Selected Reads

Review of Elizabeth Gilbert Book Big Magic

What is Big Magic All About?

After the incredible success with her 2006 memoir “Eat, Pray, Love”,  Elizabeth Gilbert is back in the limelight with this equally important book titled Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. This is a self-help book that takes creativity as its central theme, and creativity is what Gilbert excels at. This is definitely a great read for teachers, educators, students, and anyone else keen on understanding what creativity is all about and what it takes to lead a creative life. 

Big Magic book

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear is full of timeless tips and pieces of advice illustrated with riveting stories about the miraculous power of creativity. I have read several self-help books on the topic of creativity but Big Magic is different. It cuts the fluff and goes straight to essence using an expressive language. The central argument of the book is that we all possess creative capacities deep within us and that through courage and perseverance we get to uncover these capacities and live a fulfilling life. Below are some of the key points discussed in Gilbert’s book. I will first start with the definition of creativity then move on to talk about some of the topics Gilbert raised in her book. 

What is creativity?

In all the dictionary definitions I consulted, I found that the word creativity is defined as the ability to act or to create something unique and original. In this sense, creativity is synonymous with the words: imagination, inventiveness, vision, ingenuity, originality, innovativeness, among others. Here are some examples of how creativity is defined:

  • “The ability to produce or use original and unusual ideas, or to make something new or imaginative” Cambridge Dictionary.
  • “The ability to create”, Merriam Webster.
  • “The ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination” By Dictionary.com.

Creativity, Originality and Authenticity

While the concept of originality, as shown in the previous definitions,  figures as a defining element in creativity, Elizabeth Gilbert takes issue with this very concept. For her, when it comes to the core of creativity, that is creation and production,  originality can be a crippling factor. Several people relinquish their ideas and give up on their creative projects for fear of being labeled not original. Gilbert encourages people to forsake this perspective and go for the full creative adventure. To those claims of originality, Gilbert responded:

“So what if we repeat the same themes? So what if we circle around the same ideas, again and again, generation after generation? So what if every new generation feels the same urges and asks the same questions that humans have been feeling and asking for years? We’re all related, after all, so there’s going to be some repetition of creative instinct”.

What matters more for Gilbert in the creative process is authenticity and not necessarily originality. An authentic endeavor is one that has your personal touch; one in which you are fully invested mind and body; one that speaks to your core values and beliefs; one that has your own ‘expression and passion’ behind it. “Once you put your own expression and passion behind an idea” Gilbert explained, “that idea becomes yours”. 

She further elaborated:

“These days, I’m far more moved by authenticity. Attempts at originality can often feel forced and precious, but authenticity has quiet resonance that never fails to stir me. Just say what you want to say, then, and say it with all your heart. Share whatever you are driven to share. If it’s authentic enough, believe me—it will feel original”.

Creativity and Bravery

Every human being, as Gilbert argues, has got an enormous treasure trove of talents, aspirations, capabilities, skills, and competencies  all of which are hidden deep within us waiting to be discovered and explored. The process of tapping into these hidden jewels is what Gilbert refers to as the creative living and the results emanating from such activity is what she calls Big Magic. That said, the main question underlying the whole edifice of creativity is whether one has the courage to uncover the treasures that are hidden within them. 

To be able to live a creative life, Gilbert ascertained,  one needs to be courageous and open to explore the unfamiliar, embrace new ideas, and be willing to take the untrodden path.Indeed, creativity and courage are intricately enmeshed to the point of interdependence. When courage vanishes it takes with it creativity. 

Gilbert is not alone in emphasizing the role of courage in creativity. Several other authors stressed the centrality of courage as a catalyst for meaningful creative experiences. The one that comes to my mind now is the late poet and historian Maya Angelou who took courage and creativity to be among the central themes in her creative work. 

For Angelou, courage is “the most important of all the virtues. Because without courage, you cannot practice any other virtue consistently”1. While courage is certainly an elemental factor in leading a creative life, it should, nonetheless, never be mistaken for fearlessness. 

I like how Gilbert distinguishes between the two concepts: courage and fearlessness. She stated that “bravery means doing something scary. Fearlessness means not even understanding what the word scary means”.  It’ s true, we all have our fears which often show up uninvited especially when we are about to embark on a new creative project. The inner critic starts the sabotage and discouragement process immediately after the idea of a new creative work goes to the execution phase. 

Fear kicks in and doubts start to cloud our vision. But fear is instinctual and throughout history we have leveraged the power of fear to stay alive. Fearlessness, or better say excessive fearlessness, can be the path to self-destruction and annihilation. If you are fearless then there is something wrong with your psyche. What you need is bravery, the power to rationalize fear and take calculated steps. Creativity thrives with bravery and as Gilbert explained creativity, “is the path for the brave, yes,  but it is not a path for the fearless”.

Do ideas have consciousness?

In her discussion of inspiration and creativity, Gilbert claimed that ideas do have their own consciousness and therefore are alive. She illustrated this with the story of the novel she was supposed to write and publish only to find out later on that Ann Patchett was working on a novel with the same story. 

Gilbert already started writing her novel when family circumstances interrupted her creative flow and forced her  to put the few pages she had written on the backburner (her Mexican boyfriend was denied entry visa to the United States and she had to move to Mexico and live with him for a while till they got their things straightened). Few years later and as she was conversing with her friend Ann she discovered that the latter was in the final stages of finishing a novel with the same storyline. Gilbert never revealed the outline of her unfinished story to anyone and certainly not to Ann, yet here is Ann putting the final touches to a work that was first conceived and kept in Gilbert’s mind. How is this possible?

To rationalize the incident, Gilbert argued that ideas have a life and consciousness of their own. Ideas are “completely separate from us” as Gilbert explained, “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 would stay with you for a while and if they don’t find a welcoming and nourishing environment they would leave. Gilbert was happy her idea found another place where it blossomed and grew. More than anything else the whole incident proved to Gilbert  that:

“ideas are alive, that ideas do seek the most available human collaborator, that ideas do have a conscious will, that ideas do move from soul to soul, that ideas will always try to seek the swiftest and most efficient conduit to the earth (just as lightning does).”

There is even a scientific concept that captures what transpired between Gilbert and Ann, it is called multiple discovery. Gilbert defined it as a concept used in the scientific community ”whenever two or more scientists in different parts of the world come up with the same idea at the same time”. Multiple discoveries happen in all spheres of life in business, art, and even in romantic relationships as when “nobody’s been interested in you for years and years, and suddenly you have two suitors at the same time? That’s multiple discovery, indeed!”. 

Creativity: An Asset or A Burden?

The last point I want to fleetingly touch on in this short discussion of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic is that of whether creative endeavor is an asset or a burden. Creativity, as common sense has it, is something we all aspire to have, feel and live with. It has all the positive aspects that makes one’s life adventurous, joyous and engaging. Creativity, as Einstein reportedly stated, is “intelligence having fun”. Viewed from this perspective, creativity is definitely an asset, one of the valued assets one can have. However, creativity, in certain cases, can also be a burden.

Gilbert discussed this idea in a section titled Pinned Beneath the Boulder. She stated that the labels society throws at creative people can come with a hefty price. She gave the example of the label genius and explained how it sometimes inhibits creative artists from exploring their full creative potential for fear of not living up to expectations especially if they enjoyed an initial success with one of their creative works. 

A good point in case here is the story of Harper Lee, the Pulitzer Prize winner and author of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird. After the phenomenal success of her book, Lee stopped writing for a while .When she was asked about the possibility of writing another book she replied “I am scared” and added that “when you’re at the top, there’s only one way to go” (quoted in Big Magic). Although Gilbert has a different take on this, which I will discuss later, I can’t help but agree with Lee. Sometimes getting to the top, that is  the pinnacle of success in one’s field, is easier and probably less stressful than staying there. It is the burden that comes with efforts to outcompete yourself that slowly murders your creativity and  vitiate your reservoir of inspiration and inventiveness. 

The solution to creativity’s burden, according to Gilbert, is to move on with life. Turn the page whether that page contains glaring failures or phenomenal successes. Don’t dwell on past achievements/failures and certainly don’t “conduct autopsies on your disasters”. Open your eyes to new creative ideas, embrace them and work hard to provide them with the right hatching environment. In the final analysis, you do what you do because you love doing it and because you do it for yourself first and foremost and if it happens that it helps or inspires others then that’s a welcome side effect.

