I just finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’. It introduces us to the notion that creativity is a relationship we must cultivate, treat with awe and respect, and sometimes even give into or let go of (though not forever!). If you’re a creator, I’d recommend you buy a copy of this and keep by your bed to browse whenever the chips are down. Though there were many noteworthy pieces of advice peppered throughout this book, nothing quite made me choke up like this story. I’m sharing it here for you, but mostly for me too!
Twenty years ago, I was at a party, talking to a guy whose name I have long since forgotten. Sometimes I think this man came into my life for the sole purpose of telling me this story, which has delighted and inspired me ever since.
The story he told me was about his younger brother, who was trying to be an artist ; it was an anecdote about how brave, creative, and trusting his brother was. For the purpose of this story, let’s call the little brother Little Brother.
Little Brother, an aspiring painter, went to France to surround himself with beauty and inspiration. He lived on the cheap, painted every day, visited museums, traveled to picturesque locations, bravely spoke to everyone he met, and showed his work to anyone who would look at it. One afternoon, he struck up a conversation at a cafe with a group of charming young people, who turned out to be some species of fancy aristocrat. They took a liking to Little Brother and invited him to a party that weekend in a castle in the Loire Valley. They said this was going to be the party of the year. It would be attended by rich and famous and by several crowned heads of Europe. Best of all, it was a masquerade ball, where nobody skimped on the costumes. Dress up, they said, and join us!
Excited, Little Brother worked all week on a costume that he was certain would be a showstopper. He held back on neither the details nor the audacity of this creation. Then he rented a car and drove three hours to the castle. He changed into his costume in the car and ascended the castle steps. Little Brother entered the ballroom, head held high.
Upon which he immediately realized his mistake.
This was indeed a costume party- his new friends had not misled him there – but he had missed one detail in translation: This was a themed costume party. The theme was “a medieval court.” and Little Brother was dressed as a lobster.
All around him, the wealthy and beautiful were attired in elaborate period gowns, draped in heirloom jewels, sparkling as they waltzed to an orchestra. Little Brother, on the other hand, was wearing a red leotard, red tights, red ballet slippers, and giant red foam claws. Also, his face was painted red. This is where I must tell you that Little Brother was over six feet tall and quite skinny – but with the waving antennae on his head, he appeared even taller. He was also the only American in the room.
He stood at the top of the steps for one long, ghastly moment. Running away in shame seemed like the most dignified response. But he didn’t run. Somehow, he found his resolve. He’d come this far, after all He’d worked tremendously hard to make this costume, and he was proud of it. He took a deep breath and walked onto the dance floor.
He reported later that it was only his experience as an aspiring artist that gave him the courage and license to be so vulnerable and absurd. Something in his life had already taught him to just put it out there, whatever “it” was. That costume was what he had made, after all. It was the best he had. It was all he had. So he decided to trust in himself, to trust his costume, to trust in the circumstances.
As he moved into the crowd, a silence fell. The dancing stopped. The orchestra stuttered to a stop. The other guests gathered around Little Brother. Finally someone asked him what on earth he was.
Little Brother bowed deeply and announced, “I am the court lobster.”
Not ridicule – just joy. They loved him. They loved his sweetness, his weirdness, his giant red claws, his skinny legs in his bright tights. He was the trickster among them, and he made the party. Little Brother even ended up dancing with the queen of Belgium.
This is how you must do it, people.
I have never created anything in my life that did not make me feel, at some point or another, like I was the guy who just walked into a fancy ball wearing a homemade lobster costume. But you must stubbornly walk into that room, and you must hold your head high. Never apologize for it, never explain it away, never be ashamed of it. You did your best with what you knew, and you worked with what you had, in the time you were given. You were invited, you showed up, and you simply cannot do more than that.
They might throw you out – then again, they might not. The ballroom is often more welcoming and supportive than you could ever imagine. You might end up dancing with royalty.
Or you might just end up having to dance alone in the corner with your big, ungainly red foam claws waving in the empty air.
That’s fine too. Sometimes it’s like that. What you absolutely must not do is walk out. Otherwise you will miss the party, and that would be a pity because – please believe me – we did not come all this great distance, and make all this great effort, only to miss the party at the last moment.“
Okay, now I’m off to watch ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ for the hundredth time because…Julia Roberts, that’s why!