Finding The “Big Magic” In Our Lives

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The writer Elizabeth Gilbert is on a roll. She had a mega hit with Eat, Pray, Love and her TedTalk titled Your Elusive Creative Genius has had over ten million views.

I wasn’t extremely impressed the first time I watched it. Maybe it was my mood, or perhaps I was not ready to receive the message, or both. But recently I viewed it a second time and it touched me very deeply. The reason? This time I had read Gilbert’s latest book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear which made a believer out of me.

I couldn’t resist borrowing Big Magic from the library after it popped up in my recommended reading. For once I decided to trust the library’s algorithm, which is usually off, and I’m sure glad I did. Big Magic is one of the most powerful books I’ve read in a long time and I highly recommend it. One word of warning—don’t let the conversational, informal tone of this book fool you. It’s a serious read. Gilbert drops nuggets of wisdom so effortlessly throughout the book, that at times I found myself pausing, and thinking “Wait! What did she just say?” and jumping back a page to re-read a section.

Big Magic most certainly is about creativity, but not just the artist’s creativity. Gilbert is a cheerleader for every one of us to find the creativity in our daily lives. She wants us to view our interests though the lens of creativity, whether we be focused on a vocation or avocation.

One of Gilbert’s main contentions is that passion is not necessarily a requirement for leading a creative life. How many times have we heard “Follow your passion”? She believes that relying on passion for invoking the creative spirit is a gamble. Passion is not something we have control over. It comes and goes, and it’s fickle. What, instead, does Gilbert suggest we follow to find our creative selves? Curiosity! Curiosity may be tapped into at will, and Gilbert shows us that if we remain curious, we invite the “Big Magic” into your lives.

Here’s a perfect example. Gilbert was waiting for a big story idea to come to her after her success with Eat, Pray, Love – but her creativity was having no part of it. She asked herself if there was anything she was interested in, and the answer she came up with was gardening. Yes, having a garden would be nice she decided. She wasn’t consumed by it; she wasn’t dying to have a garden as she says; it was just a thought that came to her. So, she followed her curiosity and planted “some things”.

She began planting beautiful flowers, which led to her interest in learning about their geographic origin. She found out the irises she planted originated in Syria, the lilacs came from Turkey, her forsythia from Japan and her wisteria was from China, by way of an English sea captain. Following her curiosity took her to horticultural libraries in England, gardens in Holland and moss-covered French Polynesian caves.

Fast forward three years and Gilbert’s next novel, The Signature of All Things was born. It’s about nineteenth century botanical exploration. She had never set out on a journey to write this novel. Three years earlier she didn’t even know there was such a thing as nineteenth century botanical exploration! Big Magic came to her because she said “yes” to her curiosity.

Gilbert also makes it very clear she’s not a fan of living the tortured artist life; she doesn’t believe misery is the path for finding one’s creativity. She introduces us to an up-and-coming writer, Katie Arnold-Ratliff, whose debut novel, Bright Before Us, is now sold on Amazon. Katie stopped writing for years after a professor told her “Unless you are emotionally uncomfortable while you are writing, you will never produce anything of value.” Gilbert says she understands how an adviser might warn a budding writer not to back away from uncomfortable feelings that may arise during the creative process, but to suggest one cannot produce meaningful art unless under emotional distress, is “kind of sick.”

I agree. Let’s look at Shakespeare for a moment. An actress may need a bit of life experience before playing certain Shakespeare characters, but let’s hope she’s not feeling the torture in her own life that is needed for Lady Macbeth’sOut, damned spotmonologue in Macbeth. (Although a “Method” acting teacher may think otherwise.) Unfortunately, Katie took her professor’s advice to heart. She had an idea that excited her but she felt guilty when she thought of writing about it, because it would have given her pleasure, not pain. Talk about twisted.

A person in the act of creating, whatever that may be, is often vulnerable to comments made by mentors. Even an offhand remark from a stranger can unhinge someone, causing her to retreat from her project. Our teachers have an incredible responsibility to nurture us and treat us gently. So, ATTENTION ALL YOU MUSIC, ACTING, WRITING COACHES, and MENTORS of ALL KINDTHINK about the profound effect your advice might have on an impressionable mind BEFORE speaking! You could be WRONG.

Big Magic contains several fantastical stories and I won’t give away some of the punch lines since I encourage you to read it. But one of them involves the coincidence surrounding Gilbert’s friend, the novelist Ann Patchett, and her book State of Wonder. Another is about Gilbert meeting the then 90 year old poet Ruth Stone, whose vivid description of her writing process was quite wondrous. (In her TedTalk, Gilbert relishes in wooing us with this anecdote and delivers the ending with an Ellen DeGeneres-like charm, and comic timing.) 

