A New Way to Look at Creative Frustration

188HI finally got my hands on a copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book “Big Magic” from my local library a few weeks ago, and have been stealing a little time before sleep most nights to absorb her refreshing perspective on creativity.

The book is packed with insight on how to push through fears that create creative blocks, how to get over perfectionism, and most of all how to stop taking ourselves and our creativity — of all forms — so seriously. Reading it is like feeling a cool breeze through a suddenly cracked-open window while you’re sweating it out in a hot chamber of creative angst. Not that I’ve been feeling that particular kind of angst as of late, but I certainly have in the past, and will no doubt again. It comes with the territory.

One of the underlying ideas Gilbert expounds on is that creativity is something we commune with, rather than being something we do or are or have control over. She frames it almost as its own entity, something we can choose to engage with, or not. (I’m not suggesting that she is the first person to come up with this notion, only that she articulates the perspective well.) This reframing of creativity dissipates the psychic weight of the whole venture. And what person who strives to create things — and put them out in the world — couldn’t do with lightening their load?

One passage that stood out is on the topic of frustration. Gilbert writes: 

“If you want to be an artist of any sort . . . then handling your frustration is a fundamental aspect of the work — perhaps the single most fundamental aspect of the work. Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process. The fun part (the part where it doesn’t feel like work at all) is when you’re actually creating something wonderful, and everything’s going great, and everyone loves it, and you’re flying high. But such instants are rare. You don’t get to leap from bright moment to bright moment. How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going so great, is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation, and how equipped you are for the weird demands of creative living. Holding yourself together through all the phases of creation is where the real work lies.”

I think I may have physically nodded my head on my pillow while reading that part. Yes! Frustration is not an interruption. It’s the process.

I think I’ve come to know this in my own way over the last few years, since starting to write full time for a living. When frustration arises, whether that has to do with the writing itself or factors surrounding it — late-paying clients, short/unexpected deadlines, vague communication from editors, laptop-induced neck pain — I often say to myself, ‘It’s just a part of it.’ That’s not to say I don’t strive to change what’s not working, but I try to acknowledge and accept that frustration is inherent, and, like creativity itself, ebbs and flows. Gilbert’s view that frustration is not an interruption takes that approach a step further. Perhaps it can free the emotion from being something that (sometimes) blocks my creative airways.


Thoughts? What do you do when you feel creatively frustrated? Have you read “Big Magic”? I can talk about the creative process all day long…I’d love to hear if any of this resonates for any of you.

Happy Sunday, everyone. :)

xx ~C.


11 responses

  1. I just finished this book and I loved it! I don’t know what inspired me to pick it up since I don’t do much creating these days but it was so so inspiring. I especially loved her admonition not to take ourselves so seriously. Her way of talking about creativity actually inspired me to take a drawing class and start sketching regularly, even though I don’t think I’m very good at it. Because it doesn’t matter if I’m good at it if it’s helping me commune with my more creative side. Glad you’re liking it!

  2. Oh I heard a few different interviews with Elizabeth Gilbert talking about this book. It’s been on my radar. Reading this just reminded me how much I want to read it. I’m going to my library account right now and getting on the waitlist for it (since I’m sure it’s long!).

  3. Creative frustration has really gotten to me at certain points! At the end of grad school I could not figure out one structural issue in my long-form narrative project, and I ended up taking a whole bunch of index cards out to the lawn and piecing everything together. To my surprise, it worked, and I figured out my whole structure like that! Sometimes doing something completely different is just the thing to break you out of a creativity rut.

    • That’s a great anecdote, Catherine! Sometimes getting away from the screen and back to pen and paper can do wonders. I always keep a notebook on hand for my creative idea lists.

  4. I read this on exactly the right day for me. I have been slowly making my way through that book as well (it is currently on my night stand, but I haven’t cracked it in a while.) I feel so very lucky to get to work in a field that I am passionate about and a job that really utilizes my creativity… however, it is also, often, WORK. Days I complain about one thing or another. OR things get hard and I feel stunted and unhappy in my work…I have to remember that the frustrations are just a part of it and hold on to those moments of joy.

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