Notes on Big Magic

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Do you consider yourself and/or your work creative? If not, this book will make you think again. Elizabeth Gilbert takes a light and playful approach that makes creativity available and approachable to everyone because according to her, “we are all makers by design.” Adopting a playful mindset has worked for me when it comes to learning and work, but creativity has always carried a lot more baggage. 

I spent much of my life subscribing to and pronouncing the fact that “ I do not possess one ounce of creativity in my body.” First forged by an unfortunate series of middle school art, music, and home economics electives - my sad, lopsided sewing project apron got a passing grade only because of the sympathy and probably sheer exhaustion of the teacher - my creative scarring continued on from there. I enjoyed taking dance classes outside of school. But even there, my strength in learning the patterns and routines couldn’t compensate for the panic that would overtake me when the teacher would say, “now improvise for 8 counts” or “relax and feel the flow.”

I managed to get through school maintaining this non-artistic perception of myself. I secured the required arts credits by not singing too loudly in chorus for two years. Then in my senior year when I decided to tiptoe out into creative waters and take a photography elective, I got strong armed by a teacher and my parents into taking an AP Chemistry class instead which was deemed more important to my future.  

I give you this history not to say woe-is-me, but to share a not uncommon story. We all start out curious, creative, and ready to imagine the world a little different than it currently exists. But then many of us get messages that suffocate, belittle, or scare our creative selves into hiding. In Big Magic, Gilbert works to liberate us from those limiting stories and get us back in touch with the fun of creating again.

There’s a number of ideas in her book and accompanying podcast Magic Lessons that I loved. Here are a few of my favorite:

Catching Ideas: Where do creative ideas come from? Ever have that “aha” moment when a new insight for a project hits you? Gilbert suggests that creatives ideas are an energetic life-forms searching for available and willing human collaborators. They may visit and try to get your attention, but if they’re not noticed, they move on to the next person. So we need to be open, relaxed, and curious in order to receive them. She shares the example of how a story she started to develop, but then put on a shelf ended up getting written by a different author. The other author didn’t “steal” the story from her. Instead, Gilbert realized that it wasn’t hers to write.

Our worlds are not designed to allow the ebb and flow of ideas/work to just come and go as they please. We’re trained to hustle after them and once we start, we’re supposed to see it through to the end. Gilbert’s enchanted approach goes against all of that, but that’s why it got my attention. I think about the number of times that I’ve pushed through on a project because I “should be” working on it. It took me way longer, I ended up more frustrated, and the results suffered. If I had waited a day or even a few hours, my energy would have been different and I may have even had new insights that would have allowed me to complete the work in less time. Or I may have gotten a call from the client saying that they changed their minds about the project that would cause me to start over from scratch (that actually happened once and the previous two days of work were wasted). 

Staying open, relaxed, and curious as we work on projects seems like a great way to have more fun while doing better quality work. The challenging part is resisting all of the messages telling us to do the opposite.

Creative Entitlement: As a former teacher, the word “entitled” has negative connotations. Entitled students expect too much, don’t want to work hard, and think they deserve any easy path. Gilbert flips this on its head by challenging readers to claim creative entitlement. She grants readers this permission because according to her we all are allowed to have a voice and a vision of our own. She talks about David Whyte’s concept of the “arrogance of belonging” which is the act of showing up and saying “I am here.” Creativity doesn’t belong only to an anointed class of untouchables. It is within all of our reach and we are all deserving.

This resonated with me because I’ve always struggled with claiming labels for myself. Partly because I don’t like the idea of getting pigeonholed into one thing, but also because I struggle with the arrogance of belonging. In 2010, I published Grounded for Good, a book for middle school readers, but I do not call myself an author. I only wrote one book. I’m not making a career of it. It was self-published. Whatever reason I tell myself or other people, I’m realizing now I just never assumed the arrogance of belonging as a writer. I still don’t even though I have done every post on this blog. I took a writing class years ago and the instructor used to have us end the class with us all saying out loud “I’m a great writer.” It felt silly, but fun. Little did I know, she was having us claim our creative entitlement. Maybe I need to re-institute that practice for myself when I sit down to work. 

Even if I don’t want to use any specific labels, reading about this idea of creative entitlement helped me to accept and own the fact that I am a creative person. I was recently working on finishing a curriculum development project and I had a nose to the grindstone, “have to get this done” attitude. I was executing a task and checking off a “to-do” on my list, not viewing it as creating a new product. Once I realized the difference, I made a shift, owned my entitlement as a thoughtful, creative educator, and looked at the project with a new perspective. Finishing the project didn’t take me any longer and the quality was much better as a result.

Trickster = Trust: As your probably picking up by now, Gilbert does not support the glorification of the tormented artist. She believes in a light, playful, trusting engagement with creativity. As such, she encourages us to “reject the way of the martyr and embrace the way of the trickster.” We all probably know (and at some point have probably played) the martyr - dark, solemn, rigid, suffering through no matter what. On the other hand, the trickster is light, playful, pliant, and full of wonder and curiosity. The trickster doesn’t give up when things get “interesting” - those challenging moments when things don’t go according to plan and start to get tough. 

I have heard Gilbert talk about the trickster before and I had even heard Brene Brown tell her story of how she used a trickster approach to writing one of her books which is included in Big Magic. Again, I love a playful approach to work so I’m on board. What was new for me was understanding that tricksters need to trust in order to work in that playful way. They need to trust themselves, other people, and the chaotic, lawlessness of the universe. “The trickster (in all his cleverness) understands the one great cosmic truth that the martyr (in all his seriousness) can never grasp: It’s all just a game.” 

The big light bulb going off for me - the trickster trusts in the process and doesn’t try to control the outcome. Imagine how much easier life could be. Gilbert shares how she followed her curiosity in gardening instead of focusing on her next book topic or deadline. The interest in flowers and where they came from lead to the next thing and the next thing which eventually became the subject of the book. She trusted the process. Yet it’s so easy to fall into a place of fear and nervousness. From that place, the reflex is to panic and overthinking in order to make ourselves feel in control. Where does the distrust and fear come from? Can shifting the focus from the outcome to the process be enough to help us rebuild the trust and reclaim the playfulness of the trickster? It’s worth trying.

Wrap Up: In the spirit of “done is better than good,” I’m going to wrap up this reflection on Big Magic, but I have a feeling that the book and the Magic Lessons podcast will be something I revisit anytime I need a creative reboot. Whether I’m at a place of feeling stuck, overwhelmed, or need someone to tell me to “just keep working,” Gilbert does it well. She acknowledges that failure and frustration are part of the process, but that the process will always be interesting and with effort we can improve. So in her words, “Onward ever. Backward never.”