BigMagic, Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Signature (2)Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best seller Eat Pray Love and more recently in 2013, the historical, botanical novel The Signature of All Things (reviewed here) has thought a lot about Creativity, so much so that she gave a TED Talk on the subject.

Tapping into one’s creative life can often be referred to as a sea of obstacles, fears, procrastinations and can tend to focus on what one lacks, rather than the small steps we can take in pursuit of it.

In Big Magic, Gilbert writes a lot about how we get in the way of our own creativity, covering a multitude of sins, some that we may find relevant, others not, depending where we are on the path to pursuing it.

The book is separated into six sections, Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust and Divinity where she discusses many aspects of e creative process, her own experiences and many anecdotes from well-known personalities.

One of the best is from Richard Ford, author of Canada (reviewed here); he gave this response to an audience member who recounted all the things that he and Ford had in common; age, background, themes, the fact they’d both been writing all their life.

The big difference being this person had never been published, they were heartbroken, a “spirit crushed by all the rejection and disappointment”. He added that he did not want to be told to persevere, that’s all he ever heard from anyone.

Ford told him he should quit.

The audience froze: What kind of encouragement was this?

Canada1Ford went on: “I say this to you only because writing is clearly bringing you no pleasure. It is only bringing you pain. Our time on earth is short and should be enjoyed. You should leave this dream behind and go find something else to do with your life. Travel, take up new hobbies, spend time with your family and friends, relax. But don’t write anymore, because it’s obviously killing you.”

There was a long silence.

Then Ford smiled and added, almost as an afterthought:

“However, I will say this. If you happen to discover, after a few years away from writing, that you have found nothing that takes its place in your life – nothing that fascinates you, or moves you, or inspires you to the same degree that writing once did…well, then, sir, I’m afraid you will have no choice but to persevere.”

She writes about her theory that ideas are a separate entity to ourselves and if we do not pursue them when they come knocking in the form of inspiration, we risk them leaving us altogether and being passed on to someone else. When the momentum and inspiration has left us, which can also happen if we put something aside for too long, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to renter the zone to complete it.

She gives an example of a novel she was very passionate and inspired by, an Amazonian novel. She mentioned it to her friend Ann Patchett who was curious as she was at the time writing a novel set in the same location.

042812_1839_StateofWond1.jpgGilbert gave her a brief outline and asked Patchett what her novel was about and she repeated almost word for word the same idea – fitting into her theory that the idea had visited her and because she had put it aside for a couple of years, it left and had been passed on to Patchett to become State of Wonder (reviewed here).

It’s necessary to read her quaint theories with an open mind, Big Magic itself is the label she applies to all those instances of coincidence, luck, the unexplained, it is a form of belief in universal guidance or positive thinking, one conveniently packaged as Big Magic.

Fortunately, we need not put all our faith in it, she pulls back from the inclination of some to urge us to seek out our passion, especially when many struggle to find or identify with such a thing. She favours curiosity over passion.

Forget about passion, pursue curiosity. Curiosity is accessible to everyone, while passion can seem intimidating and out of reach.

‘…curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming and democratic entity…curiosity only ever asks one simple question of you:

“Is there anything you’re interested in?”


Even a tiny bit?

No matter how mundane or small?

Curiosity is like a clue, you follow it, see where it takes you and continue along that train of thought or research. It may lead somewhere or nowhere, it doesn’t matter, momentum is what’s important. She gives the example of following an interest in gardening, that lead to researching and eventually writing her much admired historical novel The Signature of All Things.

She acknowledges that the necessity to achieving a creative life of note takes discipline, luck and talent and puts more faith in the former, than the latter.

She doesn’t regard herself as being endowed with greater than average talent, she is not a perfectionist – admitting to flaws in her work she knew were there, that weren’t worth the effort to pursue in the grand scheme of things. An interesting observation, as one of the flaws she mentions was an under-developed character in that same novel, something I noted in my review, that she admits beta readers warned her of, a flaw she deliberately did not remedy. In some cases the effort required to fix something is greater than the reward it will bring.

