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Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

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Named a Hot Fall Read by USA Today, Vanity Fair, Newsday, O Magazine, the Seattle Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Mashable, Pop Sugar, and the San Antonio Express-News

"A must read for anyone hoping to live a creative life... I dare you not to be inspired to be brave, to be free, and to be curious.” —PopSugar

From the worldwide bestselling author of Eat Pray Love: the path to the vibrant, fulfilling life you’ve dreamed of
Readers of all ages and walks of life have drawn inspiration and empowerment from Elizabeth Gilbert’s books for years. Now this beloved author digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity. With profound empathy and radiant generosity, she offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives. Balancing between soulful spirituality and cheerful pragmatism, Gilbert encourages us to uncover the “strange jewels” that are hidden within each of us. Whether we are looking to write a book, make art, find new ways to address challenges in our work,  embark on a dream long deferred, or simply infuse our everyday lives with more mindfulness and passion, Big Magic cracks open a world of wonder and joy.
Riverhead Books
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What an awesome book
08 July 2019 (12:48) 
It was good book. But then I eventually stopped reading it sadly
29 March 2021 (18:51) 
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It's just my new favourite book! Wow just WOW!
03 June 2021 (17:22) 

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			Accidental Grace

			My final story comes from Bali—from a culture that does creativity quite differently than we do it here in the West. This story was told to me by my old friend and teacher Ketut Liyer, a medicine man who took me under his wing years ago, to share with me his considerable wisdom and grace.

			As Ketut explained to me, Balinese dance is one of the world’s great art forms. It is exquisite, intricate, and ancient. It is also holy. Dances are ritually performed in temples, as they have been for centuries, under the purview of priests. The choreography is vigilantly protected and passed from generation to generation. These dances are intended to do nothing less than to keep the universe intact. Nobody can claim that the Balinese do not take their dancing seriously.

			Back in the early 1960s, mass tourism reached Bali for the first time. Visiting foreigners immediately became fascinated with the sacred dances. The Balinese are not shy about showing off their art, and they welcomed tourists to enter the temples and watch the dancing. They charged a small sum for this privilege, the tourists paid, and everyone was happy.

			As touristic interest in this ancient art form increased, however, the temples became overcrowded with spectators. Things got a bit chaotic. Also, the temples were not particularly comfortable, as the tourists had to sit on the floor with the spiders and dampness and such. Then some bright Balinese soul had the terrific idea to bring the dancers to the tourists, instead of the other way around. Wouldn’t it be nicer and more comfortable for the sunburned Australians if they could watch the dances from, say, a resort’s swimming pool a; rea, instead of from inside a damp, dark temple? Then the tourists could have a cocktail at the same time and really enjoy the entertainment! And the dancers could make more money, because there would be room for bigger audiences.

			So the Balinese started performing their sacred dances at the resorts, in order to better accommodate the paying tourists, and everyone was happy.

			Actually, not everyone was happy.

			The more high-minded of the Western visitors were appalled. This was desecration of the sublime! These were sacred dances! This was holy art! You can’t just do a sacred dance on the profane property of a beach resort—and for money, no less! It was an abomination! It was spiritual, artistic, and cultural prostitution! It was sacrilege!

			These high-minded Westerners shared their concerns with the Balinese priests, who listened politely, despite the fact that the hard and unforgiving notion of “sacrilege” does not translate easily into Balinese thinking. Nor are the distinctions between “sacred” and “profane” quite so unambiguous as they are in the West. The Balinese priests were not entirely clear as to why the high-minded Westerners viewed the beach resorts as profane at all. (Did divinity not abide there, as well as anywhere else on earth?) Similarly, they were unclear as to why the friendly Australian tourists in their clammy bathing suits should not be allowed to watch sacred dances while drinking mai tais. (Were these nice-seeming and friendly people undeserving of witnessing beauty?)

			But the high-minded Westerners were clearly upset by this whole turn of events, and the Balinese famously do not like to upset their visitors, so they set out to solve the problem.

			The priests and the masters of the dance all got together and came up with an inspired idea—an idea inspired by a marvelous ethic of lightness and trust. They decided that they would make up some new dances that were not sacred, and they would perform only these certified “divinity-free” dances for the tourists at the resorts. The sacred dances would be returned to the temples and would be reserved for religious ceremonies only.

			And that is exactly what they did. They did it easily, too, with no drama and no trauma. Adapting gestures and steps from the old sacred dances, they devised what were essentially gibberish dances, and commenced performing these nonsense gyrations at the tourist resorts for money. And everyone was happy, because the dancers got to dance, the tourists got to be entertained, and the priests earned some money for the temples. Best of all, the high-minded Westerners could now relax, because the distinction between the sacred and the profane had been safely restored.

			Everything was in its place—tidy and final.

			Except that it was neither tidy nor final.

			Because nothing is ever really tidy or final.

			The thing is, over the next few years, those silly new meaningless dances became increasingly refined. The young boys and girls grew into them, and, working with a new sense of freedom and innovation, they gradually transformed the performances into something quite magnificent. In fact, the dances were becoming rather transcendent. In another example of an inadvertent séance, it appeared that those Balinese dancers—despite all their best efforts to be completely unspiritual—were unwittingly calling down Big Magic from the heavens, anyhow. Right there by the swimming pool. All they’d originally intended to do was entertain tourists and themselves, but now they were tripping over God every single night, and everyone could see it. It was arguable that the new dances had become even more transcendent than the stale old sacred ones.

			The Balinese priests, noticing this phenomenon, had a wonderful idea: Why not borrow the new fake dances, bring them into the temples, incorporate them into the ancient religious ceremonies, and use them as a form of prayer?

			In fact, why not replace some of those stale old sacred dances with these new fake dances?

			So they did.

			At which point the meaningless dances became holy dances, because the holy dances had become meaningless.

			And everyone was happy—except for those high-minded Westerners, who were now thoroughly confused, because they couldn’t tell anymore what was holy and what was profane. It had all bled together. The lines had blurred between high and low, between light and heavy, between right and wrong, between us and them, between God and earth . . . and the whole paradox was totally freaking them out.

			Which I cannot help but imagine is what the trickster priests had in mind the entire time.


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			Also by Elizabeth Gilbert


			Stern Men

			The Last American Man

			Eat Pray Love

			Committed: A Love Story

			At Home on the Range, by Margaret Yardley Potter

			The Signature of All Things


			Does It Love You?

			My friend Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist and an author who teaches environmental biology at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. Her students are all fervent young environmentalists, earnest as can be, desperate to save the world.

			Before they can get down to the business of world-saving, though, Robin often asks her students these two questions.

			The first question is: “Do you love nature?”

			Every hand in the room goes up.

			The second question is: “Do you believe that nature loves you in return?”

			Every hand in the room goes down.

			At which point Robin says, “Then we have a problem already.”

			The problem is this: These earnest young world-savers honestly believe that the living earth is indifferent to them. They believe that humans are nothing but passive consumers, and that our presence here on earth is a destructive force. (We take, take, take and offer nothing of benefit to nature in return.) They believe that humans are here on this planet by random accident, and that therefore the earth doesn’t give a damn about us.

			Ancient people did not see it this way, needless to say. Our ancestors always operated with a sense of being in a reciprocal emotional relationship with their physical surroundings. Whether they felt that they were being rewarded by Mother Nature or punished by her, at least they were engaged in a constant conversation with her.

			Robin believes that modern people have lost that sense of conversation—lost that awareness of the earth communicating with us just as much as we are communicating with it. Instead, modern people have been schooled to believe that nature is deaf and blind to them—perhaps because we believe that nature has no inherent sentience. Which is a somewhat pathological construct, because it denies any possibility of relationship. (Even the notion of a punitive Mother Earth is better than the notion of an indifferent one—because at least anger represents some sort of energetic exchange.)

			Without that sense of relationship, Robin warns her students, they are missing out on something incredibly important: They are missing out on their potential to become cocreators of life. As Robin puts it, “The exchange of love between earth and people calls forth the creative gifts of both. The earth is not indifferent to us, but rather calling for our gifts in return for hers—the reciprocal nature of life and creativity.”

			Or, to put it more simply: Nature provides the seed; man provides the garden; each is grateful for the other’s help.

			So Robin always begins right there. Before she can teach these students how to heal the world, she has to teach them how to heal their notion of themselves in the world. She has to convince them of their right to even be here at all. (Again: the arrogance of belonging.) She has to introduce them to the concept that they might actually be loved in return by the very entity that they themselves revere—by nature itself, by the very entity that created them.

			Because otherwise it’s never going to work.

			Because otherwise nobody—not the earth, not the students, not any us—will ever benefit.

			Worst Girlfriend Ever

			Inspired by this notion, I now often ask aspiring young writers the same line of questions.

			“Do you love writing?” I ask.

			Of course they do. Duh.

			Then I ask: “Do you believe that writing loves you in return?”

			They look at me like I should be institutionalized.

			“Of course not,” they say. Most of them report that writing is totally indifferent to them. And if they do happen to feel a reciprocal relationship with their creativity, it is usually a deeply sick relationship. In many cases, these young writers claim that writing flat-out hates them. Writing messes with their heads. Writing torments them and hides from them. Writing punishes them. Writing destroys them. Writing kicks their asses, ten ways to Sunday.

			As one young writer I know put it, “For me, writing is like that bitchy, beautiful girl in high school who you always worshipped, but who only toyed with you for her own purposes. You know in your heart that she’s bad news, and you should probably just walk away from her forever, but she always lures you back in. Just when you think she’s finally going to be your girlfriend, she shows up at school holding hands with the captain of the football team, pretending she’s never met you. All you can do is weep in a locked bathroom stall. Writing is evil.”

			“That being the case,” I asked him, “what do you want to do with your life?”

			“I want to be a writer,” he said.

			Addicted to Suffering

			Are you beginning to see how screwed-up this is?

