Creative Challenges Are a Part of the Creative Process

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Big Magic" by Elizabeth Gilbert. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are some of the most common obstacles you encounter when creating? How do you deal with these challenges? 

No matter what creative pursuit you take on, there will always be attending annoyances. Developing an ability to cope with irritants and unpleasantness is as much a part of your job as a creator as actually creating.

In this article, we’ll discuss how to handle the inevitable creative challenges you’ll encounter on your creative journey. 

No Matter What, Always Create

If you question whether or not you’re able to cope with the irritations of your creative pursuit, Gilbert acknowledges that it may be best to give it up. However, if you do so, find something else to commit to creatively. Gilbert believes that every human needs to have some creative pursuit that allows them to temporarily escape their reality and their current societal roles and responsibilities (for instance, being a parent or a CEO). 

The Broader Benefits of Creative Work

Creative pursuits can have personal benefits beyond giving you the chance to slip out of your established identities for a while, as Gilbert proposes. A creative project, or hobby, can help you by:

Forcing you to manage your time better: If you must build creative work into your schedule, you’re forced to manage your time more effectively and waste less of it.

Building your social networks: A creative pursuit can get you in touch with people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. In an age where we tend to only socialize with people who are very similar to us, this is of huge personal and creative benefit. 

Forging new identities: Beyond escaping your current roles and responsibilities, pursuing a creative project allows you to explore new identities and positive ways of seeing yourself.

Don’t Try to Make the “Right” Creative Work

Having made peace with the irritations of your chosen creative pursuit, you next need to face down some common creative challenges that prevent you from doing your best work, says Gilbert. Your first challenge is to dispel your perception of what your work should look like. Prescriptive thoughts prevent you from fully exercising your creativity and ultimately only stymie you. 

Below are three common prescriptive thoughts that get in the way of your creativity and which you should dispel:

“My Work Must Be Novel”

Gilbert claims that many people—artists especially—feel their work must be totally novel to be worth making. But it’s nearly impossible to be novel anymore. Most ideas or concepts have already been executed in some way. There have been, for instance, many different parodies of the Lord of the Rings books and films. 

However, writes Gilbert, all other executions of a concept will be different from yours. You bring a specific sensibility and worldview that make your idea unique. While there are indeed dozens of Lord of the Rings spoofs, each of them is unique because each creator’s sense of humor and perspective on the original work is different. 

Gilbert says that when, instead of trying to be original, you try to be genuine—try to best express how you really feel through your unique lens—you create work that is interesting and will resonate with others. 

“My Work Must Help Other People”

Another way Gilbert thinks you can limit your creativity is by feeling that your work needs to be helpful to others, politically relevant, or otherwise “important.” This approach always ends up backfiring. Those consuming your work sense that you’re trying to fulfill some external expectation rather than express a genuine feeling or experience. This renders your work less resonant, writes Gilbert, because it does not come from a place of truth.

“My Work Must Be Lofty”

A final way in which Gilbert feels you might stymie your creativity is by thinking your work must be “lofty,” “high-minded,” or “worthy.” It’s a waste of time to try to meet some vague standard for “worthy” work, and you should instead just create what you want to create

Gilbert continues by saying that there’s no such thing as “high” or “low” creation; there’s just creation. When people draw a line between highbrow and lowbrow, it’s merely a subjective distinction. Work that someone condemns as philistine might be lauded as a tremendous accomplishment by someone else. 

Don’t Let Others Define You

According to Gilbert, another mental challenge many creators face is the input and feelings of others about their work. Others will inevitably form opinions of and try to categorize your work, but you must not let those opinions or labels affect how or what you create. The need to categorize and label is an inherent human trait. You cannot change that and you cannot fight off every label or opinion others try to assign to you, writes Gilbert. All you can do is to make what you want to make. Everything that comes after is out of your hands. 

