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Lessons learned from Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic: Creative Living

Image via Pop Sugar

Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love was the book that took the first step in dragging me out of my depression. She wrote about grabbing hold of whatever you could that gave you some sense of happiness, or escape, and not letting go.

In that moment, on Christmas Day 2009, that for me became getting lost in this book. It didn't put an end to things or solve my problem, but it gave me something to throw myself into - a story of someone else moving through pain to something beautiful.

When I heard that Elizabeth was releasing a book on creativity, I was hyped. And I was right to be.

I just wrote that this book is for anyone who is creative, or has creative aspirations. I checked myself and erased, because this is the ultimate myth she debunks. We are all creative. We may stop indulging in it, mostly through fear, but we are and we always can be.

She also puts creativity, inspiration and ideas as an external force. This gets kinda spiritual, which I'll admit I struggled with, but it is reassuring in that it takes the pressure off the old ego. It doesn't define you as a person, or say anything about your worth.

And even if you're not onboard with her talking about creativity having feelings, it's intriguing and refreshing. There's certainly something truly bizarre about an idea just coming to you and you have to write it all down and it doesn't feel thought out. Where does that come from? It's fascinating.

So, here are some of the key messages I took from Big Magic.

Creativity is not just for children, or the "talented"
This is so important. Elizabeth talks about how ridiculous it is to presume we only pursue creativity as we move past adolescence if we're one of the best, leaving the rest of us with "a more commonplace, inspiration-free existence". She's being sarcastic here but her words ring true. It's ludicrous that we'd stop indulging in creative acts such as painting or dancing because they're not going to be our career or win us awards. I loved the story of the woman who takes up figure skating again in the mornings -"and no, this story does not end with her winning any championship medals. It doesn't have to."

On realising your strengths
It's easier to be shy and self-aware, saying oh me I'm not talented, no, not creative. It's a very British way for one thing. Elizabeth was this way when young but her fiery mother firmly encouraged her to get out there. A lesson in life as much as creativity: "argue for your limitations and you get to keep them."

Knowing fear
This made me smile: "the only fearless people I've ever met were straight up sociopaths." Valid, and in line with my love of Susan Jeffers' Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway: those living life to the full aren't fearless, no - they have fear too, but they're just cracking on. So firstly, fear is acceptable. But then, don't let it come into the making of your work. It's not helpful.

She gives practical advice on how to handle this: through acceptance ("if I want creativity in my life then I have to make space for fear too") and acknowledging without backing down, as she tells fear: "You're allowed to have a seat, and you're allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote." Powerful, and joyfully reminiscent of Pixar's Inside Out (a lovely, important film).

So many don't push through fear with creativity as there's no pressure to do so. It's seen as something extra to a "normal" life (relationships, career etc). Something niche and not entirely necessary, which is a shame. Do it anyway. Do it because it's not necessary: do it for fun.

We make too big a deal out of creating

I loved this. Me and a friend were having this discussion recently, about how these days people are too all or nothing with creativity. We think we have to carve so much time out for it, rather than it just naturally inhabiting a part of your day.

She writes "for most of history people just made things, and they didn't make such a big freaking deal out of it. We make things because we like making things." Yes yes yes.

Again, I think it's the fear that stops us in our tracks with creativity and Elizabeth talks about this "nasty dialogue". Even when creating alone, with no one to judge, we think who am I to write this? Why would anyone care? We talk ourselves out of something that could be wonderful and fulfilling because we think there's no point and we're not enough. And that's sad. And silly.

Authenticity over originality

Another reason we talk ourselves out of creativity is because it's been done before. Elizabeth reassures us:

"Everything reminds us of something. But once you put your expression and passion behind an idea, that idea becomes yours."

And more reassuring still:

"the older I get, the less impressed I become with originality. These days, I'm far more moved by authenticity. Attempts at originality can often feel forced and precious, but authenticity has quiet resonance which never fails to stir me.

Just say what you want to say, then, and say it with all your heart.

Share whatever you are driven to share.

If it's authentic enough, believe me - it will feel original."

What a relief. What an absolute relief.

Make the work you want to make: everything might have been done but not by you.

Don't cling to your suffering

"I believe that our creativity grows like sidewalk weeds out of the cracks between our pathologies - not from the pathologies themselves."

This is important. Suffering does not make you a good writer. You're allowed to feel and express joy. Writing can be joyous. Which leads onto...

Be excited

The paragraph where Elizabeth tells us to "sneak off and have an affair with your most creative self" is wonderful. She says to "lie to everyone about where you're actually going on your lunch break." It's silly but I love it. It gets rid of shame and self-doubt and puts fun and excitement in the picture instead.

Allow yourself to be bad

Of course you're not going to be brilliant, at first or all of the time. No one is. But to hear this pushing-through process explained is reassuring:

"The only reason I was able to persist in completing my first novel was that I allowed it to be stupendously imperfect. I pushed myself to continue writing it, even though I strongly disapproved of what I was producing."

You have to go through this to get better. No way round it. Everyone does. But:

"You made it; you get to put it out there. Never apologise for it, never explain it away, never be ashamed of it. You did your best with what you knew, and you worked with what you had, in the time that you were given. You were invited, and you showed up, and you simply cannot do more than that."

So, do go read the book. Or, if you don't read/don't have time to read etc, this interview is a great watch picking up on the key ideas: