolutions, changes people’s lives and makes a difference in the world or it sits, limpid and lifeless, on book shelves and gallery walls. 

Either art expands our hearts and stirs our souls or provides momentary entertainment— nothing more.

Either what we create matters or it doesn’t matter at all.

However if we are to live a creative life, bubbly, buoyant Elizabeth Gilbert suggests we should embrace the puzzling paradox of “and” and reject the overly simplistic mindset of “either/or.”  Much like Gretchen Rubin, who observed that the opposite of a great truth is also true, Gilbert believes two contradictory ideas can be correct at the same time.  Art is useless and worthwhile.  Composing a poem is not nearly as important as stopping global warming or finding a cure for cancer and it’s just as crucial.  Sonnets and symphonies are both pointless pleasures and nourishment for the soul.  Making things is a frivolous pastime and a miracle.

elizabeth gilbert signature of all things

In the conclusion to her gleeful guide to creative living Big Magic, which I’ve reread at least once a year since first discovering it three years ago, Gilbert shares her creative manifesto:

           “Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.

           What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all.

           We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits.

           We are terrified, and we are brave.

           Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.

           Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.”

In the end, if you want to write (or paint or sculpt or film or draw or sew), you must love your work deeply yet regard it lightly, you must take what you do seriously yet not care about it at all.  Writing a sentence, you consider each word: its meaning, its melody, its connotations, its tone.  In much the same way a chef considers whether his roasted duck will pair well with Merlot, you select your sentences with care and savor the sumptuous feast of your every word.  However— if after all your labor— you realize what you wrote doesn’t work, you’re willing to send it to the chopping block and start over.  As Gilbert says with refreshing irreverence, what we create is sacred and not sacred: our words are just words.

Big Magic is as indispensable to a writer’s library as The Artist’s Way, as wondrous as If You Want to Write, and as consoling and comforting as Bird by Bird.  Want more maps to chart the at times difficult writing life?  Read Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments, Brenda Ueland on why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies and Rilke on how to know you’re an artist and why you must be patient if you’re going to lead a creative life.

3 Revolutionary Scientists’ Rituals & Routines

Here are the rituals and routines of yet 3 more remarkable people profiled in Mason Currey’s delightful Daily Rituals:

1. Charles Darwin

At the ripe age of 22, Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle and set sail for the Galapagos.  At this time, his life was romantic and adventure-filled: he traveled to faraway lands with foreign customs and strange people who spoke in even stranger languages, marveled at the boundless biodiversity of our improbable blue planet, studied his now famous finches and began to formulate his earth-shattering theory of evolution.

However, his life while actually writing On the Origins of Species was rather dull by comparison.  To escape the commotion of city life and work without disturbance, Darwin and his family left London in 1842 and moved to the quaint English countryside.  There they made their home at Down House, a former parsonage in Kent, about 14 miles southeast of London’s Charing Cross.  Darwin loved his secluded home— the “edge of the world” he called it— because he could be alone with his controversial thoughts.  He knew his theory of evolution would cause an uproar.  Not only did his thesis directly contradict a literal interpretation of the Bible, it suggested that man, who was supposedly created in the image of God, was just another beast in the animal kingdom.  Man descended from monkeys?  He knew such a blasphemous notion would cause an outcry and potentially ruin his career (time proved Mr. Darwin right; after he published his theory, one critic raged, “Darwin’s story begins in the mud, has a monkey in the middle and an infidel at the tail.”)

Still, Darwin worked steadily in secret on his ideas.  At Down House, Darwin led a simple, solitary life.  After waking, eating breakfast and taking a morning stroll, the great scientist settled into work.  There he labored for an hour and a half before meeting his wife, Emma, in the drawing room, where she’d read him the family letters and a portion of a novel.  At 10:30, Darwin returned to his study and worked for another hour and a half, which he considered a good day’s work.

Much like Wordsworth and Thoreau, the father of evolution understood the importance of idleness to creativity and made time for long, meandering walks throughout the day with Polly, his beloved fox terrier.  Afternoons were reserved for leisurely lunches with his family and letter writing (Darwin made an effort to respond to every letter he received no matter how nonsensical or crazy); if he didn’t reply to even a single missive, he’d feel so guilty, he couldn’t get to sleep).  In the evening, he’d have a small dinner (even if his family was indulging in a luxurious feast, he’d only have tea, an egg or small piece of meat), smoke a cigarette or two, play backgammon with his wife and then read and retire to bed around 10:30.

2. Albert Einstein

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Perhaps the most influential scientist of all time, Albert Einstein was many things: groundbreaking physicist, champion of the imagination, unwavering believer in human goodness, unapologetic individualist, passionate pacifist, stanch defender of free speech and civil liberty.  In addition to discovering E = mc2 and developing his groundbreaking theory of relativity, he made great contributions to human thought and philosophy. 

