Elizabeth Gilbert on Creativity, Mt. Nemrut Mural in Belgrade, Serbia.

"Curiosity is an impulse that just taps you on the shoulder very lightly and invites you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look a little closer at something that has intrigued you. Curiosity is our friend that teaches us how to become ourselves. And it's a very gentle friend, and a very forgiving friend, and a very constant one. Passion is not so constant, not so gentle, not so forgiving, and sometimes not so available. And so when we live in a world that has come to fetishize passion above all, there's a great deal of pressure around that.”

This is the second mural I painted at Sun Hostel in Belgrade, Serbia. The image is one of the incredible statues sitting atop Mt. Nemrut in Southeast Turkey that I saw while traveling.  It was amazing to see, and to imagine what kind of rituals or ceremonies took place there, as well as envisioning the craftsmen actually sculpting these behemoths. "The mountain lies 40 km north of Kahta, near Adıyaman. In 62 BC, King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene built on the mountain top a tomb-sanctuary flanked by huge statues 8–9-metre-high of himself, two lions, two eagles and various Greek, Armenian, and Iranian gods, such as Vahagn-Hercules, Aramazd-Zeus or Oromasdes. These statues were once seated, with names of each god inscribed on them. The heads of the statues have at some stage been removed from their bodies, and they are now scattered throughout the site." Here's more on Mt. Nemrut.

The following is a transcript from the conversation between of Elizabeth Gilbert and Krista Tippet on our relationships to creativity, curiosity, our selves, and more. It's from Krista Tippet's wonderful podcast On Being, and is predominantly Elizabeth Gilbert speaking. I found practically everything she said to be impactful, salient, eloquent, refreshing; things that inspire me, things I've observed myself, things that change how I perceive my own experience. I strongly recommend reading it all.

"Creative living is choosing the path of curiosity over the path of fear. The more mystical and precious, in a way, that we make creativity and spirituality both, the more people get left out of it. And I think that's a pity, and a loss, and sometimes even a tragedy. So it should be that all are invited, or else, what are we even doing here? Most people are cast out, as oppose to left out, of creativity and spirituality because I think it's innate. And I think the evidence that it's innate is pretty airtight. One, all of your ancestors were creative — all of them. You and I and everybody we know were descended from tens of thousands of years of makers. The entire world, for better or for worse, has been altered by the human hand, by human beings doing this weird and irrational thing that only we do amongst all our peers in the animal world, which is to waste our time making things that nobody needs, making things a little more beautiful than they have to be, altering things, changing things, building things, composing things, shaping things. This is what we do. We're the making ape. And no one is left out of the inheritance of that. That's our shared human inheritance. Another really strong piece of evidence is that every human child is born doing this stuff innately. It's an instinct. There's no child that you put crayons and paper in front of who doesn’t get it, what you're supposed to do. No four-year-old boy was ever sat in front of a pile of Legos and said, “I don't know, I'm just — I'm not feeling it.” Or like, “last week, I did one that's so good. I don't know if I can ever do another good one.” And I think what we find often happens is that most people that I talk to can usually pinpoint, with quite specific accuracy, moments in their lives where certain artistic expressions were taken away from them. Where, suddenly, they were informed that they were not a good singer, or they couldn't dance, or that they couldn't draw. Somebody decides along the way, “Well, no, Heather is the creative one.” “Joshua is the creative one. She's good at music. He's a good artist.” And you get pushed out of it in a way. And the other weird side effect of that is that those special kids who get shunted into the category of being “artistic” or “creative,” they often become neurotic basket cases. Because it's a great deal of pressure to put upon two kids out of 100, to say, “You're the special one. Now go deliver unto us our artistic dreams that nobody else is allowed to do.” You know, it's so crazy.  And it becomes something that is not part of you and part of your daily life. It's not embroidered within you. It's not natural to you. It's some artificial thing that you then have to get very expensive training in. And then you have to immediately start worrying about whether you can make a career out of this, and whether you can make money out of this, and whether you'll get acclaim from this, and whether you can continue to be recognized for this. And all of that is a very strange way to see creativity. And I would say a very new way. And by “new,” I mean post-enlightenment, the last couple hundred years, and very Western. And I would also say very macho in a way, very male. Because it comes with this grandiosity that's on the individual, and this pressure to be great and to be a genius. And it's strange. You can also see the danger of this refrain that's everywhere out there in our culture to follow your passion, follow your passion. And that that also becomes a way that people feel themselves excluded because they're not sure what their artistic passion would be. Or again, if it's their passion, can they really measure the value they're creating?


