My Current Favourite Book: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
For my degree, Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert was a book recommended by my tutor and then I recently reread it for my Masters and remembered how much I love it. There are so many quotes that deeply inspire me and I’m filled with the urge to run to the nearest piano or guitar and write something beautiful because I suddenly feel like I can. It might not turn out to be beautiful but that urge gets me writing, gets me much closer to writing something beautiful than if I hadn’t written at all.
I recommend this book to everyone but especially to people who pursue creative passions. My brother the performance artist, one of my parents the Jazz musician, all of my friends and colleagues on my songwriting course. I know they may not like it, that it may not be their style, but if even one sentence inspires them then I’m happy, hence this post. I hope you like this collection of my favourite quotes from the book and that it inspires you to go and read the whole thing. It’s a fantastic book and I’m really excited to read more of her work (and listen to more of her talks).
PART I – COURAGE
- “[Jack Gilbert] didn’t so much teach them how to write poetry, they said, but why: because of delight. Because of stubborn gladness. He told them that they must live their most creative lives as a means of fighting back against the ruthless furnace of this world. Most of all, though, he asked his students to be brave. Without bravery, he instructed, they would never be able to realize the vaulting scope of their own capacities. Without bravery, they would never know the world as richly as it longs to be known. Without bravery, their lives would remain small – far smaller than they probably wanted their lives to be. […] I never met Jack Gilbert myself, and now he is gone – he passed away in 2012… I quite liked the way he lived inside my imagination as a massive and powerful presence, built out of his poems and the stories I’d heard about him.”
- “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.”
- “I had creativity within me that was original; I had a personality within me that was original; I had dreams and perspectives and aspirations within me that were original.”
- “It seems to me that the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes, too.”
PART II – ENCHANTMENT
There’s an amazing story (I won’t type it out in full because that will take forever so here’s the short version) where she’s very passionate about an idea but after a big life event, that passion had vanished. She meets Ann Patchett – that story in itself is beautiful – and something magical seems to have happened: Patchett is working on almost exactly the same idea, conceived at almost exactly the moment Gilbert felt she’d lost it. It’s a bizarre and incredible story that is almost worth reading the book for alone.
- “Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of writing, I feel like I am suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks that you find in a big airport terminal; I still have a long slog to my gate , and my baggage is still heavy, but I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force… It’s the feeling you get when you’ve made something wonderful, or done something wonderful… I don’t think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state…”
At one point she talks about how she wishes Harper Lee had written several easy to read books after To Kill A Mockingbird, just because she could, because she loved to write. She talks about how Lee was such a marvellous writer and how much the world could’ve gained from that but never got the opportunity because the huge acclaim of To Kill A Mockingbird completely changed her relationship with writing.
PART III – PERMISSION
- “Go back far enough and you will find people who were not consumers, people who were not sitting around passively waiting for stuff to happen to them. You will find people who spent their lives making things. This is where you come from. This is where we all come from. Human beings have been creative beings for a really long time – long enough and consistently enough that it appears to be a totally natural impulse.”
- “It’s your birthright as a human being, so do it with a cheerful heart. (I mean, take it seriously, sure – but don’t take it seriously.) Let inspiration lead you wherever it wants to lead you. Keep in mind that for most of history people just made things, and they didn’t make such a big freaking deal out it. We make things because we like making things.”
- “Your creativity is way older than you are, way older than any of us.”
- “I don’t want to be afraid of bright colors, or new sounds, or big love, or risky decisions, or strange experiences, or weird endeavors, or sudden changes, or even failure.”
- “Most things have already been done – but they have not yet been done by you.”
- “Anyhow, the older I get, the less impressed I become with originality. These days, I’m far more moved by authenticity. Attempts at originality can often feel forced and precious, but authenticity has quiet resonance that never fails to stir me. Just say what you want to say, then, and say it will all your heart. Share whatever you are driven to share. If it’s authentic enough, believe me – it will feel original.”
- “Do whatever brings you to life, then. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart. The rest of it will take care of itself.”
- “Work hard, make the most of your opportunities, and grow, grow, grow.”
- “[Tom Waits] told me that he’s struggled deeply with his creativity in his youth because – like many serious young men – he wanted to be regarded as important, meaningful, heavy. He wanted his work to be better than other people’s work. He wanted to be complex and intense. There was anguish, there was torment, there was drinking, there were dark nights of the soul. He was lost in the cult of artistic suffering by another name: dedication. But through watching his children create so freely, Waits had an epiphany: It wasn’t actually that big a deal. He told me, “I realized that, as a songwriter, the only thing I really do is make jewelry for the inside of other people’s minds.” Music is nothing more than decoration for the imagination. That’s all it is. That realization, Waits said, seemed to open things up for him. Songwriting became less painful after that.”
- “As I write this book, for instance, I approach each sentence as if the future humanity depends upon my getting that sentence just right. I care, because I want it to be lovely. Therefore, anything less than a full commitment to that sentence is lazy and dishonorable. But as I edit my sentence – sometimes immediately after writing it – I have to be willing to throw it to the dogs and never look back.”