When Hitler rose to power and the threat of war began to darken the continent in 1933, Einstein fled to the United States where he joined the faculty at Princeton University.  There, he followed a predictable routine: he read the papers and ate a breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, and honey, then headed to the office.  At 1:30, he returned home for lunch and an afternoon nap.  The rest of the day, Einstein worked, answered letters, and occasionally entertained.

Despite his legendary life, Einstein’s day-to-day wasn’t particularly noteworthy.  Like most remarkable men throughout history, his life wasn’t glamorous or thrilling, filled with fascinating people, faraway places and glittering parties— it was single-mindedly focused on his work which— from the outside— doesn’t look all that interesting.  Picasso could delight in a dinner party now and again, but preferred to paint in his quiet studio in MontparnasseMatisse worked 7 days a week, only taking a brief respite to oar in the harbor and play violinWhen he wasn’t revolutionizing modern poetry, T.S. Eliot was wearing a suit and tie and working a rather regular job at a bank.  As philosopher Bertrand Russell once observed so astutely, “Altogether it will be found that a quiet life is characteristic of great men, and that their pleasures have not been of the sort that would look exciting.”

Indeed, Einstein preferred to do certain things the same way everyday to save valuable time and energy.  Rather than squander a precious hour debating whether to wear a button down shirt or a cashmere sweater, Einstein bought several versions of the same gray suit so he had a “uniform” he could wear everyday.  “The same exact thing…everyday?” you fashionistas may be gasping in horror, “How boring!”  Though his unrelentingly gray wardrobe might seem dreary, Einstein understood life was full of decisions: better to automate as many unimportant ones as possible so you can focus on what truly matters: your mission.  Steve Jobs and his black turtleneck.  Mark Zuckerberg and his uber-casual Silicon Valley uniform of a tee shirt and jeans.  If you want to found a multi-billion dollar company or unlock the scientific mysteries of the universe, the idea goes, simplify your wardrobe and streamline your routine.

3. Margaret Mead

margaret mead

Like most productive people from Joyce Carol Oates to Stephen King, cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead was deeply devoted to her work.  Endlessly energetic, Mead was always working on something, be it her revolutionary study of adolescence in the South Pacific in her controversy-stirring book Coming of Age in Samoa or her PhD.

Mead’s life is a testament to what positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discovered in his fascinating study of “flow”: we’re happiest not when we’re relaxing in leisure but when we’re engaged in something difficult and worthwhile.  Mrs. Mead despised being unproductive and hated nothing more than frittering away hours.  So protective was she of her time that she became enraged at anyone who disrupted her schedule.  On one occasion at a symposium, Mead was outraged to learn that a session had been postponed.  “How dare they,” she exclaimed, “Do they realize what use I could have made of this time?  Do they know that I get up at five o’ clock in the morning to write a thousand words before breakfast?  Why did nobody have the politeness to tell me this meeting had been rescheduled?”

3 Writers Who Had Day Jobs

“Follow your dreams.”  “Take risks.”  “Be brave.”  In hopeful America where ambition is as tall as the Empire State Building, we romanticize the risk-takers who take big, bold steps toward their dreams: the aspiring novelists who quit their soul-sapping day jobs to toil away in anonymity, the artists who sacrifice everything.  We want grand gestures done in the name of creativity: a Leo Tolstoy who sacrifices his material possessions to go on a spiritual quest, a Van Gogh who devotes his life to his art, despite the fact that he can never make a living from his paintings.

In our cultural consciousness, being an artist means living in a bohemian studio in Brooklyn or Montparnasse and leading a Dionysian life of cheap wine, cocaine and excess.  An artist can’t work a conventional job at a bank or an insurance company, he certainly can’t have a normal, quiet life and rejoice in the trappings of the middle-class bourgeoisie.

To be a “real” writer, you have to write full time and make money from your writing.  Working a regular 9-to-5 job while pursuing your art on the side is seen as cowardly.  After all, shouldn’t a “real” writer fearlessly pursue his dreams instead of care too much about practical matters like mortgage payments and 401ks?

But nothing is more damaging to the muse than demanding she support you financially.  No matter how much we glamorize the myth of the starving artist, there’s nothing glamorous about stressing about money.  Buoyant spirit and overall beautiful human being Elizabeth Gilbert is a passionate champion of working to provide for your creativity.  Before she wrote her blockbuster bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, she worked countless jobs to sustain herself while writing.  At various points in her life, she was a tutor, a cook, a waitress, a bartender.  At fifteen, she made a pact with her creativity: “I will never ask you to support me financially.  I will support both of us.”  Instead of “be brave” and quit her day job, Gilbert worked so she could pay the rent and focus on what really mattered: her art.

