What I got out of Big Magic

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A great book by Elizabeth Gilbert about living a creative life and what creativity is really about.

I wondered how much the author of a book that has been turned into a romcom had to say about creativity. Turns out, a lot more than I expected. This book has had major impacts on my perspective about creativity and being ‘a maker’, which in turn have already started influencing my practices and thoughts.

This book is not a program or a to-do. There are no questionnaires to help you figure yourself out or introduce strange daily habits. It’s more like listening to a wise elder on how to do this creativity thing.

How has the book changed the way I live and think?

Everyone is creative, including you

  • I hate the thought that there are ‘creative’ people. It infers that there are uncreative people, which makes me feel hopeless. What if I wasn’t born with some ‘artist’ spark and I am an embarrassment to myself for even trying? Or what if I didn’t start early enough and have missed my window for being an artist?
  • But we are all descended from makers and the creative urge is in all of us. Gilbert points out that there is no way your ancestors weren’t makers or creators of some kind, because once upon a time almost all humans were. They built their houses, they sewed their clothes, they trained horses. Pretty much everyone sang. It’s inside us and it’s part of what makes us a successful species. Not only that, but we need to create or we’ll go crazy – we have a natural urge to do it.
  • Teaching improv to beginners affirms this for me. Everyone I’ve taught improv to has shown a creative ability. Sure, there are lots of blocks to people’s creativity and people might not be living a super creative life right now. But I believe everyone has it in them in one way or another, because I see everyone – even the people we might label as the least creative – be creative (and pretty joyful about it!) once those blocks are removed.

Don’t try to make money off your creative stuff

  • Gilbert refuses to ask her creative pursuits to make her money. She made a commitment years ago that her writing didn’t have to pay the bills – she would do that, so that her creativity could be free. She’d seen enough people murder their creativity by demanding money from it. She didn’t quit her day job until after her fourth book was published, and that book was Eat Pray Love! She’d still have a day job today if that book hadn’t been the Harry Potter of the self-help world.
  • From now on, I’m going to take care of the money, so that my creativity and I can have fun. As Gilbert suggests, I’m going to be my own patron! I don’t need a rich person to fund my art – I can fund it. Of course, earning money in other ways takes up time and energy that you really want to devote to your creativity. That’s life, and it sucks. Gilbert points out, however, that if all you needed to live a creative life was money and time, plenty of rich kids would be amazing artists, which they are not always. All the great artists have probably had to squeeze it in somehow.
  • You don’t have to earn money from being creative for it to be awesome and worthwhile. I took this year off to explore what I wanted to do with my life, and for some reason that translated into trying to build a creative life that would provide for me financially. I felt I had to make money from art for it to be worthwhile or legitimate. Now I’m more relaxed about the thought that I might never get income from my art, and it’s made it easier for me to focus on just being creative this year (how lucky am I to get to do that) rather than building a small business. Sure, I’d love to make money from art, it means not making it elsewhere. But it doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile if I don’t. I’m now less concerned about the thought of having a day job, and specifically of going back to work next year. It’s not the end of the world, I’ll still be creating, and I’ll be keeping the day job stuff to a minimum.
  • You still have time to be creative when you have a day job. Gilbert has a good way of helping you come to grips with feeling like you don’t have enough time for your art because of your day job. She talks about ‘having an affair’ with your creative life. People having affairs still find the time to do their job and see their kids and keep it all a secret. Treat your art like an affair. Sneak away with it for thirty minutes whenever you can. Have a ‘business trip’ weekend away with it. Just don’t expect it to pay.
  • Some people feel like they deserve to earn from their creativity. Gilbert says you’re not, you’re only entitled to create. I kind of agree, because you’re essentially saying I should pay you for the products of your creativity, and I don’t necessarily want to. Gilbert says is there’s no point expecting any particular outcome from your creating, whether that be money, fame, success, or validation. Maybe the outcome or the timing of some people’s creativity appeals to others more, and so they get some cash from it. But you can’t expect it.
  • If making money is the goal, it will compromise what you actually want to do with your creativity. When I mention I want to spend this year writing, people assume I want to do freelance writing. But I don’t. It took me a while to figure this out, because on the surface, ‘freelance writing’ sounds like ‘writing and money’! But it’s not my kind of writing and I would dislike the life of a freelance writer as much as I dislike the thought of running a marathon. So why spend my time on it? Plus it doesn’t pay well, I’m better off spending that same amount of time earning heaps more doing something that lets me do the writing I actually want to do. In the end, dedicating time and energy to pursuing freelance writing because it earns some small amount of money will make it harder for me to do the type of writing I want to do. It’s not even a compromise, it’s a backwards step.

