Staff Picks

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Sally Haldorson

October 06, 2015


"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 life. Living in this manner—continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you—is a fine art, in and of itself." - Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

Here is the question that I think anyone who creates has had to come to terms with at some point in their lives: What is at stake?

For some people the answer is easy: Nothing. To use Seth Godin's language, these people have no problem "shipping it." They create, put that creation out into the world without obsessing over it for too long, and the response to their creation matters not one whit. If people don't like it, so be it. They simply feel the need to put their creation into the world, and they've succeeded just by doing so. (Cheers to those people!) For others, the answer is also easy: Everything. These are the people who create obsessively, or avoid creating obsessively, but ultimately the response to their creation is, again, unimportant. To them, the process is what's important. (Response be damned!)

For most everyone else, the answer is complicated, and their relationship to their own creativity (or perceived lack thereof) is ambivalent at best. Elizabeth Gilbert, in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, is talking to them (you? me? us?)

Let's take a run at that opening question again: What is at stake when you choose to create?

Gilbert's answer for us: Nothing, except if you choose not to create, you are robbing yourself and the world of that which you would create, and none of us are better off for that. And no, she's not going to let you get away with claiming that you just aren't creative, because she believes that creativity is part of every person's DNA.

If you're alive, you're a creative person. You and I and everyone you know are descended from tens of thousands of years of makers. Decorators, tinkerers, storytellers, dancers, explorers, fiddlers, drummers, builders, growers, problem-solvers, and embellishers—these are our common ancestors.

What is important about the above quotation is that being creative doesn't have to be about writing stories, or painting pictures, or making birdhouses, or designing t-shirts. Creativity is also about styling your hair and choosing your tie. It's about throw pillows and selfies. It's about building a deer blind, it's about making your own curtains, it's about singing at the stoplight, its about helping your kids learn how to count using buttons and bobby pins. Because all of those things are creations. The act of making, in whatever small way, will help you access the hidden creative in you and open you up to living a creative life without the fear of failure, no matter what your idea of failure is.

The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The courage to go on that hunt in the first place—that's what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.

And I wonder, is there anyone who would not prefer an "enchanted" life?

While I consider myself creative, I know I struggle with fear on both sides of the creative gulf: I fear the results of the hard work itself will not meet my own expectations, and I fear that my hard work will not be received in a way that meets my own expectations. That fear gets in the way of my ability to create without (self)judgment. Gilbert reveals the key to resolving the fear—that shiny object—our inner magpie can't help but find distracting: "I'm talking about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear." So if there isn't anything at stake in the act of creating besides satisfying curiosity? If you simply create (or make, if that's a more comfortable word for you to embrace) because you do, because you want to see what you can make, then you have no expectations and failure becomes a nonstarter. Fear, to paraphrase Gilbert, will still come along for the ride, but it doesn't get to drive.

And then we get to turn that opening question over on its head: what is at stake if we don't pursue the creative life we are all meant to live?

I don't consider myself to be a name-dropper—largely because I am too introverted to know my neighbors, let alone famous people—but I have met Elizabeth Gilbert several times. Now, before I get ahead of myself, I want to be clear: Elizabeth Gilbert doesn't know me at all. But she lives in the same town as my good friend, we have been to Gilbert's import warehouse several times during which I have been introduced and reintroduced to Gilbert, and I wear a scarf that I bought there often during winter. I even have a picture of Gilbert when she graciously joined a commemorative group photo of my friends during our first visit. As one-sided as our acquaintance is, here is what I can tell you about "Liz" Gilbert: she likes my friend, whom I love very much, so she has good taste. And, more importantly, each time I have met her, she has been warm, friendly, accommodating, and completely… normal. Sure, she was portrayed by Julia Roberts in the movie based on her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, and she has traveled to exotic places and taken risks many of us only dream of taking, and she runs her own import shop, and she is considered to be one of Oprah Winfrey's circle of influencers, but that's not the person I met, however briefly. And it isn't the person I think of when I read her work or wear that scarf.

