There’s nothing more motivational than listening to the struggles and realizations of an author who “made it.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again. On Monday, I attended Literary Arts 30th Anniversary Party, where I was able to hear Colin Meloy, lead singer of The Decemberists and author of the series Wildwood, play a few songs and listen to Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, (among others) speak.
For those of you who don’t know, Literary Arts (LA) is an Oregon-based nonprofit literary center that was formed thirty years ago, in 1984, with the mission of bringing “authors and thinkers” to the Northwest. LA hosts lecture series that bring in over two thousand readers; they host workshops, seminars, and programs for high school students. They’ve also helped support many Oregon authors throughout their careers, like Cheryl Strayed for one.
Gilbert seems like the best friend we’d all love to have; she’s got a great sense of humor, an adventurous spirit, but most of all, she’s sure of herself. Not just because her best-known novel, Eat, Pray, Love, spent nearly two-hundred weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List. Although, that’s plenty enough to make a writer feel sure of herself.
Maybe it’s that, as Gilbert said of herself (quite depreciatingly), she isn’t good at anything besides writing. It must be difficult to be good at a lot of things, she told the audience. How do you know where to direct your passion? That struck a chord with me. I’m not amazing at everything I do, but I’ve always been a good student with a hunger for knowledge. I love astronomy and history. Sometimes politics when I’m not too down on the world. And growing up, my being on the honor roll and needing to always be right led my parents to believe I’d make quite a successful lawyer. I can even sing without breaking glass (although, stage fright makes this difficult to prove). Point being, becoming a writer isn’t generally something a parent dreams for their child. And when there’s literally nothing stopping you from going for that law degree (or some other—stabler—career) besides a persistent itch to write and tell stories, it’s difficult to convince yourself that you aren’t, indeed, making a huge mistake.
“Creativity and fear,” as Gilbert said, “are conjoined twins.” It takes courage to be a writer. Courage to acknowledge fear’s presence, but to let fear know that it won’t control the journey. Gilbert told the audience that she has witnessed many writers—writers just as good as her, if not better—who gave up on themselves. They weren’t happy with the work they were producing. It didn’t meet the expectations they had set for themselves, and so they quit. They “pre-decided,” as Gilbert put it, that they weren’t good enough.
Of herself? Gilbert said, “The badness of my work didn’t bother me. I thought, I’m twenty-two, why would this be good?”
Gilbert pointed out that doubt seems especially difficult for women, who tend to be perfectionists. “Perfectionism,” Gilbert said, “is the high-end version of fear.” She then went on to say, “putting imperfect work out into the world never stopped men from participating.”
What I enjoyed the most about Gilbert—and what stayed with me afterwards—was this attitude that I find the most successful writers have: resilience. The acknowledgement that there are no excuses.
In her speech, Gilbert told the audience about a friend of hers — a nameless, Italian filmmaker. He was down on himself. Down on the industry. He blamed the lack of funding, the lack of integrity, for his inability to produce work. To keep persevering. He wrote all of this in a letter to a German filmmaker whom he admired greatly. When the filmmaker wrote back, he told Gilbert’s friend, “It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. Stop whining.” As harsh as that sounds, sometimes it’s the bitter truth that writers and all creatives need to hear. They were the words Gilbert’s Italian friend needed; he taped the letter above his writing desk—for occasions when he needs a reminder to suck it up, and get back to work.
A creative mind that’s not being put to use is a dangerous thing. Instead of focusing on our work, we focus on the lack of it. The state of it. When the important thing is just to keep going. As Gilbert’s mother used to tell her, “Done is better than good.” We can always go back and revise things, and the real truth is that this process could go on forever if we let it. We may never be completely satisfied.
You don’t need a degree to write. You don’t need anyone’s permission. As Gilbert pointed out, art is in our DNA. Long before humans even began growing their own food, there was art. The need to create. Don’t wait. And tell fear to keep quiet—we have work to do.