Big Magic

Recently, I finished a book by Elizabeth Gilbert on creativity called Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.  I was drawn to it initially because it discusses a lot of the struggles creative people come across as they continue to try to build their practices into their lives, which as I have admitted to you previously is something that I think about a lot.  Overall I enjoyed this book, since I think the information was relevant and most of the topics hit pretty close to home for me.  Gilbert discusses the fear that can be linked with making pretty early on in her descriptions, which is a topic that is also covered in depth by books like Art and Fear if you find yourself especially interested.

This intersection interests me a lot, mostly because it seems to be almost universal, since the uncertainty that is linked with making can at times freak out just about anyone.  I also find it interesting because I think it’s a strong example that can be used to play one of my favorite games, one that I discovered in graduate school, that I like to call Switching out the Terms.  In this particular version of the game, you can choose a subject or term and substitute it for ‘art’ in all the most popular artistic stereotypes.  For the creativity = fear situation, it’s kind of fun to switch out the term for another random interest to see if it seems odd to make the same assumptions.  For the fear one it doesn’t always work, since it’s so subjective and a topic like ‘knitting’ could be totally relaxing for one person and totally stressful for another, but it’s still a funny thing to try.  ‘The uncertainty of fishing is too much for me.’  ‘I don’t know if I can continue to study pickling, it’s killing me.’

The fun continues, because you can pair this game with any number of negative or dramatic comments that are often used to discuss creativity and the pursuit of making things.  ‘If you keep playing darts, you will ruin your life.’  ‘Taking classes in French means that you will be poor forever and will have a terrible future.’  Gilbert spends a lot of time talking about artistic stereotypes in her book, and I think she does a good job of debunking them.  She describes the myth of the destructive, tortured artist well and challenges the notion that art must be born out of pain, sacrifice, martyrdom, and suffering rather than joy, curiosity, and imagination.  Listening to Elizabeth Gilbert speak slowly in a soft voice makes all of it seem more possible somehow, like you can find the time and reframe the negativity to carve out a space for creativity in your life, even if it’s smaller or more marginal than you might like.

There were only a few parts of the book that I struggled with, particularly the ‘magic’ parts where she describes creativity as a metaphysical substance that gets transferred through the air and in potentially crazy ways from person to person, and while I could go along with this to a point sometimes it became too much for me.  However I think my least favorite part of the book was when she kind of hated on MFA programs, which in my opinion is one of the most exhausting and boring conversations there ever was (for examples, type ‘should I get an MFA’ into any online search engine).  Honestly I couldn’t figure out why this chapter was even in this book, since prior to that it was all about personal pursuits of creativity and the power that comes with defining all of that for yourself.  Too often, I think the MFA conversation dissolves into all involved parties defensively defending their own choices and trying to convince others to do what they did.  Most of the time I don’t think it’s interesting, and I almost always question how productive it is.

Of course I would be the person that would take issue with the MFA = bad argument since I did decide to get one, but to take it one step further what I started to think about while reading this book was one of the first things I discussed in this blog – community.  While anyone could attack MFA programs for being expensive and for not always resulting in an A + B = C job path, you can’t argue that it builds communities - or at least, they have the potential to build them, and the good ones offer a level of criticality and focused dialogue.  At times it almost seemed that Gilbert’s text encouraged the reader to make in a hermetic space and ignore harsher forms of criticism, which I couldn’t bring myself to 100% agree with, even if you remove the MFA thing from the discussion entirely.

All that aside, she had some really amazing insights on this topic and I would recommend the reading to anyone that is trying to build creativity into their life in a way that is positive and constructive.  Among my favorite things that I took away from this book were Gilbert’s descriptions of the paradoxes inherent to creative making.  To paraphrase her ideas, we need to think our creative work is one of the most important things in the world to us, but not so important that we get intimidated by it or become kind of insufferable; we need to seek out art and other creators, but we also really need to sit down and get to work; and we need to ignore toxic critics of our work that could convince us to stop making, but then we still need the good feedback and community and sense of belonging dialogue encourages.  Creativity at times truly is all of those opposites at once, at least in my experience, and I don’t think I ever read anything that described that maddening and fascinating idea so well.

Check it out if you want, or listen to the audio book, which is what I did, since she reads it herself and she has a really soothing voice that’s nice to listen to.  It’s also great to drive to, especially in moments when you’re feeling really uninspired, or when there is a ton of traffic and you’re on a really boring highway.  It’s really, really great for all of that.