Big Magic, 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.

Why You Should Quit Writing

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.”

Seize an Idea and Follow It

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 Passion Pursue Curiosity

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).”

Canada by Richard Ford

A recommendation from my like-minded, book loving Aunt, I was fortunate to pick this up at our library, a wonderful facility, though only a few bookshelves dedicated to works in English, so to find a recently published book was a real find.

Bibliotheque Mejanes, Our Library in Aix-en-Provence

Bibliothèque Méjanes,
The Entrance to our Library in Aix-en-Provence

Richard Ford is a familiar name for many, a Pulitzer prize-winning author for his book Independence Day, however he is an author I was not thus far acquainted with.

Canada is a coming of age novel written from the perspective of Dell, a 15-year-old twin, whose sister Bernie is on the verge of asserting her independence, something she is ready to do, unlike Dell, who is more of a ‘wait and see’ type of individual, though even this more submissive attitude doesn’t occur without serious consideration of all the alternatives. Regardless of whether he is ever likely to pursue those thoughts, he considers them before watching them pass, pondering how they may have changed the course of events, though rarely if ever acting on them.

The course of these siblings’ ordinary lives is altered drastically when their father, aided by their mother, decides to rob a bank to pay a supplier when his middleman status finds him stuck in between having delivered the goods and not having been paid as agreed.

The first part of the book is Dell’s recollection of the events of those weeks surrounding ‘the event that would change their lives’ with a little of the wisdom of hindsight and the knowledge he has gained from subsequently reading his mother’s journal (fifty years later).

Saskatchewan Ghost Town by R Smith @ominocity

Saskatchewan Ghost Town by R Smith @ominocity

In Part Two, Dell is at the mercy of his mother’s plan for the children to go to Canada, while the parents are in prison, only Dell departs alone; he believes he is going to stay with the brother of his mother’s friend Mildred and so begins his life ‘after the event that changed his life’.

No longer attending school, he assists a man named Charley with preparations for goose hunting and cleaning rooms at the hotel owned by Mildred’s brother, while living in an almost ghost town somewhere in Saskatchewan.

Richard Ford is an adept writer, a straight forward storyteller and reading his work reminds me a little of Jonathan Franzen’s way of writing. His use of language is plain, spare and as a consequence there are few sentences or paragraphs that I have highlighted, few metaphors, except perhaps the title, though perhaps being one word it is more of a symbol than a metaphor. Canada is the frontier, another country, another life, another citizen.

Canada1While he doesn’t coat his words with poetic language, Ford in the literary tradition, delves deep into the mind and thoughts of his protagonist, sharing events in a stream of consciousness narration. Dell methodically dissects everything that happens around him referencing the recent past in relation to what happens, the things he may have realised with hindsight but didn’t. It is a psychological journey into the mind of a 15-year-old sharing thoughts of himself and others around him leading up to and during those two events that changed everything.

I can’t make what follows next seem reasonable or logical, based on what anyone would believe they knew about the world. However, as Arthur Remlinger said, I was the son of bank robbers and desperadoes, which was his way of reminding me that no matter the evidence of your life, or who you believe you are, or what you’re willing to take credit for or draw your vital strength and pride from–anything at all can follow anything at all.

As such, not much happens, but the storytelling remains compelling, as he comes to understand the motivations of those around him and who they really are, preparing himself for what they are about to do. In the first part the bank robbery, preparing him for what will happen when he crosses the frontier.

The more we read, the more we come to understand what our preferences are, what we adore, what we find difficult to tolerate and as a result it could be said our reading narrows with age, because we come to know ourselves and our inclinations better, we become a better judge of whether a book is likely to meet that desire or not. That is one of the reasons a book-club can be so interesting, often forcing us to read outside our comfort zone and showing us the many responses to the same book, all equally valid. I know I don’t just read for pleasure, I am often curious to read outside my preferred style of book, and across cultures and language not wishing to be limited to only that which is written in the English language or tradition.

I enjoyed Richard Ford’s Canada and look forward to reading more of his work.