Creativity and Curiosity: On Being Interviews Elizabeth Gilbert

For years I worked at a college focused on the arts and creative professions. I taught a foundation-level class required for new students from across the college, an interdisciplinary seminar designed to resonate with both the “artists” and the “non-artists” — the students who were there to study things like dance and poetry, as well as the students who were there to study things like advertising and music business.

The course was designed to resonate with the artistic, academic, and vocational interests of our students by exploring the ways these things were all connected. The classroom became a kind of lab, investigating topics like “creativity” and “process” as a means to get students working in more thoughtful and sophisticated ways. We wanted them to put inquiry and exploration at the center of their creative practice, whether they were creating films or writing essays or making PowerPoints. Talk about “creativity” is easy to dismiss as frivolous “woo woo,” even, ironically, at an arts college. Perhaps this is part of the reason our class was eventually cut from the curriculum. But we were committed to the idea that creativity is profoundly practical. 

Everyone who taught the class developed the habit of collecting articles, images, and video clips to have on hand for sparking conversation, raising questions, and enriching understanding. For me, that habit has outlived the course. This week’s addition to my still-growing stockpile is a terrific episode of On Being in which host Krista Tippett interviews Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert

Choosing the path of curiosity over the path of fear.

In the interview, Gilbert discusses the pursuit of creativity, which is the focus of her newest book. She defines creativity as “choosing the path of curiosity over the path of fear.” She explains to Tippett that we are all, in some way, called to be creative. Creating, making, beautifying — this is essential to who we are as a species. But, she laments, we treat creative making as some rare thing to which only a special class of people are permitted access. We talk about “genius” and “passion,” dramatic words that remove creativity from the realm of everyday living. We imagine that creativity requires extraordinary natural gifts and must be honed by expensive education — and so the pursuit of creativity is treated as a risky investment that must produce fame and fortune if it is to be “worth it.”

For Gilbert, it is curiosity, not passion, that enables creativity. She cautions that it can be a cruel thing to tell someone to “just follow your passion” when they are struggling to find a way forward in life. As we wait for some great sign of passion, we miss the little everyday clues left by curiosity. Curiosity is the key, or as Gilbert puts it, the “friend.” Curiosity is “a very gentle friend, and a very forgiving friend, and a very constant one,” she says. It is a friend that “teaches us how to become ourselves.”

Remain more curious than you are afraid.

I love that Gilbert is committed to “demystifying” creativity even while she celebrates its mystery and magic. Gilbert’s thoughts on creativity aren’t just about being a writer or making art, but about crafting a more beautiful life and a more engaged community. Her tools involve “stubborn gladness,” “risking delight,” and a tolerance for the “90% boring” part of any interesting thing. And endless curiosity. 

Trying to explain that course we used to teach, a colleague of mine would always say, “It’s not a class about making art, it’s a class about making decisions.” In this interview, Gilbert reminds us that “terrified people make terrible decisions.” This is as true of making art as it is of making a life. Embracing creativity, demystifying creativity, living creativity, this is what helps us get out from under the terror and suspicion that constrains us. You must, Gilbert says, “remain more curious than you are afraid.”  

Listen to the full interview here.