Sunday, January 10, 2016

Review: Big Magic

There are a number of things at which I can't help but roll my eyes. High on the list: magical thinking, the law of attraction, radical self love, #truthbombs, life coaches, and expensive planners that promise to transform your life.

Don't get me wrong. I am, in general, a happy, optimistic person. I have hopes and dreams. I set goals and work hard to achieve them. I'm a goddamned morning person. I like what most of the people who encourage and espouse these ideas are saying. I just don't like the Cult of Positive Vibes they feel they must create in order to do so. Plus a lot of these movements seem reductive and shallow, glossing over a lot of un-pretty realities in favor of a glittery dream. I can love myself all I want, but there's still a pay gap. I can maximize and optimize every moment, but we all die one day. I can tell the universe I'm ready to be rich, but my student loans aren't disappearing any faster. And on and on. Yes, I think a good attitude and a chipper outlook can make life a whole lot more pleasant, but that's easy to say when your life is already pretty damn pleasant.

Which is why I have a complicated relationship with Elizabeth Gilbert. I feel like she toes this line, and yet I like her. I like her a lot. In fact, I like her even more after reading Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

This book is a basically a self-help guide for creative people. It's not written specifically for writers, but since that's what Gilbert does, it's the example she uses the most. The book is broken up into six parts (Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity) and each part consists of many short sections that are, in turn, motivational speeches, charming anecdotes, encouraging asides, and tough love.

The book's thesis is that creativity is a gift we're all given, and that we each have hidden treasures within us. Too often, we aren't unable to uncover these jewels because we're afraid of failure or judgement. In many ways, Big Magic is a call-to-action to embrace your artistic, creative side, and Gilbert is your friendly, kind, encouraging, slightly kooky guide on that journey.

When it comes to creativity, I feel like I have a pretty good handle on things. I don't fear failure or judgement, and I'm pretty good at putting myself out there—applying for things, entering contests, submitting to journals, doing readings. One thing I am not good at, however, is patience. It takes a lot of effort to be happy for other people rather than jealous. Often, I'm afraid to sink so much time into one project (such as, for example, a novel) because what if no one wants to publish it and it turns out all those years were a waste?

Well, Big Magic has something to say about that, and it's advice that I believe I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Throughout the book, Gilbert talks about creativity as a devotional practice. According to her philosophy, living a creative life and exercising your creativity is both the goal and the reward. Not publication, not fame, not fortune. Just the simple act of doing it.

It's not a groundbreaking idea, but it sort of blew my mind. For most of last year, I was caught up in the business side of the literary world—trying to get a book published, coming close, but ultimately getting rejected. It was very difficult, for my writing and my ego, and I spent a lot of time feeling like I'd failed. This was not only unproductive—it was false. My goal was to write a book I was proud of. I did that. Whether or not the book gets published is something I have very little control over. All I can do is write the best book I can, and then write the next best book I can. Writing, creativity, art—it requires devotion, a love for the process, and the ability to detach from the outcome. That was the lesson I learned last year, but I didn't realize it until I had Gilbert's help. Pretty magical.

I'll end this unintentionally personal review with a few quotes from the book, because it's only right to let Elizabeth Gilbert have the last word. And it case it isn't clear: I highly recommend Big Magic, and I'm really glad I read it.

On Day Jobs 

"I've always felt like this is so cruel to your work—to demand a regular paycheck from it, as if creativity were a government job, or a trust fund. Look, if you can manage to live comfortably off your inspiration forever, that's fantastic. That's everyone's dream, right? But don't let that dream to turn into a nightmare."

"People don't do this kind of thing because they have all kinds of extra time and energy for it; they do this kind of thing because their creatively matters to them enough that they are willing to make all kinds of extra sacrifices for it."

On Failure 

"Whatever you do, try not to dwell too long on your failures. You don't need to conduct autopsies on your disasters. You don't need to know what anything means. Remember: The gods of creativity are not obliged to explain anything to us. Own your disappointment, acknowledge it for what it is, and move on."

On Joy 

"A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner—continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you—is a fine art, in and of itself."

On Success 

"Mind you, hard work guarantees nothing in realms of creativity. (Nothing guarantees anything in realms of creativity.) But I cannot help but think that devotional discipline is the best approach. Do what you love to do, and do it with both seriousness and lightness. At least then you will know that you have tried and that—whatever the outcome—you have traveled a noble path."