I just finished reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. To be honest, this is not the type of book I would have chosen to buy on my own. I won the book in a giveaway hosted by Caroline Kelso from Made Vibrant. When I started reading it, I could not get deeper into the book. However, this last Christmas, my niece, Claudia, and I decided to read books together. We decided to start with The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Well, at the risk of offending the majority of the population, we could not get into it. So, we wondered what book to read then? We decided to read My Beloved World by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. It was such a great read that we both felt very connected to her. I even thought of writing her. I have not though.
Once we finished that book, we wondered what book to tackle next. Since I had read a few chapters of Big Magic already, I thought it would be a good idea to read it with someone so I could finish it. I was slower than my niece reading it due to time management and other commitments, but I finished it this week. I am glad I read it.
There has been lot of hype surrounding this book. When it came out, my Instagram feed was full of lettered quotes from the book. Interestingly, the reaction to the book gave a type of mystic value to it. People responded as if they had found a voice in the vast and wandering desert of their creative lives. Nothing wrong with feeling lost in one’s creative process. I find myself sometimes feeling like I am driving aimlessly somewhere and I don’t know where. However, the way she writes about creativity is easy to follow and it is almost read a little too fast. It is not a book full of scientific data about creativity and the creative process. Rather, it is a book about how a writer who has, after a long journey and relationship with her own creative process and inspiration, has come to terms with her creative journey and calls it like it is. By that I mean that she demystified the process of coming up with creative thoughts, ideas, art, etc..
I find myself sometimes feeling like I am driving aimlessly somewhere and I don’t know where.
Once I started reading the book with my niece, I became more interested. Not sure if it was because now I had someone to share the book with or because we had created an online space to discuss our thoughts, or simply because I just wanted to finish it. There are several nuggets of wisdom in the book; thoughts that I wish my students would learn. When I was reading the book, I thought that it would have been nice to be exposed to these thoughts earlier in my life. But back when I started my career as a designer and artist, there weren’t many books like this one to read.
The parts of the book that talked to me the most were in the Trust section. In there she talks about how we have come to believe that the creative process must be a painful and suffering path. My background is academia. Not just because I work as a university professor but because this idea of no work is worth looking at without sacrifice was something embedded in my schooling from an early age. The idea that anything worth making should cost you something; anything worth learning required a painful period of struggle; anything worth looking at should have gone through an excruciating making process, was not directly taught but it was part of the deal. I distinctively remember instances when some projects were hard and I had to struggle because of the skills, concepts, or technology involved. But when I had projects where things were easier for me, or I did it in a fraction of the time the other ones took me, or I just put something together and wow!, it looked fabulous, I would feel like a cheater, like a fraud. The feeling worsened if I got an A on said projects. I felt I was rewarded for no effort, no pain, no suffering, and more importantly no blood in my sweat.
…when I had projects where things were easier for me, or I did it in a fraction of the time the other ones took me, or I just put something together and wow!, it looked fabulous, I would feel like a cheater, like a fraud.
To this day, when I look at those projects, I do not look at them with respect. It did not occur to me to think that the fact that something had become easier for me, it was because I had accumulated knowledge, ability, skills, acumen, wisdom, and that simply I was getting better at something. Thus, my outcome would be less painful and more enjoyable. No, I was convinced that I had to struggle with it. I strongly believed that there is no art worth making if I did not have some type of pain in the creation of it. These ideas have had significant impact on my perception of making a business out of my art making.
Well, the chapter on Trust in the book took care of that for me. Well, that would be too fast and easy, right. Let’s say that it highlighted an aspect of my creative life that I need to reconsider. To quote Gilbert on page 207:
…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.
Thank you. Thank you. She goes on to quote Raymond Carver on page 211:
Any artist who is an alcoholic is an artist despite their alcoholism, not because of it.
To strengthen her case, she also quotes British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on page 214:
If the art legitimates cruelty, I think the art is not worth having.
Ouch! Words to think about. And sobering ones at that. Now, perhaps I should clarify something before you, my dear reader who may not know me, thankfully, I am not an addict, alcoholic, or have any type of challenge along those lines. Well, except that I love chocolate kisses and chocolate chip ice cream a little too much. But I have held the belief that working out my art and creativity, means sweat and no simple line would give me that. However, there is something to be said about disciplined work and Gilbert makes a point of that too. There is no magic unless you work at that magic, you show up, you write that first line, you draw that first shape, or whichever the outlet is. And yes, I do believe that there are and will be moments in which the training will produce discomfort. Retraining the muscle memory takes time, repetition, and patience. And that, is tedious, is boring, and is uncomfortable. But see, Gilbert also advocates for tricking the process. This is something I have tried to communicate to my students but it is hard sometimes for them to see and change. I must confess, it is hard for me too. Exercise fitness expert, Jillian Michaels has a saying: Learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. There is wisdom in those words.
Gilbert continues to explain what tricking the process is on the The Martyr vs. the Trickster chapter on page 221. She provides the example of Brené Brown‘s process. Though Brown has been a successful writer, the creative process of writing, according to Gilbert, was excruciating for her. After being introduced to the idea of tricking the creative process, Brown realized she was really good at story telling. Thus, she decided to start her books by telling them as stories to her closest friends and transcribing everything later on. She set up a situation where her words could flow and become a physical reality. I have to say that I loved that chapter. I remembered how hard it was for me to write my thesis. I literally suffered. I figured out a way to get it done but I need to reconnect with that idea of tricking my process so the thing, the creative product, becomes a reality.
There are other nuggets of wisdom. Thoughts like not personalize the creative process as a baby; I am guilty of that. Don’t let your ego or dignity get in the way of moving your work forward and into the world. On page 247:
Don’t let go of your courage the moment things stop being easy or rewarding.
I need help with that. I lose my courage when things become stale, there are too many hoops to jump, or things become unnecessarily difficult for one thing or another. Gilbert advises to find something else to do momentarily and come back to it. On the other hand, she also states the need to forgive yourself when something does not work out and let it go. And, lastly these questions, to which I am afraid I know the answers in my own life, on page 239:
What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail? What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant? What do you love more than your own ego? How fierce is your trust in that love?
WOW. I know. I think I know. I think I know the answer to these questions. Do you know? Share with me!