I don’t know what drew me to pick this book up, but I’m glad I did. My copy of Big Magic is filled with underlined passages, and experience reading it punctuated by head nodding and random exclamations of “So true!” This book resonated with me. It’s a bit more “woo woo” than I usually like (e.g. Gilbert compares bursts of creativity to a living force than can transfer between human beings), but did it ever resonate. It was exactly the right book at the right time for me, and it all began with this quote from writer Jack Gilbert, in response to an aspiring writer:
Do you have the courage? Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes. (p. 7)
What I love about Gilbert’s book is that she doesn’t limit the creative endeavour to traditional art forms, nor does she limit the idea of living creatively to making a career out of art. She writes about her friend Susan, who gave up skating when she realized she wasn’t talented enough for a professional career. At age 40, Susan realized that she missed being on the ice, and decided to take it up again. Gilbert writes:
Please note that my friend did not quit her job, did not sell her home, did not sever all her relationships and move to Toronto to study seventy hours a week with an exacting Olympic-level skating coach. And no, this story does not end with her winning any championship medals. It doesn’t have to. In fact, this story does not end at all, because Susan is still figure skating several mornings a week — simply because skating is still the best way for her to unfold a certain beauty and transcendence within her life that she cannot seem to access in any other manner. (p. 11)
Usually, when we think of living creatively, we tend to think of the big moments: the painter finally getting a gallery show, the writer finally getting published, the artist of whatever genre finally making the leap to give up their day job and focus on their craft. I love that Gilbert emphasizes that this is not necessary for creative living, that in fact you can live just as creatively even with a 9 to 5 desk job.
Gilbert also puts the power of our artistic aspirations into perspective: “There’s probably never going to be any such thing in your life or mine as ‘an arts emergency.’ That being the case, why not make art?” (p. 130) She makes the case that part of the beauty of art is that it is non-essential, compared to, say, food and shelter. Some artists may take exception to this, and indeed I don’t think Gilbert denies that art is important and can uplift people’s lives. But she’s right to give us a reality check about the work a lot of us would produce: Chances are, no one will die because you screwed up creatively.If we write a bad book, paint a bad landscape or sing horrifically off-key, the worst that will most likely happen is a blow to our own ego. On the other hand, the best that can happen is that you’ll inspire someone somehow. Gilbert makes the case that we have nothing to lose and everything to gain in being creative, and that therefore, we may as well go for it. I personally find this a freeing concept. I tend to agree with Gilbert when she says, “It doesn’t discourage me in the least, in other words, to know that my life’s work is arguably useless. All it does is make me want to play.” (p. 128)
Playfulness is a huge part of Gilbert’s credo, and she encourages readers to be tricksters rather than martyrs. She cuts through the BS of the tortured artist ideal and calls it messed up. “That doesn’t even make sense!” she exclaims. “How does creativity possibly benefit from such an arrangement?” (p. 217) It’s a fair question, and very much tied to her idea that creativity is a living force that chooses you to bring it to life. She also cautions against the trap of perfectionism and the also dangerous trap of viewing your work as your baby, unable to withstand criticism.
I love that Gilbert keeps it real, and that even as she describes bits of creativity as simply waiting for the right host, she remains utterly pragmatic about the realities of bringing your creative work to the public. I especially love how she urges curiosity over passion, because this privileges the spirit of exploration over the single-minded pursuit of an ideal. It’s a lot more attainable, and to be honest, sounds quite a bit more fun.
This book isn’t for everyone. If none of what I said above resonated with you, then possibly this book isn’t quite for you. But if some of Gilbert’s ideas do spark a bit of curiosity, then by all means, give this book a chance. It certainly sparked something in me, and I’m so glad I picked it up in the first place.
Thanks to Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.