			It is not only aspiring writers who feel this way. Older, established authors say exactly the same dark things about their own work. (Where do you think the young writers learned it from?) Norman Mailer claimed that every one of his books had killed him a little more. Philip Roth has never stopped talking about the medieval torments writing inflicted upon him for the duration of his long-suffering career. Oscar Wilde called the artistic existence “one long, lovely suicide.” (I adore Wilde, but I have trouble seeing suicide as lovely. I have trouble seeing any of this anguish as lovely.)

			And it’s not just writers who feel this way. Visual artists do it, too. Here’s the painter Francis Bacon: “The feelings of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist than the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility.” Actors do it, dancers do it, and musicians most certainly do it. Rufus Wainwright once admitted that he was terrified to settle down into a happy relationship, because without the emotional drama that came from all those dysfunctional love affairs, he was afraid of losing access to “that dark lake of pain” he felt was so critical to his music.

			And let’s not even get started on the poets.

			Suffice it to say that the modern language of creativity—from its youngest aspirants up to its acknowledged masters—is steeped in pain, desolation, and dysfunction. Numberless artists toil away in total emotional and physical solitude—disassociated not only from other humans, but also from the source of creativity itself.

			Worse, their relationship with their work is often emotionally violent. You want to make something? You are told to open up a vein and bleed. Time to edit your work? You are instructed to kill your darlings. Ask a writer how his book is going, and he might say, “I finally broke its spine this week.”

			And that’s if he had a good week.

			A Cautionary Tale

			One of the most interesting up-and-coming novelists I know these days is a clever young woman named Katie Arnold-Ratliff. Katie writes like a dream. But she told me that she’d gotten blocked from her work for several years because of something a writing professor had said to her: “Unless you are emotionally uncomfortable while you are writing, you will never produce anything of value.”

			Now, there’s a level at which I understand what Katie’s writing professor might have been trying to say. Perhaps the intended message was “Don’t be afraid of reaching for your creative edge,” or “Never back away from the discomfort that can sometimes arise while you’re working.” These seem like perfectly legitimate notions to me. But to suggest that nobody ever made valuable art unless they were in active emotional distress is not only untrue, it’s also kind of sick.

			But Katie believed it.

			Out of respect and deference to her professor, Katie took those words to heart and came to embrace the notion that if her creative process wasn’t bringing her anguish, then she wasn’t doing it right.

			No blood, no glory, right?

			The problem was, Katie had an idea for a novel that actually made her feel excited. The book she wanted to write seemed so cool, so twisted, and so strange that she thought it might genuinely be fun to do it. In fact, it seemed like so much fun, it made her feel guilty. Because if something was a pleasure to write, then it couldn’t possibly have any artistic value, could it?

			So she put off writing that cool and twisted novel of hers for years and years, because she didn’t trust in the legitimacy of her own anticipated pleasure. Eventually, I am happy to report, she broke through that mental obstacle and finally wrote her book. And, no, it was not necessarily easy to write, but she did have a great time writing it. And yes, it is brilliant.

			What a pity, though, to have lost all those years of inspired creativity—and only because she didn’t believe her work was making her miserable enough!


			Heaven forbid anyone should enjoy their chosen vocation.

			The Teaching of Pain

			Sadly, Katie’s story is no anomaly.

			Far too many creative people have been taught to distrust pleasure and to put their faith in struggle alone. Too many artists still believe that anguish is the only truly authentic emotional experience. They could have picked up this dark idea anywhere; it’s a commonly held belief here in the Western world, what with our weighty emotional heritage of Christian sacrifice and German Romanticism—both of which give excessive credence to the merits of agony.

			Trusting in nothing but suffering is a dangerous path, though. Suffering has a reputation for killing off artists, for one thing. But even when it doesn’t kill them, an addiction to pain can sometimes throw artists into such severe mental disorder that they stop working at all. (My favorite refrigerator magnet: “I’ve suffered enough. When does my artwork improve?”)

			Perhaps you, too, were taught to trust in darkness.

			Maybe you were even taught darkness by creative people whom you loved and admired. I certainly was. When I was in high school, a beloved English teacher once told me, “You’re a talented writer, Liz. But unfortunately you’ll never make it, because you haven’t suffered enough in your life.”

			What a twisted thing to say!

			First of all, what does a middle-aged man know about a teenage girl’s suffering? I had probably suffered more that day at lunch than he’d ever suffered in his entire lifetime. But beyond that—since when did creativity become a suffering contest?

			I had admired that teacher. Imagine if I’d taken his words to heart and had dutifully set out on some shadowy Byronic quest for authenticating tribulation. Mercifully, I didn’t. My instincts drove me in the opposite direction—toward light, toward play, toward a more trusting engagement with creativity—but I’m a lucky one. Others do go on that dark crusade, and sometimes they go there on purpose. “All my musical heroes were junkies, and I just wanted to be one, too,” says my dear friend Rayya Elias, a gifted songwriter who battled heroin addiction for over a decade, during which time she lived in prison, on the streets, and in mental hospitals—and completely stopped making music.

			Rayya isn’t the only artist who ever mistook self-destruction for a serious-minded commitment to creativity. The jazz saxophonist Jackie McLean said that—back in Greenwich Village in the 1950s—he watched dozens of aspiring young musicians take up heroin in order to imitate their hero, Charlie Parker. More tellingly still, McLean says, he witnessed many young jazz aspirants pretending to be heroin addicts (“eyes half-closed, striking that slouched pose”) even as Parker himself begged people not to emulate this most tragic aspect of himself. But maybe it’s easier to do heroin—or even to romantically pretend to do heroin—than it is to commit yourself wholeheartedly to your craft.

			Addiction does not make the artist. Raymond Carver, for one, intimately knew this to be true. He himself was an alcoholic, and he was never able to become the writer he needed to be—not even on the subject of alcoholism itself—until he gave up the booze. As he said, “Any artist who is an alcoholic is an artist despite their alcoholism, not because of it.”

			I agree. I believe that our creativity grows like sidewalk weeds out of the cracks between our pathologies—not from the pathologies themselves. But so many people think it’s the other way around. For this reason, you will often meet artists who deliberately cling to their suffering, their addictions, their fears, their demons. They worry that if they ever let go of all that anguish, their very identities would vanish. Think of Rilke, who famously said, “If my devils are to leave me, I’m afraid my angels will take flight, as well.”

			Rilke was a glorious poet, and that line is elegantly rendered, but it’s also severely emotionally warped. Unfortunately, I’ve heard that line quoted countless times by creative people who were offering up an excuse as to why they won’t quit drinking, or why they won’t go see a therapist, or why they won’t consider treatment for their depression or anxiety, or why they won’t address their sexual misconduct or their intimacy problems, or why they basically refuse to seek personal healing and growth in any manner whatsoever—because they don’t want to lose their suffering, which they have somehow conflated and confused with their creativity.

			People have a strange trust in their devils, indeed.

			Our Better Angels

			I want to make something perfectly clear here: I do not deny the reality of suffering—not yours, not mine, not humanity’s in general. It is simply that I refuse to fetishize it. I certainly refuse to deliberately seek out suffering in the name of artistic authenticity. As Wendell Berry warned, “To attribute to the Muse a special fondness for pain is to come too close to desiring and cultivating pain.”

			To be sure, the Tormented Artist is sometimes an all-too-real person. Without a doubt, there are many creative souls out there who suffer from severe mental illness. (Then again, there are also hundreds of thousands of severely mentally ill souls out there who do not happen to possess extraordinary artistic talents, so to automatically conflate madness with genius feels like a logical fallacy to me.) But we must be wary of the lure of the Tormented Artist, because sometimes it’s a persona—a role that people grow accustomed to playing. It can be a seductively picturesque role, too, with a certain dark and romantic glamour to it. And it comes with an extremely useful side benefit—namely, built-in permission for terrible behavior.

			If you are the Tormented Artist, after all, then you have an excuse for treating your romantic partners badly, for treating yourself badly, for treating your children badly, for treating everyone badly. You are allowed to be demanding, arrogant, rude, cruel, antisocial, grandiose, explosive, moody, manipulative, irresponsible, and/or selfish. You can drink all day and fight all night. If you behaved this badly as a janitor or a pharmacist, people would rightfully call you out as a jackass. But as the Tormented Artist, you get a pass, because you’re special. Because you’re sensitive and creative. Because sometimes you make pretty things.

			I don’t buy it. I believe you can live a creative life and still make an effort to be a basically decent person. I’m with the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on this point, when he observes: “If the art legitimates cruelty, I think the art is not worth having.”

			I’ve never been attracted to the icon of the Tormented Artist—not even during adolescence, when that figure can seem particularly sexy and alluring to romantic-minded girls like me. It never appealed to me then, though, and it still doesn’t appeal to me now. What I’ve seen already of pain is plenty, thank you, and I do not raise my hand and ask for more of it. I’ve also been around enough mentally ill people to know better than to sentimentalize madness. What’s more, I’ve passed through enough seasons of depression, anxiety, and shame in my own life to know that such experiences are not particularly generative for me. I have no great love or loyalty for my personal devils, because they have never served me well. During my own periods of misery and instability, I’ve noticed that my creative spirit becomes cramped and suffocated. I’ve found that it’s nearly impossible for me to write when I am unhappy, and it is definitely impossible for me to write fiction when I am unhappy. (In other words: I can either live a drama or I can invent a drama—but I do not have the capacity to do both at the same time.)

			Emotional pain makes me the opposite of a deep person; it renders my life narrow and thin and isolated. My suffering takes this whole thrilling and gigantic universe and shrinks it down to the size of my own unhappy head. When my personal devils take over, I can feel my creative angels retreating. They watch my struggle from a safe distance, but they worry. Also, they grow impatient. It’s almost as if they’re saying, “Lady, please—hold it together! We’ve got so much more work to do!”

			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.

			But that’s only because of what I have chosen to trust, which is quite simply: love.

			Love over suffering, always.

			Choose What to Trust

			If you choose to go the other way, though (if you choose to trust suffering over love), be aware that you are building your house upon a battlefield. And when so many people treat their creative process as a war zone, is it any wonder there are such severe casualties? So much despair, so much darkness. And at such a cost!