The reason I am mentioning my passing acquaintance with Gilbert isn't to say I have an "in" when it comes to interpreting her work, but to explain why I've felt compelled to read an inordinate amount about her work over the past, say, 7 years, and in doing so how I've been fascinated with how she and her work is perceived in a way that only someone we've met, no matter how briefly, bubbles up in our interests again and again. I've found myself—somewhat surprisingly because Eat, Pray, Love wasn't a transformative read for me like it was for some people—in the position of Gilbert-defender. 

Why, for Pete's sake, would Elizabeth Gilbert need me to advocate for her? Well, she doesn't (and I'll get to that), but I find myself, more often than not when Elizabeth Gilbert comes up in conversation, even in our book-loving company, saying something to the effect: Elizabeth Gilbert isn't Eat, Pray, Love. Or at least, she isn't only Eat, Pray, Love. And she certainly isn't what everyone thinks of Eat, Pray, Love, especially when its popularity soared and her life, as described in the book, became scrutinized and criticized as the story of "white American privilege appropriating foreign cultures" or a narcissistic ode to "First World Female Discontent." Over the years, mention of Eat, Pray, Love, like so many other good things that receive backlash due to hyper-fandom, has taken its beatings, and as a nonfiction writer myself, I feel rather passionately about defending other writers who, through memoir, are telling a specific narrative and making choices about what parts of themselves they choose to share in that particularly storyline. The very thing that makes a memoir or personal essay good is the craft, and for any story to be good, the story has to be focused. So, anyone who thinks they know the nonfiction writer really only knows the story she is choosing to tell. And Elizabeth Gilbert's story about searching for herself via her travels to Italy, India, and Indonesia is effective for the very reason that she isn't trying to tell a number of other stories about herself as well. No doubt Elizabeth Gilbert is many selves—including an effective, entertaining, and impassioned pursuer of a creative life, for herself and for us.

Off soapbox. I'll let other folks reveal the wide range of criticism thrown at Gilbert in regards to Eat, Pray, Love. Read Katie Roiphe's 2007 Slate review of the Eat, Pray, Love paperback for a fine assessment of the book's strengths (especially Gilbert's voice) while still admitting to a sort of intellectual's embarrassment for reading the book at all, Michelle Dean's gathering at The Awl of newer criticisms that the movie version of Eat Pray Love unfairly garnered the book, this New York Post critique that somehow comes around to the end with an implication that Gilbert and Jim Jones are of like motivations (what?), and a USA Today article, Pray tell: Is Elizabeth Gilbert self-absorbed or true seeker? to see how the book, the author, and her motivations have all been weirdly conflated.

It may seem strange that I embedded a number of critical reviews launched at Gilbert within what will be a rave review of her newest book, but that's the point, I suppose. Elizabeth Gilbert didn't let those—or innumerable worshipers of the book, which was likely just as mind-boggling to her—become a weight over her work. Neither did she pull the plug on her creative output as a result (and in fact, her fiction novel, The Signature of All Things, was not only a huge departure from Eat, Pray, Love but became, it's fair to say, a critic's darling and a one of the most notable books of 2014).

Imagine if I'd tried to create a definition of myself based on any of these reactions. I didn't try. And that's the only reason Eat, Pray, Love didn't throw me off my path as a writer—because of my deep and lifelong conviction that the results of my work don't have much to do with me. I can only be in charge of producing the work itself. That's a hard enough job. I refuse to take on additional jobs, such as trying to police what anybody thinks about my work once it leaves my desk.

If I'm looking for enlightenment in regards to my own creative process, then the above quote is it. I've struggled with my preoccupation with the response to my creative work most of my life. In fact, my desire to control other people's reaction to my work has hurt my productivity significantly for nearly 30 years. But still, I wonder how this is supposed to work. I mean, as a writer, I want to create something that is meant to communicate my inner self (whether it is my emotional self or my intellectual self) to an audience. And when I get a response that is out of line with that desire, then how is that not failure? How do I not fear that end result and allow it to ride roughshod over my willingness to broadcast my work? (Right now, I'm thinking: why do I insist on messing up a perfectly good book review with my own narcissistic navel-gazing? I mean, what will people think!?!) I mean, what's NOT to dread about sharing our art? Isn't that the whole point of being a tortured artist?

