I’ve read two books by Elizabeth Gilbert – Eat, Pray, Love and Committed, both of which are brilliant for different reasons. Eat, Pray, Love is a book about the exploration of self, giving yourself the space to live, think, and love. Committed is one of the most empowering books I’ve read that explores the concept of marriage and commitment. I found it interestingly feminist, considering that marriage has a history of being detrimental for women (it wasn’t until quite recently in UK history that a woman could own her own property and body or have a right to claim guardianship of her children).
So I’ve been looking forward to reading her latest non-fiction book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. It didn’t disappoint: though some may find it a little new-agey (I’ll explain why) in parts. For me, though, these aspects of the book are just about a marriage of imagination with the idea that there is a wider universe out there and we are connected to it. We imagine stranger things when we are reading and writing fiction, telling stories, seeing things that couldn’t possibly be true. Coincidences, choice, chance, whatever we feel is happening, there is nothing wrong with finding ways to see the world that enhances our creativity.
At the beginning of the book, there is a discussion of fear, which is one of the biggest things that stops people from being creative. We are afraid of messing up, of what other people will think, of failure, that someone else has done it better, that someone will steal your ideas. All that fear amounts to, essentially, is – as Gilbert says – ‘STOP!’ – a broken record that plays every time you attempt to create something. She writes that fear is boring, that all it does is stop us from playing, and sharing that joy with the world. Her solution is to accept that fear is always going to be along for the ride. We have to get comfortable with having it there, and not allowing it a voice or to get into the driving seat. Simply – understand that fear is something we are always going to have, a feeling that may serve us well when we are in danger, but has no place in the act of creation.
At the heart of her book (and life) is the idea of Big Magic. Essentially, that the universe has magic in it – that there are ideas floating around trying to find people, and when we are open to them, they work with us to create something. Gilbert unapologetically explains that yes, her ideas about creativity are based upon magical thinking. It helps to suspend your disbelief here, if you’re a particularly sceptical type – and just enjoy her book, writing and insight into creativity.
‘I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us — albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.’
In many ways, I find this idea freeing – that if we put the work in, if we trust the process, we may be visited by a particularly exciting idea, that will put you on course towards creating something. However, she has a reason for explaining this particular way of thinking about creativity – because we spend much of our lives not being particularly open to these ideas. To live a creative life, you need to pay attention to the world around you, to take in as much inspiration as you can. In other words – ‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ (Picasso)
She also suggests a different approach, that we ‘cooperate fully, humbly, and joyfully’ with inspiration. At the heart of this idea is that we have somehow bought into the paradigm of the ‘Tortured Artist’ – that art is suffering. When the opposite is true – being joyful, happy, playful and excited about your work is the route to productive creativity. Letting go of rigid ideas about success and failure, battling your demons (therapy, recovery, etc), and, rather than being a ‘slave’ or the ‘master’ of creativity, we are instead a partner with creativity, working alongside it. Personally, I feel that this is the best way to look at the creative life. When I experience depression, my writing either stops altogether, or is sporadic, hard work, and frustrating. In other words, I lose all enthusiasm.
There are many other wonderful gems of wisdom in this book, but for me, the ones that have helped me the most are her three ideas around permission, the central paradox of creation, and fierce trust. I’ve struggled before with giving myself permission to pursue a creative life. Often, my confidence has wavered, and self-doubt sets in. I think, having read Big Magic, that I can identify why that is – because we so often conflate creativity with suffering, and also because of the pains of comparison. We all do it – we all compare our lives to other people’s even when we know that this is the fastest way to discouragement.
I’ve thankfully grown out of this bad habit, but I recognise that other people’s ideas of success, in fact, the mainstream ideas of success, are different to my own. You have to define what ‘enough’ is for you. Pull yourself out of thinking so much about ‘stuff’ and more about experiences, creation, and ideas. And you don’t have to buy in to the whole ‘starving artist’ stereotype. Don’t be afraid to support yourself by doing something else, or by starting your own business. When I started, I sought permission from people other than myself. I sought validation from my family, and from taking writing courses. In hindsight, I had to learn to give myself permission. I had to build up my own self-confidence in writing. The only way to do that is to write, create, write some more, enjoy the process, and remember what you love about it.
Gilbert’s central paradox of creation is that it is both absolutely meaningless and deeply meaningful:
‘The paradox that you need to comfortably inhabit, if you wish to live a contented creative life, goes something like this: “My creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me (if I am to live artistically), and it also must not matter at all (if I am to live sanely).” Sometimes you will need to leap from one end of this paradoxical spectrum to the other in a matter of minutes, and then back again.’
This idea, again, is curiously freeing. For example, your book, when you are writing the first draft, is perhaps the most important thing in the world – you become consumed by it, ideas come to you, you talk about it a lot, you want the sentences to read well. On the other hand, once it comes to re-writing and editing, you will need to be ruthless with your own work – cutting sentences, changing scenes. If you have an editor look it over, you will need to accept and take on board their constructive criticism, and not be offended by their suggested edits.
The idea of fierce trust, something that all creatives may struggle with, is that when you put your work out into the world, you have to put your work out there without any guarantee of success. There is no guarantee that what we put out there will be received well. But you should put it out there anyway. You’ve worked hard on it, and if it isn’t successful, then you have to put that down to experience, let it go and carry on creating. Basically – fierce trust is about realising that the outcome doesn’t matter:
‘The outcome cannot matter. Fierce trust asks you to stand strong within this truth: ‘You are worthy, dear one, regardless of the outcome. You will keep sharing your work, regardless of the outcome. You were born to create, regardless of the outcome. You will never lose trust in the creative process, even when you don’t understand the outcome.’
Gilbert asks us to question ourselves – what would we still do, what do we love even more than you love your own ego, whether you succeed or fail? This question is the one that we need to ask ourselves. I understand the difference between my own ego, that wants success, and the deeper love that is rooted in the need to create, regardless of everything. Would I still write even if I didn’t make it my work? Yes, I would.
What I love the most about Big Magic is that it makes me want to create. It makes me want to treat writing as joyfully as I possibly can. It changes the way feel about the questions of success and failure. For this reason, I think she has done something incredible with this book, and I hope other people reading it also feel happier, lighter and more ready to create after reading it.
‘Make space for all these paradoxes to be equally true inside your soul, and I promise — you can make anything. So please calm down now and get back to work, okay?’ – Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic.