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Jill's AUGUST Dotters Pick

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

The last year has left me needing reassurance in a way I haven't felt since I was a grad student entering the Real World.  Somewhere underneath, I know I'm still the capable, confident woman I have always been, but the last year included moving across the country from a place I've lived half my life, maintaining a career that is not typically nor easily conducted in a remote fashion, buying a house for the first time, and becoming pregnant with my first child.  As a result, something in my creative nature has been temporarily disrupted and/or misplaced, and I need some help finding it again.  While woefully discussing this with a dear friend, she suggested I check out Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love).

 So when I picked up this book (and when I pick up many books, admittedly) my motivations were selfish. With limited time for reading for fun, I want answers, I want to get better at stuff, and I want reassurance from people smarter than myself.  Gilbert delivers on all three of these action items.  To get to the heart of Big Magic, Gilbert is tapping into the desire to lead a more creative life and rolling it out like a big floofy mattress on which we can all sit together to chat, play, and meditate.  

Gilbert thinks we can all experience Big Magic by entering into a mutually beneficial relationship with inspiration.  She believes that ideas have their own existence, and we go around searching for inspiration while ideas are going around looking for the right human conduit.  While I'm not sure to what extent this is literal to her, or whether it's a genius metaphor, she plays out her beautifully and thoroughly crafted idea through these large sections of the book: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, and Trust.  Here's what I took away:

  • Courage: Travel comfortably alongside your fear, but don't let it drive.
  • Enchantment: Gilbert tells a lovely, if not unbelievable, tale that she transferred the idea for a novel to Ann Patchett through a kiss, literally.  For me, this wasn't too far fetched, as someone who is a bit on the woo-woo side of the spiritual spectrum.  But I could see how some readers might cue eye rolling starting in this chapter.
  • Permission: This section struck a huge chord for me as a musician (wah-wah). So many artists, including myself, put so much value on originality.  Gilbert argues that authenticity is much more valuable than originality, because originality is basically impossible at this point.  If you're going to enter into an artistic pursuit, do it with your whole heart, and that will shine in your result.  While I was a bit miffed that she tossed aside the value of advanced degrees in the arts (she proudly doesn't have one), she brings forth the point that there is no job security in creativity.  And her lofty assertion that art matters and art doesn't matter, simultaneously, leaves me inspired and dismayed by the easy-out.
  • Persistence: One of my favorite moments of the book is when Gilbert asks us what kind of shit sandwich we are willing to eat.  Meaning, are you passionate enough about your art that you can handle the less glamorous/disagreeable/downright shitty aspects that come along with it?  In addition, she reassures us that no one is thinking about us as much as we are thinking about them wondering if they're thinking about us, so get over what other people think. Another equally delightful moment in this section is her description of herself as "The Disciplined Half-Ass."  She rolls around with the idea of "good enough," and for those of you who have read any Brene Brown (who is her friend and colleague), you might recognize this concept as a hot topic around vulnerability and shame.  When we learn to let go of our perfectionist plague, we make something the way it's supposed to be.  In other words, if someone challenges your work for improvement, yet you have solid reasons why you'd like your work to remain the way it is--albeit imperfect--there is a lot of power in calling it "done" and moving on.
  • Trust: A lot of this section is dedicated to calling out B.S. on the concept of the "tortured artist," and how one can/should find joy and light in their art without destructive physical or emotional habits.  Since that's not been my experience as a creative person, I emotionally glossed over much of this section, but held on to some great nuggets: Don't let go of your courage when things stop being easy or rewarding, because that's when "interesting" begins; and the only thing that suffers when you fail is your ego.

Her witty and playful tone kept me smiling and flipping pages, and full disclosure: I took three pages of inspirational quotes from this book.  While the book was aimed at an ambitiously large, sweeping stroke of humanity, I think Gilbert is successful in writing for literally everyone -- especially those who don't consider themselves creative.  Recommended!