Well, Gilbert's greater philosophy of Big Magic solves this question for us: "A different way is to cooperate fully, humbly, and joyfully with inspiration." Let's let her lovely and entertaining writing fill us in even more on how a change of perspective can change our relationship with our creative selves: 

Inspiration, like any notion of the divine, settles onto us only when we are open to it. Inspiration is beyond our control, so we must stop trying so hard to wrangle it, to wrestle it into submission. Inspiration is not ours to own. Such thinking comes from a wretched allegiance to the notion of scarcity—from the belief that the world is a place of dearth, and that there will never be enough of anything to go around.

Some people may assume Gilbert is telling us to get down on our knees to pray or to cross our legs to meditate in hopes that inspiration will visit us. And while belief is a big part of Big Magic—she has a spiritual, even paranormal kind of relationship with creativity—Gilbert is clear: you must do the work. If you do the work, even the hard stuff that is not inspired, or is a struggle, or is a mess, eventually inspiration will descend, an idea will take root, and the work will take flight. But that ONLY happens when you put your nose to the grindstone.

Mihaly Csikszentmichalyi, who introduced us to the concept of Flow, writes, in his book Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention, of a similar notion:

For one thing, as I will try to show, an idea or product that deserves the label "creative" arises from the synergy of many sources and not only from the mind of a single person… And a genuinely creative accomplishment is almost never the result of a sudden insight, a lightbulb flashing on in the dark, but comes after years of hard work.

The commonality between the two is that hoping for inspiration is hopeless; waiting for the good idea will leave you waiting a good long time. Walking toward inspiration through hard work is the only way you'll get close to the thing. But what happens if no one else approves of what you do? What if no one likes it? And is that truly fear of failure, or is it hubris? Gilbert doesn't grant much quarter to either of those factors, because, she believes, creativity isn't something that can be judged, by yourself or others. Essentially, if creativity is in our DNA, if we are creative, like it or not, there is no failure, there is no flattery, there is no fraternity; there is only fulfillment of your fate.

Look a little further back in your family's history. Look at your grandparents: Odds are pretty good they were makers. No? Not yet? Keep looking back then. Go back further still. Look at your great-grandparents. Look at your ancestors. Go back far enough and you will find people who were not consumers, people who were not sitting around passively waiting for stuff to happen to them. You will find people who spent their lives making things. This is where you come from. This is where we all come from.

So really, none of us has anything invested in any kind of notion of success when it comes to our creativity. To bastardize Descartes (as so many have): I am, so I create. Instead of protecting our egos by keeping our art or our expression of our creative selves to ourselves, Gilbert encourages us to tap into a sense of creative entitlement. Because we are born creative, we have a right to create.

[C]reative entitlement simply means believing that you are actually allowed to be here, and that—merely by being here—you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.

Since I was very young, I have kept a journal. When I was a little older, about 15, I started writing stories. And I was relentless. Granted they were a teenager's version of Harlequin romances (if only I'd thought to add vampires in 1986!), but I wrote, by hand, on lined paper, a lot. In part, to escape what I regarded as the dreariness of growing up, often alone, on a farm and going to school in a small town; in part because life had already physically and emotionally beaten me up a bit, and the only way it made any sense was to write about it or write myself out of it. The only person who read my stories was my best friend, and luckily she and I were of like tastes (i.e., my writing was great). But my teachers knew I wanted to be a writer, and I still remember those moments of being validated, whether via a gold star, or a comment like the one I received from my English teacher in response to the serious, unsmiling me in my senior pictures: "There you look like Sally the Writer." (One of the greatest compliments I'd received in my short life.) I considered not going to college in order to start my Writing Life immediately, but I wasn't brave enough to strike out on my own, so I followed that best friend to college and I believe it was the most important choice I've ever made. In Big Magic, Gilbert is suspect of going to school to learn creativity, but for me, I learned at school the kind of writer I wanted to become: a respected one. Which, I suppose, was a double-edged sword. I wanted to be published.

