Monday, November 28, 2016

Big Magic

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (2015)

I don't read much self-help and was a bit put off by the sub-title, but I'm intrigued by ideas about creativity. After hearing this book mentioned on a few different blogs, I impulsively picked it up at the library even though I had several books at home already. I'm glad I did! This was an easy, pleasant book to read and turned out to be an inspiring missive encouraging everyone with even a spark of creative interest to pursue our interests.

Gilbert works through typical fears that prevent one from doing creative work, and dismantles several myths about what it means to live a creative life. If I had to sum up her basic premise, it would be: Do whatever you want, however you want to do it and regardless of how good at it you are. These basic ideas are expressed through various beliefs about creativity, and I ended up making a ton of notes in the course of my reading.

Some of her beliefs are a little out-there, but in a way that is productive and helpful. Like, she talks about ideas having lives of their own in a magical way, and finding people to bring them forth. If an idea picks you, it will try to get your attention and if you don't latch onto it, it will find someone else. To any rational thinker that's ridiculous, but given how little control one has over things like inspiration, it seems like a pretty useful way to think about it, and has definitely served Elizabeth Gilbert well. Like the time she spent a couple of years working on a book and then neglected it, and Ann Patchett ended up writing basically the exact book. She could been upset and angry and allowed it to ruin their friendship, but instead she just took it for granted that it was out of her control and she moved on to the next project.

A related idea comes from the ancient Greeks and Romans, which is that genius is something external. A person isn't inherently genius, but they may have genius for a time. Having a brilliant idea doesn't mean that a person is always brilliant, and failing to come up with a brilliant idea isn't necessarily one's own fault. This keeps the ego in check and lets people off the hook a bit. Which is all to say that you can't control inspiration.

Gilbert also believes that authenticity is more important than originality, that your work doesn't need to be important, and that the idea of tortured artist is hogwash. Those who were great creators and were alcoholics or drug addicts were great creators despite their addictions not because of them. Interestingly, she doesn't seem to value education in the arts very much. While it's obvious that you don't need a degree to be good at your art, she seems to think that the only thing gained from getting an MFA is debt. I'm not qualified to argue about this because, like Gilbert, I don't have an MFA and was, in fact, (also like her) a political science major. But I imagine there is value in getting the degree because if nothing else it's forcing you to focus on and practice your craft.

She cares less about success than about fully engaging in your creativity for its own sake, saying that if she weren't creating she'd be destroying. She says "I firmly believe that we all need to find something to do in our lives that stops us from eating the couch." And there's value in trying different kinds of creative work, too. If you really want to write but you feel blocked, go spend some time drawing or take the dog for a walk or just switch gears and do something different, and when you return to your writing you might be in a better spot to keep going. I've heard this advice before, but it's worth a reminder.

A couple of her ideas especially stood out to me. The first one came from her mother: "Done is better than good." Which Gilbert later paraphased as: "A good-enough novel violently written now is better than a perfect novel meticulously written never." Her point being that most people don't actually finish things, and finishing a thing is a pretty big deal even if it's not perfect. "You do what you can do, as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then you let it go."

The second thing I was very happy to hear her say is that she doesn't believe in telling people that all they need to do is follow their passion. She finds this unhelpful and sometimes cruel, explaining that chances are that if someone has a clear passion, they are probably already following it. The reality is that many people don't know what their passion is, or has multiple passions, and had one but now it has changed. Her version of this advice is to follow your curiosity. Not everyone has a great passion, but most of us are curious about things, and investigating those can lead you on a path to a satisfying project.

I think what I liked most about the ideas in this book is just how democratic her views on creativity are. What she seems to emphasize over and over is that you don't have to be good, you don't have to make a living just from your creative projects, and that it doesn't matter if a million people are better at it than you. What matters is that you're pursuing something that you love for its own sake, and you shouldn't let other people's ideas or your own fears of failing stop you from doing that.

I've never read anything by Elizabeth Gilbert before. Years ago I picked up a copy of Eat, Pray, Love and read about a page before deciding it wasn't for me. Reading this book, however, kind of makes me want to try that one again just because I really like the way she thinks about things. Personally, my creativity tends to involve dabbling in various things rather than pursuing a great passion whole-heartedly so I found much here to be validating. But I think there's also a lot that would be helpful for someone who does have a great, driving passion for art or writing or music or origami or some other creative work. It's a very quick, easy book to read but it's packed with a whole lot of food for thought.

Have you read any books about creativity that you loved? Please share your suggestions in the comments!


Lindsay said...

I'm so glad I read your review! I remember seeing this book at work when it came out, but like you I wasn't too sure I liked where the subtitle was going. Now, though, I definitely want to read it! I've been struggling with trying to find a new creative outlet lately and maybe this will give me just the kick in the butt I need. (P.S. I LOVE that cover!)

3goodrats said...

Yes, definitely read it! I think there's something for everyone in this book, even if it's just a little tiny nugget of helpfulness. Plus it was fun to read!

Kylie said...

Thanks for your review! I've been reading the book because of your review even though I also avoided "Eat, Pray, Love" and I am finding her ideas really inspire me. I've only read a couple of chapters, but I love the idea of floating inspiration looking for a host...if you are available and take your inspiration seriously you create something. Otherwise that idea just moves on and finds a new host. She's got me thinking about ideas I know I let go...and paying attention to the new ones I'm getting. I've started taking audio notes when I go for walks, so I can follow up on ideas later.