			I won’t even attempt to list the names of all the writers, poets, artists, dancers, composers, actors, and musicians who have committed suicide in the past century, or who died long before their time from that slowest of suicidal tactics, alcoholism. (You want the numbers? The Internet will give you the numbers. But believe me, it’s a grim reaping.) These lost prodigies were unhappy for an infinite variety of reasons, to be sure, though I’m willing to bet that they had all—at least for one flowering moment of their lives—once loved their work. Yet if you’d asked any of these gifted, troubled souls whether they’d ever believed that their work loved them in return, I suspect they would’ve said no.

			But why wouldn’t it have?

			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? It drew itself near. It worked itself into you, asking for your attention and your devotion. It filled you with the desire to make and do interesting things. Creativity wanted a relationship with you. That must be for a reason, right? Do you honestly believe that creativity went through all the trouble of breaking into your consciousness only because it wanted to kill you?

			That doesn’t even make sense! How does creativity possibly benefit from such an arrangement? When Dylan Thomas dies, there are no more Dylan Thomas poems; that channel is silenced forever, terribly. I cannot imagine a universe in which creativity would possibly desire that outcome. I can only imagine that creativity would much prefer a world in which Dylan Thomas had continued to live and to produce, for a long natural life. Dylan Thomas and a thousand others, besides. There’s a hole in our world from all the art those people did not make—there is a hole in us from the loss of their work—and I cannot imagine this was ever anyone’s divine plan.

			Because think about it: If the only thing an idea wants is to be made manifest, then why would that idea deliberately harm you, when you are the one who might be able to bring it forth? (Nature provides the seed; man provides the garden; each is grateful for the other’s help.)

			Is it possible, then, that creativity is not fucking with us at all, but that we have been fucking with it?

			Stubborn Gladness

			All I can tell you for certain is that my entire life has been shaped by an early decision to reject the cult of artistic martyrdom, and instead to place my trust in the crazy notion that my work loves me as much as I love it—that it wants to play with me as much as I want to play with it—and that this source of love and play is boundless.

			I have chosen to believe that a desire to be creative was encoded into my DNA for reasons I will never know, and that creativity will not go away from me unless I forcibly kick it away, or poison it dead. Every molecule of my being has always pointed me toward this line of work—toward language, storytelling, research, narrative. If destiny didn’t want me to be a writer, I figure, then it shouldn’t have made me one. But it did make me one, and I’ve decided to meet that destiny with as much good cheer and as little drama as I can—because how I choose to handle myself as a writer is entirely my own choice. I can make my creativity into a killing field, or I can make it into a really interesting cabinet of curiosities.

			I can even make it into an act of prayer.

			My ultimate choice, then, is to always approach my work from a place of stubborn gladness.

			I worked for years with stubborn gladness before I was published. I worked with stubborn gladness when I was still an unknown new writer, whose first book sold just a handful of copies—mostly to members of my own family. I worked with stubborn gladness when I was riding high on a giant best seller. I worked with stubborn gladness when I was not riding high on a giant best seller anymore, and when my subsequent books did not sell millions of copies. I worked with stubborn gladness when critics praised me, and I worked with stubborn gladness when critics made fun of me. I’ve held to my stubborn gladness when my work is going badly, and also when it’s going well.

			I don’t ever choose to believe that I’ve been completely abandoned in the creative wilderness, or that there’s reason for me to panic about my writing. I choose to trust that inspiration is always nearby, the whole time I’m working, trying its damnedest to impart assistance. It’s just that inspiration comes from another world, you see, and it speaks a language entirely unlike my own, so sometimes we have trouble understanding each other. But inspiration is still sitting there right beside me, and it is trying. Inspiration is trying to send me messages in every form it can—through dreams, through portents, through clues, through coincidences, through déjà vu, through kismet, through surprising waves of attraction and reaction, through the chills that run up my arms, through the hair that stands up on the back of my neck, through the pleasure of something new and surprising, through stubborn ideas that keep me awake all night long . . . whatever works.

			Inspiration is always trying to work with me.

			So I sit there and I work, too.

			That’s the deal.

			I trust it; it trusts me.

			Choose Your Delusion

			Is this delusional?

			Is it delusional of me to place infinite trust in a force that I cannot see, touch, or prove—a force that might not even actually exist?

			Okay, for the sake of argument, let’s call it totally delusional.

			But is it any more delusional than believing that only your suffering and your pain are authentic? Or that you are alone—that you have no relationship whatsoever with the universe that created you? Or that you have been singled out by destiny as specially cursed? Or that your talents were given to you for the mere purpose of destroying you?

			What I’m saying is this: 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?

			Allow me to suggest this one:

			The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you.

			The Martyr vs. the Trickster

			But in order to let go of the addiction to creative suffering, you must reject the way of the martyr and embrace the way of the trickster.

			We all have a bit of trickster in us, and we all have a bit of martyr in us (okay, some of us have a lot of martyr in us), but at some point in your creative journey you will have to make a decision about which camp you wish to belong to, and therefore which parts of yourself to nourish, cultivate, and bring into being. Choose carefully. As my friend the radio personality Caroline Casey always says: “Better a trickster than a martyr be.”

			What’s the difference between a martyr and a trickster, you ask?

			Here’s a quick primer.

			Martyr energy is dark, solemn, macho, hierarchical, fundamentalist, austere, unforgiving, and profoundly rigid.

			Trickster energy is light, sly, transgender, transgressive, animist, seditious, primal, and endlessly shape-shifting.

			Martyr says: “I will sacrifice everything to fight this unwinnable war, even if it means being crushed to death under a wheel of torment.”

			Trickster says: “Okay, you enjoy that! As for me, I’ll be over here in this corner, running a successful little black market operation on the side of your unwinnable war.”

			Martyr says: “Life is pain.”

			Trickster says: “Life is interesting.”

			Martyr says: “The system is rigged against all that is good and sacred.”

			Trickster says: “There is no system, everything is good, and nothing is sacred.”

			Martyr says: “Nobody will ever understand me.”

			Trickster says: “Pick a card, any card!”

			Martyr says: “The world can never be solved.”

			Trickster says: “Perhaps not . . . but it can be gamed.”

			Martyr says: “Through my torment, the truth shall be revealed.”

			Trickster says: “I didn’t come here to suffer, pal.”

			Martyr says: “Death before dishonor!”

			Trickster says: “Let’s make a deal.”

			Martyr always ends up dead in a heap of broken glory, while Trickster trots off to enjoy another day.

			Martyr = Sir Thomas More.

			Trickster = Bugs Bunny.

			Trickster Trust

			I believe that the original human impulse for creativity was born out of pure trickster energy. Of course it was! Creativity wants to flip the mundane world upside down and turn it inside out, and that’s exactly what a trickster does best. But somewhere in the last few centuries, creativity got kidnapped by the martyrs, and it’s been held hostage in their camp of suffering ever since. I believe this turn of events has left art feeling very sad. It has definitely left a lot of artists feeling very sad.

			It’s time to give creativity back to the tricksters, is what I say.

			The trickster is obviously a charming and subversive figure. But for me, the most wonderful thing about a good trickster is that he trusts. It may seem counterintuitive to suggest this, because he can seem so slippery and shady, but the trickster is full of trust. He trusts himself, obviously. He trusts his own cunning, his own right to be here, his own ability to land on his feet in any situation. To a certain extent, of course, he also trusts other people (in that he trusts them to be marks for his shrewdness). But mostly, the trickster trusts the universe. He trusts in its chaotic, lawless, ever-fascinating ways—and for this reason, he does not suffer from undue anxiety. He trusts that the universe is in constant play and, specifically, that it wants to play with him.

			A good trickster knows that if he cheerfully tosses a ball out into the cosmos, that ball will be thrown back at him. It might be thrown back really hard, or it might be thrown back really crooked, or it might be thrown back in a cartoonish hail of missiles, or it might not be thrown back until the middle of next year—but that ball will eventually be thrown back. The trickster waits for the ball to return, catches it however it arrives, and then tosses it back out there into the void again, just to see what will happen. And he loves doing it, because the trickster (in all his cleverness) understands the one great cosmic truth that the martyr (in all his seriousness) can never grasp: It’s all just a game.

			A big, freaky, wonderful game.

			Which is fine, because the trickster likes freaky.

			Freaky is his natural environment.

			The martyr hates freaky. The martyr wants to kill freaky. And in so doing, he all too often ends up killing himself.

			A Good Trickster Move

			I’m friends with Brené Brown, the author of Daring Greatly and other works on human vulnerability. Brené writes wonderful books, but they don’t come easily for her. She sweats and struggles and suffers throughout the writing process, and always has. But recently, I introduced Brené to this idea that creativity is for tricksters, not for martyrs. It was an idea she’d never heard before. (As Brené explains: “Hey, I come from a background in academia, which is deeply entrenched in martyrdom. As in: ‘You must labor and suffer for years in solitude to produce work that only four people will ever read.’”)

			But when Brené latched on to this idea of tricksterdom, she took a closer look at her own work habits and realized she’d been creating from far too dark and heavy a place within herself. She had already written several successful books, but all of them had been like a medieval road of trials for her—nothing but fear and anguish throughout the entire writing process. She’d never questioned any of this anguish, because she’d assumed it was all perfectly normal. After all, serious artists can only prove their merit through serious pain. Like so many creators before her, she had come to trust in that pain above all.

			But when she tuned in to the possibility of writing from a place of trickster energy, she had a breakthrough. She realized that the act of writing itself was indeed genuinely difficult for her . . . but that storytelling was not. Brené is a captivating storyteller, and she loves public speaking. She’s a fourth-generation Texan who can string a tale like nobody’s business. She knew that when she spoke her ideas aloud, they flowed like a river. But when she tried to write those ideas down, they cramped up on her.

			Then she figured out how to trick the process.

