Bringing Forth the BIG MAGIC: Ten Things To Take Away From Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic
17th Dec 2015
I picked up the copy of Big Magic one day in February, from a pile of proofs on my messy, envelope-strewn desk; curiosity piqued by the words ‘Creative Living’ emblazoned on the book jacket. At the time, I was world-weary and stressed out; creativity ebbing away as emails piled up in my inbox. In the midst of wondering how to shake up my life, I rather serendipitously happened upon the book that would help me to find myself again.
Creativity means big business nowadays. The internet is awash with self-help books, pep-talks, listicles and wisdom from self-styled gurus, all claiming that they could be the one to ignite your creative life. In the digitalised age, would-be writers have unprecedented access to those select few who have made it – we can reach them on twitter, scroll through their Facebook, listen to their videos and watch them speak on stage – and switch off again, when we feel sufficiently enervated (or not, as the case may be).
When facing the mysterious nature of inspiration, one thing remains clear: the creative process remains a highly individual one. And with so many clamouring to offer their twopence on creative living, the whole process can run dry of true feeling. It’s all simple rhetoric of hard work plus determination plus talent equals success; but what of the turmoil, writer’s block, rejection and doubt?
Enter Elizabeth Gilbert, who has arrived to help you continue in the quest to find your creative magic – and acknowledge the trials you’ve got to weather along the way. Some have called Big Magic a self-help book, and personally, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Like any book of this kind, the takeaways will be personal and private, which is why you start out reading it anyway. This isn’t just a book for those of the writerly condition though, as creativity is defined in broad brush strokes. This is a book for everyone, about living your fullest, most creative existence, and getting to where you want to be through positive visualisation, persistence and above all, taking pleasure in your work. In a sense, Big Magic is a book that responds to the difficulty of modern life; giving us a bit of encouragement, keeping us inquisitive, stimulating our creation, helping us thrive. Here are my top ten things to take away:
1. On keeping curious:
Curiosity is the touchstone of Gilbert’s creative ethos. Curiosity, she argues, doesn’t demand spades of energy, unyielding passion, or tough-nut persistence. Curiosity is that “milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity”. Using a personal anecdote (the book is liberally sprinkled with them) to illustrate the potential of curiosity, Gilbert describes how her recent botanical masterpiece – The Signature of All Things – was borne from a whim to plant a garden in her recently acquired New Jersey home. It was a clue, Gilbert argues, that led her on an intrepid, and eventually passionate scavenger hunt to learn about nineteenth-century botanical exploration.
2. On deciding to live creatively:
One of the most potent messages to emerge from the book was the idea that no-one needs anyone else’s permission to live a creative life. As Gilbert succinctly points out, “human beings have been creative beings for a really long time – long enough and consistently enough that it appears to be a totally natural impulse”. Her assertion that creativity is a “birthright” is a gratifying one; erasing that niggling and frankly destructive feeling that in order to be legitimate you must continually justify your creative life. So too does Gilbert eliminate the concept that there are but a chosen few “guardians of high culture”; instead positing the idea that we are all destined to create – and succeed.
3. On persistence:
Gilbert’s discussion of the stumbling blocks of rejection, fear, doubt and frustration that face those leading a creative life has got to be one of the most honest accounts of the creative process that I’ve ever read. Gilbert explains that it’s entirely natural to feel one or all of these things during the creative process; but, crucially, what matters is how “you manage yourself between those bright moments”. It is how dedicated and persistent you are when you feel rather down on your luck, that shows “a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation, and how equipped you are for the demands of creative living”. Gilbert’s messages meld the right mix of right mysticism and pragmatism: stop complaining, keep showing up, don’t wait for permission to make art, get things DONE.
4. On getting in the zone:
There’s nothing more maddening than having a dedicated writing day ahead of you, with all your home comforts to hand, to find that when it comes down to it, you can barely string five words together on the page. But as Gilbert argues, if you slob around in your pyjamas, and only feel half-arsed to create, how will you ever attract the Big Magic? Rationality-loving readers may not identify with Gilbert’s proposition that you must “have an affair with your creativity”, and make efforts to present yourself to inspiration like someone “you might actually want to have an affair with”; but then again I’m the kind of reader who is open to the unexplainable and excited by the possibility of magic showing up in my life. If there’s a chance inspiration will arrive on the scene once I’ve taken a hairbrush to my bird’s nest, then all I’m all for giving it a go.
