“When I refer to ‘creative living’… I’m talking about living a life that is more strongly driven by curiosity than by fear.”—Elizabeth Gilbert
I’ve heard people talking about Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, for years now, and it’s one of those books that was perpetually on my to-read list, but for some reason I just never got around to getting my hands on a copy.
Well, recently I was feeling like my creative writing life was in need of some drastic intervention; I hadn’t felt motivated or inspired to work on my creative writing for ages, and this dry spell was making me worry. Maybe it’s too late; I’ve ignored my heart’s calling to write creatively for too long and my duties as a mother and the necessity of earning a living have stifled any creative spark I had, and there’s no point trying to create anything meaningful anymore.
When I finally picked up Big Magic, it felt like a kind friend taking me by the hand and leading me back to observe my child writer-self, Charles Dickens-style. We stood and stared at her for a while, scribbling in notebooks and lost in the worlds she was creating, wrapped up in the sheer delight of crafting stories and poems. It didn’t matter that they weren’t any good; she was so happy, so fully and freely herself.
“Look,” Gilbert said to me. “See how the words flowed from you. You’re a writer, through and through; it’s in your nature, it’s written on your heart. It doesn’t matter whatever else is going on in your life, it doesn’t matter how anyone receives your words. It doesn’t even matter if you don’t think you have the time to write. This is who you are, this is what sets your soul on fire and helps you find meaning and value in life. Find a way to give yourself that joy again.”
I wanted to share some of my favourite quotes and takeaways from the book in the hopes that it can inspire and motivate you if you ever find yourself going through a period of dryness and self-doubt with your creative writing, too.
10 Lessons for Writers from Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Brilliant Book on Creative Living
Don’t require your art to support you financially
The first big takeaway that struck me from Big Magic was that we need to find a way, as artists, to disconnect our creativity from any kind of financial pressure. Elizabeth Gilbert herself kept her “day job” even as a published author, and only finally gave it up once she had written her international bestseller, Eat Pray Love. We need to write “because of delight,” Gilbert says. “The outcome cannot matter.”
She explains it like this: “to yell at your creativity, saying ‘You must earn money for me!’ is sort of like yelling at a cat; it has no idea what you’re talking about, and all you’re doing is scaring it away…”
“I held onto my day jobs for so long because I wanted to keep my creativity free and safe… I was always willing to work hard so that my creativity could play lightly. In so doing, I became my own patron… So many times I have longed to say to stressed-out, financially strapped artists, ‘Just take the pressure off yourself, dude, and get a job!’”
Reading this section of the book made me feel such an intense wave of relief—I suddenly felt open to doing any kind of “day job” to earn a living. I could work in a shop, re-train as a baker, be a waitress in a cafe, work in the post office… I could do something totally disconnected from writing—to protect my writing.
I’m not saying I’m going to suddenly quit my day job of writing non-fiction journalism, copywriting, and teaching SEO, but somehow the knowledge that I could do another, different type of work if I ever find I need to more clearly delineate between my creative writing and my work that pays the bills, feels incredibly freeing.
It’s not that I feel my creative writing needs to earn me money, exactly—it’s more that I already work with words for a living, and I sometimes wonder if this type of writing makes all of my writing feel somehow connected with paying the bills. It’s a little hard to explain, but something I’ll be mulling over.
Treat your creative project like a secret love affair
Lack of money and time are the two biggest pain-points for most of us when it comes to creative writing. Especially as a working mother, alone time is so very precious and in such short supply—and often it’s costly. No matter how hard I try, I can’t shake the feeling that I should be earning money while I’m paying someone else to be looking after my youngest.
The section of Big Magic where Gilbert tackles the issue of not feeling like you have time to write was precisely the wake-up call I needed, then. She points out that when you’re passionately in love, you always make time for the object of your passion. You’ll take what you can get, whether it’s an hour here or 10 minutes there. You’ll bend over backwards to rearrange your schedule to fit it in, because you have to.
So, the question really becomes this: do you really love writing as much as you say you do? Are you prepared to create space for it?
When I asked myself this question, I realised that I could start going to bed early a few nights a week, even every other night, so that I could get up at 5am, light a candle, stretch, and have a few hours of quiet writing time before everyone else wakes up. This routine has become a treasured life-line for me, especially during Covid-19 lockdown.