			For her last book, Brené tried something new—a super-cunning trickster move of the highest order. She enlisted two trusted colleagues to join her at a beach house in Galveston to help her finish her book, which was under serious deadline.

			She asked them to sit there on the couch and take detailed notes while she told them stories about the subject of her book. After each story, she would grab their notes, run into the other room, shut the door, and write down exactly what she had just told them, while they waited patiently in the living room. Thus, Brené was able to capture the natural tone of her own speaking voice on the page—much the way the poet Ruth Stone figured out how to capture poems as they moved through her. Then Brené would dash back into the living room and read aloud what she had just written. Her colleagues would help her to tease out the narrative even further, by asking her to explain herself with new anecdotes and stories, as again they took notes. And again Brené would grab those notes and go transcribe the stories.

			By setting a trickster trap for her own storytelling, Brené figured out how to catch her own tiger by the tail.

			Much laughter and absurdity were involved in this process. They were, after all, just three girlfriends alone at a beach house. There were taco runs and visits to the Gulf. They had a blast. This scene is pretty much the exact opposite of the stereotypical image of the tormented artist sweating it out all alone in his garret studio, but as Brené told me, “I’m done with all that. Never again will I write about the subject of human connection while suffering in isolation.” And her new trick worked like a charm. Never had Brené written faster, never had she written better, never had she written with such trust.

			Mind you, this was not a book of comedy that she was writing, either. A lighthearted process does not necessarily need to result in a lighthearted product. Brené is a renowned sociologist who studies shame, after all. This was a book about vulnerability, failure, anxiety, despair, and hard-earned emotional resilience. Her book came out on the page just as deep and serious as it needed to be. It’s just that she had a good time writing it, because she finally figured out how to game the system. In so doing, she finally accessed her own abundant source of Big Magic.

			That’s how a trickster gets the job done.

			Lightly, lightly.

			Ever lightly.

			Lighten Up

			The first short story I ever published was in 1993, in Esquire magazine. The story was called “Pilgrims.” It was about a girl working on a ranch in Wyoming, and it was inspired by my own experience as a girl who had worked on a ranch in Wyoming. As usual, I sent the story out to a bunch of publications, unsolicited. As usual, everyone rejected it. Except one.

			A young assistant editor at Esquire named Tony Freund plucked my story out of the slush pile and brought it to the editor in chief, a man named Terry McDonell. Tony suspected that his boss might like the story, because he knew Terry had always been fascinated with the American West. Terry did indeed like “Pilgrims,” and he purchased it, and that’s how I got my first break as a writer. It was the break of a lifetime. The story was slated to appear in the November issue of Esquire, with Michael Jordan on the cover.

			A month before the issue was to go to press, however, Tony called me to say there was a problem. A major advertiser had pulled out, and as a result the magazine would need to be several pages shorter than planned that month. Sacrifices would have to be made; they were looking for volunteers. I was given a choice: I could either cut my story by 30 percent so that it would fit in the new, slimmer November issue, or I could pull it from the magazine entirely and hope it would find a home—intact—in some future issue.

			“I can’t tell you what to do,” Tony said. “I will completely understand if you don’t want to butcher your work like this. I think the story will indeed suffer from being amputated. It might be better for you, then, if we wait a few months and publish it intact. But I also have to warn you that the magazine world is an unpredictable business. There may be an argument for striking while the iron is hot. Your story might never get published if you hesitate now. Terry might lose interest in it or, who knows, he might even leave his job at Esquire and move to another magazine—and then your champion will be gone. So I don’t know what to tell you. The choice is yours.”

			Do you have any idea what it means to cut 30 percent from a ten-page short story? I’d worked on that story for a year and a half. It was like polished granite by the time Esquire got their hands on it. There was not a superfluous word in it, I believed. What’s more, I felt that “Pilgrims” was the best thing I’d ever written, and, as far as I knew, I might never write that well again. It was deeply precious to me, the blood of my blood. I couldn’t imagine how the story would even make sense anymore, amputated like that. Above all, my dignity as an artist was offended by the very idea of mutilating my life’s best work simply because a car company had pulled an advertisement from a men’s magazine. What about integrity? What about honor? What about pride?

			If artists do not uphold a standard of incorruptibility in this nefarious world, who will?

			On the other hand, screw it.

			Because let’s be honest: It wasn’t the Magna Carta we were talking about here; it was just a short story about a cowgirl and her boyfriend.

			I grabbed a red pencil and I cut that thing down to the bone.

			The initial devastation to the narrative was shocking. The story had no meaning or logic anymore. It was literary carnage—but that’s when things started to get interesting. Looking over this hacked-up mess, it dawned upon me this was a rather fantastic creative challenge: Could I still manage to make it work? I began suturing the narrative back into a sort of sense. As I pieced and pinned sentences together, I realized that the cuts had indeed transformed the entire tone of the story, but not necessarily in a bad way. The new version was neither better nor worse than the old version; it was just profoundly different. It felt leaner and harder, not unappealingly austere.

			I never would have written that way naturally—I hadn’t known I could write that way—and that revelation alone intrigued me. (It was like one of those dreams where you discover a previously unknown room in your house, and you have that expansive feeling that your life has more possibility to it than you thought it did.) I was amazed to discover that my work could be played with so roughly—torn apart, chopped up, reassembled—and that it could still survive, perhaps even thrive, within its new parameters.

			What you produce is not necessarily always sacred, I realized, just because you think it’s sacred. What is sacred is the time that you spend working on the project, and what that time does to expand your imagination, and what that expanded imagination does to transform your life.

			The more lightly you can pass that time, the brighter your existence becomes.

			It Ain’t Your Baby

			When people talk about their creative work, they often call it their “baby”—which is the exact opposite of taking things lightly.

			A friend of mine, a week before her new novel was to be published, told me, “I feel like I’m putting my baby on the school bus for the first time, and I’m afraid the bullies will make fun of him.” (Truman Capote stated it even more bluntly: “Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the backyard and shot it.”)

			Guys, please don’t mistake your creative work for a human child, okay?

			This kind of thinking will only lead you to deep psychic pain. I’m dead serious about this. Because if you honestly believe that your work is your baby, then you will have trouble cutting away 30 percent of it someday—which you may very well need to do. You also won’t be able to handle it if somebody criticizes or corrects your baby, or suggests that you might consider completely modifying your baby, or even tries to buy or sell your baby on the open market. You might not be able to release your work or share it at all—because how will that poor defenseless baby survive without you hovering over it and tending to it?

			Your creative work is not your baby; if anything, you are its baby. Everything I have ever written has brought me into being. Every project has matured me in a different way. I am who I am today precisely because of what I have made and what it has made me into. Creativity has hand-raised me and forged me into an adult—starting with my experience with that short story “Pilgrims,” which taught me how not to act like a baby.

			All of which is to say that, yes, in the end, I did squeeze an abbreviated version of “Pilgrims” into the November 1993 issue of Esquire by the skin of its teeth. A few weeks later, as fate would have it, Terry McDonell (my champion) did indeed leave his job as editor in chief of the magazine. Whatever short stories and feature articles he left behind never saw the light of day. Mine would have been among them, buried in a shallow grave, had I not been willing to make those cuts.

			But I did make the cuts, thank heavens, and the story was cool and different because of it—and I got my big break. My story caught the eye of the literary agent who signed me up, and who has now guided my career with grace and precision for more than twenty years.

			When I look back on that incident, I shudder at what I almost lost. Had I been more prideful, somewhere in the world today (probably in the bottom of my desk drawer) there would be a short story called “Pilgrims,” ten pages long, which nobody would’ve ever read. It would be untouched and pure, like polished granite, and I might still be a bartender.

			I also think it’s interesting that, once “Pilgrims” was published in Esquire, I never really thought about it again. It was not the best thing I would ever write. Not even close. I had so much more work ahead of me, and I got busy with that work. “Pilgrims” was not a consecrated relic, after all. It was just a thing—a thing that I had made and loved, and then changed, and then remade, and still loved, and then published, and then put aside so that I could go on to make other things.

			Thank God I didn’t let it become my undoing. What a sad and self-destructive act of martyrdom that would have been, to have rendered my writing so inviolable that I defended its sanctity to its very death. Instead, I put my trust in play, in pliancy, in trickery. Because I was willing to be light with my work, that short story became not a grave, but a doorway that I stepped through into a wonderful and bigger new life.

			Be careful of your dignity, is what I am saying.

			It is not always your friend.

			Passion vs. Curiosity

			May I also urge you to forget about passion?

			Perhaps you are surprised to hear this from me, but I am somewhat against passion. Or at least, I am against the preaching of passion. I don’t believe in telling people, “All you need to do is to follow your passion, and everything will be fine.” I think this can be an unhelpful and even cruel suggestion at times.

			First of all, it can be an unnecessary piece of advice, because if someone has a clear passion, odds are they’re already following it and they don’t need anyone to tell them to pursue it. (That’s kind of the definition of a passion, after all: an interest that you chase obsessively, almost because you have no choice.) But a lot of people don’t know exactly what their passion is, or they may have multiple passions, or they may be going through a midlife change of passion—all of which can leave them feeling confused and blocked and insecure.

			If you don’t have a clear passion and somebody blithely tells you to go follow your passion, I think you have the right to give that person the middle finger. Because that’s like somebody telling you that all you need in order to lose weight is to be thin, or all you need in order to have a great sex life is to be multiorgasmic: That doesn’t help!

			I’m generally a pretty passionate person myself, but not every single day. Sometimes I have no idea where my passion has gone off to. I don’t always feel actively inspired, nor do I always feel certain about what to do next.

			But I don’t sit around waiting for passion to strike me. I keep working steadily, because I believe it is our privilege as humans to keep making things for as long as we live, and because I enjoy making things. Most of all, I keep working because I trust that creativity is always trying to find me, even when I have lost sight of it.

			So how do you find the inspiration to work when your passion has flagged?

			This is where curiosity comes in.

