Brave, faith, quotes

Big Magic – 5 themes that stood out in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book

November 10, 2015
Big Magic – 5 lessons I took from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book

BigMagicCoverOne of the joys of being back in my home country again after eight years overseas, is the libraries. There are two within a short walking distance of my house. TWO! The day I was there signing up for my library card, I didn’t actually intend to take anything out. I had a bunch of books at home to work through already. But that’s the magic of the library – it draws you in. And suddenly I spotted Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book Big Magic sitting on the “New Arrivals” shelf. I snatched it up so fast.

Honestly? I was mostly driven by my FOMO. So many people are reading this book right now and I didn’t want to be left out. But I’d also loved loved her bestselling Eat Pray Love, and I was curious if I’d enjoy this one.

And I did. I took pages of notes, and her thoughts have inspired so many conversations these last couple of weeks (I have a toddler, reading happens slowly) and already a few actions. I’ve tried to distill it down to the five biggest themes that stood out to me as I’ve read, the ones that have had my thoughts twirling in fascination. (If you’ve read the book, I’d love to hear what your takeaways were). I’m just going to go ahead and call her Liz, coz that feels less weird than Gilbert…

 

1. You are creative. 

Yes, whoever you are. Because creativity is inherent to what it means to be human. Liz described it as the “hallmark of our species”.

“The essential ingredients for creativity remain exactly the same for everybody: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust – and those elements are universally accessible.” – Elizabeth Gilbert

Liz defines creative living as, “a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear”. With that definition, the field is suddenly wide open! And I love this because it fits right into my own theology, that we are made in the image of God Who Creates, with the divine purpose to become involved in co-creation with the very One who created us. Our lives are meant to be defined by creativity.

As the book continues, she does tend to focus more on creativity as it is traditionally understood (writing, art, performance arts), but holding this definition in mind throughout the book helped me to see how many of her ideas and concepts could be applied in a wide variety of places and roles in my own life.

 

2. Don’t try to rid yourself of fear. 

Sometimes fear is very necessary to keep you safe. Just don’t let fear make your decisions. Liz says she will often speak to her fear like this:

“You’re allowed to have a seat and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you’re not allowed to have a vote.”  – Elizabeth Gilbert

This is kinda radical for me. Since I first chose Brave as my one word to guide me through the year in 2012, I have been seeking to discover how I can overcome fear in my life. I’d seen the negative impact it was having on my relationships, my work, my self-esteem, my faith, and I wanted a change.

I’ve written so much along that journey (both here on the blog and privately) and I love that I can look at my life and see the change. I’m more positive, I’m braver in my work life, I’m more secure in my relationships, and I am learning to embrace the doubts and questions of my faith, see them as less threatening that I once did.

And yet fear still has a relatively loud voice in my head many days. That’s seemed a problem, and yet the way that Liz spins it, it doesn’t need to be. Fear can give its opinion; I don’t need to take it. I can chose to live and act and work and love and believe with courage, despite fear’s whispers. I’m curious to see if this perspective feels even more empowering as I try and live it out.

 

3. You don’t need to be original. 

You work doesn’t need to be original. Your writing doesn’t need to be original. Your ideas and beliefs don’t need to be original. They just need to be authentic.

“These days, I’m far more moved by authenticity. Attempts at originality can often feel forced and precious, but authenticity has quiet resonance that never fails to stir me.” – Elizabeth Gilbert

This speaks directly into where I am right now. I think I might have stopped reading at this point just to take it in fully. (It’s not a revolutionary thought but sometimes someone says something right when you need to hear it). I think about some of the things I would love to work on, and then think, oh, but so-and-so is already doing that so well, I don’t want to look like I’m just copying.

The truth is, as Liz writes, it’s almost impossible to be original anyway. We’re all inspired and taught and influenced by the people and culture around us, all the time. What is more important, is whether the things I decide to do are an authentic expression of who I am, and what I believe. It won’t be original, but no one will ever do it quite like me, because there’s only one of me. That’s authenticity.

