Big Lessons from Big Magic

Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic has been one of the biggest books in the self-help/personal development/creativity scene since it was published a couple of years ago. It seems to be on everyone's recommended reading list, and you can barely scroll through social media without a quote being posted somewhere. Many people claim it has changed their lives, and though I'm not quite that evangelical, I will say that it is definitely a book that has resonated strongly and made me think about my life and my relationship with creativity.

While my own feelings about creativity are a little less spiritual that Liz Gilbert's - I see it more as something we develop within ourselves rather than a divine gift - there are a number of elements of her writing that I agree with from my own experiences, and some parts that have led to lightbulb moments and deep contemplation.

I thought I'd share with you my thoughts on some of the key lessons I found within Big Magic in the form of comments about particular quotes. First a disclaimer: I'm not normally the sort of person who writes in books, they've always been precious to me, I'll even try to avoid breaking the spine if I can, and I certainly don't fold down corners. But this book is definitely one that needed repeat reading, and yes, underlining (very gently in pencil!) those passages that I wanted to be able to come back to. I even went so far as to add sticky tabs on important pages. However it soon became clear that this wouldn't be a simple half dozen or so key points, there were places when I almost needed to underline whole pages, and the sticky tabs ended up decorating the page edges like confetti. So I'll try and keep this fairly brief, only picking a few big lessons - and perhaps we'll come back to another batch another time!

(I'm working from the hardback edition of the book, so apologies if my page references don't match yours)

Creative Living, Defined

Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?...The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The hunt to uncover those jewels - that’s creative living.
— p.8

A definition seems as good a place to start as any - although of course this exploration of creativity continues and grows throughout the book - and this is a place where my own views align. Creativity being something that's within all of us inherently is a belief that I share, and if you want to see it as something that the universe/God/the angels/mother nature/whatever gave to us, then I can get on board with that. The infinite variety of individuality points to a complexity designed to bring about interest, debate and a wealth of differing experiences, and I love the potential for each person to be able to express themselves in their own way. To take the jewel analogy further, it's incredibly rare to find perfectly matched precious gemstones, there will always be slight differences in size, shape, colour, clarity, inclusions, and to some, the individuality, the uniqueness, is where the value lies. 

Creative Living is a path for the Brave

Yes, you absolutely do need your fear, in order to protect yourself from actual dangers...But you do not need your fear in the realm of creative expression. Seriously, you don’t. Just because you don’t need your fear...doesn’t mean your fear won’t show up...Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome
— p.23

Gilbert talks at some length about courage and fear as she sees they relate to creativity, and this is an area that I thought quite a lot about. Fear has been a driving force for me for quite some time, it's held me back from doing things I wanted to 'just in case', and even got me to a place of avoiding sometimes normal, everyday things because it's easier to stay safe. Slowly but surely the voice of creativity has got louder, and the need to try, to explore and experiment, to move forward, has gradually begun to override that fear. I agree with the quote above - absolutely there are real dangers that we should be careful of, but fear grew as an evolutionary tool for keeping us alive. Thousands of years down the line though, it's unlikely that many things I might like to try in the name of creativity are going to put me in mortal, torn limb from limb by wild animals, physical danger. It's those uncertain outcomes that are the still the tricky point. Over those millennia as the world has changed around us, we've found new things to be afraid of, and despite many of them being internal, imagined worries, we still react as if that wild animal is chasing us. In the course of starting my business, even in hitting publish on each new blog post, my fear manages to conjure up all sorts of worst case scenarios, until it finally (sometimes, now fewer and further between) settles on the one that it knows will stop me in my tracks, will pull my hand away from the keyboard, and back into my nice little safe and certain world. Fear is never going to go away completely, and it can be useful on some occasions, so Gilbert recommends that we try to make space so that creativity and fear can live alongside each other. The Road Trip is one of the most quoted passages of the book, and I'm sure I'm not the only one thinking about writing it out large and sticking it on my wall.

Inspiration and 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. An the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.
— p.35

I'm afraid this is one area where I disagree with Liz Gilbert (shock! horror!). Not that I don't completely appreciate her views and beliefs, but ideas floating around in the ether like spirits is a little too woo-woo for me. If that's how you want to think about where inspiration comes from then I accept that, and OK, I've probably had my own moments where a thought has appeared seemingly from nowhere and grabbed me, but in general I don't hold with the view that ideas are totally separate from us. I'm going back to that thing about creativity being like jewels buried within us, and our individuality of expression, because I think that ideas are born from our unique experiences and interpretations of our lives, the world, and what has gone before. I agree with the opinion that there are no new ideas - everything that is being invented or tried or talked about now has been done before. Gilbert says she's "talking about all ideas here - artistic, scientific, industrial, commercial, ethical, religious, political" and that I can agree with. But I think ideas come from observation, trial and error, and someone, somewhere, somewhen, trying something different because of something they'd seen or experienced in a slightly different context. Whether that's taking inspiration from natural phenomena, building on the teachings of the past, or even something that came to you in a dream (and let's not get into what dreams are for now...), all of it depends on different people seeing things differently and interpreting it in their own way in order to express something that means something to them. The Romans had underfloor heating 2000 years ago. Da Vinci looked at birds in flight to develop his flying machines. Military camouflage is based on the textures and colours of the natural environment. Modern medicine is developing drugs from plants that Amazonian tribes have been using for centuries. Painters study past masters to learn about treatment of light and shade, colour and tone, before putting brush to canvas to create their own expression of what they see. I'm writing this based not only on the reading of a single book, but on the experience of a lifetime of reading, conversations, lived situations, and the ultimate mixing of it all together within me to form my own view. And frankly, I think all of that is just as magical as ideas flying around as enchanted beings waiting to worm their way into your heart.

Permission and Entitlement

You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life.
— p.86
You will never be able to create anything interesting out of your life if you don’t believe that you’re entitled to at least try...creative entitlement simply means believing that you are allowed to be here, and that - merely by being here - you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.
— p.92

This is a tricky one. I suspect if you asked many people they would say something along the lines of not being able to indulge their creativity because they have more important things to worry about, like doing a job to earn money to pay the bills to look after their family. It's that word 'indulge' that asks for that permission isn't it? Like having to do your homework first before being allowed to go out with your friends. But if living a creative life is what you truly want, you have to believe that you're allowed to experience, explore, play, experiment, try, make mistakes, express yourself fully without holding back and doing the more 'important' things first. One of the quotes I love about self-care is that you can't pour from an empty cup - you have to look after yourself first, to fill yourself up with the things that nourish you (physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually) in order to be able to be truly yourself, and have enough left over to share with others. I think creativity works the same way - you have to practice it all the time so that it becomes completely natural, you have to exercise it like any muscle to build its strength. And it's not just about creating 'art', creativity spills over into every area, and all these various elements eventually coalesce until you realise that you ARE creative all of the time.

This passage on page 87 sums this up brilliantly - that being creative is who we are as a human race. And if that isn't a permission slip to live a creative life I don't know what is.