Overall, a fast, easy read, that can act as a reminder and a motivator to us in relation to any creative endeavour, it’s one of those books to read with a filter, let it pass through you and take the gems for what they’re worth to you now.

“Possessing a creative mind is like having a border collie for a pet. It needs to work, or else it will cause you an outrageous amount of trouble. Give your mind a job to do, or else it will find a job to do, and you might not like the job it invents.

It has taken me years to learn this, but it does seem to be the case that if I am not actively creating something, then I am probably actively destroying something (myself, a relationship, or my own peace of mind).”

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Signature (2)Elizabeth Gilbert’s ambitious, historical novel was my Christmas chunkster and a book I had looked forward to reading since listening to and watching her three-minute book trailer the day she was due to give a reading at the Southbank Centre in London. If I had been there, I would definitely have attended, I think she is a compelling speaker and after listening to this clip below, I knew I would read The Signature of All Things.

Listen to the trailer, her recounting of viewing as a child, her family owned, leather-bound book of Captain Cook’s Voyages full of maps and illustrations lures us towards imagining the kind of character she has created in Alma Whittaker, the daughter of a botanical explorer who sailed with Captain Cook.

Englishman, Henry Whittaker was born in Richmond to a poverty-stricken family, with an insatiable curiosity and desire to improve his station in life and an inclination to want to better others after suffering humiliation at the hand of his British patron, Kew Gardens superintendent Sir Joseph Banks.

Sir Joseph Banks President of the Royal Society - 1812 print Source: wikipedia

Sir Joseph Banks President of the Royal Society – 1812 Source: wikipedia

One mocking laugh would create a turning point in his life, taking him to the Netherlands and eventually to Philadelphia where in 1793 he settled and established White Acre, a manor, greenhouses and lands to house and tend his expanding botanical collection and commercial interests and where he and his formidable Dutch wife Beatrix, would raise two daughters, Alma, a passionate botanist and intellectual and her adopted sister Prudence, a committed abolitionist and educator.

Alma is the centre of the story and the book follows her journey, her learnings, her relationships and disappointments as she passionately pursues her botanical interests, manages her father’s affairs and slowly develops an emotional intelligence to understand her own character and how she is perceived in the world. In a sense we experience how she feels as Gilbert focuses very much on the perspective of Alma and if I have one criticism, because I really loved reading the book, it was that I wanted to get a better understanding of some the other characters close to Alma.

In particular I wanted to know more about her sister Prudence, who is misunderstood and yet this incomprehension actually serves as one of the more profound metaphors in the book, for she symbolises a gap in Alma’s understanding, one that will prevent her from publishing her Theory of Competitive Alteration which provides a wonderful tie-in with another two authors of such theories, one of whom she will meet.

When I arrived at this philosophical dilemma, I was a little disheartened to discover how close to the end we were, because I could have happily kept reading until Alma discovered or created a detailed response to her question,  supported by her understanding of humanity through the passage of a lifetime of observation. It is a question that invites consideration and discussion, one that piqued the interest of this reader.

Peristeria  barkeri Guatamalan Orchid 1837

Peristeria barkeri Guatamalan Orchid 1837

Two men introduce Alma to alternative ways of thinking and seeing the world and these encounters are both baffling and fascinating at the same time. They confuse and reveal in equal measures and leave one in awe of the miracle of life and an appreciation of our differences and the infinite mystery and wisdom that interactions across humanity behold, in particular with those who live beyond the limits of our acceptable knowledge and experience who reveal that which we struggle to understand. In addition, these two characters take the reader on a thrilling journey to Tahiti and immerse us in experiences that delight the imagination.

If that sounds a little unclear, it is because it is better to embark on the journey of reading to unravel the book’s mystery. It is a well-researched, easily accessible book I am sure will provoke a variety of reactions, there is something in here for everyone and it provides an excellent balance of plot, character, philosophy and discovery to keep one reading late into the night.