Thoughts on "Big Magic" by Elizabeth Gilbert
(Note, all of Ms. Gilbert's words are in Italics, mine are in regular font. Some quotes are paraphrased.)
I just finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s book on creativity, “Big Magic”. This post is not a book review but more of an attempt to organize and put down in writing some of her ideas that resonated with me as a artist. Although much of the book speaks to the experiences of writers (she is one after all) there are some universal themes that apply to all creative people.
The cover blurb, in which much of the book’s message is distilled, reads:
“Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.
What we make matters enormously, and it doesn't matter at all.
We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits.
We are terrified. We are brave.
Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.
The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you.”
She talks of creativity (ideas & inspiration) like it’s an numinous entity. She says that “ideas are floating about in the ethers looking for someone to bring them into creation and are driven by a single impulse, to be made manifest. Ideas spend an eternity swirling around us looking for willing and available human partners, and if you're oblivious to it it's message it will move on to someone else.” She says - “The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you.”
I too have wondered where the magic of ideas and inspiration come from. I’ve always thought of it as a kind of channeling, where you have to be open and trusting as to where it will lead you. Most of the time you’ll be pleased with where it leads but occasionally you have to be OK if the results aren’t what you consider your best work. She talks about the Romans who “didn't believe that an exceptionally gifted person was a genius, they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius. So success or failure is not totally yours. You can say my genius just didn't show up today. Either way, the vulnerable human ego is protected. Protected from the corrupting influence of praise. Protected from the corrosive effects of shame.”
The books of Eckhart Tolle have taught me a lot about the machinations of the human ego. So now I can recognize it more readily when it appears. I have to remind myself sometimes to disentangle my ego from my art because it has a way of choking the life and fun out of it (Ouch, my ego really hates that I just admitted to all the internet that I have an ego!) To me, it seems that the ego and perfectionism are entangled like two vines climbing the same pole.
Do you consider perfectionism to be a virtue? Some do, but Ms. Gilbert refers to it as just “fear in high heels” and a thing that can stop you from putting yourself and your art out there. She quotes writer Rebecca Solnit who says -
“so many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it's also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun."
Ms. Gilbert reminds us - don’t take it all so seriously, it matters and it doesn’t matter. The thing is - if you’re an artist (or not) you will fail sometimes. She says, “Your ego is a wonderful servant but it's a terrible master because the only thing your ego ever wants is reward, reward, and more reward.”
And as an introvert I’ve learned that the ego can take on different forms. It's not just grandiosity (as exemplified by a certain presidential candidate with orange hair) To paraphrase, “It can be a fear of criticism and not being perfect in the eyes of others. It can be not putting yourself out there in the world because you fear being under a microscope and you don't want your precious ego to be under that kind of scrutiny. It's best to distance yourself, disengage, and adopt a view that it doesn't matter. This takes inner work.”
But she reminds us of this saving grace for when one’s ego acts up - “that I am not only an ego, I am also a soul”. And “the soul desires only one thing - wonder.”
She talks about fear as being a big deterrent for leading a creative life. I personally don’t have a lot of fear when it comes to creativity (mainly because I don’t know how to do anything else), but I can understand how a writer might be fearful of baring her soul for all the world to witness. She calls fear “a desolate boneyard where our dreams go to desiccate in the hot sun.” I think that applies to a lot of things in our lives! She encourages us to live a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear. As far as being fearful that you aren’t good enough or that you don’t deserve to do your creative work, she cites the poet David Whyte who talks of “the arrogance of belonging”. In other words that you are entitled to be here on Earth “and that by being here you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.”
And this part I love: “Let people have their opinions. More than that, let people be in love with their opinions, just as you and I are in love with ours. But never delude yourself into believing that you require someone else's blessing or even their comprehension in order to make your creative work. And always remember that people's judgments about you are none of your business.” Wise words indeed!!
Other liberating words about people and their opinions: “Don't worry what other people are thinking about you because they probably aren't thinking about you. People are mostly just thinking about themselves. They don't have time to think about you because they're all caught up in their own dramas. There is a great sense of release found in this idea you are free.”
And, “Do it whether the final product is crap or gold. Do it whether the critics love you or hate you. Do it whether people get it or don't get it.”
So, those are the things that resonated the most with me. If you haven’t read this book yet, I recommend that you do. Elizabeth Gilbert writes with humor and warmth so it’s a pleasant, easy read. I felt a sense of liberation and unburdening as I took to heart her message of surrender and letting go of the outcome. She speaks of a paradox - creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred. Art is deeply meaningful (it enriches our souls and human experience) but at the same time it is meaningless (we don’t need it for survival the way we need food, clothing, and shelter). So then, why make things? It may be as simple as this - “Creative living takes us out of ourselves for a moment for a short and magical spell, it can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are.”