I am a channel for creative genius, not the origin of it

  • Back in the day, according to Gilbert, people did not believe that the genius of someone resided inside them. They saw humans as a channel for genius. You just do the work – sit down and write, or carve, or dance, or sing, or paint, or do maths – and the genie might visit you. You can’t expect the genie to visit you, but it definitely won’t if you’re not doing the work.
  • This made me feel more relaxed about doing my creative stuff, because it separates me from any expectation of greatness. If none of us are geniuses, then why not give this creativity thing a go and see what happens? Also, if what I produce isn’t so great, well, that’s more the genie’s fault than mine! This has made it clearer to me that I have to just do the work, and not worry so much about how good it is (which is a challenge for a perfectionist!). Gilbert’s TED talk goes into this more than the book.

Ideas are disembodied, energetic life forms that are looking to be made manifest by a human partner

  • Gilbert thinks ideas zoom around the world trying different people, to see if they’ll make them manifest. This the cutest idea – to continue the Harry Potter references, I now think of ideas as white, slightly transparent versions of a Quidditch snitch. Creativity often comes from ideas, and sometimes your relationship with your idea is hard to manage emotionally. By separating myself from the source of my ideas, it makes me feel less worried about them and it helps me stop feeling like a failure if I don’t want to finish a project. The top item on my list of creative projects this year was to write a book I had started. It was aimed at my 17-year-old self, about all the things I wish someone had told me at that age. I started it in March last year. Sitting down in February this year I discovered that I no longer had passion for the project. Maybe my thoughts on the subject were changing (taking a year off helps you feel less regretful!). Maybe I’d just gotten over whatever issue was causing the need to write that stuff. Or maybe the idea snitch had got sick of waiting and went to find another human. That’s ok! I don’t have to beat myself up over it. Good luck snitch!
  • But I was worried that this might lead me to abandoning ideas all over the place and never finishing anything. Around the same time I read an article about how imagining a creative project rather than doing it can hold you back. The article advocates fully committing to the project in the moment that you feel passionate about it, or not doing it at all and stop thinking about it. If it’s an old idea that doesn’t draw you anymore, let it go. But if it is drawing you now, do it, do it, do it! Commit fully and do it.
  • A key aspect for me here was committing to one thing when I felt the passion for it. I can feel passion about several projects in one day. I decided to pick one only and go with it, to see if I could get some momentum, because I hadn’t had any so far in my year off. Getting one thing done is a much better feeling than getting eleven things not done.

Do you love this enough to eat its particular flavour of shit sandwich?

  • Every career/pursuit/thing has its shitty elements. Gilbert calls this the shit sandwich. Different things have different kinds of shit sandwich. For writers, it’s rejection letters. For performers, it’s going on the road. Lawyers, it’s an eighty-hour week.
  • If you can’t hack the shit sandwich of this particular creative pursuit, it is not for you. You have to love it so much that you’ll eat the shit sandwich.
  • This helped me realise what kinds of shit sandwiches I’m willing to eat and why sometimes I don’t want to do something that seems fun. Earlier this year, I tried stand-up comedy for the first time. It was fun, I can see how I could learn to do it and I reckon I have potential. But the shit sandwich – open-mic nights, hanging out in bars, that bleak aloneness when you bomb – is not my flavour of shit sandwich.

You have to figure out your creative process, its ups and downs, and your emotional patterns surrounding it.

