Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (2015)
Q. What is creativity?
A. The relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration.
When people hear that I’m a blogger, they often ask how I come up with ideas for my posts. That’s when I admit that finding ideas is the easy part. The hard part is finding the time – and the self-discipline – to develop those ideas into something worthwhile. Not very illuminating, I know, but I understand why they ask. I too am fascinated by the ways that writers, musicians and artists find inspiration, which is why I was so eager to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.
Well, there’s also the fact that I’ve had a bit of a girl crush on Gilbert ever since Eat, Pray, Love. Alas, my dream of becoming friends with her will probably never come true, but at least I’ve had a chance to learn more about her intriguing philosophy on ideas, inspiration and living the creative life.
Big Magic centers on Gilbert’s beguiling premise that ideas are independent life forms, each with its own consciousness and will. “I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form,” she explains.
According to Gilbert, the magic of creativity begins when an idea interacts with a human being. “It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual,” she says. “Therefore, ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners…When an idea thinks it has found somebody – say, you – who might be able to bring it into the world, the idea will pay you a visit.”
This is what you might call a flash of inspiration. An “Aha!” moment. Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to have had one. If so, you know that what happens next is up to you. You can ignore the idea or you can welcome it in. That’s the aforementioned easy part. But once you let an idea in, you must work wholeheartedly to bring it into being or it will move on to a more willing host, Gilbert says. That, as you may have guessed, is the hard part.
Creativity involves courage, enchantment, permission, persistence and trust, “and those elements are universally accessible,” Gilbert explains. “Which does not mean that creative living is always easy; it merely means that creative living is always possible.” Gilbert is truly at her best as our guide in this brave new world. Her breezy, down-to-earth style makes Big Magic feel more like a good chat with a knowledgeable pal rather than a highly-structured self-help book, and her decades of writing experience lend credibility to her point of view, even when it seems unconventional. She is also emphatic about the importance of committed, diligent work when it comes to creativity.
Gilbert’s section on courage reminded me of Sue Monk Kidd’s inspiration for The Secret Life of Bees, one of my all-time favorite books. When Kidd began to contemplate writing a novel after years of authoring nonfiction, she recalled the bees that lived in the wall of her childhood home. The image of a young girl lying awake at night with bees buzzing around her room stayed with Kidd as she charted the course of the story and worked through her doubts about attempting a new literary form.
The concept of trust brought to mind songwriter and Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson. During an interview, Wilson, who has co-written Grammy-winning songs for Adele and the Dixie Chicks in addition to his own material, was asked if he was ever afraid of running out of ideas or tempted to hold back an idea for himself. He responded, “My philosophy – and I do this wholeheartedly – is to use the great idea right now and finish it, because I feel it’s a way to tell your own mind, ‘Oh yeah, you’re going to have another good one. It’s going to be cool.’”
As for enchantment, there’s no better example than 2015 MacArthur Foundation genius grant recipient Lin-Manuel Miranda. The creator and star of the Broadway musical Hamilton had this to say when asked about his next project: “I’m flirting with a lot of ideas,” for future shows, he said, “but I don’t know that I’m in a relationship with one.”
Now, most of us will never become bestselling authors or Grammy winners or MacArthur fellows (or even friends with Elizabeth Gilbert), but there is still much to be gained by living a life driven by curiosity, courage and creativity, and it all starts with that flash of inspiration.
As Gilbert says, “…be ready. Keep your eyes open. Listen. Follow your curiosity. Ask questions. Sniff around. Remain open. Trust in the miraculous truth that new and marvelous ideas are looking for human collaborators every single day. Ideas of every kind are constantly galloping toward us, constantly passing through us, constantly trying to get our attention.”
“Let them know you’re available.”