Sunday, April 3, 2016

Meta-Creativity: Creating Books about Creativity

So reads the back cover of Elizabeth Gilbert's most recent book, Big Magic. Gilbert is a well-known writer, born in Connecticut on a small family Christmas-tree farm in 1969. She studied political science at NYU, and wrote short stories in her free time. She has worked as a journalist for Spin, GQ, and The New York Times, published eight novels, and appeared on endless talk shows and podcasts. She has become a writer with worldwide exposure (1).

As she describes in Big Magic, her creative career is a little less glamorous than the bio on her website makes it out to be. She continuously pushed herself to create, bouncing back from rejection after rejection. Gilbert is an example to the creators of today's society: an example of how to unleash your creativity without letting the elitist world full of pressures to produce MORE, do BETTER, and make a HIGHER salary knock you down.

Gilbert is best known for her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, which invites readers to join her on a journey of self-discovery through Italy, India, and Indonesia. In Big Magic, she discusses her surprise at her memoir's success. She didn't write it so that it would rise to the top of the bestselling charts; she wrote it as a way to process her own emotional roller coasters; to record her own realizations and experiences as she set off as an independent woman to travel the world.

In an interview with The Telegraph about reflecting on her bestseller which has now been translated into 46 languages with over 12 million copies sold across the globe, Gilbert humbly explains:

"Some of the reaction to Eat Pray Love has struck me as beautiful, some of it has been hateful, much of it has been incomprehensible – but all of it has been astonishing to me. Millions of women seem to have used the book as a recovery manual for their own heartbreaks and spiritual explorations, which has been magnificent to behold." (2)

Perhaps it is this realization that her memoir was being used as a "recovery manual" that prompted Gilbert to create just that: a manual. A manual about creativity, to be exact. Through her characteristic witty, simplistic style, Gilbert discusses how to share your creativity with the world and still be able to financially live a comfortable life, her own take on the conception and transfer of ideas, the complex workings of fear, excitement, intuition, and the unknown.

Big Magic, wrapped in a whimsically colorful book jacket**, is some form of creative-ception: a creative collection of chapters discussing the process of creating.  Most creations require you to search elsewhere for an understanding of the creator's process, their sources of inspiration, and the unfolding of such complex minds. With Big Magic, Gilbert has done the work for us.

**I stumbled upon a video that shows the complex creation of this cover. At first glance, it is surely just a photoshopped explosion of color and popping white letters. But this behind-the-scenes look will make you appreciate the creative attention spent on this cover all the more:

Gilbert takes readers through multiple facets of creativity, but the most interesting to me was her idea about ideas. (Do you sense a meta theme going on here?) Gilbert describes ideas in a way that many traditional, narrow-minded people would scoff at. Perhaps even scream about. But she follows her own advice to be brave and does it anyway. According to Gilbert, ideas are "a disembodied, energetic life form." (3)  She describes ideas as things with no consciousness, but "most certainly [with] will."  These ideas move around the world, seeking an artist to help them become realized. Sometimes they plant themselves in the right head, and are attended to right away. But sometimes these ideas are neglected, and if they are ignored for too long, they will simply move on until they are picked up by someone new. It's an abstract concept, but whether you can grasp the idea of ideas being their own self-willed beings or not, Gilbert's ideas coincide with Nancy C. Andreasen's findings about creativity and the unconscious.

 When analyzing creativity, it is common to discuss the 'eureka moment'—the moment in which one is overwhelmed with an idea or a solution to a problem. Gilbert would describe this moment as the point in time when an idea enters someone's brain and they latch on to it and commit to materialize it. Andreasen describes the creative process that can be generalized to a variety of creative processes, from finding a scientific solution to writing a poem. Andreasen's explanations and Gilbert's paralleled ideas are below:

The Creative Process (4).

