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.

The First Semester of my Masters Degree

Now that I’ve finished my assessments, I thought it might be an interesting idea to sit down and write about my experience of the first semester of my Masters Degree. Because I’m doing it part time (mainly to protect my mental health), I’m only doing one module rather than two, which is what the full-timers do. The module I did was called ‘Creative Process’ and it was four hours of uni time, a two hour seminar where we talked about different areas of the creative process and then a two hour workshop where we played the songs we’d written based on the ideas and concepts we’d talked about the week before. It was a really interesting module and I wish my mental health had been better so that I could’ve focussed and enjoyed it more.

I feel really lucky when it came to my group and my tutor.

My group was only about nine people (when the other groups were much larger as far as I know) and they were all absolutely lovely. We were all really different, both musically and life experience wise (but I guess that’s what happens when you get to Masters level), which was really interesting when it came to writing and socialising and… just everything. It was a completely new experience and one that I’m really grateful for. Up until now, I’ve mostly been surrounded by people my own age with similar experiences.

Everyone was so, so good, all in their own way. They all had their own style (some had particularly beautiful musical signatures, some wrote from interesting perspectives with thoughtful lyrics, and so on) and it was so interesting and exciting to see how they developed over the semester. We were and I know will continue to be so supportive of each other’s music and development as songwriters. It always felt safe to bring in something I felt unsure or insecure about and the feedback was always constructive and because the person wanted you to get better; I never once felt like someone was being mean or looking down on me. It was such a supportive atmosphere and I’m so grateful because I think that was a huge part of what helped me to grow so much as a writer.

I made two really good friends in particular, both of whom I’m still in the same group with to my absolute delight. They’re truly beautiful souls. One of them, Luce Barka, wrote this amazing song during the semester and has said she’s happy for me to share it with you guys. I really, really recommend it…

I also had a fantastic tutor, Isobel. She’s a really cool, independent singersongwriter, which I think made her an especially good teacher because she’s very immersed in the industry we’re all trying to get into, in her own, distinctive way. She’s also dealt with serious health problems (which she has talked about publicly so I’m not breaking her confidence or anything) so I felt like she was a really good tutor, especially for me. She understood, or had a kind of understanding, of what I deal with. She was a really, really great tutor, in discussions and when giving and guiding feedback. But for me personally – and this is my blog after all – she was incredible when it came to helping me manage the course against all of my issues. When my anxiety was overwhelming, she helped me adjust the tasks to make them easier while still allowing me to do the task and learn the skills. I am massively appreciative of how accommodating and generous and kind she was, even before  she received the Student Support Agreement (the document with all my information and recommendations).

Anyway, she was amazing. I learned so much, obviously from the course but also from the way she delivered it and the feedback she gave me. I feel like I’ve grown so much as a writer and I feel like she’s a really big part of that. Plus, I’ve never had a teacher who was so understanding, who helped without hesitation, with just my word to guide her. I can’t properly express how much I appreciate that. It’s never happened to me before and it felt so wonderful to be treated as if it was something you just do, rather than being made to feel like a burden or an obstacle to be manoeuvred. So, as much as I learned (and I learned a lot), that is what I’m most grateful for and one of the things that I will always remember about this semester.

The first few weeks were really, really tough. After my massive meltdown in Victoria station, I was having meltdowns every day (as I wrote about here), which was having a big impact on my mental and emotional health, also leaving me physically exhausted. That significant meltdown was triggered by an email from the Disability Coordinator (who was also an Autism Specialist), suggesting a very last minute change of plan for our scheduled meeting which still leaves me bewildered. As an autistic person, sudden changes of plan are known to be highly problematic. That, plus my existing anxiety, caused a massive meltdown that took a very long time to recover from. And it left me feeling less than confident in her ability to support me even though we had had a positive first meeting and I had left feeling cautiously optimistic that this time it might be different. It then didn’t improve as actions promised at that meeting didn’t get done, leading to more meltdowns. So that was a real complication and painful part of the semester.

