“They just made stuff. So that’s what I decided to do: I decided to just go make stuff.”
“I mean, take it seriously, sure — but don’t take it SERIOUSLY.”
Two quotes by Elizabeth Gilbert from her latest book on ‘creativity beyond fear’ called Big Magic sum up what I have experienced on my path as a writer. These two realisations, that: (1) I can just go ahead and write, and (2) the belief that it’s all so SERIOUS is just my ego talking, not reality, these were the two lightbulb moments that literally set me free as a creative person. And reading this new book on creativity, I started to wonder when we had begun taking all this ‘art’ stuff so seriously.
I started trying to piece together how all this happened for me, this buying in to the belief that ‘art’ was something untouchable, something for the select few, the ‘talented ones’. I think it may have started with The Great Gatsby…
There is a scene in The Great Gatsby where Gatsby stares off across the water to Daisy’s house. In the darkness he can see a green light shining at the edge of her dock. The green light of hope. I studied The Great Gatsby in high school. I had a fantastic English teacher, the kind of teacher that let you sit on sofas and drink soda during class and made you feel like you loved learning and loved literature most of all. When it came to studying this scene, the meaning of this green light in particular, someone raised their hand and asked if it really meant anything at all. All these colours that appear throughout the novel, did the author really intentionally put them there to mean something? Wasn’t it probably just random description? After all, it was hard enough to write a whole novel in the first place, could Fitzgerald really be expected to slip in secret details as well?
I wasn’t the one who asked the question, but I had been thinking it too. Probably like a lot of people in that room. But as our teacher took us through the story, pointing out where each particular colour appeared, noting that green always appeared in relation to Daisy for instance, it became harder to argue that it was random.
I remember this moment when I realised with a profound respect that there was a whole other level of meaning written into these stories, symbolism and foreshadowing written into the folds of the text. Writing stories, GREAT stories, the kind called ‘Literature’ wasn’t just about creating an interesting plot, some believable characters, writing beautiful sentences and nice scene description. I was in awe at the kind of talent, the kind of control such writers wield over their stories. And I wondered if I could really ever do THAT.
I think that was the day I starting taking stories SERIOUSLY. That was certainly the beginning of a long period where I approached books like academic subjects, things to be excavated, picked apart, analysed. I remember commenting to a friend during that period that I could no long sit and read a novel without a pen in my hand. I stopped ‘reading’ stories and started ‘studying’ them. And because I have always been a bit on the earnest side, I fit right in with all the other other academics who believed texts and research, history and literature, were INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. (During my master’s and ph.d., the ‘importance’ of people’s research was referenced so often, it came to feel like we were all doing brain surgery or something equally life-changing.)
But all this TAKING THINGS SO SERIOUSLY had a painful dark side. Self-doubt. Like a winter cold, it spread everywhere, infected everyone I knew. I not only had learned to analyse, deconstruct, question…I had also been trained to constantly second-guess and over-analyse everything I wrote or created.
And some point, after many years in academia, I had a moment of realising…if I didn’t get out of this environment I was going to ‘kill it’. ‘It’…my creative voice…couldn’t survive in a place where things were so serious, where my writing had to live up to the high standards of ‘Art’ and ‘Classic Literature’. Leaving Cambridge, I blared Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’ on the radio and felt like I had barely escaped some strange mental cage.
I moved to Leamington, and there I met people who ‘just made stuff’. Friends knitted, crocheted, grew things, wove baskets, carved wooden sculpture. It was like leaving the Louvre and finding myself among craftsmen and craftswomen. It was a breath of fresh air, precisely because people didn’t take themselves so SERIOUSLY. They made stuff because they enjoyed it, because what they made was beautiful, and they used what they made and then moved on to make something else. I wrapped these craftspeople around me and slowly was healed of my madness.
Take your creations seriously, but don’t take them SERIOUSLY.
Just go make stuff.
These thoughts have set me free.