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Elizabeth Gilbert on Inspiration, What Tom Waits Taught Her About Creativity, and the Most Dangerous Myth for Artists to Believe

“It’s a relationship, it’s a conversation, and all [the muse] wants is to be treated with respect and dignity — and it will return ten thousand times over.”

Few writers enchant the modern imagination with such soulful, pleasurable prose and sheer generosity of spirit as Elizabeth Gilbert. The famous Ole! with which she ends her magnificent TED talk, one of the most viewed talks of all time, has become a clarion call for the creative spirit by which we stubbornly summon the ever-elusive muse, and it reverberates throughout her most recent book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (public library) — an investigation of the somewhat miraculous, somewhat methodical workings of inspiration.

Since all creative work is the product of extensive incubation, as T.S. Eliot believed, the inquiry into creativity itself is no exception: Long before the release of the book, Gilbert incubated many of these ideas in her long, layered, and thoroughly rewarding conversation with The New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber. Here are some particularly delectable highlights.

On the machinery of inspiration and the artist’s immutable frustration at failing to will the muse, which F. Scott Fitzgerald articulated brilliantly a century earlier:

You know, it’s the same thing as the question of free will and destiny, the question of creativity — you, the artist, you’re not the puppet of the piano, you’re not the puppet of the muse, but you’re not its master, either. It’s a relationship, it’s a conversation, and all it wants is to be treated with respect and dignity — and it will return ten thousand times over.

On profiling Tom Waits and what the encounter taught her about the relationship between inspiration and perspiration — something Leonard Cohen addresses beautifully in the now-legendary interview from which Holdengräber is quoting:

ELIZABETH GILBERT: I loved him so much and I loved so much what he said about the process of songwriting that can apply also to the process of making art, the process of writing a book.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: What did he say?

EG: He said that every single song has an individual character. He believes in the magic and the muse and the true believin’ — he’s on our team. He said, “Every single song has its own individual character and you can’t treat each song the same way, because it wants to be treated differently and there are songs that are like scared birds that you have to sneak up on over the course of months in the woods.”

PH: And he had an experience which is not unlike that poet where he’s caught in traffic precisely.

EG: He was caught in traffic. He had one song, and he talks about songs that you have to bully and songs that are like dreams through a straw, and then this one: He said that there are songs that don’t want to exist, and you have to let them go, and you have to let them not haunt you — which is another way to not become insane as an artist. And he was driving down the freeway one day…

PH: …in Los Angeles…

EG: …in Los Angeles, and he heard a little tiny trace of a beautiful melody, and he panicked because he didn’t have his waterproof paper, and he didn’t have his tape recorder, and he didn’t have a pen, he didn’t have a pencil — he had no way to get it.

PH: He only had his car in Los Angeles.

EG: And he thought, “How am I going to catch this song?” And he started to have all that old panic and anxiety that artists have about feeling like you’re going to miss something, and then he just slowed down and he looked up at the sky, and he looked up and he said, “Excuse me, can you not see that I’m driving? If you’re serious about wanting to exist, come back and see me in the studio. I spend six hours a day there, you know where to find me, at my piano. Otherwise, go bother somebody else. Go bother Leonard Cohen.”

PH: And I love that, and I love that because … Leonard Cohen, when asked about inspiration, he said, “If I knew where inspiration came from, I would go there more often.”

EG: But you know, there’s a way to go there more often, and it’s to show up at your desk at six o’clock every morning.

PH: The Herzog line, “get back to work.”

EG: It’s the Sitzfleisch. How do you say it?

PH: I’ll tell you. Sitzfleisch.

EG: Sitzfleisch.

PH: Sitzfleisch means literally the meat you have on your tushie.

EG: Ass flesh, in less —

PH: …to keep yourself sitting.

EG: The ability to sit.

On Norman Mailer and the perils of buying into the Tortured Genius archetype — a criticism to which the stark contrast with Gilbert’s usual radiance of mind and deeply uncynical perspective only adds import:

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: There’s a line which you like to quote which happened here on this stage when I brought Günter Grass together with Norman Mailer when Mailer said that “every one of my books has killed me a little more.”

ELIZABETH GILBERT: Honestly, that’s how I feel about that… I’m sorry: Norman Mailer was a great man, he was a great — well, he wasn’t a great man, he was a great writer in certain regards — but it just bores me. I find myself very gently falling asleep when I hear somebody like that, who lived a long, robust life…

PH: …very robust…

EG: …wrote a pile of books that made him famous, that made every woman in the world want to sleep with him — and he did — say that his work was killing him. I just, I’m like, pff, just boo, you know? I’m sorry, rest in peace, Norman, but you know.

PH: You’re writing against that.

EG: I am so vividly against that and I also just think, are you kidding? First of all, who are you kidding? You know, he was the biggest narcissist in the world — it gave him a platform, it gave him attention, it gave him fame, it gave him notoriety, it gave him a way to run for mayor of New York, it gave him everything: It gave him life. And the ingratitude of it is what irritates me, because I feel like if you’re lucky enough — if you’re lucky enough ever in your life to be able to walk in a creative path — then at least be grateful. And it sounds like an indignant, spoiled rich child to me, and I hate it… I just hate it.

And you know why? I don’t hate it for him — because I don’t really care about Norman Mailer’s life — I hate it for the people who were in that audience that night, and who thought, “Oh, yes, true,” you know, or “I’m an aspiring writer, and therefore I must feel that, I should be feeling that way too,” and he’s teaching that and perpetuating it. And it’s a cancer.

Many of Mailer’s contemporaries pushed back — from Ray Bradbury, who tirelessly championed the sheer love of writing and often proclaimed that he never worked a day in his life, to Susan Sontag, who was a true celebrator of writing and of writers (and who, incidentally, once publicly eviscerated another of Mailer’s toxic attitudes).

Few writers in our own time provide more vitalizing an antidote to that cancer than Gilbert, a concentrated dose of which she delivers in Big Magic.

The event was part of the library’s LIVE from the NYPL series, which has also given us such stimulations as Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense advice to aspiring writers, Malcolm Gladwell on criticism, tolerance, and the art of changing your mind and Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Lewis on aesthetic force. The audio recordings of the series belong to the finest podcasts for a fuller life. Join me in supporting The New York Public Library so they may continue making such gifts to the public possible.

Photographs by Jori Klein for NYPL

Published June 12, 2015




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