Having said all of that, I loved the classes. We learned about songcraft, collaborating, imposter syndrome, professional practice, perfectionism, and so much more. It was fascinating and fun and the briefs, while often stressful (with only a week to write the song), were interesting and challenging. I wrote some songs that I’m really proud of and I feel like my songwriting grew a lot because the briefs were challenging.

We watched this video in one of the classes and I thought it was really good so I thought I’d share it:

I loved it – loved getting better at songwriting – even the bits that pushed me and made me feel uncomfortable.

However, out of class was another matter. We were expected to do research that would later become the foundations of our assessment essay and presentation. Except whenever I asked, they wouldn’t tell me what the assessment entailed and just said it was ‘self directed learning’ so I didn’t know what I was actually researching, which caused me terrible anxiety. I created a reading list of books, articles, and interviews about creativity and songwriting but as hard as I tried to do the work, my OCD – my need to write everything down – battled against it. And usually won. So if I wasn’t writing, I was reading. I had no downtime. I was constantly anxious, like, end-of-the-world-anxious. And I felt like I was failing.

They explained the essay and presentation in the last couple of weeks but I still didn’t really understand. The language was complicated and vague and while I understood the general idea, the grading criteria was pretty ambiguous. I didn’t know what I had to do specifically to get good grades. I need clarity. It was incredibly stressful.

It took a couple of last minute meetings with my module leader to really understand what was expected of me but I was now facing a myriad of problems. The research I had been doing had little relevance to the subject I was writing about so I’d have to redo all of that, as well as actually write the essay and prepare the presentation. Plus we were in the final two weeks of the semester and the university would soon be closed for the Christmas holidays so I would have no way of contacting anyone for any support. I was wound so tight I felt like my spine might snap. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I’m really grateful for those meetings but I just wish the assessment had been clearer earlier in the module so the research I was doing could’ve been more focussed. With all the problems associated with Autism, like chronic fatigue and chronic pain, time is something I have to be incredibly thoughtful about.

I worked every day of the entire holiday (apart from Christmas Day, which I spent with my family – something I don’t often get to do) but the assessments were always in my head so I felt like I couldn’t take a break or have any time to rest and recharge. I still didn’t feel sure that I was doing it right but still, I worked hard on it and gave it everything I had. I finished both the essay and the presentation with time to spare, allowing myself time to redraft and prepare, giving myself the best chance of doing well. I submitted the essay, despite big technical problems with the system, and I did my presentation to the best of my ability, despite finding presentations incredibly difficult. Now I just have to wait for the marks.

Now, having run through the whole semester (and having reflected a lot on the difficulties), I just wanted to share a couple of specific, positive experiences:

  • For one of the early seminars, we had a guest tutor, who works primarily as an expert in Personal Transformation, come and talk to us. Because we were such a small group, he was able to really talk to each of us about our lives and our creative struggles. Considering how little we knew each other at the time, it was amazing how open everyone was and I think it’s part of the reason we became so close and supportive as a group. It was a real bonding experience to hear all of these personal stories and I personally felt really honoured to be part of it, to have been trusted with those stories.
  • One week I brought in a song that I was really proud of. It had a repeated line in it – “it’ll get easier” – and everyone picked it up really quickly, singing along and harmonising. It was beautiful and emotional and it was one of the most special moments of the semester for me.
  • During my research, I found a quote by Paul Gardner that I’m endlessly inspired and intrigued and excited by: “A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places.” There are so many things that could mean. What do you think it means? Or what does it mean to you about a particular thing in your life?

Overall, it was a very mixed bag. The good moments were great and made me feel amazing. I got a lot out of it. But I spent a lot – A LOT – of the semester in crippling anxiety and I had a lot of meltdowns. It was fucking hard. And the marks haven’t even come back yet. I’m terrified that I’ve done horribly. But I’m trying not to think about it. I’m just trying to get through this new semester. Which may be even more stressful than the last.