Without question, my favorite non-fiction book this year is Big Magic. Elizabeth Gilbert has taken what I thought about creativity and flipped it on its head. It’s not just an idea but a way of life.
If you read one book this year: Big Magic.
“Look, I don’t know what’s hidden within you…although I suspect you’ve caught glimpses. But surely something wonderful is sheltered inside you. I say this with all confidence, because I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure. I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The hunt to uncover those jewels—that’s creative living. The courage to go on that hunt in the first place—that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one. The often surprising results of that hunt—that’s what I call Big Magic.” ~ Elizabeth Gilbert
I grew up surrounded by creative people. My dad can build anything. Seriously, anything. My mom, although she’d deny it, is very creative. Some of my best memories are her doing crafts with me as a kid. Don’t even get me started on my siblings. They hold so much talent. It’s so easy to see the importance of creating for others but creativity triggers fear and sometimes we really have to dig to see why it’s important for ourselves to create and put something out there that may not be perfect.
When I was about six years old, a relative was teaching me to crochet. Something hokey like a Barbie blanket. “Like this.” she said and I’d stare at her hands quickly moving while the yarn turn from string into something beautiful. My turn. I slowly and carefully crocheted my first row. I showed it to her feeling proud of my work. Impatiently, she pointed out my yarn loops were inconsistent and therefore, incorrect. She tugged the yarn to unraveled everything I just made and instructed me to start over. A second attempt left me frustrated and her tense. Again she unraveled it. I knew what it was supposed to look like but I just couldn’t quite get it. I started over again until I just didn’t care anymore.
It wasn’t fun.
For Pete’s sake, I was six.
Making a Barbie blanket.
Not solving world hunger.
When I turned 18, I took a job as a 911 operator. Every day was serious. Life-or-death. When I left that job, I freelanced with a fabulous interior decorator. For four years, we decorated gorgeous homes and offices in Orange County at Christmas time. From hanging tinsel to frosting cookies, there is nothing I don’t love about the season, but the first year I was pulled down. In the big scheme of life and death, small things like glitter and garland seemed so insignificant. As much as I wanted to enjoy what I was doing, inwardly, I was flooded with guilt. I couldn’t shake the thought I was wasting time creating. It wasn’t until the next season that I started to appreciate the wonderful things that come from creating pretty things.
With more than a decade gone by since, my life is now filled with juggling work, busy boys, military life and trying to keep up but sometimes I feel it. The urge to create. I’ll be folding laundry or picking up the never-ending confetti of legos, and I feel a pull, a craving, to create. It’s a craving like when you’re eight months pregnant and you all want is pink Starburst and you think about nothing else until finally your exhausted husband goes out at 10:30pm to get you Starburst. That kinda craving, for writing and painting.
I’m thankful that in our current house I have an office to myself and when I have a few minutes, I’ll pull out my paint brushes or work on my novel. My work might never win a prize but that’s not why I’m doing it. Why then?
In the words of Elizabeth, “because of stubborn gladness”.
Because dipping my paint brush into a dollop of Flamingo hot pink paint and swooshing it around on a crisp white canvas satisfies my craving. Allowing myself to melt into the words I’m writing satisfies my craving. It always lifts my mood and fills my soul with joy.
Even more, unleashing creativity has made me a noticer. Like the way the sunset melts into the tree-covered skyline or how ocean waves twirl like a ballerina right before crashing. Noticing things previously overlooked fills me with gratitude for this beautiful world.
So I’m making myself a promise, not to wait until things are perfect to release it – whether it be a Barbie blanket or otherwise. I know it’s not life-or-death important but it is still important. Even more, it’s a way of living.
Some of my favorite quotes in Big Magic:
The essential ingredients for creativity remain exactly the same for everybody: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust—and those elements are universally accessible. Which does not mean that creative living is always easy; it merely means that creative living is always possible… of course it’s difficult to create things; if it wasn’t difficult, everyone would be doing it, and it wouldn’t be special or interesting.
Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome. Your fear—programmed by evolution to be hypervigilant and insanely overprotective—will always assume that any uncertain outcome is destined to end in a bloody, horrible death. Basically, your fear is like a mall cop who thinks he’s a Navy SEAL: He hasn’t slept in days, he’s all hopped up on Red Bull, and he’s liable to shoot at his own shadow in an absurd effort to keep everyone “safe.”
Let people have their opinions. More than that—let people be in love with their opinions, just as you and I are in love with ours. But never delude yourself into believing that you require someone else’s blessing (or even their comprehension) in order to make your own creative work. And always remember that people’s judgments about you are none of your business. Lastly, remember what W. C. Fields had to say on this point: “It ain’t what they call you; it’s what you answer to.”
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 instants 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. Holding yourself together through all the phases of creation is where the real work lies.
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. (There are people out there who still consider Beethoven’s symphonies a little bit too, you know, loud.) 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. Which is the entire point. Or should be.