(Shortform note: The impulse to label and categorize people, concepts, and things is innate to humans, as Gilbert suggests. What’s more, when you’re assigned a trait, others will come to see you as having more of that trait than you did before the assignation. Similarly, you will become less associated with a different trait. For instance, if you’re categorized as “avant-garde,” you’ll be seen as more avant-garde than you were before, and also less, for example, “classical.” Gilbert is therefore right to caution against letting others’ labels define you. If you let labels determine how you see yourself, you cede your right to create what you want to those labels—labels that will only become more restrictive over time.)

Gilbert adds that when you put a creation into the universe, you surrender control over how it is interpreted by consumers. For instance, you might write and produce a play about a love affair. After the performance, audience members approach you to tell you what they thought of your play about “growing up,” or your play about “family,” or your play about “coming out.” Each audience member might interpret your play completely differently, based on their own unique lived experience.

This, again, is normal, claims Gilbert, because each human sees the world through a unique lens. But this means that you should not try to control how the world takes in your work or allow the reactions to your work to define you as a creator. Trying to control others’ perception of your work is an energy-sapping waste of time, and their reactions have little to do with you and everything to do with their unique situation and worldview. 

How to Cope With External and Internal Opinions 

Gilbert’s belief that the reactions to a creator’s work don’t say anything about the creator as a person is echoed by don Miguel Ruiz in his classic self-help book The Four Agreements. Ruiz’s Second Agreement (or habit to improve your life), “Don’t Take Anything Personally,” states that others’ negative input about you is merely a reflection of their struggles or issues. This is similar to Gilbert’s assertion that we all see the world, and thus art, through our unique lens and that your reality may be different from someone else’s. 

Ruiz takes this notion even further, saying that you shouldn’t even always listen to your own opinions about and feedback on yourself (and, by extension, your work). You can develop a myriad of thoughts and feelings about yourself and your work which often are in disagreement with one another: For example, you might in one moment loathe something you’ve created and in the next, think it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever made. To avoid inner turmoil, don’t give these thoughts too much credence, says Ruiz.

Don’t Fall for Perfectionism

According to Gilbert, one of the greatest mental obstacles to creativity is perfectionism. She believes that no matter how hard you try, you will never be able to attain perfection: There will always be a way someone can find your work lacking. It’s therefore pointless to strive for perfection and better just to create something imperfect and put it into the world. 

To Gilbert, perfectionism is a nefarious psychological ailment because it appears to be a good thing: You seem to simply be holding yourself to a high standard. But in reality, perfectionism is a manifestation of the fear of not being worthy. You don’t believe that you deserve to exist as you are and therefore put the onus on your work to earn you that right by being perfect. 

If you let it, says Gilbert, perfectionism can stop a project dead in its tracks or prevent you from even starting it for fear it won’t be perfect, and that is the worst possible way to honor an idea. 

Perfectionism is hard to get over, though. Here are a few habits you can develop to reduce its impact on your work:

Do Something Else for a Bit

The final mental obstacle to creativity Gilbert mentions is the feeling of being stymied or uninspired. When you find yourself struggling to progress for any reason, find a different creative pursuit to engage with temporarily. This pursuit should be in a different medium than your original pursuit, says Gilbert. By engaging in a creative activity you have no prior investment in, and in which you don’t care if you do well or not, you often become able to re-access your creative playfulness. That playfulness can then find its way into your original project, unblocking you. 

For instance, if you’re struggling to finish your work of historical nonfiction, you might take up learning the harmonica. Because you’ve never thought about the harmonica before or been able to establish any goals or feelings around harmonica-playing, it won’t matter to you if you play well or not. Once you’ve achieved a carefree attitude toward the harmonica, you can take that attitude back to your work of nonfiction. 

Creative Challenges Are a Part of the Creative Process

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Elizabeth Gilbert's "Big Magic" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Big Magic summary:

  • Why integrating creativity into your daily life will make you feel more fulfilled
  • Why creating for money is a form of self-sabotage
  • Why you should never focus on external validation of your creations

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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