An Idea Goes Away - Enchantment

Big magic: creative living beyond fear - Elizabeth Gilbert 2015

An Idea Goes Away

Allow me to explain.

I do not mean to say that somebody had stolen my notes, or that a crucial computer file had gone missing. What I mean is that the living heart of my novel was gone. The sentient force that inhabits all vibrant creative endeavors had vanished—swallowed like bulldozers in the jungle, you could say. Sure, all the research and writing I’d completed two years earlier was still there, but I knew at once that I was looking at nothing but the empty husk of what had once been a warm and pulsating entity.

I’m pretty stubborn about sticking with projects, so I prodded at the thing for several months, trying to make it work again, hoping to bring it back to life. But it was useless. Nothing was there. It was like poking a stick at a cast-off snakeskin: The more I messed with it, the faster it fell apart and turned to dust.

I believed I knew what had happened, because I’d seen this sort of thing before: The idea had grown tired of waiting, and it had left me. I could scarcely blame it. I had, after all, broken our contract. I’d promised to dedicate myself completely to Evelyn of the Amazon, and then I’d reneged on that promise. I hadn’t given the book a moment’s attention for more than two years. What was the idea supposed to do, sit around indefinitely while I ignored it? Maybe. Sometimes they do wait. Some exceedingly patient ideas might wait years, or even decades, for your attention. But others won’t, because each idea has a different nature. Would you sit around in a box for two years while your collaborator blew you off? Probably not.

Thus, the neglected idea did what many self-respecting living entities would do in the same circumstance: It hit the road.

Fair enough, right?

Because this is the other side of the contract with creativity: If inspiration is allowed to unexpectedly enter you, it is also allowed to unexpectedly exit you.

If I’d been younger, the loss of Evelyn of the Amazon might have knocked me off my feet, but by this point in my life I’d been in the game of imagination long enough to let it go without excessive struggle. I could have wept over the loss, but I didn’t, because I understood the terms of the deal, and I accepted those terms. I understood that the best you can hope for in such a situation is to let your old idea go and catch the next idea that comes around. And the best way for that to happen is to move on swiftly, with humility and grace. Don’t fall into a funk about the one that got away. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t rage at the gods above. All that is nothing but distraction, and the last thing you need is further distraction. Grieve if you must, but grieve efficiently. Better to just say good-bye to the lost idea with dignity and continue onward. Find something else to work on—anything, immediately—and get at it. Keep busy.

Most of all, be ready. Keep your eyes open. Listen. Follow your curiosity. Ask questions. Sniff around. Remain open. Trust in the miraculous truth that new and marvelous ideas are looking for human collaborators every single day. Ideas of every kind are constantly galloping toward us, constantly passing through us, constantly trying to get our attention.

Let them know you’re available.

And for heaven’s sake, try not to miss the next one.