“Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert: a Book on Pursuing the Creative Life (and Thriving)
If Big Magic was highly recommended by fellow creators, I must admit that I didn’t find it particularly enlightening. Not because the book was bad or I learned nothing from it — it’s actually quite the opposite— but because I’m a data-driven person. I like when authors of self-help books back their statements with science, facts, numbers. Real stuff.
Big Magic is certainly not that type of book. Reading it is like having a conversation about creativity with a very spiritual friend. Not what I was looking for, but I’m glad I read it. Some of Gilbert’s words really resonated with me and if you are a creative person, you might benefit from them, too.
Here are two lessons I learned from Big Magic:
Gilbert has an interesting take on perfection. She admits it herself: her work isn’t perfect, and she has already published a novel where a character and bits of the plot didn’t quite add up — but to her, it was good enough, so she published it as it was.
In fact, Gilbert was worried that if she had attempted to change the story to make it “perfect,” it would have never seen the light of day. She considered having spent a great deal of time and energy on this novel already, and that her work here was done. She liked it as it was.
“The most evil trick about perfectionism is that it disguises itself as a virtue. But I see it differently. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.’”
This might ring a bell. As a screenwriter, I am rarely satisfied with my work. I once wrote a pilot and thought it was genius, then I came back to it and felt like it sucked. So I rewrote it, again and again, until it was good enough. But then a few months later I read it again, and… You get the thing.
At some point, you just have to stop and get your work out there, or nothing is ever gonna happen. Worse, you might even turn an enlightening creative process into something you hate. Gilbert rightfully quotes writer Rebecca Solnit:
“So many of us believe in perfection, which ruins everything else, because the perfect is not only the enemy of the good; it’s also the enemy of the realistic, the possible, the fun.”
Make your craft sexy again
The author suggests that you treat your relationship with your craft like… an affair. A secret, sexy lover that you keep to yourself and meet as often as you can, trying not to look suspicious.
This passage really stuck with me:
“Stop treating your creativity like it’s a tired, old, unhappy marriage and start regarding it with the fresh eyes of a passionate lover. Sneak off and have an affair with your most creative self. Lie to everyone about where you’re actually going on your lunch break. Pretend you’re traveling on a business trip when secretly you’re retreating in order to paint or to write poetry. Conceal it from your family and friends, whatever it is you’re up to. Slip away from everyone else at the party and go dance alone with your ideas in the dark. Wake yourself up in the middle of the night in order to be alone with your inspiration, while nobody is watching. You don’t need to sleep right now, you can give it up.”
Gilbert finishes by asking an interesting question:
“What else are you willing to give up in order to be alone with your beloved?”
I don’t know if I would wake up in the middle of the night to write, but it is true that keeping your work from your family and friends has benefits — at least from my point of view. Allow me to explain.
When I started writing my first pilot, I kept it to myself until the first draft was done. It was exhilarating to work on this “secret project” that was just mine. No one was going to have a say in it, it was all purely me on paper, uninfluenced by external feedback. I had a great time writing it.
But then, I talked to close relatives about the story. Eventually, what I knew would happen happened: two of them provided really nice feedback, encouraging me to keep writing screenplays, but the majority was skeptical.
“Are you sure about the story? ’Cause it sounds like someone already wrote about this.” “Why would you write a screenplay anyway? Don’t you have a business degree?” “Screenwriters are broke. The odds of becoming successful are just too low, don’t pursue this career.”
Their comments got to me. I almost dumped my pilot, because after all, what’s the point? They’re right. The odds are too low, and it’s probably not original enough to break through the noise.
Less than a month later, a producer expressed interest in the pilot.
Don’t listen to anyone else but yourself. Write what you want to write, make what you want to make. The rest will take care of itself.