I just finished reading (for the second time) a book by Elizabeth Gilbert called Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. If Elizabeth Gilbert sounds familiar, she wrote the best seller and the book behind the film Eat Pray Love.
Seeing this book at the airport bookstore and the Eat Pray Love reference, I admit initially thinking it must be some fluffy girl’s book, being the unenlightened boor that I am!
Thankfully, there was something about it that attracted me to scan it. Opening it to the chapter names on the Contents page sealed the deal: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Trust and Divity. Hmmm… maybe there’s something here for me.
Big Magic is Gilbert’s hypothesis for how creative ideas make their way to each of us, and how to recognize and deal with them once they arrive. It’s a book about effectively living as a creative person. But unlike my original thought upon first seeing Big Magic, this is a very practical book for artists – even trombone players!
The book is organized by short sections within the main chapters, each telling an engaging and often funny story with an important lesson for those of us pursuing his or her art. One section called “Shit Sandwich”, which borrows from blogger Mark Manson’s question of creatives: “What is your favorite flavor shit sandwich?” Because if you love and want something enough––whatever it is––then you don’t really mind enduring the most disagreeable aspects of that work. Gilbert illustrates how to endure one’s disappointment and frustration, and how that is part of the job of a creative person. Gilbert even suggests that handling one’s frustration is perhaps the single most import part of the work. “Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process.”
However, do not take solace in believing that this is a book promoting the suffering artist routine. One of the most refreshing aspects of the book is its refutation of that long-standing and rarely discredited belief that great art must come from suffering. She writes about the many jazz musicians who became heroine addicts thinking that it would elevate them play like Charlie Parker, despite Bird himself begging people not to emulate this most tragic aspect of his life.
As great a scientist as Francis Bacon was, he was dead wrong when he stated, “The feelings of desperation and unhappiness are more useful to an artist that the feeling of contentment, because desperation and unhappiness stretch your whole sensibility.”
How’s this for a refrigerator magnet: “I’ve suffered enough. when does my artwork improve?”
Gilbert isn’t denying the existence of suffering for a great many artists. As she puts it, “I simply refuse to fetishize it.” With that, she writes a section entitled “Our better angles.” About this, she writes:
“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 possible be.”
Within the Trust chapter she writes about what she characterizes as The Martyr vs. the Trickster. We all have some of each in us, and for many, a lot more martyr. According to Gilbert, the Martyr says: “I will sacrifice everything to fight this unwinnable war, even if it means being crushed to death under a wheel of torment.” The Trickster says: “Okay, you enjoy that! As for me, I’ll be over here in this corner, running a successful little black market operation on the side of your unwinnable war.”
Martyr says: “Life is pain.”
Trickster says: “Life is interesting.”
Martyr says: “The system is rigged against all that is good and sacred.”
Trickster says: “There is no system, everything is good, and nothing is sacred.”
Martyr says: “Nobody will ever understand me.”
Trickster says: “Pick a card, any card!”
Martyr syas: “The world can never be solved.”
Trickster says: “Perhaps not… but it can be gamed.”
Maryr says: “Through my torment, the truth shall be revealed.”
Trickster says: ” I didn’t come here to suffer pal.”
Martyr says: “Death before dishonor.”
Trickster says: “Let’s make a deal.”
Martyr (Sir Thomas More) always ends up dead in a heap of broken glory, while Trickster (Bugs Bunny) trots off to enjoy another day.
Gilbert’s shit sandwich reference above refers to those aspects of life that are unpleasant in pursuing your dreams, not that one’s entire life and pursuit of art should be revered as a shit sandwich. An important distinction.
There is much more to this gem of a well-written book including how to recognize your next big idea before it travels off to someone else for its implementation, the nobility of earning your living outside of your art, the relationship between talent versus hard work, done is better than good, the indispensable role of curiosity in an artist, and implementing your personal method of summoning creativity.
Read this wonderful book if you want to laugh out loud and be inspired by a fellow artist who dedicated her life to developing her craft, worked a day job, pursued success, experienced failure, and found fame and fortune.