It was early evening on the top floor of Barnes and Noble in Manhattan’s Union Square, and I was snorting with laughter amongst a bunch of 100 or so strangers.
This wasn’t some strange cult meeting, but the September launch night for Elizabeth Gilbert’s manifesto on creativity, ‘Big Magic.’
Elizabeth Gilbert is funny. I expected her to be inspiring, friendly, encouraging – all the things she comes across as in her writing and on her very active social media accounts – but I didn’t quite expect the uncontrollable laughter.
From Game of Thrones references to sneaky asides about politicians, she got the crowd laughing again and again. “I can’t do the math, that’s why I’m a writer,” she joked as she told the crowd how long Big Magic had been developing as an idea in her mind (she eventually settled on “a decade-ish”).
Laughter aside, I think it’s fair to say the best-selling author got everyone thinking. I left, clutching my signed copy of Big Magic, feeling inspired but also relieved, relieved that all the odd things you think about as a writer are not unique to you. Big Magic is brimming full of wonderful advice on creativity, and how Gilbert sees our relationship to it as individuals.
“If you’re alive, you’re a creative person,” she writes. “You and I and everyone you know are descended from tens of thousands of years of makers. Decorators, tinkerers, storytellers, dancers, explorers, fiddlers…” (No-one will be surprised that I lit up at the mention of explorers!) I loved her almost radical notion that creativity isn’t some unattainable talent that some of us have and some of us don’t: living a creative life is about living a life fueled consistently by curiosity rather than fear. What a lovely thought.
This book resonated with me on so many levels, particularly because it is filled to bursting with lessons that can be applied to the worlds of writing and blogging. To give you a taste, here are four of my favourite quotes from the book to help you harness your creativity, Big Magic-style.
“Defending yourself as a creative person begins by defining yourself… stand up tall and say it aloud, whatever it is.”
Quite a lot of Gilbert’s advice comes down to confidence, or what she calls ‘creative entitlement.’ This is decidedly not a negative thing. “Defending yourself as a creative person begins by defining yourself,” Gilbert writes, touching on a topic that most people in creative industries have some across at one point or another.
So many people put the limiting adjective “aspiring” before their title – forget it! Over the past few years I’ve learnt that if you write, you’re a writer; if you paint, you’re a painter; and so on and so forth. You’re that and a whole host of other things (or as social media maven Emma Gannon might say, you’re a ‘slashie’). Embrace that creative entitlement and let the world know what makes you tick.
“Most things have already been done – but they have not yet been done by you.”
Originality was another hot topic at the launch, and in the book itself. One woman in the audience asked how Gilbert manages to work creatively when the world is already brimming with successful ideas. Her answer? “Originality is something that I argue very strongly against.” She explained that her belief is that authenticity is more important in creative work than originality.
“There are only a few ideas. They say in novel writing there’s only two stories: you go on a trip or a stranger comes to town,” she told the audience to more laughter. I particularly liked the paragraph in Big Magic where she points out that Shakespeare covered just about every storyline available back in the 16th century, yet that hasn’t stopped people writing stories in the many years since.
“Slip away from everyone else at the party and go off to dance alone with your ideas in the dark.”
We all have commitments in life, be they personal, practical, or professional, and no-one is suggesting you give them up. But what Gilbert is suggesting is that in and around these commitments, you should make time for your creativity, in whatever form it takes. She advises readers of Big Magic to sneak off and take time for themselves and their creativity, or to put it more poetically, to “slip away from everyone else at the party and go off to dance along with your ideas in the dark.”
“You can always make your art on the side of your bread-and-butter job.”
What I found fascinating is that for most her career, Gilbert was not a full-time writer: she studied politics at university, then proceeded to work a variety of day jobs over the years while writing and travelling on the side, even when she had three published books to her name.
Writing is, and always has been, notoriously poorly paid, so to hear a worldwide bestselling author say that she worked variously as a waitress, as a ranch hand, and a bar maid, and that “there is no dishonour in having a job” was incredibly refreshing. It was real, something that is often lacking in the publishing world of egos and awards. If you can make money from your art, that’s great, says Gilbert, but if you can’t – don’t tie yourself up in knots over the fact that your art doesn’t pay the bills. Just enjoy it!
There are countless pearls of wisdom between the pages of Big Magic, and these are just four of the many sentences I underlined and asterisked in my copy, nodding my head in recognition and agreement. If you spend your time creatively in any way – writing, painting, singing, building, knitting – I can’t recommend this book enough!