 I like Gilbert’s philosophy about how to overcome creativity’s burden and  yes she is a person who walks her talk. Towards the final chapters of Big Magic Gilbert unequivocally clarified that the project of writing her self-help book is primarily to help herself. As she stated:

“I wrote this book for my own pleasure, because I truly enjoy thinking about the subject of creativity. It’s enjoyable and useful for me to meditate on this topic. If what I’ve written here ends up helping you, that’s great, and I will be glad. That would be a wonderful side effect. But at the end of the day, I do what I do because I like doing it”.

Creativity: Burdening or burdened?

Creativity can be both burdening and burdened, that is, it can be both the doer of the act of burdening and the bearer of the action of burdening. The burdening part is what I talked about earlier, when you let the outcome of your creative work outmaneuver you and fill you with crippling doubts and fears.  Creativity here burdens you with ideas of either producing something that lives up to certain (high) standards and expectations or don’t create at all which is what happened with Harper Lee.  The burdened part is when creativity is at the receiving end. This happens when you associate your creative work with, for instance, making a living. Gilbert advises that one should not stifle their creativity by burdening it with the responsibilities of paying the bills. Here is how Gilbert eloquently articulated this point:

“I’ve always felt like this is so cruel to your work—to demand a regular paycheck from it, as if creativity were a government job, or a trust fund. Look, if you can manage to live comfortably off your inspiration forever, that’s fantastic. That’s everyone’s dream, right? But don’t let that dream turn into a nightmare. Financial demands can put so much pressure on the delicacies and vagaries of inspiration.”

Creativity and schooling

Do you need a degree to be creative? Hell, no! In fact, a number of highly creative people believe that schooling or to be more specific higher education won’t do your creativity any good. For instance, the late CEO of Apple and Pixar Animations studios, Steve Jobs,   pointed to this idea in his Stanford commencement address when he said that dropping out of college was “one of the best decisions” he has ever made.

In a viral video published online, Elon Musk repeated the same mantra: higher education does not provide you with a competitive edge especially in the job market.  On her part, Elizabet Gilbert, did not see any good for her pursuing a master of arts in creative writing or any advanced degree for that matter. Creative people, as Gilbert rightly reasons, do not need credentials or licenses to prove their creativity and history proves this. Since 1901, among the 12 North American Nobel Prize laureates in literature, not one of them, as Gilbert highlighted, had an MFA and “four of them never even got past high school”.

Later on in the book, Gilbert explained that she is not against people going for advanced degrees if they choose to. School, after all,  is where people develop professional skills and learn new things. However, Gilbert has this special sensitivity towards advanced degrees in the arts education. She views temporal and financial investment in these degrees as a form of gambling because when you graduate with an arts degree, you end up with a huge debt and no guarantee for a job. As Gilbert stated:

“Going into massive debt in order to become a creator, then, can make a stress and a burden out of something that should only ever have been a joy and a release. And after having invested so much in their education, artists who don’t immediately find professional success (which is most artists) can feel like failures. Their sense of having failed can interfere with their creative self-confidence—and maybe even stop them from creating at all.” 

Gilbert further explained that what she is against is not higher education by and of itself but the ‘crippling indebtedness’ it causes especially for those who want to live a creative life. Debt burdens creativity and even kills it altogether.

Quotes on creativity

Here are some creativity quotes that stood out to me from Gilbert’s book Big Magic:

“I believe that creativity is a force of enchantment—not entirely human in its origins.”

“If inspiration is allowed to unexpectedly enter you, it is also allowed to unexpectedly exit you.”

“The earliest evidence of recognizable human art is forty thousand years old. The earliest evidence of human agriculture, by contrast, is only ten thousand years old. Which means that somewhere in our collective evolutionary story, we decided it was way more important to make attractive, superfluous items than it was to learn how to regularly feed ourselves.”

“Stop treating your creativity like it’s a tired, old, unhappy marriage (a grind, a drag) and start regarding it with the fresh eyes of a passionate lover.”

“It has taken me years to learn this, but it does seem to be the case that if I am not actively creating something, then I am probably actively destroying something (myself, a relationship, or my own peace of mind).”

“I believe that our creativity grows like sidewalk weeds out of the cracks between our pathologies—not from the pathologies themselves”.

References:

1. Maya Angelou on leadership, courage and the creative process (The Washington Post)

2. ‘You’ve got to find what you love,’ Jobs says (Stanford News)