			Devotion to Inquisitiveness

			I believe that curiosity is the secret. Curiosity is the truth and the way of creative living. Curiosity is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. Furthermore, curiosity is accessible to everyone. Passion can seem intimidatingly out of reach at times—a distant tower of flame, accessible only to geniuses and to those who are specially touched by God. But curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity. The stakes of curiosity are also far lower than the stakes of passion. Passion makes you get divorced and sell all your possessions and shave your head and move to Nepal. Curiosity doesn’t ask nearly so much of you.

			In fact, curiosity only ever asks one simple question: “Is there anything you’re interested in?”


			Even a tiny bit?

			No matter how mundane or small?

			The answer need not set your life on fire, or make you quit your job, or force you to change your religion, or send you into a fugue state; it just has to capture your attention for a moment. But in that moment, if you can pause and identify even one tiny speck of interest in something, then curiosity will ask you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look at the thing a wee bit closer.

			Do it.

			It’s a clue. It might seem like nothing, but it’s a clue. Follow that clue. Trust it. See where curiosity will lead you next. Then follow the next clue, and the next, and the next. Remember, it doesn’t have to be a voice in the desert; it’s just a harmless little scavenger hunt. Following that scavenger hunt of curiosity can lead you to amazing, unexpected places. It may even eventually lead you to your passion—albeit through a strange, untraceable passageway of back alleys, underground caves, and secret doors.

			Or it may lead you nowhere.

			You might spend your whole life following your curiosity and have absolutely nothing to show for it at the end—except one thing. You will have the satisfaction of knowing that you passed your entire existence in devotion to the noble human virtue of inquisitiveness.

			And that should be more than enough for anyone to say that they lived a rich and splendid life.

			The Scavenger Hunt

			Let me give you an example of where the scavenger hunt of curiosity can lead you.

			I’ve already told you the story of the greatest novel I never wrote—that book about the Amazon jungle, which I neglected to nurture, and which eventually jumped out of my consciousness and into Ann Patchett’s consciousness. That book had been a passion project. That idea had come to me in a brain wave of physical and emotional excitement and inspiration. But then I got distracted by life’s exigencies, and I didn’t work on that book, and it left me.

			So it goes, and so it went.

			After that Amazon jungle idea was gone, I didn’t have another brain wave of physical and emotional excitement and inspiration right away. 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 hairs standing up on the back of my neck, no butterflies in my stomach. There was no miracle. It was like Saint Paul rode his horse all the way to Damascus and nothing happened, except maybe it rained a bit.

			Most days, this is what life is like.

			I poked about for a while in my everyday chores—writing e-mails, 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 had not 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?

			It turned out there was: gardening.

			(I know, I know—contain your excitement, everyone! Gardening!)

			I had recently moved to a small town in rural New Jersey. I’d bought an old house that came with a nice backyard. Now I wanted to plant a garden in that backyard.

			This impulse surprised me. I’d grown up with a garden—a huge garden, which my mother had managed efficiently—but I’d never been much interested in it. As a lazy child, I’d worked quite hard not to learn anything about gardening, despite my mother’s best efforts to teach me. I had never been a creature of the soil. I didn’t love country life back when I was a kid (I found farm chores boring, difficult, and sticky) and I had never sought it out as an adult. An aversion to the hard work of country living is exactly why I’d gone off to live in New York City, and also why I’d become a traveler—because I didn’t want to be any kind of farmer. But now I’d moved to a town even smaller than the town in which I’d grown up, and now I wanted a garden.

			I didn’t desperately want a garden, understand. I wasn’t prepared to die for a garden, or anything. I just thought a garden would be nice.


			The whim was small enough that I could have ignored it. It barely had a pulse. But I didn’t ignore it. Instead, I followed that small clue of curiosity and I planted some things.

			As I did so, I realized that I knew more about this gardening business than I thought I knew. Apparently, I had accidentally learned some stuff from my mother back when I was a kid, despite my very best efforts not to. It was satisfying, to uncover this dormant knowledge. I planted some more things. I recalled some more childhood memories. I thought more about my mother, my grandmother, my long ancestry of women who worked the earth. It was nice.

			As the season passed, I found myself seeing my backyard with different eyes. What I was raising no longer looked like my mother’s garden; it was starting to look like my own garden. For instance, unlike my mom, a masterful vegetable gardener, I wasn’t all that interested in vegetables. Rather, I longed for the brightest, showiest flowers I could get my hands on. Furthermore, I discovered that I didn’t want to merely cultivate these plants; I also wanted to know stuff about them. Specifically, I wanted to know where they had come from.

			Those heirloom irises that ornamented my yard, for instance—what was their origin? I did exactly one minute of research on the Internet and learned that my irises were not indigenous to New Jersey; they had, in fact, originated in Syria.

			That was kind of cool to discover.

			Then I did some more research. The lilacs that grew around my property were apparently descendants of similar bushes that had once bloomed in Turkey. My tulips also originated in Turkey—though there’d been a lot of interfering Dutchmen, it turned out, between those original wild Turkish tulips and my domesticated, fancy varieties. My dogwood was local. My forsythia wasn’t, though; that came from Japan. My wisteria was also rather far from home; an English sea captain had brought the stuff over to Europe from China, and then British settlers had brought it to the New World—and rather recently, actually.

			I started running background checks on every single plant in my garden. I took notes on what I was learning. My curiosity grew. What intrigued me, I realized, was not so much my garden itself, but the botanical history behind it—a wild and little-known tale of trade and adventure and global intrigue.

			That could be a book, right?


			I kept following the trail of curiosity. I elected to trust completely in my fascination. I elected to believe that I was interested in all this botanical trivia for a good reason. Accordingly, portents and coincidences began to appear before me, all related to this newfound interest in botanical history. I stumbled upon the right books, the right people, the right opportunities. For instance: The expert whose advice I needed to seek about the history of mosses lived—it turned out—only a few minutes from my grandfather’s house in rural upstate New York. And a two-hundred-year-old book that I had inherited from my great-grandfather held the key I’d been searching for—a vivid historic character, worthy of embellishing into a novel.

			It was all right in front of me.

			Then I started to go a little crazy with it.

			My search for more information about botanical exploration eventually led me around the planet—from my backyard in New Jersey to the horticultural libraries of England; from the horticultural libraries of England to the medieval pharmaceutical gardens of Holland; from the medieval pharmaceutical gardens of Holland to the moss-covered caves of French Polynesia.

			Three years of research and travel and investigation later, I finally sat down to begin writing The Signature of All Things—a novel about a fictional family of nineteenth-century botanical explorers.

			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 that I had noticed around me.

			That’s Big Magic, too, you see.

			It’s Big Magic on a quieter scale, and on a slower scale, but make no mistake about it—it’s still Big Magic.

			You just have to learn how to trust it.

			It’s all about the yes.

			That’s Interesting

			The creators who most inspire me, then, are not necessarily the most passionate, but the most curious.

			Curiosity is what keeps you working steadily, while hotter emotions may come and go. I like that Joyce Carol Oates writes a new novel every three minutes—and on such a wide range of subjects—because so many things seem to fascinate her. I like that James Franco takes whatever acting job he wants (serious drama one minute, campy comedy the next) because he recognizes that it doesn’t all have to earn him an Oscar nomination—and I like that, between acting gigs, he also pursues his interests in art, fashion, academia, and writing. (Is his extracurricular creativity any good? I don’t care! I just like that the dude does whatever he wants.) I like that Bruce Springsteen doesn’t merely create epic stadium anthems, but also once wrote an entire album based on a John Steinbeck novel. I like that Picasso messed around with ceramics.

			I once heard the director Mike Nichols speak about his prolific film career, and he said that he’d always been really interested in his failures. Whenever he saw one of them airing on late-night TV, he would sit down and watch it all over again—something that he never did with his successes. He would watch with curiosity, thinking, That’s so interesting, how that scene didn’t work out . . .

			No shame, no despair—just a sense that it’s all very interesting. Like: Isn’t it funny how sometimes things work and other times they don’t? Sometimes I think that the difference between a tormented creative life and a tranquil creative life is nothing more than the difference between the word awful and the word interesting.

			Interesting outcomes, after all, are just awful outcomes with the volume of drama turned way down.

			I think a lot of people quit pursuing creative lives because they’re scared of the word interesting. My favorite meditation teacher, Pema Chödrön, once said that the biggest problem she sees with people’s meditation practice is that they quit just when things are starting to get interesting. Which is to say, they quit as soon as things aren’t easy anymore, as soon as it gets painful, or boring, or agitating. They quit as soon as they see something in their minds that scares them or hurts them. So they miss the good part, the wild part, the transformative part—the part when you push past the difficulty and enter into some raw new unexplored universe within yourself.

			And maybe it’s like that with every important aspect of your life. Whatever it is you are pursuing, whatever it is you are seeking, whatever it is you are creating, be careful not to quit too soon. As my friend Pastor Rob Bell warns: “Don’t rush through the experiences and circumstances that have the most capacity to transform you.”

			Don’t let go of your courage the moment things stop being easy or rewarding.

			Because that moment?

			That’s the moment when interesting begins.

			Hungry Ghosts

			You will fail.

			It sucks, and I hate to say it, but it’s true. You will take creative risks, and often they will not pan out. I once threw away an entire completed book because it didn’t work. I diligently finished the thing, but it really didn’t work, so I ended up throwing it away. (I don’t know why it didn’t work! How can I know? What am I, a book coroner? I have no certificate for the cause of death. The thing just didn’t work!)

			It makes me sad when I fail. It disappoints me. Disappointment can make me feel disgusted with myself, or surly toward others. By this point in my life, though, I’ve learned how to navigate my own disappointment without plummeting too far into death spirals of shame, rage, or inertia. That’s because, by this point in my life, I have come to understand what part of me is suffering when I fail: It’s just my ego.

			It’s that simple.

