Creativity or the act of creation is often seen as mysterious. A quality that only gifted people possess. Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat Pray Love” likens creativity to a live entity. Ideas are a force that actively seeks out the human collaborators most likely to bring them to life. It’s also an entity that will also leave humans that don’t take ideas and inspiration and bring them to fruition. That, according to Gilbert, is “Big Magic“, which is the title of her newest book on how to live a creative life, “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear“.
What is living a creative life? According to Gilbert, living a creative life doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to quit your job, move to Paris, and spend the rest of your life painting…unless you really want to. Rather, living a creative life is simply having the courage to follow your interests and going where creativity may lead you, even if it seems self-indulgent or childish or weird. For some this may mean carving out some time in the day to write poetry or finally pursuing that long held interest in fashion design or buying skates and hiring a coach to learn ice skating, like her friend did at the age of 40.
In Big Magic, Gilbert uses a variety of themes to explore what creativity is and how we use these themes to deepen our creative lives. Like how courage is a required component in creativity and how big and little fears (my work isn’t good enough, I’m not talented enough, I’m too old, I’m too young) is a block to being our most creative selves. Or how persistence does not mean “perfectionism” or that one must suffer to be true artists and that quitting something too soon risks quitting before something truly amazing happens. Or that being creative doesn’t require a permission slip from the world. It also doesn’t require awards and recognition and it also doesn’t mean that one must pack it in if the world rejects (or even worse) ignores your work.
One of the passages I found most interesting was a tidbit of how the ancient Greeks and the Romans viewed creativity. They didn’t believe that people themselves were creative, rather they had an external muse or creative “elf” they called “genius” that would visit and help you with your tasks. According to the Romans, if you’re exceptionally gifted, it didn’t mean that you yourself was a gifted person, it’s just that you had a “genius” helping you to be exceptionally gifted. This view of creativity protected the gifted person from the ego-corrupting influence of high praise and from the ego-crushing power of failure.
That’s not to say that creativity is pure magic and just a matter of waiting for the “genius” to show up. Gilbert also outlines the importance of sitting down and doing the work and the consequences of ideas and half finished work being left undone. In another passage, she shared the story of a novel she stopped work on because…well…life happened. When she was ready to get back to the story, the inspiration, the magic that had previously propelled her forward was gone. She wasn’t able to finish the novel. Strangely enough a friend of hers, Ann Patchett also had an idea for a very similar story, same location, similar characters. They hadn’t spoken about it beforehand, they just happened to have roughly the same inspiration at around the same time and Patchett ended up finishing her book. Gilbert wrote that it was this incident that convinced her that inspiration is a force that actively seeks out a human conduit that’s mostly likely to act on it. And if left undone or half done it will leave for another human collaborator that can act on it.
Pretty deep, huh? Big Magic is full of lovely anecdotes, interesting facts, and personal musings on the nature of inspiration, ideas, and creativity and what it truly takes to live a creative life. You won’t find a handy list of “How to be more creative” or “How to conquer your fears” in Big Magic. Nor will you find exercises and techniques to help you become more creative. What you will find is Gilbert’s treatise on how creativity works, how one has to overcome their fears in order to truly create, and learning to go where an idea may take you.
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