5. On staying sane:
It’s a common truth that people in creative professions often expect their art to have a significant impact. They expect it to earn them money, to affect people’s opinions, to stimulate discussion, to win popularity. But in reality, Gilbert argues, we must not expect anything from our creativity if we are to stay sane. Dissatisfaction, after all, is not fuel for creative living; and creativity should be a joy in its purest form. The paradox that you must agree to is as follows: “My creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me, if I am to live artistically, and it must not matter at all, if I am to live sanely”. Gilbert is a strong advocate of the idea that living a creative life can be a joyful experience; and works to deconstruct the notion of the tormented artist suffering for his work. And as Gilbert’s TED talk discussing creative genius attests, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to produce incredible work, when in reality, we just need to keep making.
The overarching theme running throughout Big Magic is Gilbert’s idea that from the get-go, you must claim ownership over your creative life. She writes that “defining yourself as a creative person begins with defining yourself…stand up tall, and say it aloud, whatever it is: ‘I’m a writer’”. Or artist, musician, actor. The point is, that is doesn’t matter what your creative vocation is; rather that stating your intent will begin the process of “mobilising your soul”.
6. On courage:
One of the most uplifting passages in the book comes when Gilbert informs us that “we are all walking repositories of buried treasure”. In contrast to pervasive creativity-related myths of pain and anguish, Gilbert offers her own mystical theory; that “the universe buries strange jewels within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them”. Gilbert dares us into the adventures of discovery, remaining unflaggingly optimistic that we are each in turn walking gold mines. It is “the hunt to uncover those jewels” that is the prize of creative living.
7. On inspiration:
Throughout Big Magic, Gilbert uses personal stories to make sense of how creativity works in her own life. One such anecdote tells the story of how an idea for a novel left her and found a home in her friend Ann Patchett. Some readers will be sceptical about Gilbert’s belief that ideas are independent entities that move about with their own free will, looking for ways to be made manifest. Whilst you may not believe in the idea of ‘eudaimonia’ – that is to say, the “exhilarating encounter between a human being and divine creative inspiration”, the concept that ideas are alive and seek divine cooperation with the most “available human collaborator” reminds the reader to capitalise on surges of creativity when they do appear.
8. On authenticity:
It came as something of a relief when Gilbert writes that the age of originality is over. It can be painful, working hard to be continually edgy. Not, of course, in the sense that original pieces of work have no creative worth; but rather in the fact that it is more than enough to simply be authentic in your creation. As Gilbert points out, the same literary themes have been repeated time and again for centuries, even in Shakespeare’s time. But it is once “you put your own expression and passion behind an idea, that idea becomes yours”.
9. On enjoyment:
Here’s a revolutionary idea: a creative existence can be a joyous and fulfilling one. Not the narrative of torture, anguish and frustration that has become a self-fulfilling prophecy for many artists over the years. With Gilbert on-side, effortlessly cutting through the negativity and insecurity than surrounds our creative desires, and replacing it with pleasure and enthusiasm, the prospect of enjoyment seems a whole lot more attainable. Her unabashed joy in discussing creativity actually seems radical in the face of popular opinion that creative living is hard work; she brings embracing the joy of life back into fashion. As Gilbert explains, “saying you enjoy your work with all your heart is the only truly subversive position left to take as a creative person these days…it’s such a gangster move, because hardly anyone dares to speak of creative enjoyment aloud, for fear of not being taken seriously as an artist”.
10. On entitlement:
The overarching theme running throughout Big Magic is Gilbert’s idea that from the get-go, you must claim ownership over your creative life. She writes that “defining yourself as a creative person begins with defining yourself…stand up tall, and say it aloud, whatever it is: ‘I’m a writer’”. Or artist, musician, actor. The point is, that is doesn’t matter what your creative vocation is; rather that stating your intent will begin the process of “mobilising your soul”. Gilbert’s declaration of intent means that saying something aloud forces you to realise your destiny. The message here is simple: we should accept that we need to create, because it’s a part of our identity. We are already “creatively legitimate”, and nobody or nothing need prove otherwise. We should create gladly, even when the act of creating gets tough, and not worry about how it will be received by others. Accept your creative inclinations as gifts from the universe. In the end, Big Magic highlights all the excuses we use to keep ourselves from doing the work we are being called to do.
Christobel Hastings is a London-based freelance journalist, and has written for publications such as Cosmopolitan, Sunday Times Style, ELLE, The Huffington Post, The Pool, New Statesman and The Independent. Find her writing on her blog Calico Casa, or on twitter here.