			Now, I’ve got nothing against egos, broadly speaking. We all have one. (Some of us might even have two.) Just as you need your fear for basic human survival, you also need your ego to provide you with the fundamental outlines of selfhood—to help you proclaim your individuality, define your desires, understand your preferences, and defend your borders. Your ego, simply put, is what makes you who you are. Without one, you’re nothing but an amorphous blob. Therefore, as the sociologist and author Martha Beck says of the ego, “Don’t leave home without it.”

			But do not let your ego totally run the show, or it will shut down the show. Your ego is a wonderful servant, but it’s a terrible master—because the only thing your ego ever wants is reward, reward, and more reward. And since there’s never enough reward to satisfy, your ego will always be disappointed. Left unmanaged, that kind of disappointment will rot you from the inside out. An unchecked ego is what the Buddhists call “a hungry ghost”—forever famished, eternally howling with need and greed.

			Some version of that hunger dwells within all of us. We all have that lunatic presence, living deep within our guts, that refuses to ever be satisfied with anything. I have it, you have it, we all have it. My saving grace is this, though: I know that I am not only an ego; I am also a soul. And I know that my soul doesn’t care a whit about reward or failure. My soul is not guided by dreams of praise or fears of criticism. My soul doesn’t even have language for such notions. My soul, when I tend to it, is a far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than my ego will ever be, because my soul desires only one thing: wonder. And since creativity is my most efficient pathway to wonder, I take refuge there, and it feeds my soul, and it quiets the hungry ghost—thereby saving me from the most dangerous aspect of myself.

			So whenever that brittle voice of dissatisfaction emerges within me, I can say, “Ah, my ego! There you are, old friend!” It’s the same thing when I’m being criticized and I notice myself reacting with outrage, heartache, or defensiveness. It’s just my ego, flaring up and testing its power. In such circumstances, I have learned to watch my heated emotions carefully, but I try not to take them too seriously, because I know that it’s merely my ego that has been wounded—never my soul. It is merely my ego that wants revenge, or to win the biggest prize. It is merely my ego that wants to start a Twitter war against a hater, or to sulk at an insult, or to quit in righteous indignation because I didn’t get the outcome I wanted.

			At such times, I can always steady my life once more by returning to my soul. I ask it, “And what is it that you want, dear one?”

			The answer is always the same: “More wonder, please.”

			As long as I’m still moving in that direction—toward wonder—then I know I will always be fine in my soul, which is where it counts. And since creativity is still the most effective way for me to access wonder, I choose it. I choose to block out all the external (and internal) noise and distractions, and to come home again and again to creativity. Because without that source of wonder, I know that I am doomed. Without it, I will forever wander the world in a state of bottomless dissatisfaction—nothing but a howling ghost, trapped in a body made of slowly deteriorating meat.

			And that ain’t gonna do it for me, I’m afraid.

			Do Something Else

			So how do you shake off failure and shame in order to keep living a creative life?

			First of all, forgive yourself. If you made something and it didn’t work out, let it go. Remember that you’re nothing but a beginner—even if you’ve been working on your craft for fifty years. We are all just beginners here, and we shall all die beginners. So let it go. Forget about the last project, and go searching with an open heart for the next one. Back when I was a writer for GQ magazine, my editor in chief, Art Cooper, once read an article I’d been working on for five months (an in-depth travel story about Serbian politics that had cost the magazine a small fortune, by the way), and he came back to me an hour later with this response: “This is no good, and it will never be any good. You don’t have the capacity to write this story, as it turns out. I don’t want you to waste another minute on this thing. Move on to the next assignment immediately, please.”

			Which was rather shocking and abrupt, but, holy cow—talk about efficiency!

			Dutifully, I moved on.

			Next, next, next—always next.

			Keep moving, keep going.

			Whatever you do, try not to dwell too long on your failures. You don’t need to conduct autopsies on your disasters. You don’t need to know what anything means. Remember: The gods of creativity are not obliged to explain anything to us. Own your disappointment, acknowledge it for what it is, and move on. Chop up that failure and use it for bait to try to catch another project. Someday it might all make sense to you—why you needed to go through this botched-up mess in order to land in a better place. Or maybe it will never make sense.

			So be it.

			Move on, anyhow.

			Whatever else happens, stay busy. (I always lean on this wise advice, from the seventeenth-century English scholar Robert Burton, on how to survive melancholy: “Be not solitary, be not idle.”) Find something to do—anything, even a different sort of creative work altogether—just to take your mind off your anxiety and pressure. Once, when I was struggling with a book, I signed up for a drawing class, just to open up some other kind of creative channel within my mind. I can’t draw very well, but that didn’t matter; the important thing was that I was staying in communication with artistry at some level. I was fiddling with my own dials, trying to reach inspiration in any way possible. Eventually, after enough drawing, the writing began to flow again.

			Einstein called this tactic “combinatory play”—the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another. This is why he would often play the violin when he was having difficulty solving a mathematical puzzle; after a few hours of sonatas, he could usually find the answer he needed.

			Part of the trick of combinatory play, I think, is that it quiets your ego and your fears by lowering the stakes. I once had a friend who was a gifted baseball player as a young man, but he lost his nerve and his game fell apart. So he quit baseball and took up soccer for a year. He wasn’t the greatest soccer player, but he liked it, and it didn’t break his spirit so much when he failed, because his ego knew this truth: “Hey, I never claimed it was my game.” What mattered is only that he was doing something physical, in order to bring himself back into his own skin, in order to get out of his own head, and in order to reclaim some sense of bodily ease. Anyhow, it was fun. After a year of kicking around a soccer ball for laughs, he went back to baseball, and suddenly he could play again—better and more lightly than ever.

			In other words: If you can’t do what you long to do, go do something else.

			Go walk the dog, go pick up every bit of trash on the street outside your home, go walk the dog again, go bake a peach cobbler, go paint some pebbles with brightly colored nail polish and put them in a pile. You might think it’s procrastination, but—with the right intention—it isn’t; it’s motion. And any motion whatsoever beats inertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion.

			So wave your arms around. Make something. Do something. Do anything.

			Call attention to yourself with some sort of creative action, and—most of all—trust that if you make enough of a glorious commotion, eventually inspiration will find its way home to you again.

			Paint Your Bicycle

			The Australian writer, poet, and critic Clive James has a perfect story about how once, during a particularly awful creative dry spell, he got tricked back to work.

			After an enormous failure (a play that he wrote for the London stage, which not only bombed critically, but also ruined his family financially and cost him several dear friends), James fell into a dark morass of depression and shame. After the play closed, he did nothing but sit on the couch and stare at the wall, mortified and humiliated, while his wife somehow held the family together. He couldn’t imagine how he would get up the courage to write anything else ever again.

			After a long spell of this funk, however, James’s young daughters finally interrupted his grieving process with a request for a mundane favor. They asked him if he would please do something to make their shabby old secondhand bicycles look a bit nicer. Dutifully (but not joyfully), James obeyed. He hauled himself up off the couch and took on the project.

			First, he carefully painted the girls’ bikes in vivid shades of red. Then he frosted the wheel spokes with silver and striped the seat posts to look like barbers’ poles. But he didn’t stop there. When the paint dried, he began to add hundreds of tiny silver and gold stars—a field of exquisitely detailed constellations—all over the bicycles. The girls grew impatient for him to finish, but James found that he simply could not stop painting stars (“four-pointed stars, six-pointed stars, and the very rare eight-pointed stars with peripheral dots”). It was incredibly satisfying work. When at last he was done, his daughters pedaled off on their magical new bikes, thrilled with the effect, while the great man sat there, wondering what on earth he was going to do with himself next.

			The next day, his daughters brought home another little girl from the neighborhood, who asked if Mr. James might please paint stars on her bicycle, too. He did it. He trusted in the request. He followed the clue. When he was done, another child showed up, and another, and another. Soon there was a line of children, all waiting for their humble bicycles to be transformed into stellar objets d’art.

			And so it came to pass that one of the most important writers of his generation spent several weeks sitting in his driveway, painting thousands and thousands of tiny stars on the bicycles of every child in the area. As he did so, he came to a slow discovery. He realized that “failure has a function. It asks you whether you really want to go on making things.” To his surprise, James realized that the answer was yes. He really did want to go on making things. For the moment, all he wanted to make were beautiful stars on children’s bicycles. But as he did so, something was healing within him. Something was coming back to life. Because when the last bike had been decorated, and every star in his personal cosmos had been diligently painted back into place, Clive James at last had this thought: I will write about this one day.

			And in that moment, he was free.

			The failure had departed; the creator had returned.

			By doing something else—and by doing it with all his heart—he had tricked his way out of the hell of inertia and straight back into the Big Magic.

			Fierce Trust

			The final—and sometimes most difficult—act of creative trust is to put your work out there into the world once you have completed it.

			The trust that I’m talking about here is the fiercest trust of all. This is not a trust that says “I am certain I will be a success”—because that is not fierce trust; that is innocent trust, and I am asking you to put aside your innocence for a moment and to step into something far more bracing and far more powerful. As I have said, and as we all know deep in our hearts, there is no guarantee of success in creative realms. Not for you, not for me, not for anyone. Not now, not ever.

			Will you put forth your work anyhow?

			I recently spoke to a woman who said, “I’m almost ready to start writing my book, but I’m having trouble trusting that the universe will grant me the outcome I want.”

			Well, what could I tell her? I hate to be a buzzkill, but the universe might not grant her the outcome she wants. Without a doubt, the universe will grant her some kind of outcome. Spiritually minded people would even argue that the universe will probably grant her the outcome she needs—but it might not grant her the outcome she wants.

			Fierce trust demands that you put forth the work anyhow, because fierce trust knows that the outcome does not matter.

			The outcome cannot matter.

			Fierce trust asks you to stand strong within this truth: “You are worthy, dear one, regardless of the outcome. You will keep making your work, regardless of the outcome. You will keep sharing your work, regardless of the outcome. You were born to create, regardless of the outcome. You will never lose trust in the creative process, even when you don’t understand the outcome.”

			There is a famous question that shows up, it seems, in every single self-help book ever written: What would you do if you knew that you could not fail?

