Fear & The Creative Life: Liz Gilbert Speaks at Attune ConferenceJan 31, 2020 09:30AM ● By Diane Eaton
Elizabeth Gilbert, world-renowned speaker and bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love and Big Magic, has been speaking, writing and posting about the topics of genius and creativity for more than 10 years. She was a keynote speaker at the Attune conference in Serenbe in November 2019. Here are the highlights of her talk.
Twenty-five years ago, Elizabeth Gilbert was a young unpublished writer in New York City working several jobs just to survive. New York was “intimidatingly expensive and challenging,” she says, and she bemoaned the fact that she couldn’t find the time to do what she came to New York to do—write. Quoting author Melville, she longed for those “slow green grass-growing summer days” to dig into some creative work. But life was pressing in on her.
At a block party in the neighborhood, Gilbert met a woman she had admired for a long time. “She wasn’t brilliantly-hugely-famously-well-known, but she was well-known enough” that creativity was her life, says Gilbert. Intrigued, Gilbert cornered her at the party and shared her creative frustration with her. After some discussion, the woman asked what Gilbert describes as “the single most important question that anybody has ever asked me in my life.”
That question was: What are you willing to give up so you can have the life that you keep pretending that you want?
The question caused Gilbert to reassess many of her assumptions about her choices in life. Even though her life was demanding, she had to admit that she could find ways to carve out time to be with her muse. She stopped watching TV, broke up with her boyfriend, turned down an offer to go to the beach with friends for several days, stayed at her small apartment and started to write what became her first book.
“You need to choose—like triage—where that energy is going,” says Gilbert, “and that means saying ‘No’ to a lot of really boring, exciting and fun things. At some point, you are invited to decide what it is that you actually care about—what and who.”
Giving Up Fear?
“What if one of the things you’re willing to give up is to stop being afraid of your fear—not to stop being afraid—but to stop being afraid of your fear?” asks Gilbert. Admitting to being affected by an ever-present, low-level anxiety herself, she describes fear as “not necessarily endemic to our time period,” but as a part of our human software. “Ancient evolutionary wiring,” she explains.
Where does fear come from, after all? And how does it interact with our creative impulses? Gilbert provides a quick dive into the development of the human brain over the last 250 million years or so. Our earliest brain—often referred to as the reptilian brain because we share it with reptiles and other species—is all about survival, compelling us to seek food and engage in fight, flight or sex, fulfilling our most primitive human needs. It provides an automatic response to any outside threats and anything unknown.
Then came “Brain 2.0,” as Gilbert calls it, which wraps around that first brain. “It’s a mammalian brain, but it still keeps all the reptile instincts underneath it. It is the brain of attachment. It's the brain that says, ‘I belong to you. You belong to me.’”
Finally, humans get more, well, human, through the addition of the next-level brain, the neocortex. “Brain 3.0 wraps around the whole shebang,” Gilbert relates. It is “unlike anything this planet has ever seen before. It is a very, very recent software update.” It is the part that has deep memory, that wants to make art, that cries at music, and that has an irrational empathy for people it doesn't belong to, according to Gilbert. It’s the part that wants to connect with God. “This is a massively beautiful, complex brain and it is the seat of creativity—but it's wrapped around the reptilian brain.” One might say we are inherently conflicted.
Fearlessness Is Not the Goal
Precisely because fear is wired into our brains, demonizing fear and making fearlessness the goal is doomed to failure. “I am not a fearless person, and I will never be a fearless person. I wake up scared every single day of my life,” says Gilbert.
Besides, fearlessness isn’t all that we romanticize it to be. “I have met genuinely fearless people in my life, and I can tell you that they were sociopaths! … Fearlessness has no attraction to me. I'm interested in courage, which is something very different. Courage is about having fear and still proceeding [in the direction you want] anyway.”
“If you don’t get anything else, I want you to take this home: expect the fear response. Respect the fear response,” implores Gilbert. “Here’s how it works: This beautiful, newly-evolved, subtle, complex, beauty-loving, rapture-seeking, connectivity-wanting human brain will come up with a creative idea. An idea will land in there, and your very first response to it, before anything else kicks in, is going to be a sense of warm, beautiful excitement, something amazing.
“That's always how it starts. And then—and you can set your clocks to this—the very next thing you are going to feel is fear. Your very next impulse is going to be terror and panic.” After that first expression of a creative idea or urge, she says, the reptilian brain’s auto-responder survival mechanism kicks in to protect us from uncertainty and the unknown, which creativity thrives on. One can sit down to do something as harmless as write a poem, and then be overwhelmed with terror because the reptilian brain, doing its job, screams, ‘This is going to kill us!’
“And so, there’s a conversation I have to have with my reptile brain, whenever I do anything creative, that basically says that my poetry might not be great, but, so far, the death rate is zero. So far, I have not killed myself or anybody else that I know of due to writing substandard poetry.” Every day of our lives, says Gilbert, we get to choose to follow the path of our creativity—to say “Yes” to the invitation of a creative urge to make something out of nothing—or to listen to the reptilian brain, which tries to get us to shut it down.
Choose Curiosity Over Fear
We’re not alone in the endeavor. “Creativity is happening at every single moment,” says Gilbert. Some believe that the universe itself is a constant creative response, that it is “a story of there being nothing, and then for some reason, it wants to turn into something.” Creativity is happening everywhere. Even on a planetary level, there are star nurseries in the far corners of the galaxy where new stars are being born. “When you live your life in constant creative response, you're entering into nothing less than 15 billion years of creative energy that you are participating in in a tiny, small way,” says Gilbert.
Fear, she says, is the only thing that stands in the way of creativity. “Fear that I'm not going to matter; that I don't belong here; that I'm not invited; that it won't be successful; that my best work is behind me…
“Every single other excuse is [just] an excuse,” she asserts. “Every single other reason people give me about why they can't create—all I see is fear.” Is money a stumbling block? Hip hop is an art form that was born out of absolute poverty, Gilbert reminds us. Perfectionism getting in the way? “That’s just fear in a fancy coat pretending to be important,” says Gilbert.
“To me, a creative life is constantly choosing the path of curiosity over the path of fear.” By doing so, your very life becomes the work of art. “You are the work of art that's being made and foraged through the act of creativity…
“And that is why we do it. That's why it's worth doing because it's going to be interesting who you become—not what you make—but who you become. So anytime you want to create something but you're not, and your mind gives you a reason for it, I just ask you to unmask it.” The point isn’t to hate fear. “It’s to be able to have the real conversation, talking as gently and lovingly as you can.”