Why Every Creative Needs to Read Big Magic

It’s time to put the tormented artist out of its misery.

I’ve been a “tortured artist” my entire life. My relationship with writing had such a strong love/hate dynamic that I would explain to people, “of course I don’t like writing. I hate it!” Trying to create something from nothing is like trying to pull a cloud down from the sky. You can see it. You can imagine how it feels. But no matter how high up you are, you’re never going to grab it…

…until you do. And that’s why I love writing. But it takes a lot of pain to get to that moment. It’s far easier to give up before you get there.

I accepted the “fact” that torment was a part of the process. My creativity tortured me. Critics ridiculed me. My peers told me I wasn’t true to my art because of the way I chose to pursue it.

(Apparently the proper way to create meant quitting my 9–5, moving to Bed-Stuy, and living off of peanut butter and jelly until I got published. I’d like to say for the record that I was living off of peanut butter and jelly even with my 9–5, thanks to a wonderful thing called student loans. And no, it didn’t make my writing any better.)

It’s amazing what we artists do to ourselves — and what we do to each other. I’ve even inadvertently done it to one of my favorite contemporary authors, Elizabeth Gilbert.

When Big Magic came out, I didn’t think I’d buy it. Why would I want a self-help book on creative living? What could anyone say that I hadn’t already heard? Would it just be like so many of the blog posts out there that have an epic title but fail to deliver anything new and interesting?

But I can’t resist any Elizabeth Gilbert book, no matter how hard I try. (This was the first and last time I’ll even attempt to do so.) And I had to take four flights in two weeks anyway, so it was the perfect time to try a new book.

I bought the book. And I promptly ate my skepticism.

Why Every Creative NEEDS to Read Big Magic

Have you ever struggled with a problem that seemed so big and complex that you decided it must be completely hopeless — only to have a friend offer one piece of advice that’s so obvious you feel ridiculous for not thinking of it? The kind of advice that makes you think, “What the hell was I thinking?”

That’s what Big Magic did for me.

Big Magic deflates the myth of the tormented artist like a tired, lonely party balloon. Gilbert blows the lid off the romanticism of feeling tortured by your art. She makes it clear that being tormented by your art is not only unnecessary but also devalues your work. By the time I got through Big Magic, I wondered how it was that I ever allowed myself to live — celebrate even — this lifestyle for so long.

“…I’ve always had the sense that the muse of the tormented artist — while the artist himself is throwing temper tantrums — is sitting quietly in a corner of the studio, buffing its fingernails, patiently waiting for the guy to calm down and sober up so everyone can get back to work.”

Gilbert does not preach. She does not prescribe. A creative who knows the value of hard work, she addresses this problem with a sympathy and a practicality that simply helps you see things more clearly. She starts a new dialog that makes art seem, well, fun!

“A different way is to cooperate fully, humbly, and joyfully with inspiration. This is how I believe most people approached creativity for most of history, before we decided to get all La Boheme about it. You can receive your ideas with respect and curiosity, not with drama or dread. You can clear out whatever obstacles are preventing you from living your most creative life, with the simple understanding that whatever is bad for you is probably also bad for your work…You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures. You can battle your demons (through therapy, recovery, prayer, or humility) instead of battling your gifts.”

What an idea! You can enjoy your art and do it well! You don’t have to pull your hair out to write the perfect sentence or pace for days to come up with a good idea. You can actually open yourself up to ideas and do the work. Don’t hate the work, do the work. Don’t search high and low for ideas, be ready and open for them as they come. And, you know, try a bunch of things in the meantime to open up the creative passageways in your brain.

And for my favorite piece of advice yet, you don’t have to starve yourself or make a living off of your art in order to validate it. (Take that, guy who told me I’m not a real writer because I also have a day job!)

“You can believe that you are neither a slave to inspiration nor its master, but something far more interesting — its partner — and that the two of you are working together toward something intriguing and worthwhile. You can live a long life, making and doing cool things the entire time. You might earn a living with your pursuits or you might not, but you can recognize that this is not really the point. And at the end of your days, you can thank creativity for having blessed you with a charmed, interesting, passionate existence.”