			But I’ve always seen it differently. I think the fiercest question of all is this one: What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail?

			What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant?

			What do you love even more than you love your own ego?

			How fierce is your trust in that love?

			You might challenge this idea of fierce trust. You might buck against it. You might want to punch and kick at it. You might demand of it, “Why should I go through all the trouble to make something if the outcome might be nothing?”

			The answer will usually come with a wicked trickster grin: “Because it’s fun, isn’t it?”

			Anyhow, what else are you going to do with your time here on earth—not make things? Not do interesting stuff? Not follow your love and your curiosity?

			There is always that alternative, after all. You have free will. If creative living becomes too difficult or too unrewarding for you, you can stop whenever you want.

			But seriously: Really?

			Because, think about it: Then what?

			Walk Proudly

			Twenty years ago, I was at a party, talking to a guy whose name I have long since forgotten, or maybe never even knew. Sometimes I think this man came into my life for the sole purpose of telling me this story, which has delighted and inspired me ever since.

			The story this guy told me was about his younger brother, who was trying to be an artist. The guy was deeply admiring of his brother’s efforts, and he told me an illustrative anecdote about how brave and creative and trusting his little brother was. For the purposes of this story, which I shall now recount here, let’s call the little brother “Little Brother.”

			Little Brother, an aspiring painter, saved up all his money and went to France, to surround himself with beauty and inspiration. He lived on the cheap, painted every day, visited museums, traveled to picturesque locations, bravely spoke to everyone he met, and showed his work to anyone who would look at it. One afternoon, Little Brother struck up a conversation in a café with a group of charming young people, who turned out to be some species of fancy aristocrats. The charming young aristocrats took a liking to Little Brother and invited him to a party that weekend in a castle in the Loire Valley. They promised Little Brother that this was going to be the most fabulous party of the year. It would be attended by the rich, by the famous, and by several crowned heads of Europe. Best of all, it was to be a masquerade ball, where nobody skimped on the costumes. It was not to be missed. Dress up, they said, and join us!

			Excited, Little Brother worked all week on a costume that he was certain would be a showstopper. He scoured Paris for materials and held back neither on the details nor the audacity of his creation. Then he rented a car and drove to the castle, three hours from Paris. He changed into his costume in the car and ascended the castle steps. He gave his name to the butler, who found him on the guest list and politely welcomed him in. Little Brother entered the ballroom, head held high.

			Upon which he immediately realized his mistake.

			This was indeed a costume party—his new friends had not misled him there—but he had missed one detail in translation: This was a themed costume party. The theme was “a medieval court.”

			And Little Brother was dressed as a lobster.

			All around him, the wealthiest and most beautiful people of Europe were attired in gilded finery and elaborate period gowns, draped in heirloom jewels, sparkling with elegance as they waltzed to a fine orchestra. Little Brother, on the other hand, was wearing a red leotard, red tights, red ballet slippers, and giant red foam claws. Also, his face was painted red. This is the part of the story where I must tell you that Little Brother was over six feet tall and quite skinny—but with the long waving antennae on his head, he appeared even taller. He was also, of course, the only American in the room.

			He stood at the top of the steps for one long, ghastly moment. He almost ran away in shame. Running away in shame seemed like the most dignified response to the situation. But he didn’t run. Somehow, he found his resolve. He’d come this far, after all. He’d worked tremendously hard to make this costume, and he was proud of it. He took a deep breath and walked onto the dance floor.

			He reported later that it was only his experience as an aspiring artist that gave him the courage and the license to be so vulnerable and absurd. Something in life had already taught him to just put it out there, whatever “it” is. That costume was what he had made, after all, so that’s what he was bringing to the party. It was the best he had. It was all he had. So he decided to trust in himself, to trust in his costume, to trust in the circumstances.

			As he moved into the crowd of aristocrats, a silence fell. The dancing stopped. The orchestra stuttered to a stop. The other guests gathered around Little Brother. Finally, someone asked him what on earth he was.

			Little Brother bowed deeply and announced, “I am the court lobster.”

			Then: laughter.

			Not ridicule—just joy. They loved him. They loved his sweetness, his weirdness, his giant red claws, his skinny ass in his bright spandex tights. He was the trickster among them, and so he made the party. Little Brother even ended up dancing that night with the Queen of Belgium.

			This is how you must do it, people.

			I have never created anything in my life that did not make me feel, at some point or another, like I was the guy who just walked into a fancy ball wearing a homemade lobster costume. But you must stubbornly walk into that room, regardless, and you must hold your head high. You made it; you get to put it out there. Never apologize for it, never explain it away, never be ashamed of it. You did your best with what you knew, and you worked with what you had, in the time that you were given. You were invited, and you showed up, and you simply cannot do more than that.

			They might throw you out—but then again, they might not. They probably won’t throw you out, actually. The ballroom is often more welcoming and supportive than you could ever imagine. Somebody might even think you’re brilliant and marvelous. You might end up dancing with royalty.

			Or you might just end up having to dance alone in the corner of the castle with your big, ungainly red foam claws waving in the empty air.

			That’s fine, too. Sometimes it’s like that.

			What you absolutely must not do is turn around and walk out. Otherwise, you will miss the party, and that would be a pity, because—please believe me—we did not come all this great distance, and make all this great effort, only to miss the party at the last moment.



			[image: ]


			Remove the Suggestion Box

			I didn’t grow up in a family of artists.

			I come from people who worked more regularly at life, you might say.

			My maternal grandfather was a dairy farmer; my paternal grandfather was a furnace salesman. Both my grandmothers were housewives, and so were their mothers, their sisters, their aunts.

			As for my parents, my father is an engineer and my mother is a nurse. And although they were the right age for it, my parents were never hippies—not in the least. They were far too conservative for such things. My dad spent the 1960s in college and the Navy; my mom spent those same years in nursing school, working night shifts at the hospital, and responsibly saving her money. After they were married, my dad got a job at a chemical company, and he worked there for thirty years. Mom worked part-time, became an active member of our local church, served on the school board, volunteered at the library, and visited the elderly and the housebound.

			They were responsible people. Taxpayers. Solid. Voted for Reagan. (Twice!)

			I learned how to be a rebel from them.

			Because—just beyond the reach of their basic good citizenship—my parents did whatever the hell they wanted to do with their lives, and they did it with a rather fabulous sense of insouciance. My father decided that he didn’t merely want to be a chemical engineer; he also wanted to be a Christmas-tree farmer, and so in 1973 he went and did that. He moved us out to a farm, cleared some land, planted some seedlings, and commenced with his project. He didn’t quit his day job to follow his dream; he just folded his dream into his everyday life. He wanted to raise goats, too, so he acquired some goats. Brought them home in the backseat of our Ford Pinto. Had he ever raised goats? No, but he thought he could figure it out. It was the same thing when he became interested in beekeeping: He just got himself some bees and began. Thirty-five years later, he still has those hives.

			When my father grew curious about things, he pursued them. He had solid faith in his own capabilities. And when my father needed something (which was rare, because he basically has the material needs of a hobo), he made it himself, or fixed it himself, or somehow cobbled it together himself—usually without referring to the instructions, and generally without asking the advice of an expert. My dad doesn’t hold much respect for instructions or for experts. He is no more impressed by people’s degrees than he is by other civilized niceties such as building permits and NO TRESPASSING signs. (For better or for worse, my dad taught me that the best place to pitch a tent will always be the spot marked NO CAMPING.)

			My father really doesn’t like being told what to do. His sense of individualistic defiance is so strong, it’s often comical. Back in the Navy, he was once commanded by his captain to make a suggestion box to put in the canteen. Dad dutifully built the box, nailed it to the wall, then wrote the first suggestion and dropped it through the slot. His note read: I suggest that you remove the suggestion box.

			In many ways he’s a weird egg, my dad, and his hyper-antiauthoritarian instincts can border at times on the pathological . . . but I always suspected that he was kind of cool, anyway, even back when I was an easily embarrassed child being driven around town in a Ford Pinto filled with goats. I knew that he was doing his own thing and following his own path, and I intuitively sensed that this made him, by definition, an interesting person. I didn’t have a term for it back then, but I can see now that he was practicing something called creative living.

			I liked it.

			I also took note of it for when it came time to imagine my own life. It’s not that I wanted to make any of the same choices my father had made (I am neither a farmer nor a Republican), but his example empowered me to forge my own way through the world however I liked. Also, just like my dad, I don’t like people telling me what to do. While I am not at all confrontational, I am deeply stubborn. This stubbornness helps when it comes to the business of creative living.

			As for my mother, she’s a slightly more civilized version of my dad. Her hair is always neat, and her kitchen is tidy, and her friendly good Midwestern manners are impeccable, but don’t underestimate her, because her will is made of titanium and her talents are vast. She’s a woman who always believed that she could build, sew, grow, knit, mend, patch, paint, or decoupage anything her family ever needed. She cut our hair. She baked our bread. She grew, harvested, and preserved our vegetables. She made our clothes. She birthed our baby goats. She slaughtered the chickens, then served them up for dinner. She wallpapered our living room herself, and she refinished our piano (which she had bought for fifty bucks from a local church). She saved us trips to the doctor by patching us up on her own. She smiled sweetly at everyone and always acted like a total cooperator—but then she shaped her own world exactly to her liking while nobody was looking.

			I think it was my parents’ example of quietly impudent self-assertion that gave me the idea that I could be a writer, or at least that I could go out there and try. I never recall my parents expressing any worry whatsoever at my dream of becoming a writer. If they did worry, they kept quiet about it—but honestly, I don’t think they were concerned. I think they had faith that I would always be able to take care of myself, because they had taught me to. (Anyhow, the golden rule in my family is this: If you’re supporting yourself financially and you’re not bothering anyone else, then you’re free to do whatever you want with your life.)

			Maybe because they didn’t worry too much about me, I didn’t worry too much about me, either.

			It also never occurred to me to go ask an authority figure for permission to become a writer. I’d never seen anybody in my family ask anyone for permission to do anything.

			They just made stuff.