 

4. You’re allowed to enjoy what you do. 

There’s sometimes an idea that the more you struggle with your work – the harder you fight it to be just right, the more tears and sweat and preferably blood it requires – the better it will be. Liz calls bullshit on that concept:

“I have felt the way my self-pity slams the door on inspiration, making the room feel suddenly cold, small and empty… I started telling myself I enjoyed my work… I told the Universe (and anyone who would listen) that I was committed to living a creative life simply because I liked it.”  – Elizabeth Gilbert

“Far too many creative people have been taught to distrust pleasure and put their faith in struggle alone… My ultimate choice, then, is to always approach my work from a place of stubborn gladness.”

Ugh, am I the only one who forgets that I do actually enjoy the work I do?! Writing is one easy example, and Liz writes about that a lot. But she also tells the story of a Nun she met who worked day in day out with some of the most desperate people and situations. And yet she was not at all embarrassed to say that she enjoyed her work!

I’ve worked in NGOs for the last eight years ish (international development and local community volunteering) and I’ve definitely felt that sense that because this is serious work (life and death sometimes), I should not feel any sense of enjoyment. Like that would be inappropriate somehow.

But I believe that when we find that space where we are using our greatest gifts, our lifelong-honed skills, when we are bringing all our experience and interest to our work – it’s going to bring a deep sense of gladness (we might label it joy in the churchworld?) because we’re doing what we were made for.

And so of course life is not one big happiness-party – there is real struggle and even in that place of gladness you will often have to work damn hard – but I appreciated Liz’s emphasis on remembering to enjoy your creative work.

 

5. You can do all this and still not succeed. 

And that’s ok. Liz argues that the way in which we live and love and work and seek out that buried treasure within us, is more important than the final outcome.

“The rewards had to come from the joy of puzzling out the work itself, and from the private awareness that I had chosen a devotional path, and I was being true to it.”

“Fierce trust asks you to stand strong from within this truth: ‘you are worthy, dear one, regardless of the outcome.'”  – Elizabeth Gilbert

For me, the fear that whispers (sometimes yells), What if it doesn’t work out? is the biggest hindrance to my living that full creative life that Liz speaks of. What if no one reads my writing, or worse, they read it but dislike it? What if I try to organise that event, take that training, put myself forward – and it all goes horribly wrong?

Liz’s argument back to me is that living authentically is in fact a far greater reward in and of itself, than any worldly measure of success I might have in mind. She urges me to shush the ego a little more often and listen to my soul:

“My soul, when I tend to it, is a far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than my ego will ever be, because my soul desires only one thing: wonder.”  – Elizabeth Gilbert

I want a little more wonder in my life. Seeking after wonder will guide me in a better direction than seeking after success. Even in those do-gooder worlds I have worked in. Seeking wonder looks, I think, like seeing glimpses of the divine in each person I meet. It looks like valuing authenticity above all. It looks like humility and generosity and stubborn gladness.

And it looks like holy ground.

“So you must keep trying. You must keep calling out in those dark woods for your own Big Magic. You must search tirelessly and faithfully, hoping against hope to someday experience that divine collision of creative communion.

…because when it all comes together, the only thing you can do is bow down in gratitude, as if you have been granted an audience with the divine.

Because you have.”  – Elizabeth Gilbert

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  • Oh, I loved Big Magic. One of my favorite themes was “Follow your curiosity.” When I think about figuring out what I want to be when I grow up or writing a book or tackling something big, I’m often paralyzed before I begin because I don’t have a plan. I can’t see the big picture. I don’t know where to begin. Following my curiosity is such a good way to get started. And I’m excited to see where it leads.

  • Jo Cameron Duguid

    This is great. I especially love that final section and the idea of shushing the ego and listening to your soul, which desires wonder. (Oh, and doesn’t being around a toddler really open your eyes anew to wonder? That was one of the many joys of having Kaya here for a while over the summer.)
    And, on that subject of “what if it all goes horribly wrong?” I remembered a quote from the beginning of a book I read recently called In the Place of Justice. It was written by Wilbert Rideau, who spent 44 years in prison in Louisiana for a crime (which he didn’t deny) which should have attracted a penalty of 10-11 years. The book describes how he made the very best of his situation, despite numerous soul-destroying setbacks as he sought his release. The quote is from T.S. Eliot:
    “Success is relative. It is what we can make of the mess we have made of things.” Isn’t that encouraging?