Big Magic: Elizabeth Gilbert on Creative Courage and the Art of Living in a State of Uninterrupted Marvel
By Maria Popova
“When you’re an artist,” Amanda Palmer wrote in her magnificent manifesto for the creative life, “nobody ever tells you or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand.” The craftsmanship of that wand, which is perhaps the most terrifying and thrilling task of the creative person in any domain of endeavor, is what Elizabeth Gilbert explores in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (public library) — a lucid and luminous inquiry into the relationship between human beings and the mysteries of the creative experience, as defined by Gilbert’s beautifully broad notion of “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” It’s an expansive definition that cracks open the possibilities within any human life, whether you’re a particle physicist or a postal worker or a poet — and the pursuit of possibility is very much at the heart of Gilbert’s mission to empower us to enter into creative endeavor the way one enters into a monastic order: “as a devotional practice, as an act of love, and as a lifelong commitment to the search for grace and transcendence.”
A generation earlier, Julia Cameron termed the spark of this creative transcendence “spiritual electricity,” and a generation before that Rollo May explored the fears keeping us from attaining it. Gilbert, who has contemplated the complexities of creativity for a long time and with electrifying insight, calls its supreme manifestation “Big Magic”:
This, I believe, is the central question upon which all creative living hinges: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?
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.
That notion of summoning the courage to bring forth one’s hidden treasures is one Gilbert borrowed from Jack Gilbert — a brilliant poet to whom she is related not by genealogy but by creative kinship, graced with the astonishing coincidence of their last names and a university teaching position they both occupied a generation apart. She reflects on the poet’s unusual creative ethos:
“We must risk delight,” he wrote. “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”
He seemed to live in a state of uninterrupted marvel, and he encouraged [his students] to do the same. He didn’t so much teach them how to write poetry, they said, but why: because of delight. Because of stubborn gladness. He told them that they must live their most creative lives as a means of fighting back against the ruthless furnace of this world.
Most of all, though, he asked his students to be brave. Without bravery, he instructed, they would never be able to realize the vaulting scope of their own capacities. Without bravery, they would never know the world as richly as it longs to be known. Without bravery, their lives would remain small — far smaller than they probably wanted their lives to be.
But this notion of bravery seeds a common confusion, which Gilbert takes care to dispel:
We all know that when courage dies, creativity dies with it. We all know that fear is a desolate boneyard where our dreams go to desiccate in the hot sun. This is common knowledge; sometimes we just don’t know what to do about it.
Creativity is a path for the brave, yes, but it is not a path for the fearless, and it’s important to recognize the distinction.
If your goal in life is to become fearless, then I believe you’re already on the wrong path, because the only truly fearless people I’ve ever met were straight-up sociopaths and a few exceptionally reckless three-year-olds — and those aren’t good role models for anyone.
Bravery, Gilbert suggests, is the product of a certain kind of obstinacy in the face of fear — and that obstinacy, rather than one’s occupation, is what defines the creative life:
While the paths and outcomes of creative living will vary wildly from person to person, I can guarantee you this: 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. Living in this manner — continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you — is a fine art, in and of itself.
To be sure, Gilbert — whose writing lives in the Venn diagram of Brené Brown, Dani Shapiro, Cheryl Strayed, and David Whyte — is a far cry from the self-help canon of authoritarian advice dictated by a detached expert. What makes her book so immensely helpful is precisely its lived and living nature. She writes:
The only reason I can speak so authoritatively about fear is that I know it so intimately. I know every inch of fear, from head to toe. I’ve been a frightened person my entire life. I was born terrified. I’m not exaggerating; you can ask anyone in my family, and they’ll confirm that, yes, I was an exceptionally freaked-out child. My earliest memories are of fear, as are pretty much all the memories that come after my earliest memories.
Growing up, I was afraid not only of all the commonly recognized and legitimate childhood dangers (the dark, strangers, the deep end of the swimming pool), but I was also afraid of an extensive list of completely benign things (snow, perfectly nice babysitters, cars, playgrounds, stairs, Sesame Street, the telephone, board games, the grocery store, sharp blades of grass, any new situation whatsoever, anything that dared to move, etc., etc., etc.).
I was a sensitive and easily traumatized creature who would fall into fits of weeping at any disturbance in her force field. My father, exasperated, used to call me Pitiful Pearl. We went to the Delaware shore one summer when I was eight years old, and the ocean upset me so much that I tried to get my parents to stop all the people on the beach from going into the surf.
I can’t help but see in this tragicomic anecdote a magnificent metaphor for the psychology of trolling. The impulse to attack others who have dared to put themselves and their art into the world springs from the same fear-seed. What is trolling, after all, if not a concentrated effort to stop others from going into the surf — not because trolls try to protect the rest of the world from the perils of bad art but because they seek to protect themselves from the fear that if they dare plunge into the surf, their own art might wash up ashore lifeless.
Kierkegaard knew this when he contemplated the psychology of trolling two centuries ago, and Neil Gaiman knew it when he delivered his spectacular speech on courage and the creative life. All of us know this on some primordial level when we contemplate the metaphorical surf, for every time we decide to swim we must also allow for the possibility of sinking, which seems decidedly less mortifying if there weren’t other people swimming while we sink.
Gilbert considers the somewhat mysterious, somewhat perfectly sensical stimulus that eventually sent her on a life-path of plunging into the surf:
Over the years, I’ve often wondered what finally made me stop playing the role of Pitiful Pearl, almost overnight. Surely there were many factors involved in that evolution (the tough-mom factor, the growing-up factor), but mostly I think it was just this: I finally realized that my fear was boring.
Around the age of fifteen, I somehow figured out that my fear had no variety to it, no depth, no substance, no texture. texture. I noticed that my fear never changed, never delighted, never offered a surprise twist or an unexpected ending. My fear was a song with only one note — only one word, actually — and that word was “STOP!” My fear never had anything more interesting or subtle to offer than that one emphatic word, repeated at full volume on an endless loop: “STOP, STOP, STOP, STOP!”
I also realized that my fear was boring because it was identical to everyone else’s fear. I figured out that everyone’s song of fear has exactly that same tedious lyric: “STOP, STOP, STOP, STOP!” True, the volume may vary from person to person, but the song itself never changes, because all of us humans were equipped with the same basic fear package when we were being knitted in our mothers’ wombs.
Far from a uniquely human faculty, this fear is there for a reason — an evolutionary mechanism that aided us in our survival, much like it has aided every living creature that made it to this point of evolutionary history. Gilbert writes:
If you pass your hand over a petri dish containing a tadpole, the tadpole will flinch beneath your shadow. That tadpole cannot write poetry, and it cannot sing, and it will never know love or jealousy or triumph, and it has a brain the size of a punctuation mark, but it damn sure knows how to be afraid of the unknown.
And yet the human gift, Gilbert reminds us, is the willingness to march forward — in terror and transcendence, and often alone — even though we too flinch beneath the shadow of the unknown:
Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.
What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all.
We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits.
We are terrified, and we are brave.
Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.
Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.
In the remainder of the wholly electrifying Big Magic, Gilbert goes on to explore the building blocks of the bravery that makes that wonderful privilege available to each of us. Complement it with Dani Shapiro on why creativity requires leaping into the unknown, Cheryl Strayed’s no-nonsense advice on faith and humility, Brené Brown on creative resilience, and Anaïs Nin on why emotional excess is essential for creative endeavor.
Published September 23, 2015