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Recommendation: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

I recently had the great privilege of sitting in an intimate BBC radio studio listening to Elizabeth Gilbert talking about writing, creativity, love, courage – and much more besides. The programme was about her internationally bestselling Eat, Pray, Love but the book I had tucked into my bag was her latest: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

Before arriving at the recording, I experienced one of those wonderfully serendipitous situations: my train was delayed by over an hour. In fact, at one point, it looked like I was going to miss the recording altogether. At least, I thought, if I can’t meet Elizabeth Gilbert in the flesh, I can read her words on the page. So, I dug out the book I’d brought for her to sign, one that had been sitting on my totteringly high to read pile, and for the next hour, I sunk into one of those gloriously gluttonous reading sessions: the world receded and, when I surfaced, blinking at the bright light of day, something had shifted.

Before I knew it, we were once again chugging our way to Paddington. But in that hour I got a glimpse into this very special book.  I wholeheartedly recommend Big Magic to any of you who, like me, need to hear Gilbert’s call to courage.

Here’s are a few key things I learnt from Gilbert’s love song to living the creative life, ideas that will stay with me as I forge my own journey on this extraordinary journey of being a writer.

Joy: a stubborn gladness

In Big Magic, and in her fabulous Ted talk, Gilbert reflects on how the ‘woe is me’, ‘creation is suffering’ mantras that we artists seem (often unquestioningly) to have bought into over the last few centuries, destroys us and our art.

And yet, the suffering artist is held up as a glamorous image. I have noticed this too. How it is a taboo – or at least an embarrassment – to regard ourselves as happy writers. Surely to be a good writer you need to be moody, to have bitten your nails down to the quick, to destroy your relationships, to adopt self-sabotaging addictive behaviours. Isn’t that where good writing comes from? I’ll always remember a rather cynical English colleague of mine putting his hand up in a talk by the Harvard happiness guru, Tal Ben Shahar: ‘but doesn’t all great art come from unhappy souls,’ he asked?’ What he was implying was that if we all end up wonderfully happy, culture will die. Gosh, now that’s a pretty terrifying view of the world – and of our life as artists.

Gilbert suggests that great art might be created not because of great unhappiness, but despite it. She suggests that great joy might create even better art and, from the toll of artist suicides over the centuries, more art too, simply by dint of writers living longer.

She quotes the poet Jack Gilbert:

We must risk delight…We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.

In other words, joy and delight are more powerful survival weapons than those offered to us by depression.

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s own words:

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 fine art, in and of itself.

Linked to suffering, of course, is moaning. Oh, how we writers are good at moaning. Gilbert gives us a trick: ‘stop complaining,’ otherwise, she warns, we will scare away inspiration:

Every time you express a complaint about how difficult and tiresome it is to be creative, inspiration takes another step away from you, offended.

I know that if I have the privilege of living to a ripe, old age, I would like those fifty to sixty years to be filled with the joy rather than sorrow. I have heard her battle cry and am determined to live a life of stubborn gladness.

Courage: making space for fear

In the mindfulness diploma I’m completing, we had a wonderful and terrifying session on facing difficulty. The ideas is that it’s resistance and avoidance that often causes the most pain and stress. We learnt to sit quietly and to watch our source of unhappiness with curiosity rather than anger or fear. To feel it in the body. To soften around it. To make space for it. Elizabeth Gilbert writes similarly about the way in which she has come to terms with being a fearful person. She understands now that her fear and her creativity are ‘conjoined twins’, that fear always marches alongside her creative endeavours. And so she’s accepted that fear’s going to keep joining her on her road trips to creativity. There is one proviso: fear gets to come along, ‘but creativity and I are the only ones making any decisions along the way.’ Fear isn’t allowed to make suggestions. To touch the road maps. To suggest detours. To fiddle with the radio. Fear isn’t allowed to drive. But it is allowed to sit there and watch. That’s okay.

Redefining Success: process over product

This is linked to the point about joy and is something my wonderful husband, the writer, director and teacher, Hugh Macgregor, teaches me every day. It’s the journey that matters. It’s what you learn along the way. It’s focusing on what you’re doing and how you’re doing it and why you’re doing it that gives a project integrity. More often than not, focusing on this will inevitably result in a wonderful performance or novel or piece of art work, but even if it doesn’t, you will have been so enriched by the process that it doesn’t matter. You’ve got the prize already.

I’ve been thinking of this in relation to the pupils I teach too. Wouldn’t it revolutionise our education system, and the way in which we build self-worth in our students, if we could allow them grow up focusing on the process, on the journey of learning and creating, rather than on the end product which, sadly, is so often at the whims of the gods? A sense of self worth built on the foundations they have created rather than on the vicissitudes of talent and luck and external judgement. Oh how I would love to impart that gift to the young people under my care.

Gilbert describes the patron goddess of creative success as a ‘rich, capricious old lady who lives in a giant mansion on a distant hill and who makes really weird decisions about who gets her fortune. She sometimes rewards charlatans and ignores the gifted. She cuts people out of her will who loyally served her for their entire lives, and then gives a Mercedes to the cute boy who cut her lawn once. She changes her mind about things…’ In other words, we have no control over success. What we do have control over is the process.

I decided early on to focus on my emotion to the work above all.

Inspiration: ideas waiting for a human soul

This is my favourite bit Gilbert’s book and lies at the heart of the Big Magic of the title. Gilbert unashamedly claims that her theory is based on ‘magic’ and ‘enchantment’ – in other words, hard nosed pragmatists or scientists might not warm to the theory. I love it. I love it because it feels absolutely true to my experience, because it resonates with my view of how ideas come to me and it inspires me too. Here is her beautiful thesis:

The only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts than an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the real of the actual.

So we are surrounded by ideas, wonderful, magic ideas that are waiting for us to notice them, to reach out for them, to make them our own and to breathe life into the through our words, our paintings, our music, our dance. Sometimes they will pass us by because we’re too busy to notice – because we’re living mindlessly rather than mindfully. Sometime’s it’s okay that they pass us by. They’ll find another human collaborator, a different voice and you will move on to pin another idea down from the starry heavens. Sometimes you will come back to an idea years later. But ideas are there, waiting for you, and that’s a pretty awesome (in the true sense of that word) thought. I’ll end on Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful words – I hope they inspire you too:

Trust in the miraculous truth that new and marvellous ideas are looking for human collaborators every single day.

There is so, so much more in this wonderful book. I know that it will become of those writing books I turn to again and again for wisdom, inspiration, comfort, encouragement – and a good kick in the backside when I’m feeling sorry for myself. Thank Elizabeth Gilbert for this gift.

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You can find out more about Elizabeth Gilbert on her website, you can follow her on Twitter and you can, like me, join her wonderfully encouraging Facebook Group. Do also tune in on 2nd of January, BBC World Service, 8pm. And, of course, get your mitts on a copy of Big Magic.