PART IV – PERSISTENCE
- “When I felt no inspiration at all, I would set the kitchen timer for thirty minutes and make myself sit there and scribble something, anything.”
- “That’s what you have to do in the beginning; everybody imitates before they can innovate.”
- “Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process… You don’t just get to leap from bright moment to bright moment. How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going so great, is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation, and how equipped you are for the weird demands of creative living.”
- “It starts by forgetting about perfect. We don’t have time for perfect. In any event, perfectionism is unattainable: it’s a myth and a trap and a hamster wheel that will run you to death. The writer Rebecca Solnit puts it well: ‘So many of us believe in perfectionism, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, and the fun.’ Perfectionism stops people from completing their work, yes – but even worse, it often stops people from beginning their work. Perfectionists often decide in advance that the end product is never going to be satisfactory, so they don’t even both to be creative in the first place.”
- “We must understand that the drive for perfectionism is a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism. No matter how many hours you spend attempting to render something flawless, somebody will always be able to find fault with it… At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is – if only so that you can go on to make other things with a glad and determined heart.”
- “Through the mere act of creating something – anything – you might inadvertently produce work that is magnificent, eternal, or important.”
- “We all need something that helps us to forget ourselves for a while.”
- “I also kept remembering what may mother always used to say: ‘Done is better than good.'”
PART V – TRUST
She has a friend who is a botanist and teaches environmental biology at a university. And she always begins by asking who loves nature and all the students raise their hands. Then she asks if they believe nature loves them and no one raises their hand. “Then we have a problem already,” she says. So she starts with the relationship between people and the environment.
- “To suggest that nobody ever made valuable art unless they were in active emotional distress is not only untrue, it’s also kind of sick. […] You will often meet artists who deliberately cling to their suffering, their addictions, their fears, their demons. They worry that is they ever let go of all that anguish, their very identities would vanish.”
- “I have no great love or loyalty for my personal devils, because they have never served me well. During my own periods of misery and instability, I’ve noticed that my creative spirit becomes cramped and suffocated. I’ve found it’s nearly impossible for me to write when I am unhappy.”
- “My desire to work – my desire to engage with my creativity as intimately and as freely as possible – is my strongest personal incentive to fight back against pain, by any means necessary, and to fashion a life for myself that is as sane and healthy and stable as it can possibly be.”
- “If you choose to go the other way, though (if you choose to trust suffering over love), be aware that you are building your house upon a battlefield.”
- On the suicides or deaths of artists: “There’s a hole in our world from all the art those people did not make – there is a hole in us from the loss of their work – and I cannot imagine this was ever anyone’s divine plan.”
- “I have chosen to believe that a desire to be creative was encoded into my DNA for reasons I will never know, and that creativity will not go away from me unless I forcibly kick it away, or poison it dead. Every molecule of my being has always pointed me towards this line of work – toward language, storytelling, research, narrative. If destiny didn’t want me to be a writer, I figure, then it shouldn’t have made me one.”
Gilbert’s first short story she ever had published was called ‘Pilgrims,’ in Esquire. They were all set to go and then they had to cut down the magazine and she could either pull her story or reduce it by 30%. She decided to reduce it and in the end, discovered that it had become this new, interesting story she’d never imagined it could be, leading into this next quote…
- “What you produce is not necessarily always sacred, I realized, just because you think it’s sacred. What is sacred is the time that you spend working on the project, and what that time does to expand you imagination, and what that expanded imagination does to transform your life.”
- “Everything I have ever written has brought me into being. Every project has matured me in a different way. I am who I am today precisely because of what I have made and what it has made me into. Creativity has hand-raised me and forged me into an adult.”
When no story she was passionate about arrived, she just followed her curiosity. She ended up deciding that she wanted to have a nice garden and so she gardened. She learned more and more about the flowers she was growing (she preferred colour to order, unlike her mother) and she researched more and more until three years later, she started writing a novel about a family of nineteenth century botanists. It wasn’t an idea that she saw coming but by the time she was writing it, she was obsessed with the idea and the story. And she never saw it coming.
- “As my friend Pastor Rob Bell warns: ‘Don’t rush through the experiences and circumstances that have the most capacity to transform you.'”
At one point, she talks about ego and how “it’s a wonderful servant, but it’s a terrible master,” because all it wants is reward but it will never be satisfied because there will never be enough reward: “Left unmanaged, that kind of disappointment will rot you from the inside out.” She talks about how the Buddhists call an ‘unchecked ego’ a ‘hungry ghost,’ a description that I’m so inspired and obsessed by. It’s a song. And one that I can’t wait to write. A ‘hungry ghost’ is “forever famished, eternally howling with need and greed.”
- “What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant?”
PART VI – DIVINITY
- “Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.”
- “We are terrified, and we are brave.”
I mean, I could quote the whole book but here are some of my favourite quotes and my favourite stories. I really, really recommend reading it. It’s inspiring, in a creative way but also in a personal way. It makes life seem bigger and brighter and more beautiful. Read it. Please.