The difference between passion and curiosity, as something you're following, is that “curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity. Oh, I love curiosity our friend. I mean, I think curiosity is our friend that teaches us how to become ourselves. And it's a very gentle friend, and a very forgiving friend, and a very constant one. Passion is not so constant, not so gentle, not so forgiving, and sometimes not so available. And so when we live in a world that has come to fetishize passion above all, there's a great deal of pressure around that. And I think if you don't happen to have a passion that's very clear, or if you have lost your passion, or if you're in a change of life where your passions are shifting or you're not certain, and somebody says, “Well, it's easy to solve your life, just follow your passion.” I do think that they have harmed you because it just makes people feel more excluded, and more exiled, and sometimes like a failure. even the word “passion” has this sort of sexual connotation that there's — I'm much more interested in intimacy. And in growing a relationship rather than the notion that everything has to be setting your head on fire. And curiosity is an impulse that just taps you on the shoulder very lightly and invites you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look a little closer at something that has intrigued you.

And it may not set your head on fire. It may not change your life. It may not change the world. It may not even line up with previous things that you've done or been interested in. It may seem very random and make no sense. And I think the reason people end up not following their curiosity is because they're waiting for a bigger sign. And your curiosities sometimes are so mild and so strange. Almost nothing, right? It's a little trail of breadcrumbs that you can overlook if you're looking up at the mountaintop waiting for Moses to come down and give you a sign from God. And here's the thing. Sometimes following your curiosity will lead you to your passion. Sometimes it won't, and then guess what? That's still totally fine. You've lived a life following your curiosity. You've created a life that is a very interesting thing, different from anybody else's. And your life itself then becomes the work of art, not so much contingent upon what you produced, but about a certain spirit of being that I think is a lot more interesting and also a lot more sustainable.

    Jack Gilbert wrote: “We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of the world. And I think there is that dynamic, that dialectic in the way you approach your creative process, holding those things in a creative tension, the gladness and the furnace, our stubborn gladness against the world's ruthless furnace. And creativity is the same, where 90 percent of the work is quite tedious. And if you can stick through those parts, not rush through the experiences of life that have the most possibility of transforming you, but to stay with it until the moment of transformation comes, and then through that to the other side, then very interesting things will start to happen within very boring frameworks. trust is a big piece of it, isn't it? And I think motion is a big piece of it. I've learned to give myself all the credit in the world simply for being in motion. Did you do something today toward this thing? Then you're good. Was it great? No. Was it fun? No. But did you do it? Did you keep the ball rolling? Did you keep another step on that path going? Then you're fine. That's it.

I love that, just the idea of motion itself being a virtue. And because it's real, it's realistic, it's — there's nothing cerebral about that. Creativity is a collaboration between a human being's labors and the mysteries of inspiration. And that's the most interesting dance that I think you can be involved in. But you are very much an agent in that story. You're not just a passive receptacle. And also, it's not entirely in your hands. And standing comfortably within that contradiction is, I think, where you find sanity in the creative process if you can find it. 

Creativity is a shared human inheritance because the evidence of that is — again, let us look to our ancestors. And I ask you and me right now to think back to our great-grandparents. And they were farmers and workers, and yet, they made beauty. They made it because it brought them joy. They made it as a currency in the communities in which they lived. They made it because of the pleasure of doing something that's better than it has to be.

So my grandmother, who made beautiful rag rugs and quilts — they're more beautiful than they need to be. And your history is filled with those people as well. And I would argue that most of the most beautiful and interesting things in the world that have ever been made were made by people who didn't have enough time, didn't have enough resources, didn't have probably any education.

This is something that belongs to human beings who are behaving in the way that human beings are designed to behave. Using your senses and your curiosity and your materials and whatever's at hand to alter your environment and make something more beautiful than it needs to be. That's who we are.

Creativity as a virtue for our public life as well as for private life, is very resonant right now, especially when you define it as a life driven more by courage than by fear, and what grows out of that. And you say, “I want to live in a society filled with people who are curious and concerned about each other rather than afraid of each other.” So kind of taking this virtue of investigation, of that gentle friend of curiosity as something that we can live by, would be good for us collectively, right?