  • I came into this year off with a planned structure for my daily routine. But it wasn’t working, and I was getting really worried that I was no good at this ‘creativity’ thing. Then I read this and realised – oh, that’s what I’ve been doing with my year, I’ve been discovering my process! At the same time, I’d been reading a lot about the daily habits and the creative processes of successful writers. Some of them write first thing in the morning, some after the kids have gone to bed. Some insist you can’t write unless you know the story’s ending, others discover the ending as they go. I realised that no one does it the right way for someone else. The habits of these successful people are habits that I’m sure they had to figure out for themselves. After they’d found their holy grail of productivity, they wanted to share it. Which is really nice of them! Unfortunately, it was a holy grail for one. The one thing I think they have in common is that it is a regular practice.
  • I’m still figuring out my creative process, including its emotional patterns. A lot of this year has been dedicated to this without me realising it. I’ve been experimenting, and every day I shift something slightly. At this stage, my creative process is emerging as:
    • Choose one writing project at a time and commit to that.
    • Do my writing first thing in the morning. Nothing else before it.
    • ‘Work’ is Monday to Friday, nine to five. I am not on holidays. Weekends I can relax like a normal person. This is especially important to me, or else I’ll feel constant pressure to be working and I will go crazy, as demonstrated by the last thirty-two years of my life.
    • When writing, put off anything I can that doesn’t need to be dealt with right away. This includes helping other people, which gets me every time. I only help immediately when it’s critical.
    • Boundaries are necessary and bring a sense of control into my week. People want to do things when it suits them. I now push back and try to make it suit me too. I am not ‘free whenever’, I’m free at 4pm on Friday, does that suit?
    • If I do have to do non-work stuff – social commitments, appointments, errands, Pilates – I schedule it all into one day a week, preferable one half-day.
    • My phone is on silent/do-not-disturb/no notifications mode, because the other interesting stuff in my life (improv, for example) can take up a ridiculous amount of time. When I need a break, I look at my phone for a couple of minutes. Then its back on do-not-disturb.
    • No tidying before art. It turns out I can work in a messy room after all. Now I barely even put my lunch dishes in the dishwasher.

Those were the big things for me. A couple of other shiny things:

  • Fear is something you can’t get rid of. It’s a passenger in the car, but it’s not allowed to drive. Be ok with it being there, but don’t let it make decisions.
  • Authenticity is more important than originality. This takes the pressure off questioning your idea and whether it’s worth pursuing. Do you want to pursue it? Then do it! It doesn’t matter if someone’s done it before as long as you do it authentically.
  • Done is better than good. This wasn’t the first I’d heard this, it’s a standard thing that perfectionists need to learn. But I guess I had never thought of applying it to art. Mostly I think of it in terms of house cleaning.
  • The idea of finding a passion isn’t helpful. If someone doesn’t have one, Gilbert says telling them they just need to find their passion is like telling someone the secret to losing weight is being skinny. Her solution is to be curious. You don’t have to think something is the most interesting thing in the world. But being open to curiosity could take you to places you would never have otherwise gone and which are really interesting. I loved that when she was stuck with her writing, she planted a garden, which led to her next book.

Why am I writing this blog?

I’m on a constant self-development quest. Maybe I’m a navel gazer. I’m definitely not someone who has a ‘passion’. I’m not great at being relaxed or content, or having fun without beating myself up. That’s not great! Hence the quest.

It started in my early twenties when I developed a fear of flying. I saw a psychologist and three or four months later my flying phobia was gone! So I have a huge amount of faith in the idea that I can change myself. That I’m not a fixed person. That I can make myself happy and fulfilled, a fun person, a flourishing wholehearted person living well– if I learn how to think and act differently.

So I read a TONNE of books. And some articles. I go to all kinds of professionals – one of my friends calls me ‘the outsourcer’ because of the number of people I see to help me with life stuff. I do other random stuff too – improv comedy, lectures, galleries.

I always get an amazing insight or two from whatever it is I’m doing (I must be good at choosing books and stuff to do!). I write all over my books, underlining passages and answering the questionnaires and putting it into practice in my life.

I have friends who I talk to about this stuff. They love a good self-help book too. They’re usually women, but not always, who are amazing but who doubt themselves, or who are recovering perfectionists like me, or who are still on the search for fulfilment. In the weeks after reading a certain book, I talk enthusiastically about it to those particular friends.

But two or three months down the track from a book, I can’t remember the specific insight I got from it. It usually means that I’ve incorporated that insight it into my life, which is great. But I want to remember what it was in that book, or talk, or whatever, that genuinely changed my life.

So, I decided to write it down as I go, to have a little record of my self-development so I can flick back through to see if I’m still doing the ‘thing’ that that book gave me. And I thought I’d share it with the friends I mentioned, because it might help them. And I want to talk to them about it even if it’s not front of mind for me right now. I also wanted to share it with people who I don’t know but who are interested in it too.

That’s the plan. We’ll see what happens!