			So that’s what I decided to do: I decided to just go make stuff.

			Your Permission Slip

			Here’s what I’m getting at, dear ones:

			You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life.

			Maybe you didn’t receive this kind of message when you were growing up. Maybe your parents were terrified of risk in any form. Maybe your parents were obsessive-compulsive rule-followers, or maybe they were too busy being melancholic depressives, or addicts, or abusers to ever use their imaginations toward creativity. Maybe they were afraid of what the neighbors would say. Maybe your parents weren’t makers in the least. Maybe they were pure consumers. Maybe you grew up in an environment where people just sat around watching TV and waiting for stuff to happen to them.

			Forget about it. It doesn’t matter.

			Look a little further back in your family’s history. Look at your grandparents: Odds are pretty good they were makers. No? Not yet? Keep looking back, then. Go back further still. Look at your great-grandparents. Look at your ancestors. Look at the ones who were immigrants, or slaves, or soldiers, or farmers, or sailors, or the original people who watched the ships arrive with the strangers onboard. Go back far enough and you will find people who were not consumers, people who were not sitting around passively waiting for stuff to happen to them. You will find people who spent their lives making things.

			This is where you come from.

			This is where we all come from.

			Human beings have been creative beings for a really long time—long enough and consistently enough that it appears to be a totally natural impulse. To put the story in perspective, consider this fact: The earliest evidence of recognizable human art is forty thousand years old. The earliest evidence of human agriculture, by contrast, is only ten thousand years old. Which means that somewhere in our collective evolutionary story, we decided it was way more important to make attractive, superfluous items than it was to learn how to regularly feed ourselves.

			The diversity in our creative expression is fantastic. Some of the most enduring and beloved artwork on earth is unmistakably majestic. Some of it makes you want to drop to your knees and weep. Some of it doesn’t, though. Some acts of artistic expression might stir and excite you, but bore me to death. Some of the art that people have created across the centuries is absolutely sublime, and probably did emerge from a grand sense of seriousness and sacredness, but a lot of it didn’t. A lot of it is just folks messing around for their own diversion—making their pottery a little prettier, or building a nicer chair, or drawing penises on walls to pass the time. And that’s fine, too.

			You want to write a book? Make a song? Direct a movie? Decorate pottery? Learn a dance? Explore a new land? You want to draw a penis on your wall? Do it. Who cares? It’s your birthright as a human being, so do it with a cheerful heart. (I mean, take it seriously, sure—but don’t take it seriously.) Let inspiration lead you wherever it wants to lead you. Keep in mind that for most of history people just made things, and they didn’t make such a big freaking deal out of it.

			We make things because we like making things.

			We pursue the interesting and the novel because we like the interesting and the novel.

			And inspiration works with us, it seems, because inspiration likes working us—because human beings are possessed of something special, something extra, something unnecessarily rich, something that the novelist Marilynne Robinson calls “an overabundance that is magical.”

			That magical overabundance?

			That’s your inherent creativity, humming and stirring quietly in its deep reserve.

			Are you considering becoming a creative person? Too late, you already are one. To even call somebody “a creative person” is almost laughably redundant; creativity is the hallmark of our species. We have the senses for it; we have the curiosity for it; we have the opposable thumbs for it; we have the rhythm for it; we have the language and the excitement and the innate connection to divinity for it.

			If you’re alive, you’re a creative person. You and I and everyone you know are descended from tens of thousands of years of makers. Decorators, tinkerers, storytellers, dancers, explorers, fiddlers, drummers, builders, growers, problem-solvers, and embellishers—these are our common ancestors.

			The guardians of high culture will try to convince you that the arts belong only to a chosen few, but they are wrong and they are also annoying. We are all the chosen few. We are all makers by design. Even if you grew up watching cartoons in a sugar stupor from dawn to dusk, creativity still lurks within you. Your creativity is way older than you are, way older than any of us. Your very body and your very being are perfectly designed to live in collaboration with inspiration, and inspiration is still trying to find you—the same way it hunted down your ancestors.

			All of which is to say: You do not need a permission slip from the principal’s office to live a creative life.

			Or if you do worry that you need a permission slip—THERE, I just gave it to you.

			I just wrote it on the back of an old shopping list.

			Consider yourself fully accredited.

			Now go make something.

			Decorate Yourself

			I have a neighbor who gets tattoos all the time.

			Her name is Eileen. She acquires new tattoos the way I might acquire a new pair of cheap earrings—just for the heck of it, just on a whim. She wakes up some mornings in a funk and announces, “I think I’ll go get a new tattoo today.” If you ask Eileen what kind of tattoo she’s planning on getting, she’ll say, “Oh, I dunno. I’ll figure it out when I get to the tattoo shop. Or I’ll just let the artist surprise me.”

			Now, this woman is not a teenager with impulse-control issues. She’s a grown woman, with adult children, who runs a successful business. She’s also very cool, uniquely gorgeous, and one of the most free spirits I’ve ever met. When I asked her once how she could allow her body to be marked up so casually with permanent ink, she said, “Oh, but you misunderstand! It’s not permanent. It’s just temporary.”

			Confused, I asked, “You mean, all your tattoos are temporary?”

			She smiled and said, “No, Liz. My tattoos are permanent; it’s just my body that’s temporary. So is yours. We’re only here on earth for a short while, so I decided a long time ago that I wanted to decorate myself as playfully as I can, while I still have time.”

			I love this so much, I can’t even tell you.

			Because—like Eileen—I also want to live the most vividly decorated temporary life that I can. I don’t just mean physically; I mean emotionally, spiritually, intellectually. I don’t want to be afraid of bright colors, or new sounds, or big love, or risky decisions, or strange experiences, or weird endeavors, or sudden changes, or even failure.

			Mind you, I’m not going to go out and cover myself with tattoos (simply because that doesn’t happen to be my jam), but I am going to spend as much time as I can creating delightful things out of my existence, because that’s what brings me awake and that’s what brings me alive.

			I do my decorating with printer ink, not with tattoo ink. But my urge to write comes from exactly the same place as Eileen’s urge to turn her skin into a vivid canvas while she’s still here.

			It comes from a place of Hey, why not?

			Because it’s all just temporary.


			But in order to live this way—free to create, free to explore—you must possess a fierce sense of personal entitlement, which I hope you will learn to cultivate.

			I recognize that the word entitlement has dreadfully negative connotations, but I’d like to appropriate it here and put it to good use, because you will never be able to create anything interesting out of your life if you don’t believe that you’re entitled to at least try. Creative entitlement doesn’t mean behaving like a princess, or acting as though the world owes you anything whatsoever. No, creative entitlement simply means believing that you are allowed to be here, and that—merely by being here—you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.

			The poet David Whyte calls this sense of creative entitlement “the arrogance of belonging,” and claims that it is an absolutely vital privilege to cultivate if you wish to interact more vividly with life. Without this arrogance of belonging, you will never be able to take any creative risks whatsoever. Without it, you will never push yourself out of the suffocating insulation of personal safety and into the frontiers of the beautiful and the unexpected.

			The arrogance of belonging is not about egotism or self-absorption. In a strange way, it’s the opposite; it is a divine force that will actually take you out of yourself and allow you to engage more fully with life. Because often what keeps you from creative living is your self-absorption (your self-doubt, your self-disgust, your self-judgment, your crushing sense of self-protection). The arrogance of belonging pulls you out of the darkest depths of self-hatred—not by saying “I am the greatest!” but merely by saying “I am here!”

			I believe that this good kind of arrogance—this simple entitlement to exist, and therefore to express yourself—is the only weapon with which to combat the nasty dialogue that may automatically arise within your head whenever you get an artistic impulse. You know the nasty dialogue I mean, right? I’m talking about the nasty dialogue that goes like this: “Who the hell do you think you are, trying to be creative? You suck, you’re stupid, you have no talent, and you serve no purpose. Get back in your hole.”

			To which you may have spent a lifetime obediently responding, “You’re right. I do suck and I am stupid. Thank you. I’ll go back in my hole now.”

			I would like to see you engaged in a more generative and interesting conversation with yourself than that. For heaven’s sake, at least defend yourself!

			Defending yourself as a creative person begins by defining yourself. It begins when you declare your intent. Stand up tall and say it aloud, whatever it is:

			I’m a writer.

			I’m a singer.

			I’m an actor.

			I’m a gardener.

			I’m a dancer.

			I’m an inventor.

			I’m a photographer.

			I’m a chef.

			I’m a designer.

			I am this, and I am that, and I am also this other thing, too!

			I don’t yet know exactly what I am, but I’m curious enough to go find out!

			Speak it. Let it know you’re there. Hell, let you know you’re there—because this statement of intent is just as much an announcement to yourself as it is an announcement to the universe or anybody else. Hearing this announcement, your soul will mobilize accordingly. It will mobilize ecstatically, in fact, because this is what your soul was born for. (Trust me, your soul has been waiting for you to wake up to your own existence for years.)

			But you must be the one to start that conversation, and then you must feel entitled to stay in that conversation.

			This proclamation of intent and entitlement is not something you can do just once and then expect miracles; it’s something you must do daily, forever. I’ve had to keep defining and defending myself as a writer every single day of my adult life—constantly reminding and re-reminding my soul and the cosmos that I’m very serious about the business of creative living, and that I will never stop creating, no matter what the outcome, and no matter how deep my anxieties and insecurities may be.

			Over time, I’ve found the right tone of voice for these assertions, too. It’s best to be insistent, but affable. Repeat yourself, but don’t get shrill. Speak to your darkest and most negative interior voices the way a hostage negotiator speaks to a violent psychopath: calmly, but firmly. Most of all, never back down. You cannot afford to back down. The life you are negotiating to save, after all, is your own.

			“Who the hell do you think you are?” your darkest interior voices will demand.

			“It’s funny you should ask,” you can reply. “I’ll tell you who I am: I am a child of God, just like anyone else. I am a constituent of this universe. I have invisible spirit benefactors who believe in me, and who labor