Another topic Gilbert takes on in Big Magic is perfectionism. We’re all familiar with the notion that perfectionism often prevents us from completing a project, but Gilbert takes it further. She says perfectionism prevents us from even starting. Let that settle in, now. Think about it—how many good ideas have we decided to put on hold because it wasn’t the right time? For those of us who’ve relegated a dream or desire to “later” or “some day,” why do we put it off? What prevents us from starting? Why do we think we must wait for the sun, moon and stars to align before we begin?

Many of us who write about personal finance fantasize about how life will be after we quit our jobs. These are wonderful fantasies and some of them must wait for when we have more flexibility and freedom. But how many of us have things we can start now, that we put off until THEN. THEN we can set up the perfect home office; THEN we can take a writing course; THEN we’ll learn how to meditate; THEN our real lives will begin! And I’m just as guilty as the next person here, but can we agree to see how (to use Gilbert’s word) SICK this is? Can’t we write a paragraph or a page at a time? Can’t we spend five minutes a day meditating? No, we’d rather wait until circumstances are perfect before delving into our creative souls.

Let’s look at New Year’s resolutions through the lens of perfectionism. I believe we fail at keeping our New Year’s resolutions, not because we choose ones that are too lofty; and not because we need to break down our goals into smaller baby steps. No, the real reason we fail is that we use New Year’s as a crutch. We grant inordinate significance upon this line of demarcation. We bestow January 1st with voodoo powers to wipe the slate clean, so that we may begin refreshed, like newborn babies in a state of perfection.

Take the dreaded D word. We stuff our faces right on up to December 31, but come January 1, we are psyched to start that diet! In preparation, we’ll get busy cleaning out the cupboards and refrigerator, reading books on health, and looking up recipes. We’ll kick Ben & Jerry to the curb and set the scene for nutritional perfection. Can we all not see how SICK this is? Do we need to trick ourselves into believing we can only take on a challenge when the timing is perfect?

No time will ever be the perfect time for improving our finances, weight, relationships, meditation skills—you fill in the blank. We must not wait for some mystical, perfect starting point to find the Big Magic in our lives. We must start right now, right where we are. We must have “Fierce Trust” in ourselves. In the words of Elizabeth Gilbert, fierce trust demands that we put forth our work, without regard for the outcome, because the outcome doesn’t matter. She says “you are worthy, dear one, regardless of the outcome.

POSTSCRIPT:

Be curious.

Passion is not a prerequisite for creativity.

Pursuing perfection is a losing proposition. Don’t delay life.

So tell me, dear ones, what do you find curious? How do you live your life creatively? What are you putting off until “THEN” that you might be exploring now?

 

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8 Comments

  1. I totally agree with not waiting until everything is perfect to start doing something you really want to do in your life. That is along as that “thing” isn’t misguided or foolish. I also feel that living in misery is a wasted life. I did a bit of that staying in a career that wasn’t where I wanted to be until I hit some stupid magic number of mine. Never again. Maybe its the courage of reaching FI but now everything is on my terms. If I want to I will. Otherwise it is a “no thank you”. Being able to say that is the sure way to avoid misery.

  2. Mrs. Groovy

    Yes, reaching FI makes it much easier to say “no thank you” and to even smile while saying it!

    This year we also realized, after cutting the cord, that TV was keeping us from exploring hobbies and things that make us curious. Now we have much more energy to find what makes us tick.

  3. As the old saying goes: ” Perfection is the enemy of good. “. I would rather be generally right about something that I might be interested in, than exactly wrong about a passion. Great book suggestion.

  4. I love this! Our motto in college to combat our own perfectionism and the atmosphere on campus was “Done is better than good.” It helped so much. I am happy trying new things as an adult, in part, because I don’t feel that I need to be great at everything. I try things on for size and put away things that don’t fit me well. Eventually I get good or good enough for joy at the things that I value.

    I also value curiosity in my partner. Curious people rarely get bored or bore others.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      That’s a great motto, ZJ!

      I think being curious is also the key to growing old gracefully. If a person stays curious and continues to learn new things, he or she continues to stay engaged with life.

  5. I had a few key takeaways, but overall, I didn’t care for this book. It’s rare for me to not enjoy reading a book and this was one of those times. I found it disorganized and confusing. Kudos to her for overcoming her creative challenges and to those who benefit from her message!

    • Mrs. Groovy

      I understand what you mean about the book. At times it felt disjointed to me too. But I do like her message about finding your creativity and coaxing it along, rather than badgering yourself over it. Thanks for your comment, Claudia!

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