Thursday, June 16, 2016

Takeaways from Elizabeth Gilbert's BIG MAGIC and my favorite books on craft by Joanna Roddy

I'm forever reading books from other writers about the craft of writing. Writing is solitary in many ways. I'm always looking for coyotes of the borderlands to show my wandering writer's soul the way into the land of plenty. 

This spring I read Elizabeth Gilbert's BIG MAGIC. I never read EAT, PRAY, LOVE, but I fell utterly in love with Gilbert's TED talk on creative genius, in which she argues for the classical idea of the muse. She says that the modern concept of artistic genius is too much pressure and is silently killing off our artists through addiction, self-destruction, and despair. She offers instead the ancient idea of having a genius: a creative entity that brings inspiration to collaborate with the artist. Today we typically think of this as a muse. The artist is the servant of the muse, offering the grunt labor to bring the idea into being. As a co-collaborator, the artist is only partially responsible for the success or failure of the work.  

The video is 20 minutes long, but if you can give yourself a learning/ inspiration break today, it's worth the watch.

BIG MAGIC expands on the TED talk, and it is a rich, nurturing baptism into the good news of creative living free from fear. It may be the psychologically healthiest thing I've ever read about being an artist. A lot of writers on craft focus on all the barriers to creativity--resistance, apathy, difficulty, fear. I think this can sometimes lead to the paradigm of the tortured artist who believes that their creative work requires brutal sacrifice and torture. Gilbert reminds us that ideas want to be brought to life by artists and that our creativity chose us and is dependent on us to produce anything in the world. So why would we think it hates us and is trying to punish us? One line from BIG MAGIC I quite like on this theme is this:
“I’ve always had the sense that the muse of the tormented artist—while the artist himself is throwing temper tantrums—is sitting quietly in a corner of the studio, buffing its fingernails, patiently waiting for the guy to calm down and sober up so everyone can get back to work.”

Here are my main takeaways from the book:

  • Ideas are seekers of human collaboration and we have the freedom to say yes or no to them. If you say no, someone else will get that idea and run with it. If you say yes, but don't show up to do the work, eventually the power of that idea will leave you, looking for another collaborator.
  • You're never too old to begin.
  • Take the long view of failure and rejection: I plan to do this for the rest of my life. Many years of rejection is only short-term. 
  • Do not pressure your creative work to succeed or provide for you financially. That's the quickest way to kill it off. You provide for both yourself and your creative work. (Don't quit your day job.)
  • Stop complaining. Complaining about your creative life is bad juju and ideas will not want to collaborate with you. Treat your work with respect, approach it with love, and see how that alters your experience of doing the work.
  • Create because you love to do it. There may be no other reward.
  • Your work is not your baby. Cut, change, adapt if you must. Your creative power is precious, but your projects will never find their way in the world if you feel that you must forever hover over them protectively. 
  •  You are unlikely to get the outcome in the world that you desire from your work. Not that you will never succeed. But even success takes longer and comes in unexpected ways. You cannot control the outcome. Create anyway.
  • Put fierce trust in the love you bear for your creativity, trust for which the qualifiers of success or failure effectively lose their meaning.

This mantra toward the end of the book brought me to tears:
"Fierce trust asks you to stand strong within this truth: You are worthy, dear one, regardless of the outcome. You will keep making your work, regardless of the outcome. You will keep sharing your work, regardless of the outcome. You were born to create, regardless of the outcome. And you will never lose trust in the creative process, even when you don't understand the outcome."

I can't recommend this book more. It's a gem, unlike anything in its class.

Here are a list of other books I've enjoyed as creative inspiration and writing craft:

On Writing, Stephen King: The most practical and helpful book on writing and craft I've read. The memoir portion feels erroneous to the reader looking for writing advice, until you realize it's integral. Try not to feel as though you too must produce 2000 words a day after reading it. 

Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott: This was the first book of writing advice I ever read. It's hilarious and honest and focuses on getting past our own hang-ups in order to do the work. 

Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle: A Christian spiritual reflection on writing by the author of A WRINKLE IN TIME. Deep and moving, abstract but inspiring. 

The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron: A twelve week creative recovery workbook, not unlike a twelve step program. Great for digging deep into oneself and mining out the reasons for blockage and reconnecting with your creative dreams.

Reflections on the Magic of Writing, Diana Wynne Jones: A hodge-podge of lectures and essays by the great children's fantasy writer who studied under Lewis and Tolkein at Oxford and authored many books, including HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE. The latest edition has an introduction by Neil Gaiman. 

The Writing Life, Annie Dillard: A soulful memoir by the Pulitzer Prize winning Dillard, reflecting on the experience of her own writing life. 

Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg: This is a book filled with practical exercises and the exhortation to keep the pen moving! A huge proponent of free writing, Goldberg, a Zen Buddhist, approaches writing as a practice, much like yoga or meditation.

Question for you: What are your favorite books of writing advice? (I'm always adding to my reading list.) If you've read BIG MAGIC, what was your number one takeaway?


  1. I loved this one. Read the first half on a flight to Chicago last fall and the second on the way home. For me the second half resonated more than the first. The section called Persistence was enough alone to call the book magnificent.

    One quote (or my memory of it!) I keep coming back to is something like this: frustration isn't an interruption of the creative process. Frustration is the creative process.

    I'm not sure if it's the same Ted Talk you heard, but I distinctly remember listening to Gilbert's talk about fear being allowed to come along for the ride but having to stay in its place -- the back seat. As an anxious creator, this has been extremely helpful for me (as as the trickster mindset).

    Excellent post!

    1. I'm so glad to hear you loved it too. And it's interesting to see what stands out to another person. It's a rich book with lots to bite into.

  2. You and I have the same writing book tastes. I loved BIG MAGIC, and think it's one of those books I should dip into daily.

    1. So true! Alas, I borrowed mine from the library. I'll be keeping my eye out for a used copy.

  3. This sounds like a book I need to read!! I have it on hold from the library and am eagerly waiting. It will be a good summer read for me!

  4. I loved this book! I think its message resonated with me so much because these are all things I already knew, but that in the everyday struggles get pushed to the back burner until I forget about them. This is an impressive list of writing resources! Thank you!

  5. I enjoyed BIG MAGIC. It was a breezy read and what I most got out of it was getting back to the roots of why I started writing - the magic. It inspired me to seek that inspiration again - that "new love" feeling. A few of my fave inspirational writing books are:
    Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
    SNAP: Seizing Your Aha! Moments by Katherine Ramsland
    The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It by Twyla Tharp

    1. I love Lisa Cron's Wired for Story, too--and am looking forward to her new one: STORY GENIUS, which pubs in August.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!