March 24, 2017 by firstname.lastname@example.org
Perhaps you’re a creative type who’s been living under a rock for the last year and a half and haven’t yet read Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful book, Big Magic.
If so, please get thyself to the thy nearest local bookstore and make thyself right. Going to flip through the book and find, at random, various fantastic things I’ve underlined:
“If you’re 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?”
“My desire to work–my desire to engage with my creativity as intimately and as freely as possible–is my strongest personal incentive to fight back against pain, by any means necessary, and to fashion a life for myself that is as sane and healthy and stable as it can possibly be.”
“This is my question, and I think it’s a fair one: why would your creativity not love you? It came to you, didn’t it?”
Honestly, though, the title should be enough for you. “Creative Living Beyond Fear”. . . umm, yes please? It’s hard to think of a book as helpful to people who want to make things, whether professionally or just for fun. I also take it as a manual for sane living–i.e., living in which my emotions are oriented to wonder, love, and joy, rather than fear, anxiety, depression.
Anxiety and depression have been having quite a moment.
I mean, we all lived through 2016. Americans are living under T****. What a year it was–watching his political ascendancy, fearing what could happen, hoping beyond hope it wouldn’t. . .rationalizing, of course it won’t happen here. . .knowing that against, all the polls’ predictions, it could.
2016 was also my first year completely out of the workforce. I was home full-time, caring for my two mewling infants. To say that my mental health was pristine, given the rash of violent gun deaths, the rise of far right populist political figures (most notably a certain 45), the renewed focus on nuclear weapons–and me absorbing all of this, as if through my very skin without any adults to talk to and tasked with keeping two other humans alive in this terrifying dystopia?
It was rough.
I came back again and again to the wisdom in Big Magic. I was even more overjoyed to discover “Magic Lessons,” Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast in which she coaches creatives through various hurdles in their artistic lives and connects them with established artists in their chosen fields who have priceless wisdom to share.
This episode in particular, featuring the playwright/actress/activist Sarah Jones, I clung to like a lifeline.
The caller is Jo. She’s had one goal since she was a child–to make at least one person a day belly-laugh. Jo always knew she wanted to be a comedy writer. But somehow, instead, she wound up getting a doctorate in genocide studies. (Like you do.) Jo’s empathy and justice led her into a field in which, for YEARS, she listened to the people who had experienced the worst of what humanity has to offer. She had the best of intentions, but spending so much time in this space made her literally ill–hair falling out, queasy, anxious, all-around unwell.
Jo finished her Ph.D., moved to a rural part of England, and suddenly felt. . . ahhh. Space. Time to leave the world of death on an unimaginable global scale and re-encounter this old comedy-writing dream.
How does one make such a leap?
(Please listen to the podcast to find out. It’ll make you smile, I promise.)
Elizabeth Gilbert connects Jo with the hugely talented Sarah Jones. (Please pause for a moment and go watch her every YouTube video.) Sarah is a character actress, in that she has an arsenal of characters whom she quite literally becomes. She also writes comic plays that deal with some seriously heavy stuff. You know, like sex trafficking and the Native American genocide.
(No, the word “comic” is not a typo. Wondering how this could be possible? Listen to the podcast already and meet Sarah, whose talent, empathy, intelligence, and good humor are things of wonder.)
Sarah, speaking through a character, tells of how, when she was younger, she was completely overburdened by the knowledge of suffering. Specifically, the suffering of young girls in Rikers who were victims of sex trafficking, yet prosecuted as vile offenders. She wanted to do something about it. Sarah was determined to bring attention to their plight–the problem was so urgent, after all. How could it wait?
Yet Sarah realized that she wasn’t ready to write the play when the idea first presented itself. How did she know? She was trying too hard instead of allowing.
This is the same problem with which the caller, Jo, is contending. She’s trying to write a comic novel, yet her “genocide streak” keeps flaring up (i.e., in an attempt to add some “gritty realism,” she keeps killing off her beloved characters.) The end result? Frustration.
At around the 52:00 minute mark of the podcast, Sarah, through her character, gives advice to Jo that is simply wonderful: Give yourself more freedom to do less. Write one joke at a time. Write your joke, a nice, light, joke. And then rest.
Isn’t that wonderful? Did you just unclench a little reading it?
Jo’s response to this advice is priceless. (You can hear it for yourself around the 1:05 mark.) She says it’s wonderful to be told she has permission to rest, as this message is so counter to everything else we hear in our culture: “Time is ticking.” “You’re not getting any younger.” “Get a move on.” Jo says, that by giving herself permission to do less, she was finally able to breathe easy.
And here’s the kicker: she ended up getting a lot more done.
Jo recounts waking up every morning, making a to-do list of stuff she felt zero energy toward doing. The list stressed her out. Yet after listening to Liz Gilbert’s talk with Sarah Jones, Jo took one look at her ever-present list and decided “No.” She wasn’t going to spend her time doing things that completely zapped her energy. In fact, she made a list of things she did not have to do, a list that includes:
a.) Cleaning out the trash bin, and b.) Spending her birthday at Auschwitz
I laughed out loud the first time I listened to that “b.” I get it. I’ve always been a tad anxious, and 2016 did me no favors. It made me think: if I were to make a list of activities that completely zapped me of energy, yet which I persist in doing anyway–sometimes to the point of crippling dread/anxiety–what would those be? Perhaps. . .
–Scrolling through Twitter when I’m over-tired and aimless
–Reading articles about North Korea to “stay informed” (major bummer)
–Worrying about nuclear war
Bleggh. Seeing those things laid out like that makes me go, “Uggh, who thinks like that? What a waste of time!” Yeah, yeah, I know. But if I were to count up all the time I’ve spent on the above activities since early 2016, the cumulative total would probably number in days, not hours.
That’s why I keep coming again and again to this podcast. If it were a book, its spine would be cracked, the pages worn thin, nearly every line underlined with my ecstatic notes in the margins. It reminds me to stay in my lane–to do the things that are life-giving first, before worrying about saving the world.
What are those things?
-Taking a walk
-Watching The Mindy Project
-NAPPING (that’s a biggie)
Here’s the deal: things are dicey out there, guys. I’m not suggesting we should abandon politics/current events. In fact, I think political engagement is more important than ever. I’m calling my senators, writing postcards, and plotting for the 2018 elections with the best of them.
But if I’m spending too much time worrying about that stuff instead of doing the thing I was meant to do (write), then I deplete myself. I’m a shell. I have nothing to give to myself, my husband, or my girls, certainly nothing to give the world at large. When I’m not in my lane, I’m no help to anyone, despite my noble intentions.
So here I am, raising my glass to all you artists trying to GSD in the era of 45. Let’s channel our Big Magic–get all woo woo and metaphysical, meditate, pray, make our art–and THEN make those phone calls and write those postcards. Because just as democracy needs our engagement more than ever, so does our art. The things we’re making now will make a better world for the generations that come after us. It’s in the public interest for you to make stuff. Now.
Let’s get to it, shall we?