Being a writer requires courage: courage to start writing, courage to stick with your idea and see it through to the end, courage to share your work with someone else. And, it’s okay if you don’t feel courageous yet, because this can be cultivated.
As Gilbert says, “Creativity is a path for the brave, yes, but it is not a path for the fearless, and it’s important to recognize the distinction. Bravery means doing something scary. Fearlessness means not even understanding what the word scary means.”
In short, we need fear, but we don’t need to let it dictate our actions.
Hold your inspiration lightly, and let it come and go
Gilbert’s take on inspiration is rather wacky, but you don’t have to take her theory about magical ideas literally to get a lot from her insights on the relationship between inspiration and hard work.
As she writes, “[Inspiration] will come and go, and you must let it come and go.”
And: “Work with all your heart, because—I promise—if you show up for your work day after day after day after day, you just might get lucky enough some random morning to burst right into bloom.”
Inspiration is a bonus, a rare cherry on the top of your hard work. You can’t depend on it, and you have to learn to stick with your writing and keep going, and just enjoy it whenever you feel inspired.
“Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous, disciplined labor,” writes Gilbert. “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.
But sometimes it is fairy dust. Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of writing, I feel like I am suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks that you find in a big airport terminal; I still have a long slog to my gate, and my baggage is still heavy, but I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force…
…I only rarely experience this feeling, but it’s the most magnificent sensation imaginable when it arrives. I don’t think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state, except perhaps falling in love.”
You don’t need permission, qualifications, or a degree to write
I’m definitely guilty of feeling like I need to do some kind of MA in Creative Writing or prestigious course before I’ll be able to be a “proper” writer. Perhaps it’s because I went to a school that really emphasised the importance of having good grades, and going to a well-respected university, but I feel like there’s some secret I need to learn from an older and wiser teacher before I can embark on my novel.
Gilbert tackles this writerly imposter syndrome head-on, claiming that in order to be “free to create, free to explore… you must possess a fierce sense of personal entitlement, which I hope you will learn to cultivate.”
“I recognize that the word entitlement has dreadfully negative connotations,” she continues, “but I’d like to appropriate it here and put it to good use, because you will never be able to create anything interesting out of your life if you don’t believe that you’re entitled to at least try… Creative entitlement simply means believing that you are allowed to be here, and that—merely by being here—you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.”
So, while if you have the time, financial resources, and inclination to take a course in creative writing, you don’t need one to write. What you need is to practice like crazy, to start and stick with it even when you suck, to hone work at it and keep getting better. You need to trust that you have something worth saying, and that’s not ultimately something you can pay someone else to give you.
“Creative entitlement simply means believing that you are allowed to be here, and that—merely by being here—you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.”—Elizabeth Gilbert
Forget the tortured artist image
Another major message in Big Magic is that you don’t have to be miserable to create good art; Gilbert advocates looking after your body and your mind. This might not sound terribly radical, but it is striking because the tortured artist image is so prevalent that I encountered it at quite a formative moment in my life.
As a teenager, a teacher once responded to one of my stories by saying that I needed to make my writing grittier, more “real”—and by “real”, I believed she meant miserable, dark, troubled (even though I was a very happy teenager). I wrote a tortured story in response, that she praised as being much better than the first, but that was the last short story I wrote for a long, long time, because it didn’t feel authentically mine. I felt dirtied, like I’d faked something and betrayed my craft in the process.
Holding creativity too tightly, taking it too seriously, and tying it up with our ego is a recipe for a miserable creative path. As Gilbert explains, the paradox of creativity is that it matters deeply, and also it doesn’t matter at all; you have to hold your creativity lightly, and learn not to listen to your ego.
Your ego is forever hungry for praise, affirmation, accolades. But while we all have that hunger, we all also have a soul, and what the soul craves is wonder. When you feel yourself reacting badly to criticism and failure, the best way to get through it is to acknowledge that your ego has been wounded and then get back in touch with your soul, by feeding it more wonder: “Since creativity is still the most effective way for me to access wonder, I choose it. I choose to block out all the external (and internal) noise and distractions, and to come home again to creativity.”