I can’t tell you how many years I refused to call myself a writer until someone would actually pay me to write. Forget about the fact that I sat down and wrote every single day. In my mind, I was still an amateur. I needed someone else — a “professional” — to pay me for my work and thus prove that my writing was, in fact, worthy. Worthy of what I no longer know. But how much better would those years have been if I deemed my writing worthy simply because it existed — and how much better might my writing have been as well?

It doesn’t matter if you get published or not. It doesn’t matter if your work is acclaimed or not. All that matters is that you live for the work — that you do it simply because you must. And the only outcome that counts is each and every day you get to live in your work.

“No way was I going to give up on my work simply because it wasn’t ‘working.’ That wasn’t the point of it. The rewards could not come from the external results — I knew that. The rewards had to come from the joy of puzzling out the work itself, and from the private awareness I held that I had chosen a devotional path and I was being true to it. If someday I got lucky enough to be paid for my work, that would be great, but in the meantime, money could always come from other places. There are so many ways in this world to make a good enough living, and I tried lots of them, and I always got by well enough.”

What I love most about Gilbert is that she doesn’t try to ignore the fact that to create is hard. She doesn’t try to paint a picture of grabbing that cloud every single day. Instead, she talks about accepting the process — good and bad — and understanding that it’s worth it if you are devoted to your art.

“If you want to be an artist of any sort, it seemed to me, then handling your frustration is a fundamental aspect of the work — perhaps the single most fundamental aspect of the work. Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process. The fun part (the part where it doesn’t feel like work at all) is when you’re actually creating something wonderful, and everything’s going great, and everyone loves it, and you’re flying high. But such instances are rare. 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.”

But What About the Results?

Of course, even as I write all this, I know that I still want my novels to be published someday. While I do enjoy each day of creation that I get to live, that’s not to say that I wouldn’t be thrilled by sharing my creations with the world. That’s why I love the way Gilbert talks about the next important piece of the puzzle: getting out of your own way.

How often have you held on to a manuscript because it “wasn’t ready”? How many drafts of stories do you have hidden somewhere because they weren’t “good enough”? And have you ever stopped a piece of your work from going out into the world because you didn’t like the way it was going to happen?

Gilbert went through this. She talks about a story she wrote that was about to get pulled from a publication unless she drastically shortened it. She was given a choice to shorten it or wait for a later date to have it published. Even though she spent more than one year working on the story that was like “polished granite,” she ultimately decided to do what they suggested rather than risk the story never getting published.

Thank goodness she did — because that was the story that led to her big break of finding an agent (an agent she still works with to this day). As she reflects on the experience, she makes it clear that we shouldn’t deem our work to be too precious:

“When I look back at that incident, I shudder at what I almost lost. Had I been more prideful, somewhere in the world today (probably in the bottom of my desk drawer) there would be a short story called ‘Pilgrims,’ ten pages long, which nobody would’ve ever read. It would be untouched and pure, like polished granite, and I might still be a bartender.”

If you’re working on something, put it out into the world! If someone wants you to modify it, see if you can modify it and still be happy with it. Practice saying “yes” instead of “no” and then you’ll really serve your art well.

Get Out There and Do Your Work

As Gilbert points out, the tormented artists’ best friend is the ego. And the ego is the very thing which can take the tormented artist down.

“Your ego is a wonderful servant, but it’s a terrible master — because the only thing your ego wants is reward, reward, and more reward. And since there’s never enough reward to satisfy, your ego will always be disappointed. Left unmanaged, that kind of disappointment will rot you from the inside out. An unchecked ego is what the Buddhists call a ‘hungry ghost’ — forever famished, eternally howling with need and greed.”

Why let the hungry ghost rot you from the inside out when you don’t have to? You have a choice!

“If destiny didn’t want me to be a writer, I figure, then it shouldn’t have made me one. But it did make me one, and I’ve decided to meet that destiny with as much good cheer and as little drama as I can — because how I choose to handle myself as a writer is entirely my own choice. I can make my creativity into a killing field, or I can make it into a really interesting cabinet of curiosities.”

Take the pressure off. Do you work because you love it. And, for goodness’ sake, go read Big Magic immediately.

“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.”
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