Despite the destructive myth that being a “real” writer means writing for a living, Mason Currey’s “delightful book of quirks and oddities,” Daily Rituals reveals many of the most distinguished writers held ordinary occupations during the day.  Below are three world class writers who had regular jobs despite their massive success in writing:

1. T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

Is there anything less poetic than working at bank?  Yet titan of modernist poetry T.S. Eliot worked as a clerk at London’s Lloyd’s Bank for nearly a decade.  From 1917-1925 in between writing some of the most revolutionary poetry of the century, Eliot wore a pin-striped suit, parted his hair seriously to one side and worked what would appear to be a rather dull office job in the bank’s foreign transactions department.  Like the rest of us bread-and-butter slaves, he commuted on a crowded train every morning (“I am sojourning among the termites,” he wrote to British writer and critic Lytton Strachey) and worked Monday through Friday from 9:15-5:30.

The banker’s life may have lacked the thrill and romance of the poet’s, but Eliot was grateful for a steady paycheck and reliable gig.  Before his job at Lloyd’s, he worked as a teacher at Highgate School where he taught French and Latin.  To subsidize his meager income, he wrote book reviews and lectured at evening extension courses at Oxford and University College London.  Not only was teaching exhausting, it narrowly paid the bills and barely left him enough time for his true calling.  Therefore, when he got the position at Lloyd’s, Eliot was overjoyed.  Two days after receiving the appointment, he wrote his mother, “I am now earning two pounds ten shillings a week for sitting in an office from 9:15 to 5:00 with an hour for lunch, and tea served in office…Perhaps it will surprise you that I enjoy the work.  It is not nearly so fatiguing as school teaching and it is more interesting.”

Though Eliot did eventually leave his bourgeois job at the bank for a more “literary” position as an editor at Faber and Gwyer (later Faber and Faber), his years at Lloyd’s helped him establish himself as a writer.  Had he not had the stability afforded by a 9-to-5 job, perhaps Eliot would have never written “The Wasteland” or been able to show us fear in a handful of dust.

2. Wallace Stevens

Profile of Wallace Stevens Smiling

Wallace Stevens was yet another poet who spent his days in a gray-colored cubicle.  Rather than chase his literary dreams after graduating from Harvard, Stevens took his father’s advice and made the sensible choice to attend law school.  He later accepted a position at Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, where his main responsibility was evaluating insurance claims as an insurance lawyer.  Stevens was so successful that he was promoted to vice president of the company in 1934. 

Though it’s hard to imagine a poet indulging in trivial office gossip around the water cooler, Stevens loved the stability of the corporate 9-to-5.  “I find that having a job is one of the best things in the world that could happen to me,” he once confessed, “It introduces discipline and regularity into one’s life.”

Many of us think that to write you need yawning vistas of time: a year long sabbatical, an entire summer, at least an afternoon of uninterrupted hours.  However, we’re often more productive when we have more— not fewer— demands on our time.  When you have a full-time job, you have to make time to write.  Stevens, for example, would write poetry on long walks during his lunch hour (like Henry David Thoreau and William Wordsworth before him, he knew walking was the fertile soil where the seeds of great ideas were planted).  When inspiration unexpectedly struck at the office, Stevens would scribble fragments of poems onto bits of paper, file them in the lower right-hand drawer of his desk, and have his secretary type them.

Like Eliot, Stevens kept a day job because he didn’t want to worry about dollars and cents.  We may romanticize poets who die destitute in garrets, but there’s nothing romantic about being penniless.  In fact, money troubles distract from creativity and cause enormous stress.  Stevens’ substantial salary as a lawyer ($20,000 a year, equivalent to about $350,000 today) promised money— or lack of it— never interfered with his poetry.  “I am just as free as I want to be and of course I have nothing to worry about money,” Stevens once wrote, grateful for his days at the office.

3. Anthony Trollope

Many know that Anthony Trollope was one of the most prolific writers of all time, but fewer know that he wrote many of his 47 novels, 42 short stories and 5 travel books while employed.  From 1834 to 1867, the English novelist worked as a civil servant at the General Post Office and only wrote in the three hours before dressing for breakfast.

Trollope’s routine was strict and unvarying.  In his Autobiography, he admitted, “I allowed myself no mercy.”  Every morning— no matter what— he rose at 5:30 and began working.  To hold himself accountable, he paid an old butler 5 pounds to wake up with him and bring him coffee.  “I owe more to him than to any one else for the success that I have had,” Trollope once said, half-seriously.

With only a few hours before he had to be at the post office, Trollope required himself to produce at least 250 words every quarter of an hour.  By the end of the morning, he’d have written a whole 10 pages of a novel, a pace— if sustained— that would result in 2,400 pages, or several lengthy novels, by the end of a year.

Trollope’s dedication to his craft was no doubt influenced by his mother, who took up writing later in life to support her six children and Trollope’s ailing father.  Like most women throughout history, Mrs. Trollope was primarily responsible for housework and child-rearing.  To be able to write and still fulfill her domestic duties, she rose before sunrise everyday.  Both Trollope and his mother are proof that if you really want to write, you can find the time…even if it’s at 5:30 in the morning.