Elizabeth Gilbert on the creative life

Big Magic is a beautiful meditation on the creative life and a reminder of how easy, and fun, it can be.

Gilbert believes ideas are disembodied energetic life forms that can only manifest through collaboration with a human partner. As potential human partners, we need to be open and relaxed enough to receive the idea and then courageous and committed enough to work with it to bring it to full fruition.

She is unapologetic about this belief – which she names Big Magic – and draws on British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington’s description of how the universe works (“something unknown is doing something we don’t know what”) to argue how surrendering to the enigmatic nature of inspiration can be freeing and enjoyable:

"All I know for certain is this is how I want to spend my life – collaborating to the best of my ability with forces of inspiration that I can neither see, nor prove, nor command, nor understand.
It’s a strange line of work, admittedly.
I cannot think of a better way to pass my days."

Gilbert believes that the original human impulse to creativity was born from a trickster energy but over the years the martyr has kidnapped creativity and kept it firmly in its realm. This belief shows up in a lot of her musings: She was never attracted to the icon of the Tortured Artist (her own experience of depression only shrinks “this whole thrilling and gigantic universe…down to the size of (her) own unhappy head”). She urges artists to relieve themselves of the burden of making ‘important’ or ‘useful’ work as well as concerns that we contribute less to society than doctors and teachers and social workers (“the fact that I get to spend my life making objectively useless things means that I don’t live in a post apocalyptic dystopia. It means I am not exclusively chained to the grind of mere survival. It means we still have enough space left in our civilization for the luxuries of imagination and beauty and emotion – and even total frivolousness”). She also suggests never burdening your creative expression with the need for it to make you money.

A particularly playful chapter suggests we regard our creativity with the fresh eyes of a passionate new lover. Gilbert urges us to consider our creativity like an extramarital affair citing that those having affairs don’t struggle to find moments together despite heavy workloads, husbands/wives and often children. They skip meals, use their lunch hours, steal 15 minutes in the storeroom…

She follows this analogy by drawing on Tristram Shandy’s cure for writer’s block to illustrate a way we can lure potential extramarital playmates. Apparently Shandy would dress up in all his finery and prance around “all princely” to attract inspiration.

Gilbert supports the adage that “done is better than good” and provides a further liberating notion passed onto her from a woman in her 70s:

“We all spend our twenties and thirties trying so hard to be perfect, because we’re so worried about what people will think of us. Then we get into our forties and fifties, and we finally start to be free, because we decide that we don't give a damn what anyone thinks of us. But you won’t be completely free until you reach your sixties and seventies, when you finally realize this liberating truth – nobody was ever thinking about you, anyhow.”

Big Magic is full of useful advice and anecdotes and I highly recommend it in its entirety. There was so much that resonated with me but one of the most useful takeaways came from a chapter called Entitlement. Gilbert believes to live a creative lifestyle, you need to cultivate a fierce sense of personal entitlement. Now, entitlement is a dirty word but she defines it for herself as believing that you are allowed to be here and that – merely by being here – you are allowed to have a voice and a vision all of your own.

"The arrogance of belonging is not about egotism or self-absorption. In a strange way, it’s the opposite; it is a divine force that will actually take you out of yourself and allow you to engage more fully with life. Because often what keeps you from creative living is your self-absorption (your self-doubt, your self-disgust, your self-judgment, your crushing sense of self-protection)."

"I believe that this good kind of arrogance – this simple entitlement to exist, and therefore express yourself – is the only weapon with which to combat the nasty dialogue that may automatically arise within your head whenever you get an artistic impulse."

So, put on your best wares and prance around “all princely”; relieve yourself of being successful, making money, saving the world; claim your right to exist, and create; acknowledge that fear will accompany you on all your creative journeys but never – never – let it take the wheel; no one’s thinking about you, they never were; the world is unfathomable and dazzling and expansive, ideas are everywhere; don’t keep ideas in abusive tired relationships, they’ll just bugger off and find someone who treats them right; don’t add to the piles of unfinished manuscripts in bottom draws, finish things even if they’re not perfect; stop biting your cuticles (Gilbert never actually said this but I do need to stop biting my cuticles); describe your failures as ‘interesting’ rather than ‘awful’, and do it in the store room.