Last year, I had my hair done next to bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) at the Drybar on W. 16th Street in Manhattan. When I walked in, she was seated in the lobby area. Liz Gilbert wears ankle boots, I thought, slightly jealous because I could never pull off ankle boots. She looked entirely normal. When we were later seated near one another, I resisted the urge to say anything, because what was there to say?
Congrats on that amazing three-year run on the bestseller list? What did you think when you found out Julia Roberts was playing you in the movie? I heard you write super early in the morning, I do, too – ideas are fresher at 5 am, aren’t they? Do you really move homes between books? Or just desks?
In reality, I didn’t say a word. I figured that Liz Gilbert, like the rest of us, would enjoy a moment of personal solitude at the Drybar, so I kept my conversation starters to myself and read my book.
But, if Elizabeth Gilbert and I were to run into each other today, I would most certainly turn to her and say, “Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.” Because even though I know she wrote her latest book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear for herself (she says so in the book), it just happened to be the exact thing I needed to read at the moment I needed to read it. I’ve always believed the world is magical like that, and her words reminded me.
When Elizabeth Gilbert writes about creative living, she focuses on “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than fear.” I’ve spent much of my life’s work with pre-teens and teenagers encouraging this perspective, and was in the middle of a little stumbling block in my own life where I needed a few gentle reminders.
For most of 2015, my own creative living, especially my writing, hit a standstill. I could easily use every possible excuse to contribute to my writer’s block, but at the end of the day, I wasn’t writing much at all. When students, mentors and clients would ask me about my latest book, I would grimace. It’s coming, I would say. My “get real” moment was when one of my students, who I adore, looked at me after sensing the book wasn’t going so well, and offered, “Well, I’ve always used your finals study schedule to map out my time. Maybe you want to try that?” The teacher is always the student and the student is always the teacher.
After a little holiday Buddhist reading (Thich Nhat Hanh’s You Are Here and Pema Chödrön’s Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better) to remind me of the beauty in the here and now, I cracked open the spine of Big Magic.
Disclaimer: Big Magic probably isn’t for everyone – the NYTimes review insists Gilbert “glossed” over the really tough stuff. Well, it’s her book, and I preferred to read something more uplifting than cynical, and it worked for me. To each their own.
With her right words at the right time, Elizabeth Gilbert reminded me I actually like writing. It is (usually) not torturous. It is (often) fun. And, when I let it be, magical. She explains her theory about how ideas come to us, and how they disappear, and how sometimes you start book and don’t finish and that’s okay, and how sometimes you write things and no one reads them and that’s okay too, because eventually and you never know when or how it all comes around. And that’s all part of the Big Magic.
I’ve had my own magical, put-it-out-in-the-Universe and it happens in crazy ways thing happen many times, and I am a true believer. A simple, less crazy example is how I came up with all of the titles for my first two books. The first one, That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week, came to me in the shower, and I knew right then that was going to be it. Though publisher initially thought the title was too long, a totally unscientific sample of 40-something moms of middle school boys insisted the title was great – so that was it. The Myth of the Perfect Girl came to me as I was walking under the scaffolding on the corner of Prince and Broadway in Soho in NYC. And that was that.
One of my favorite parts of the book is how she discusses perfectionism, and how perfectionists tend to struggle the most with creative living (something I write about in The Myth of the Perfect Girl). I love the quote she included from writer Rebecca Solnit, who suggests, “So many of us believe in perfectionism, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.” YES.
In terms of my work with teens, this book made me think about how today’s underlying focus on perfectionism (getting straight As, for example, or making the varsity team) actually serves to torture the creative spirit of so many of today’s pre-teens and young adults. There are so many kids (and parents) struggling with anxiety and depression, and it makes me think about how crucial it is for every young person to have a creative outlet that is separate from assignments, achievements, and college admissions.
I don’t think the answer is to make everyone a member of the varsity team, but we do need to focus encouraging options for daily creative living. Although parents and students often think otherwise, we have enough time. The first step is to make space in the schedule – even if it is 15 minutes a day or two hours a week. Think about creative living as a part of one’s own internal spiritual journey. I’ve seen young people set aside two hours on Sunday afternoon for baking fondant cakes or building model planes – even with crazy classes, schedules, and obligations. It’s possible.
Purely creative living, without constant need for external validation, could be the greatest antidote for the teen and young adult stress we see so much of today. Twenty minutes a day to draw, or thirty minutes to read a book sounds like an elegant extravagance, and it doesn’t need to be. Part of the issue is that students tend to always be near or on a device, and the chance to let their mind rest and wander doesn’t happen as much as it used to. It’s why we always ask in the office: what do you like to do for fun? Is there anything you have an interest in – that you’d like more of in your life? How can being organized help to create more time and space for that? It’s no fun to become more organized and manage your time better if there is nothing to do it for – whether that is gardening (and yes, I’ve worked with teens who loved to garden!), photography, baking cakes, coloring, building model cars or life-size robots – could be the key to a happy, healthier teenage experience.
Here’s to more creatively living for all of us 2016 – and beyond.