Sure, I'd always wanted to be published, but now I had expectations. I wanted to be published in literary magazines, in anthologies, in collections, and of course, in my own books. Problem was: I couldn't get down with the rejection part. Just one rejection indicated to me that my writing wasn't yet good enough; not that I should have faith, as Gilbert believes, that my work would eventually find its rightful place in the world. Full stop.

So I opted for self-protection. I wouldn't submit my work until it was good enough to be accepted. (Right: how on earth can you know your work is good enough to be accepted unless you send it somewhere? But I wasn't thinking about that.) I expected perfection from myself. And I expected others to consider my work perfect for their specific purposes. I would write the perfect piece, pick the perfect outlet through which it should be published, and there would be no rejection. My commitment for actually doing the work waned, because who needs that kind of pressure each time you sit down to write? I became dependent on external affirmation to drive me, so obviously external criticism—"Your piece is not right for us at the current time"—stalled my efforts.

So let's jump to the middle of the story: I stopped writing and I got a job. Luckily, I got a job that required me to write. I started reviewing business books and writing marketing copy, and figured it was enough. I'd become a writer—a professional writer—just like I'd always wanted, right? And a side effect of when your job is to write, and you're on a schedule and someone is expecting you to generate words, you stop caring about perfection. Yes, you're still trying to craft the best piece you can, but you aren't waiting. You aren't talking yourself out of doing the work. And since we didn't accept comments on our book reviews, and all I really needed to do was press "publish" on our website in order to be published, I didn't have to deal with rejection. Win-win for all of us, right? Except I still wanted what I wanted. I wanted to be published and read by the literati. I wanted my own work to make the cut. I wanted to be judged and come out the winner. And most of all, I wanted it to be my story, my style, my thoughts, my internal self, my experiences put in print, because I truly believed that I was a writer. That's what I wanted, and yet I remained afraid to pursue a sort of multi-layered creative life that included both the professional and the personal.

I cannot even be bothered to think about the difference between high art and low art. I will fall asleep with my face in my dinner plate if someone starts discoursing to me about the academic distinction between true mastery and mere craft. I certainly don't ever want to confidently announce that this person is destined to become an important artist, while that person should give it up.

But then life happened. In my case, since I had never birthed the Great American Novel/Novella/Collection, etc., and my job at that time had become somewhat rote, I decided to have a baby. The clock, it seemed to be ticking, and clearly I needed to devote my energies to creating something, and that something would be a child. (Funny how these decisions work: Gilbert set off on her exploration of self after deciding she did not want to have a child, while having a child has set me off on a parallel but very different journey.) I'd never been particularly kid or family-centric, but I figured I'd regret not having children more than I'd regret having them. It was the right choice at the right time. Of course, you don't always get what you want, and my child was born with a neurological disorder, cause unknown, that is the root cause of his global developmental delays. For the past 10 years, I've been living a life I'd never have chosen for myself, because I would never have chosen this path for him. For the past 10 years, I've been trying to write my way through this uncharted territory, particularly the hard stuff, particularly the ugly stuff. For the most part, I wrote for myself. But being a writer still means wanting to be read. And while I shared some of my work with friends, and at times I've tried to craft that writing into something with a through line, and less often worked on a formal proposal for the kind of book my writing could become, the slightest hint of resistance or critique or even distaste (not everyone is comfortable with the confessional) made me retreat right back into my shell. Those 400 pages of writing? On a zip drive.

Until, life happened again. My husband was diagnosed with leukemia and, around the same time, I read Brene Brown's Rising Strong. Completely unrelated, but the confluence of these events, my husband's illness (and again, my need to write my way through it) and Brown's message about vulnerability and bravery, made me realize that I finally didn't give a damn about failing anymore. Brown writes: "Failure can become nourishment if we are willing to get curious, show up vulnerable and human, and put rising strong into practice." And I decided to embrace the practice, or as Gilbert would say, "do the work," and stop wanting something from my writing. Sure, I wanted to communicate with other people via my writing, and I still believed that living a writing life (i.e. a creative life) also included making my work public, but I no longer needed affirmation. I just needed to become a "maker" instead of worrying about being an "artist."