1. Preparation: a time when basic information or skills are assembled
             Gilbert's connection: an idea moves around the world, seeking someone to take it on
2. Incubation: a time where the person does not work consciously to solve a problem, but UNCONSCIOUS connections are being made
             Gilbert's connection: an idea enters a person's brain and hangs around to see if the person  
             will manifest it
3. Inspiration: the eureka moment!
             Gilbert's connection: the moment where the person realizes the idea is there and decides to 
             COMMIT to it!
4. Production: insights are put into a useful form
             Gilbert's connection: the creator works to move this idea from their own minds to a product
             that is accessible and visible to the world around them 

More than likely, Gilbert contracted the idea for Big Magic through a series of realizations and ideas that came from her previous novels. But perhaps, this idea began as a disembodied life form that found its way into Gilbert's unconscious. The Washington Post suggests the double-edged sword of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation that drove Gilbert to write Big Magic:

"You can read…Big Magic as a love letter to her fans and a coded kiss-off to her critics." (3) 

Maybe she wrote Big Magic to guide her readers who were already using her work as self-guide books. Perhaps it is written to tell critics that she doesn't care what they think; that she will unleash her creativity into the world simply because it is WITHIN her, trying to burst out.

Either way, Gilbert provides a thought-provoking creation about creativity, encouraging readers to open their awareness to new ideas and create not without fear, but with a certain respect for the small role that fear can play.

“You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures…You can battle your demons (through therapy, recovery, prayer, or humility) instead of battling your gifts — in part by realizing that your demons were never the ones doing the work, anyhow.” (3)

Works Cited:


  1. As a sucker for travel memoirs, I'm definitely a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert. I had no idea, however, that she had written a book about creativity! I had never considered the "incubation" portion of the creative process, but I can now see how integral it is to making sure ideas manifest as products. It's described as "an idea enters a person's brain and hangs around," and I am certain that even in my own life, a good idea has hung around in the back of my head until the very right moment. This is something I am sure so many people experience! I also admire how she encourages people to create without fear, which seems to be the way that so many big C creatives produce their work - fearlessly. I'll have to check out the book!

  2. I didn't know Gilbert was from Connecticut--shout out! Anyways, I think it is interesting how preparation and incubation are separated. In my mind, they seem interwoven and continuous--not exactly a first comes preparation and then comes incubation. We gain skills, expertise, and experiences. This is a never-ending process, and constantly feeds our creative processes. These steps are just a part of learning, which is thankfully never-ending. Yet, there isn't a strong link between IQ and creativity. I think this suggests that there is more importance on the ability to make these connections (incubation), rather than to gather skills and knowledge (preparation). Yet, without appreciable skill, would even very creative works be noticed? Probably not, or children's pieces would probably be more admired, since they are very good at making these long-distance connections.

  3. I must admit, I attempted to read Gilbert's book "Eat, Pray, Love" and honestly got a little too bored and never finished (the only book I've ever done this with). That being said, I chose to read this blog post about Gilbert. Although her book bored me, I am extremely interested in her as a person. For one, I find her idea to travel through Italy, India and Indonesia to be a creative idea itself; she specifically picked each for a reason, seeking to grow as a person and fulfill personal goals by traveling to each destination. Further, she created a creative product out of her travels. Continuing on Gilbert created a creative product to help stimulate and encourage the creativity in others. I love how you paralleled Andreasen's ideas on the creative process with Gilbert - the comparisons were great!

    I too found it interesting that Andreasen separated the preparation and incubation parts of the creative process. It is true that in Gilbert's writing and interviews, she does not claim an idea as hers until she has really created a product out of it. I think the idea that a product or creative idea is out in the world "moving around" is quite interesting, too. I see this in the many times people hear of new creations and make the comment, "I could've thought of that." The truth is anyone can think of these ideas, but only one person has turned it into product and made it known to humankind.

    The video on the making of the cover of "Big Magic" was intriguing. I thought that it was a somewhat simple cover, possibly made by photoshop. I like that the cover incorporated originality and creativity!


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