It isn’t always comfortable or easy – carrying your fear around with you on your great and ambitious road trip, I mean – but it’s always worth it, because if you can’t learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you’ll never be able to go anywhere interesting or do anything interesting.
And that would be a pity, because your life is short and rare and amazing and miraculous, and you want to do really interesting things and make really interesting things while you’re still here. I know that’s what you want for yourself because that’s what I want for myself, too.
It’s what we all want.
And you have treasures hidden within you – extraordinary treasures – and so I, and so does everyone around us. And bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion, and the clock is ticking, and the world is spinning, and we simply do not have time anymore to think so small. (p.37, Big Magic)
“It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at. For instance: if I had spent my twenties playing basketball every single day, or making pastry dough every single day, or studying auto mechanics every single day, I’d probably be pretty good at foul shots and croissants and transmissions by now.
Instead I learned how to write.” (p.145, Big Magic)
“Meeting Winnifred though, made me realize that your education isn’t over when they say it’s over; your education is over when you say it’s over. And Winifred-back when she was a mere girl of eighty – had firmly decided: It ain’t over yet.
So when can you start pursuing your most creative and passionate life?
You can start whenever you decide to start. ” (p.148, Big Magic)
A few months ago I spent a weekend mentoring teenagers at a camp in Brits, South Africa, and in the early hours of the morning before my cabin was awake and in moments between mealtimes and sessions, I shared stories of my first few months in South Africa with my fellow mentors and new friends. And in December, my husband and I travelled to Durban for the wedding of a dear friend, and in our post dawn walks on the beach or long chats over cups of tea, we continued telling stories of my transition to Joburg and the early days of our marriage. Throughout those conversations, the possibility and importance of chronicling some of these reflections and transition stories into a longer piece of writing was a topic of conversation – I was convinced that my story wasn’t interesting enough to be told (and that I didn’t have the ability to tell it in any case) but my husband and the friends we were speaking to felt otherwise.
For me, the word writer conjures up someone armed with an MFA, proper published writing credits to their name, a dedicated writing practice, no troubles with procrastination, natural talent, ideas that bubble forth constantly and an understanding of semi-colons.That description does not fit me, and so although the act of writing fills my heart with joy it has always seemed inaccurate to think of myself as a writer, and I’ve never felt like writing a longer piece of work is something I could do.
Despite this, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about why and how we tell stories and why we write, and how to know when you should and indeed can, tell a particular story. As part of this thinking, I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear”. (I confess, part of why I read the book was that I was hoping to hear that creativity is an inherent characteristic so that I could win the internal argument I’ve been having with the words of my husband, family and friends about writing, but alas, no such luck.)
Instead of discouragement, “Big Magic” is a beautiful pep talk and love letter on living a creative life, something Gilbert defines as “a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear” (Big Magic, p.21). The book is divided into several parts, with the first part addressing courage, and the sections thereafter looking at enchantment, permission, persistence, trust and divinity. Each section is full of practical and inspiring advice on how to strengthen your creative muscles and grow as a creative being.
When speaking about courage for example, Gilbert argues that creativity is something that is not just for an elite few, bur rather the property of everyone, and tells the story of a friend who figure-skated as a child and teenager, but stopped when she realized she would never be a competitive skater. She returns to skating in her forties after reflecting on when she was last truly happy, and realizing that for her, happiness was when she was on the ice. So despite the years since she last skated and the fact that she will never be a world-famous skater, she begins to skate 4-5 times a week, and finds that she has never been happier. That Gilbert says, is creative living, something that belongs to everyone, that is part of our human heritage. Such living is important because a creative life, “is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life and a hell of a lot more interesting (Big Magic, p.24).
Expressing oneself can be scary though, and when it comes to herself, Gilbert acknowledges that she was a fearful person growing up. She describes always being terrified to do new things, but that her parents did not allow her to use her fear as an excuse to step away from life. Instead, of accepting her excuses, they gave her responsibility for the things she disliked most. She was scared of answering the telephone, and so that was the job she was given at home. She resisted this education until she was well into her teens when she finally realized that the thing that she was arguing so passionately for was fear, the most uninteresting thing about her, the thing about her that she had in common with tadpoles. She realized that instead of recognizing and paying attention to the things that made her unique, she was giving her fear too much power, and so asked herself whether her fear was genuinely something she wanted to fight for. The answer was no, and so she became not less fearful, but rather more courageous at trying and doing the things that scared her. To do this, when undertaking a creative endeavour, Elizabeth Gilbert addresses her fear as though she is embarking on a roadtrip, and explains to her fear that although she understands fear will always be in the car, it doesn’t get to make any directional decisions.