The art—or rather, any external praise for my work as art—didn't matter; the creative outlet did. The process did. No, the incarnation did. For the nth time in my life, I started a blog, but this time, I didn't take it down one week or one month after beginning it. I didn't pressure myself to craft my work, or to mimic other successful blogs, or engage with a readership, or post on other blogs in hopes of building up my stats. Instead, I just hit the "publish" button and put my creative work on the screen. This process has reinvigorated my love of writing that my previous perfectionism and preoccupation with the end result had smothered. It's all out there for people to see if they want to see it, in whatever form—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, short form, prose poem, lyrical essay, rough draft, memoir, hybrid—my idea is inspired to take. Because it is the doing that matters. And in doing, not every piece I write or revise is going to be good or going to be "enough," but occasionally I'll bump right into [my version of] perfection without having tortured my way through the process or denied myself the moment it takes flight. 

Just say what you want to say, then, and say it with all your heart.

And that, I believe, is what Elizabeth Gilbert is trying to convey in her theory of Big Magic. If you sit down at the computer and type the words, it isn't all going to be glorious or glorified. But inspiration will come and find you if you sit there long enough. (Please feel free to extrapolate that to any creative activity you engage in: Gilbert's example as she tours to support this book? Karaoke!) 

Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous, disciplined labor. I sit at my desk and I work like a farmer, and that's how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least.

Which is why fear is such a nonstarter for Gilbert, and she says, for you too. Leading a creative life isn't about the drugs you take, the sleep you miss, the money you make, the tools you use, or the sacrifices you make. It's about doing what you are doing when you make anything. How easy is that? If you tend a garden, you live a creative life. If you build a dog house, you are living a creative life. If you turn up the volume on the stereo and dance while you clean the house, you're living a creative life. You are embodying and communicating that which inspires you. If you want more of it? If you wish to make it a practice and access those good feelings regularly, do more of it. Rent a plot of land and go hog-wild with your seeds and your dreams of starting your own salsa-making start-up; once you've mastered the dog house, maybe it's time to buy more wood and build your own garage; Sign up for dance classes at your local studio, and who knows, maybe you'll fall back in love with tap dancing in the way you'd loved it as a child. Gilbert reassures us that it is actually that simple.

That's all. That's what I call creative living. And while the paths and outcomes of creative living will vary wildly from person to person, I can guarantee you this: 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 life. Living in this manner—continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you—is a fine art, in and of itself.

That perspective--that you are continually mining for your own talents, is critical to surviving rejection or even something much more out of your control. In her section titled "Enchantment," Gilbert tells the story of her great unwritten novel. I won't go into details here, but suffice it to say it was an idea that took her by storm, captured her imagination, and she immediately began to research the subject, only to find herself waylaid by personal events and, in time, she lost the momentum and the magic. Instead of freaking out that she'd missed her big chance to actualize her inspiration, she accepted that the time had passed. Only later did she learn that her friend, a fellow writer, had succeeded in writing a similar story, to great acclaim. Again, Gilbert could have railed about this: she could have fallen into a self-abusive depression about "the one that got away." Instead, this happening reinforced her belief in Big Magic, and the feeling that inspiration (the muse, the idea, the gift) comes to those who do the work, and if that person isn't you then it might be someone else—and that's actually really good news because then the idea is gifted to the world even if you aren't its creator.

This was the closest I'd ever felt to sorcery, and I wasn't about to waste that amazing experience by playing small. I saw this incident as a rare and glittering piece of evidence that all my most outlandish beliefs about creativity might actually be true—that ideas are alive, that ideas do seek the most available collaborator, that ideas do have a conscious will, that ideas do move from soul to soul, that ideas will always try to seek the swiftest and most efficient conduit to the earth (just as lightening does).