Reading Gilbert’s advice on handling the ego, and her insistence that you can be a happy writer, I wish I could go back in time and reassure my teenage self that she wasn’t naive or lacking in worldly wisdom, that she had everything she needed to write. Her joy was part of her unique voice, and not something to be ashamed of.
Keep writing, and you’ll get to know your cycles
Probably the biggest take-away from Big Magic is the power of persistence: “I kept working. I kept writing. I kept not getting published, but that was okay, because I was getting educated,” she writes.
“The most important benefit of my years of disciplined, solitary work was that I began to recognize the emotional patterns of creativity—or, rather, I began to recognize my patterns. I could see that there were psychological cycles to my own creative process, and that those cycles were always pretty much the same.
‘Ah,’ I learned to say when I would inevitably begin to lose heart for a project just a few weeks after I’d enthusiastically begun it. ‘This is the part of the process where I wish I’d never engaged with this idea at all. I remember this. I always go through this stage.’ Or: ‘This is the part where I tell myself that I’ll never write a good sentence again.’”
Keep writing. See it through to the end, even if what you write never sees the light of day. You’ll learn so much about your patterns, and figure out how to work with those patterns over time.
“I kept working. I kept writing. I kept not getting published, but that was okay, because I was getting educated.”—Elizabeth Gilbert
If you do anything for long enough, you’ll get better
“It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at,” Gilbert writes. Do something for 10 years, and you’re bound to get good at it.
And, you can start practicing any time you want: “Your education isn’t over when they say it’s over; your education is over when you say it’s over.” Gilbert shares a story about an amazing woman she used to know, who became fascinated in Mesopotamia in her eighties, and got so into it that she became a world expert in the subject.
You just have to be passionately interested enough in something to obsessively research and work on it, and you’ll eventually become an expert in your obsession, whatever stage of life you came to it.
Curiosity is key to creativity
As Gilbert says, developing a habit of curiosity will stand you in good stead when ideas just aren’t flowing.
“I don’t sit around waiting for passion to strike me,” she writes. Instead, she follows her curiosity: “Curiosity is accessible to everyone. Passion can seem intimidatingly out of reach at times—a distant tower of flame, accessible only to geniuses and to those who are specially touched by God. But curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity…
…curiosity only ever asks one simple question: ‘Is there anything you’re interested in?’ Anything? Even a tiny bit? No matter how mundane or small?
The answer need not set your life on fire, or make you quit your job, or force you to change your religion, or send you into a fugue state; it just has to capture your attention for a moment. But in that moment, if you can pause and identify even one tiny speck of interest in something, then curiosity will ask you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look at the thing a wee bit closer.”
Keep creating—just create something, anything!
If you truly find yourself in a funk in your chosen craft, Gilbert’s advice is to create some forwards motion by doing some other creative activity, no matter how unrelated it might seem.
“If you can’t do what you long to do, go do something else,” she urges. “Go walk the dog, go pick up every bit of trash on the street outside your home, go walk the dog again, go bake a peach cobbler, go paint some pebbles with brightly colored nail polish and put them in a pile. You might think it’s procrastination, but—with the right intention—it isn’t; it’s motion.”
Near the end of Big Magic, Gilbert shares the story of a talented baseball player she knew whose game fell apart, and he felt like he had suddenly “lost his nerve”. He quit baseball and took up soccer—a sport he didn’t claim to be good at, and felt free to fail at—for a year. When he went back to baseball, Gilbert explains, he found he could play again. He just needed to lower the stakes for himself, get back to the fun of his craft without feeling the pressure to succeed.
In another anecdote that Gilbert shares, a celebrated writer finds himself unable to write after a play he wrote was a critical flop. Then, his daughter asks him to paint her bicycle, and he throws himself into the task, decorating it with stars so beautifully that soon, all the neighbourhood children are lining up to have their bikes decorated, too. After days of painting, he finds he’s been creatively unblocked, and can go back to his writing a freer man.
Ultimately, the message of Big Magic is that creativity requires commitment on our part, but that if you can commit and stick with it, it’s the most rewarding and fulfilling thing imaginable.