When speaking about permission, Gilbert argues that creativity is about both showing up unfailingly and being bestowed with grace and inspiration. Inspiration and inherent talent is not enough, because inspiration can only come when you devote yourself to your work. She explains that the ancient Greeks had an understanding that a person is visited by genius, they themselves are not a genius, and that this difference is much better for the ego. There is an element of the uncontrollable in creative work, but the understanding that you are visited by genius means that one must prepare for such a visit. This preparation requires you to say yes to creativity (you don’t need a permission slip to create!), and to devote yourself fully to your practice. It is not a light thing, it is a contract, and only by performing your part of the contract is there a possibility that such a visit may occur. Inspiration may never show up, but if you don’t show up it definitely won’t show up either. For Gilbert, this contract involved taking vows to writing when she was sixteen years old, and she notes that though her first marriage vows did not last, she has stayed true to her writing vows. Her stories of persistence about collecting rejection letters throughout her twenties and continuing to send stories out to publications because she knew she had to be a writer are inspiring, and I thoroughly enjoyed the honesty in which she talks about her own journey throughout the book. To start practicing as a writer, she shares that like practicing the scales, in her twenties she would set a timer and set herself the task of writing tiny scenes to become a better writer. Despite not getting much response from external publications, she still wrote every day.
Giving oneself permission to be creative also means recognizing that you don’t need to quit your day job to live a creative life (and that it is a lot of pressure to ask your art to sustain you in that way) and realizing that not having formal credentials is not a barrier to expressing oneself. Gilbert takes time in the book to talk about MFA programs and formal writing education and says not taking courses is not a good enough excuse to not write if that is what your soul is calling you to do. She implores thinking about the finances carefully, recognising that you are taking a gamble when you start a course, and recognising that taking courses doesn’t exempt you from needing to show up day in and day out at your desk. Instead of courses (which she doesn’t discourage from taking, but rather encourages thinking carefully about) she shares that her own learning path has been to read great novels and to examine how authors do what they do, to practice writing as much as possible and to live and to experience as much as she possibly can.
Her ideas of dedication make sense, but Gilbert takes this idea a step further when speaking about enchantment and suggests that ideas are tangible things, they have a reality of their own, and they seek collaborators to make them manifest. Her most interesting example of this is a story about a novel of hers about the Amazon that you’ll need to read the book to discover. 🙂
“So whenever that brittle voice dissatisfaction emerges within me, I can say, “Ah my ego! There you are old friend!”. It’s the same thing when I’m being criticized and I notice myself reacting with outrage, heartache or defensiveness. It’s just my ego, flaring up and testing its power. In such circumstances, I have learned to watch my heated emotions carefully, but I try not to take them too seriously, because I know that it’s merely my ego that has been wounded, never my soul.” (Big Magic, p.244)
When speaking about persistence,Gilbertspeaks about choosing your attitude and approach to the creative process. Instead of disappointment, misery, suffering, she argues that it is possible to see your failures as interesting because “interesting outcomes after all, are just awful outcomes with the volume of drama turned way down.” She also offers suggestions on how to react to criticism better. We are both souls and egos she says, and though the soul doesn’t need praise, the ego does. The more we address the soul and recognise that the soul is what calls us to creativity, the more we are able to hear the critiques of our work and allow ourselves to keep moving after failure. The ability to withstand failure is something she says is necessary to live a creative life, and she advises forgiving oneself, letting go of outcomes and moving onto the next project/piece of work as ways to survive failure. She also advises refraining from complaining, and to go to your work with passion and love.
“Whatever else happens, stay busy. (I always lean on this wise advice from the seventeenth century English scholar Robert Burton, on how to survive melancholy. “Be not solitary, be not idle.”) Find something to do, – anything, even a different sort of creative work altogether – just to take your mind off anxiety and pressure.” (p.246, Big Magic)
Gilbert explains that the advice to stay busy was also followed by Einstein, who called this practice “combinatory play, or the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another” (p.247, Big Magic). Continuing to do things is important for creative work because “inspiration will always be drawn to motion” (Big Magic, p.248). Throughout the book Gilbert supplements her own advice with stories of other creative people, and in the section of the book that discusses failure she shares a beautiful story about the English playwright Olive James who had a play that failed terribly, and worked his way out of his depression by painting stars on the bicycles of his daughters and all the other children in the neighbourhood. In doing that task, he found his mind going to thoughts of when he would write about the experience, and he realised that regardless of that failure, he was still a creator.
In the penultimate section of the book titled “Trust” Gilbert discusses the concept of fierce trust, and allowing your work to be seen by others after you complete it. This requires trust because there is no guarantee of a positive reception to your work (and in all likelihood you will fail), and so fierce trust is the act of detaching yourself from outcomes making your work public despite the fact it may fail.
All in all, “Big Magic” is a book I thoroughly enjoyed, and one that I think offers lots of motivation and inspiration to try and become a more creative person, and to live a more creative and less fearful life. It’s definitely worth the read. For those who have read it, what are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you.