So, to be ready for it, welcome the idea, do the work, keep at even the uninspired stuff, keep at the stuff that garners you no affirmation or applause.

No shame no despair—just a sense that it's all very interesting. Like: Isn't it funny how sometimes things work and other times they don't? Sometimes I think that the difference between a tormented creative life and a tranquil creative life is nothing more than the difference between the word awful and the word interesting.

Right now, I love writing more than I have in a very long time, in the midst of the most chaotic time in my life. Why? Because the stakes have changed for me.

Perhaps I love it as much and as freely as I did when I was writing those terribly unoriginal full-of-teenage-angst romances when I was 15. And I don't need to set a mood (or go all La Boheme, as Gilbert calls it) with isolation, booze, candle-light and mood-music to do it. (Not always true: as I write this, I'm listening to Deva Premal's Dakshina because it seems fitting to fostering thoughts on creativity inspired by a woman who studied in India and imports Buddhas.) Instead, when my kid has gone to sleep, or maybe when I wake early and cannot sleep, I write something. And then I read it a couple times, fix a few things here and there, then decide whether it is worth putting up on my site, or whether it needs to simmer a bit longer as a draft, or whether it might never see the light of day because it wasn't the right idea or execution to begin with. It matters because the writing is important to me; it doesn't matter because the response is not as important to me.

But isn't being creative supposed to be more painful or at least painstaking than this? I mean, I have suffered over my writing (or rather, loving writing, but hating revising because it felt like I was overworking the clay) for years! I have started any number of blogs. I have applied for residencies. I have attended workshops and writing festivals. I have tried to shape my writing into short story collections, into novels, into memoir. I have tried, tried, tried, thinking that someday everything would come together and make a cohesive thing, and only then, only when that thing was just right and everyone who read it would see that it was ready for birth, only then could I release it because it was finally finished. Totally wrong-headed thinking, says Gilbert.

Your creative work is not your baby; if anything, you are its baby. Everything I have written has brought me into being. Every project has matured me in a different way.

As cliche as it sounds, my husband's illness has made me fully embrace that control is a facade and life is too short to worry about getting approval from some unknown critic. That doesn't mean I don't believe in quality, or that I don't want my writing to find a mate in the ether that is communion between two people, one who needs to say something and one who needs to hear it. And I'm certainly not claiming genius, perfection, or even proficiency. But what I have to say needs to be said before anyone can hear it. And maybe I need to say it in order to be able to say the next thing that needs to be said and so on and so forth. And maybe one of those things will be written just right, or maybe it won't, but I'm thinking that the act of doing trumps a life of hesitation.

You do not need anybody's permission to live a creative life.

As I write this, I'm feeling a little surprised in myself. I have, for many years, beaten myself up for my fear of failure. I've imagined myself as becoming one of the courageous, or at least one of the care-less, who writes for writing's sake, and bombards publishers, agents, and editors with work until someone recognizes the brilliance. I've considered myself as having failed my dream because I am not that person. But applying Gilbert's philosophy of creative living, I see that over the past 10 years I've been doing the work. I've been writing regularly for my company, and I've been writing regularly for my sanity. But I wasn't ready to let go of my fear or my need for control until my husband's illness convinced me that being vulnerable on the page isn't much compared to being vulnerable in love and in life. Putting words on the page and clicking publish isn't life or death. But it is living. 
In the past, when I've been asked to recommend books about writing, I usually list the following: Strunk and White's The Elements of Style for the basics; Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird for the practice; and Stephen King's On Writing for a combination of the two. I will most certainly add Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic to this list because, for all she asks of us in terms of belief, it also provides us with a practicum for living a creative life.

Just because creativity is mystical doesn't mean it shouldn't also be demystified—especially if it means liberating artists from the confines of their own grandiosity, panic, and ego.

And I will hope that, when you read Big Magic, a little bit of Gilbert's "fairy dust" will help change the stakes--if those are indeed what is holding you back from expressing and exploring your creative self--, open you up to inspiration, learn to cooperate with your fear, and discover the hidden gems of your new (or perhaps resurgent) creative life.

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