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How To Live A Creative Life: A Review of Elizabeth Gilbert's "Big Magic"
Over the years, I’ve read numerous books about how to write and live a more creative existence. From Anne Lammot’s celebrated bird by bird to Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, these volumes have, to varying degrees, encouraged and guided me on my journey to form memorable, well-written sentences, essays, stories, and beyond. Until I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, however, I hadn’t heard the creative process explained with such disarming wit, wisdom, and pragmatism. By impressively blending practicality and mysticism, she describes what it’s like to pursue living a creative life.
By no means is this an unbiased review. Having read two of her memoirs, one of her biographies, and her novel The Signature of All Things, I started Big Magic with an undeniable affinity for Elizabeth Gilbert’s work. Furthermore, I read Big Magic when I was already wondering how I could live more creatively.
Have you ever read anything written by Elizabeth Gilbert?
What, you may ask, does she mean by living a creative life? To begin with, she doesn’t believe that we should quit our day jobs in order to paint murals, write screenplays, and build statues. Instead, she believes creative living begins with curiosity. You don’t need to be passionate about Egyptian history or beekeeping or the mating habits of ants. Curiosity—which, thank goodness, is free and available to any human being—is all you need to begin. She writes, “Curiosity is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. … In fact, curiosity only asks one simple question: ‘Is there anything you’re interested in?’”
Author Elizabeth Gilbert
Recognizing how often my writing projects have started with a slender thread of curiosity, her conclusion seems undeniably true. Even when I am not actively creating something, I use curiosity to propel me into situations and conversations in which I can gather information. For example, I have a friend who once lived in Barrow, Alaska. During a recent conversation, I asked what it was like to live in a place which is virtually always cold. Her response I’ve stored away in memory for a future moment when it may be of use. Even if I never write a story about Alaska, her comments can inspire me to be curious about related subjects.
Elizabeth Gilbert is no stranger to fear. She informs her readers that fear will inevitably accompany their creative efforts. Of course it will. The heart of creativity is uncertain outcomes, and our fear—which, by the way, is there to help keep us alive—hustles in anytime we have the audacity to approach the uncertainty of creating. Humorously, she compares fear to a passenger who is allowed to sit in the back seat of the car you are taking on a road trip. Fear cannot drive or change the radio station, but rest assured you cannot create without it tagging along.
I’ve struggled, whether in my writing efforts or elsewhere, with perfectionism. In Big Magic she discusses this in an illuminating, liberating way. She writes, “The most evil trick about perfectionism, though, is that it disguises itself as a virtue.” Afterwards, she graciously and generously declares there is much to be said for completing the imperfect work you can make instead of brooding over the imagined perfect work which isn’t possible. In my own writing efforts, I’ve learn how to say “good enough” and move forward even when the perfectionist in me remains convinced I can turn an unwieldy sentence or phrase into something golden.
Do you struggle with perfectionism?
Having experienced the mysterious way inspiration impacts my writing, I was thrilled when she addressed this in Big Magic. With humility and a sense of humor, she speaks of how impossible it is to predict when inspiration will arrive or depart. Her solution is to “work steadily” and hope to be touched by grace. As I can attest from years of writing, this is the most sensible and ultimately productive way to proceed. Of course, if you prefer, you can wait around for inspiration to strike, and it may pay you a visit. It also may be absent for long periods, and the ability to keep working is what likely separates those who are more able to live an amplified, creative life with those who fail to.
Regardless how well or poorly your creative efforts are going, she suggestions you always have the choice to work with “stubborn gladness.” Based on her personal experience, she knows what it’s like when fortune and fame ebb and flow. Happily, she’s learned the importance of being dedicated to the process of creating instead of to the outcome. Having witnessed too many artists get stymied when their work isn’t well-received, I believe this is invaluable advice. It’s as if she’s asking us this question: “Are you creating because you want recognition and praise, or because it brings you joy?” Obviously I cannot tell you why you should create. I can, nevertheless, mention that one reason I write is because it fills something inside me which would otherwise remain empty.
Finally, I am indebted to her for speaking yet another universal truth: everyone is creative. Too often I’ve met people who declare they must not be creative because they don’t have any burning desire to sing, paint, write, or act. As I suspect Elizabeth Gilbert would agree, creativity has been defined much too narrowly. This is a tragedy, especially since it too often divides people into two camps: the “fortunate” creative ones, and those who are not. She writes, “Are you considering becoming a creative person? Too late, you already are one. To even call somebody ‘a creative person’ is almost laughably redundant; creativity is the hallmark of our species. We have the senses for it; we have the curiosity for it; we have the opposable thumbs for it; we have the rhythm for it; we have the language and the excitement and the innate connection to divinity for it. If you’re alive, you’re a creative person.”
Initially I read this book because I hoped it would help me become a better writer. Perhaps it has; perhaps this is forthcoming. Regardless, she reminded me of the necessity and the privilege of thinking beyond the writing I do in order to explore the many ways in which I can live an enlarged, creative life. If living a more comprehensively creative existence appeals to you, I suggest you read Big Magic and see where it takes you.