Terrified people make terrible decisions. Terror and fear make you irresponsible. They make you not think very clearly, right? And they make you willing to do almost anything to get rid of that awful feeling. And we've seen people do that on the individual level, and we've seen cultures do that. And we've seen politicians who find ways to exploit terror and fear in order to get short-term power or sometimes long-term power. Because if you can figure out how to hold the reins of other people's fear, then you can control them for a while. And so one of the very most powerful ways to not end up being controlled by that is to remain more curious than you are afraid. I think any time in the community that there's anybody who's keeping their head, I think it's a benefit to everyone around them. I think everything is contagious. Our fear is contagious, but our courage also is. And our courage makes other people be able to be more brave, and come out of their houses, and come out of their shells, and out of their fear.

And what I think I learned from her was pay attention to what's happening in your community. That's what it means to be deeply engaged with the place where you live. Such that you will see when someone is in trouble. And there's ways that you can reach toward people rather than away from them. And she set a real tone for me of how to be not so buried in your own problems or in your own distractions that you are incapable of seeing what's right in front of you and who's right in front of you.

I feel like everything we want is on the other side of this dark river of self-hatred that is so prevalent in ourselves and in our culture. There's a story about the Dalai Lama that when he first came to the West and somebody in the audience raised their hand and said, “What do you think about self-hatred?”

The whole sort of conference ended for a while while he had to have a couple of translators sit there and try to explain to him how a human being could be taught to hate himself. And he was so — he just said — there's this sort of transcript of his conversation in that moment of him saying, “This is very concerning.” And I see self-loathing everywhere I look in so many different forms. And it's so — it breaks my heart. And I also know self-loathing because I have been in it. Anybody who's been in depression knows what self-hatred is. In many ways, depression is — the best definition of it is anger turned inward. So, there's this battle that's going on within you where you become a rival of yourself and an enemy of yourself. And what transformed my life about that journey that I took with Eat, Pray, Love were those four months that I spent in India where I had to be alone with myself, and we really made a peace accord. And when I say myself, I should say my selves. Because we're not a self, we're selves.

And one by one, I really went around to all my selves and we shook hands and made peace with each other and said, “We're not going to operate against each other anymore. This has got to be a better neighborhood to live in. [laughs] We have to put down the weapons. We have to put down the old complaints. We have to put down the perfectionism. We have to put down the judgement. We have to put this stuff away because we're doing such tremendous harm to this poor being, Liz, who has to carry this war around within her.” And so, I really came away from that trip having befriended — and the word “friendly” — I keep using it in this in conversation. And I use it a lot.

I think friendliness is a nicer way to think about it. Can you be a little bit of a better friend to yourself? Would you ever allow a friend to speak of themselves the way you do in your interior moments? And so that's what changed everything. And even in the craziness after Eat, Pray, Love happened, I think part of the reason that I didn't get lost in that was because of the friendship that I'd cultivated with this person who I am. And carrying that person around in a friendly way made those years easier than they might have been.  But it's that spirit of stubborn gladness and friendly curiosity that I think is at the basis of “ahimsa” also, right? That you're a friend not only to the world, but to yourself. And there, you can find your way home, I think, in almost all circumstances.

What gets me through those 90 percent of it being boring part of creativity without turning it into angst anymore — and I say “anymore” because I used to do it — is that faith that the work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through me. And so when it's not coming, and it's not working, and it's not being good, and I'm stuck in a problem around the creativity, it's a very important shift in my life over the years to not think that I'm being punished or that I'm failing, but to think that this thing, this mystery that wants communion with me is trying to help me.

And it hasn't abandoned me. It's nearby. And it wants — it came to me for a reason. That's what I always think when I'm working on a project and it's not working. I think — I will speak to the idea and say, “You came to me for a reason.” But in the meantime, I'll come to my desk every day with the faith that you are also at my desk every day.

And that the two of us, this human being who is laboring and this mystery who's presenting itself toward me in whatever language it's able to, whatever signals, and clues, and hints, and inspirations, and the sense of obsession, and all the ways that inspiration comes to us, that it wants me to be with it. And somehow, if I'm patient, and it's constant, the two of us, the idea and me, will figure out how to make something in the world. And through that process, I will become a deeper and truer version of myself. And so, regardless of how the outcome turns, it will have been worth doing just for the communion with the mystery and the idea. And I can't think of a better way to live than to just keep doing that."

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