your fear is boring

Elizabeth Gilbert on creativity and fear

After Elizabeth Gilbert’s Cleveland appearance this winter as part of the Cuyahoga County Library Writer’s Center Stage series, I had pages of notes demanding full-on essay treatment.

That was November.

In the little notebook I carry in my purse, there are four scrawled pages crammed between cabinet measurements for our kitchen renovation and notes from an early morning school levy campaign meeting. No essay. No grand reflections. A few stolen moments documented from a folding chair.


Supporting our art

One commanding sentiment from that evening has haunted me, and it’s one I didn’t even write down. Actually, it may have been what inspired me to begin transcribing furiously in the first place.

Early in her remarks, Gilbert said, and I am paraphrasing, ‘I didn’t expect to make a living from writing. I never demanded that my writing, my art, support me. Instead, I made a commitment to do everything I could to support my art. I worked whatever job I had to so I could keep writing. I made a promise to my art, that I would always support it, I would make the sacrifices so we could be together.’

This stunned me. As someone who identifies as a writer, but regularly fields comments such as, ‘like, a freelancer?’ or ‘anything I might have read?’ [smug, much?] this was a gloriously calligraphied permission slip. When people ask what I Do With My Time, I often answer, “I am a writer. I just don’t get paid to be.” It usually comes out all sheepish and shame filled, instead of confident and quippy. Gilbert went on to say that we must be stewards of our own art and vision. ‘The world does not owe you payment or enjoyment of your art.’ Honestly? I find that my art is most effective, enjoyed and well-received when I do it merely for my own enjoyment. Irony, that.

When ‘because I can’ becomes ‘because I have to’

Spinning...because I can!

Why are you spinning? ‘Because I can.’

Our art is like our child…if we are doing it right, we love it unconditionally. We’d never demand our pink-cheeked three year old pay the mortgage or initiate a difficult adult conversation, and likewise must cherish and protect art’s childhood in the same way. Three year olds are the masters of ‘because I can’, adults not so much. Putting qualifications on our art—I will play with you, as long as you promise me $25 an hour or more—will suck all the joy right out of it. Gilbert did not make a living as a writer for a full *6 years*, but kept writing for the love of it.

Think about the acceptable window American society tolerates ‘slacking artists’. You get 18 months—maybe 2 years, max—of your life to Make It as an actor/dancer/writer/photographer. Fail to make it big in that timeframe, and culture will close its hands around your neck, demanding you grow up and get a job already. That’s if you are a young adult, taking a gap year or two, or just graduating from college. What of our older artists? People past 25 have gathered more wisdom and life experience and have compelling creations to offer. But we’ve got also the trappings of a Proper Life to deal with. Finding and taking the time to create often draws sharp sighs and rolled eyes.

When that 20-something bohemian window slams shut, older adults get trapped behind the glass. Faces pressed to the cool panes, we breathe in and out, our own hand clutched at our neck now, gulping in the stale air. We might trace a finger absently in the fog of our condensed breath: Hobby*. The asterisk points to the obvious fine print: practice of aforementioned Art [heretofore known as “Hobby”] is acceptable only during weekends, evenings before and after dinner, outside of family time, overtime, needy friends, and every other external demand, determined on a case by case basis by someone other than you.

Can art ever thrive under such conditions? No. It suffers and dies, along with our sense of play, joy, curiosity and possibility.

Follow your passion*

But what if you do choose to try to make a living from your art after all? The news is actually better than you might think. Jerry Ciancolo explores this ‘but how will you eat?’ question for young artists and their fretful parents.

The parental attitude shifts from “You’re so wonderfully talented” to “Talent’s a great thing, but how’re you going to make a living?” The unsubtle message for the emerging artist is “playtime’s over.”

In a culture whose cri de coeur is “follow your passion,” there’s a certain irony here.

Two findings of this study, involving 13,500 arts graduates at 154 institutions, stand out: 92% of those who sought work after graduation found it, and 66% of these young artists reported that their first job out of school was a close match for the kind of work they wanted. Further, 70% of those employed as fine artists, photographers, dancers and writers said they were “very satisfied” with their job and the creative opportunities it provided, notwithstanding the low pay.

What’s striking about these levels of satisfaction is that the obverse is true for other U.S. workers. The Gallup organization, in its 2013 State of the American Workplace report, found that, on average, “70 percent of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ and emotionally disconnected from their workplaces.”

Let’s do the math, then. On average, more than 70% of professional artists like their work, while 70% of executives, doctors, teachers and other workers dislike theirs.

An argument for becoming a strident steward of your art if ever there was one. People always say if you follow your passion, the money will follow. Maybe, maybe not. But it certainly looks like happiness might.

10 thoughts on creativity and fear from Elizabeth Gilbert

Gilbert’s gifts as a speaker rival those of her writing. I have repeatedly watched her TED talks on creativity and genius. Her wisdom on these topics regularly overwhelms me, likely because she has spent a LOT of time pondering such things. Her new book, Big Magic, is coming out in September and, no surprise, it’s all about examining our fears while embracing a creative life. Following are other tidbits from her Cleveland appearance in November:

  1. Fear has only one note: Stop. Stop. Stop. There is no nuance, no subtlety.
  2. But! Make room for the fear. Welcome it, set a place at the table…it’s coming anyway.
  3. A creative life is any life more ruled by curiosity than fear. Fear is boring.
  4. If you defend your limitations, you get to keep them.

    Give me a job or I will shred your sofa and eventually your will to live.

    Neglect to give me a job, and I will shred your sofa…and eventually, your will to live.

  5. You don’t have to be an artist to be a maker.
  6. The first proof of art is 40,000 years old. The first proof of cultivated agriculture is 10,000 years old. Humans have priorities! Art over eat.
  7. The stakes of creativity are comically low. Quoting Tom Waits, “my art, music, is just decoration for the insides of other people’s minds.”
  8. Perfection is just fear in really good shoes.
  9. An unengaged creative brain is like having a border collie for a pet. You must give it something to do, a job, or it will find something to do. Probably something destructive. [Having experienced both creative boredom and a pet border collie, I can attest to this metaphor as absolute truth].
  10. Artists rely on talent, discipline and luck. We can’t control two of these things…so let’s put all our chips on discipline.

Creating in the stolen moments

The last of Gilbert’s words I recorded in my notebook outlines the metaphor for this struggle. We are alone in a room, our foot jammed against the door, yelling ‘just a second’ while external demands push from the other side.

We sometimes must create in the stolen moments.

No accident, then, that this now-an-essay was crammed in between cabinets and campaigns, commitments and complaints. Moments of creative ventures often slide in like this, perfectly timed respite from the shoulds of the quotidian. How could so much truth have hidden out in my tiny notebook for more than 3 months? Probably because I spend a great of time with forehead pressed to the glass, waiting for someone to tell me I finally have clearance to practice my Hobby*. Instead, those 4 little pages are proof of the time I take for myself, however fleeting, however stolen.


Where are your stolen moments of creativity? When was the last time you did something just ‘because you can?’ Or have you developed the discipline Gilbert encourages us to focus on? Share in the comments.

Hats off to Case Western University, too, having hosted not only this evening with Ms. Gilbert at the gorgeous new Tinkham Veale Center, but also brought in Gloria Steinem earlier in 2014 to speak at Severance Hall as part of the Town Hall Lecture Series. I gleaned another boatload of quotes and inspiration there, too.



patti carlyle

Writer, feminist and activist in Cleveland, Ohio. I curate a collectic blog of quotes, links, images and long form writing. Learn more or find me on Facebook, Twitter, .

Latest posts by patti carlyle (see all)

Leave a Reply