Friday, January 29, 2016

'Big Magic' by Elizabeth Gilbert

This book seemed to be recommended wherever I turned, from Brain Pickings to Amazon. The blurb made me curious. When I saw that Elizabeth Gilbert was the author, I wondered what advice someone who wrote an international best selling memoir, and has been played on the big screen by Julia Roberts could give struggling try-hards. I quickly discovered that she does have a lot of wonderful advice about keeping our heads in the right place. It also turns lots of my old preconceptions on their heads. Some of her unexpected takes on the creative spirit may not gel with everyone, but they made sense to me. What Gilbert offers here delves far deeper than the usual old, 'Keep trying and you're bound to succeed.' 

1) Don't convince yourself that your main motivation is altruism
Things like novels, music and art do benefit individuals in the community, but that's a side effect. You're really doing it for yourself, because it's such good fun. The arts don't really matter as much as we try to convince ourselves they do. John Lennon said of the Beatles, 'We were just a band.'  In the same way, so many occupations are more essential to the smooth running of society than 'novelist.' Just be thankful that the real stakes of our creative expressions are so low, and forget about wanting to be more meaningful, heavy and significant than others.

2) Don't throw your money away on a tertiary education in the arts, because you don't really need it.
You can be self taught in this sort of occupation more than any other. And when it's so hard to cover your bills with creative work anyway, the last thing you need is a massive tertiary education debt hanging over your head. (I learned this through experience, and I'm thankful I live in Australia, where we can defer paying our tertiary debts until we're earning a reasonable sum.) 

3) Stop whining and feeling hard done by.
The world owes you nothing. It's not the world's fault that you wanted to write. It's not the world's obligation to enjoy your books, either. Complaining is annoying and hackneyed, and nobody listens anyway. What's more, it scares away inspiration when you're in such a black mood all the time. Might as well start reminding yourself that the reason you chose this path is because you enjoy your work. Frustration is part of the job description. Don't murder your creativity by demanding that your art pays the bills, when it's really not that sort of job.

4) Creative expression makes a bad career but a wonderful vocation.
The usual rules don't apply. We're often told, 'If you work hard at something, you'll likely succeed.' Not necessarily so in this case. Gilbert points out that the patron goddess of creative success may seem to reward charlatans and ignore the gifted. Don't even worry about it. When it comes to this sort of occupation, we should reconsider our definitions of success anyway.

5) Work from an attitude of stubborn gladness.
Have faith that your creative work loves you as much as you love it. Choose to work with a light, trickster energy, rather than a heavy, martyr one. Trust that the unseen forces happening in your life are on your side. It doesn't matter what's going on as you work.

6) Stop trying to feed the Hungry Ghost.
This is your ego. It's bound to keep popping its head up, but don't let it run the show. All it ever wants is more rewards, and never feels it's had enough. The soul, however, only cares about wonder, such as the subject matter of whatever project you're working on. 'Why should I go to all the trouble of creating something when the outcome may be nothing,' we may ask. Elizabeth Gilbert would remind us, 'Because it's fun, isn't it?' 

7) Forget about passion.
 Choose curiosity instead, which is less intimidating sounding, more mild and welcoming.
And don't call your work your 'baby.' So many people do this, but it's really nothing like a human child. This way of thinking may lead to a precious, possessive, 'don't touch' attitude when it comes to editing and reception in the world. And all this leads to my favourite quote from the book.

You may end only with the satisfaction of knowing you passed your existence in devotion to the noble human virtue of inquisitiveness. And that should be more than enough for anyone to say that they lived a rich and splendid life.


  1. Some good advice here. Makes a lot of sense to me as well Paula.

    1. Thanks Lesley. There was plenty worth underlining.

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  4. Hi Paula

    Interesting points - though I'm not sure I totally agree. I write because I enjoy it, I hope to make a living out of it - but am realistic that this is very hard to do - on the other hand, I think while obviously there are more essential jobs in a practical sense (surgeons, engineers, farmers, truck drivers etc) I'm not sure that humans can live (really live) without art (and spirituality) - and when the majority of creatives get paid way less than the dole from their art - perhaps it doesn't hurt to advocate for a fairer system (without getting tired up in knots about it).

    1. Hi Jenny,

      With so much of this book, I was thinking O-kaaaay. It felt totally new to process some of her ideas, after years of standing up for the arts and insisting that we are all doing noble, essential work (which I still believe). I'd dearly love to see changes in the way creative workers are received and get paid, but Gilbert's words have given me a few new tools to accept the way it's been all this time, which I haven't always been very good at doing.

      And I hope this doesn't sound overly pessimistic, but looking over the time frame from when I've started writing has got me down at times. After almost 20 years of hoping to actually make a living out of it and earn something like a regular wage, it's never really looked anything like that. We've pretty well decided the third decade probably won't be any different financially either, and I'd better consider it a vocation rather than a career.

      Not quitting though! Hey, nobody can ever accuse those of us who write that we're just in it for the money :)