Highlights from Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Cover of Big Magic

Highlights from this book

  • He [Jack Gilbert] told them that they must live their most creative lives as a means of fighting back against the ruthless furnace of this world…Without bravery, they would never know the world as richly as it longs to be known.

  • So this, I believe, is the central question upon which all creative living hinges: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you? Look, I don’t know what’s hidden within you. I have no way of knowing such a thing. You yourself may barely know, although I suspect you’ve caught glimpses. I don’t know your capacities, your aspirations, your longings, your secret talents. But surely something wonderful is sheltered inside you. I say this with all confidence, because I happen to believe we are all walking repositories of buried treasure. I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its own amusement and for ours: The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.

  • She asked herself when was the last time she’d felt truly light, joyous, and—yes—creative in her own skin. To her shock, she realized that it had been decades since she’d felt that way. In fact, the last time she’d experienced such feelings had been as a teenager, back when she was still figure skating. She was appalled to discover that she had denied herself this life-affirming pursuit for so long, and she was curious to see if she still loved it. So she followed her curiosity. She bought a pair of skates, found a rink, hired a coach.

  • A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner—continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you—is a fine art, in and of itself.

  • I finally realized that my fear was boring.

  • I had fixated upon my fear as if it were the most interesting thing about me, when actually it was the most mundane. In fact, my fear was probably the only 100 percent mundane thing about me. I had creativity within me that was original; I had a personality within me that was original; I had dreams and perspectives and aspirations within me that were original. But my fear was not original in the least. My fear wasn’t some kind of rare artisanal object; it was just a mass-produced item, available on the shelves of any generic box store. And that’s the thing I wanted to build my entire identity around? The most boring instinct I possessed?

  • Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome.

  • …this is the other side of the contract with creativity: If inspiration is allowed to unexpectedly enter you, it is also allowed to unexpectedly exit you.

  • The idea of an external genius helps to keep the artist’s ego in check, distancing him somewhat from the burden of taking either full credit or full blame for the outcome of his work. If your work is successful, in other words, you are obliged to thank your external genius for the help, thus holding you back from total narcissism. And if your work fails, it’s not entirely your fault.

  • The gods and the mysteries fell away, and suddenly we put all the credit and blame for creativity on the artists themselves—making the all-too-fragile humans completely responsible for the vagaries of inspiration. In the process, we also venerated art and artists beyond their appropriate stations. The distinction of “being a genius” (and the rewards and status often associated with it) elevated creators into something like a priestly caste—perhaps even into minor deities—which I think is a bit too much pressure for mere mortals, no matter how talented. That’s when artists start to really crack, driven mad and broken in half by the weight and weirdness of their gifts. When artists are burdened with the label of “genius,” I think they lose the ability to take themselves lightly, or to create freely.

  • But such thinking assumes there is a “top”—and that reaching that top (and staying there) is the only motive one has to create. Such thinking assumes that the mysteries of inspiration operate on the same scale that we do—on a limited human scale of success and failure, of winning and losing, of comparison and competition, of commerce and reputation, of units sold and influence wielded. Such thinking assumes that you must be constantly victorious—not only against your peers, but also against an earlier version of your own poor self. Most dangerously of all, such thinking assumes that if you cannot win, then you must not continue to play…What does any of that have to do with the quiet glory of merely making things, and then sharing those things with an open heart and no expectations?

  • …in the end, creativity is a gift to the creator, not just a gift to the audience.

  • The most important thing to understand about eudaimonia, though—about that exhilarating encounter between a human being and divine creative inspiration—is that you cannot expect it to be there for you all the time. It will come and go, and you must let it come and go.

  • No genuine book has a first page. Like the rustling of the forest, it is begotten God knows where, and it grows and it rolls, arousing the dense wilds of the forest until suddenly…it begins to speak with all the treetops at once.

    — Boris Pasternak
  • …the British physicist Sir Arthur Eddington’s memorable explanation of how the universe works: “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.”

  • The earliest evidence of recognizable human art is forty thousand years old. The earliest evidence of human agriculture, by contrast, is only ten thousand years old.

  • Keep in mind that for most of history people just made things, and they didn’t make such a big freaking deal out of it. We make things because we like making things. We pursue the interesting and the novel because we like the interesting and the novel.

  • To even call somebody “a creative person” is almost laughably redundant; creativity is the hallmark of our species.

  • When I asked her once how she could allow her body to be marked up so casually with permanent ink, she said, “Oh, but you misunderstand! It’s not permanent. It’s just temporary.”

  • you will never be able to create anything interesting out of your life if you don’t believe that you’re entitled to at least try…creative entitlement simply means believing that you are allowed to be here, and that—merely by being here—you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.

  • Without this arrogance of belonging, you will never be able to take any creative risks whatsoever. Without it, you will never push yourself out of the suffocating insulation of personal safety and into the frontiers of the beautiful and the unexpected.

  • often what keeps you from creative living is your self-absorption (your self-doubt, your self-disgust, your self-judgment, your crushing sense of self-protection). The arrogance of belonging pulls you out of the darkest depths of self-hatred—not by saying “I am the greatest!” but merely by saying “I am here!”

  • I’m talking about the nasty dialogue that goes like this: “Who the hell do you think you are, trying to be creative? You suck, you’re stupid, you have no talent, and you serve no purpose. Get back in your hole.” To which you may have spent a lifetime obediently responding, “You’re right. I do suck and I am stupid. Thank you. I’ll go back in my hole now.” I would like to see you engaged in a more generative and interesting conversation with yourself than that. For heaven’s sake, at least defend yourself!

  • This proclamation of intent and entitlement is not something you can do just once and then expect miracles; it’s something you must do daily, forever.

  • The older I get, the less impressed I become with originality. 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…If it’s authentic enough, believe me—it will feel original.

  • Oh, and here’s another thing: You are not required to save the world with your creativity. Your art not only doesn’t have to be original, in other words; it also doesn’t have to be important.

  • It’s okay if your work is fun for you, is what I’m saying. It’s also okay if your work is healing for you, or fascinating for you, or redemptive for you, or if it’s maybe just a hobby that keeps you from going crazy. It’s even okay if your work is totally frivolous. That’s allowed. It’s all allowed.

  • Whether you are young or old, we need your work in order to enrich and inform our own lives.

  • of course it’s difficult to create things; if it wasn’t difficult, everyone would be doing it, and it wouldn’t be special or interesting.

  • Nobody ever really listens to anybody else’s complaints, anyhow, because we’re all too focused on our own holy struggle, so basically you’re just talking to a brick wall.

  • I have felt the way my self-pity slams the door on inspiration, making the room feel suddenly cold, small, and empty.

  • I told the universe (and anyone who would listen) that I was committed to living a creative life not in order to save the world, not as an act of protest, not to become famous, not to gain entrance to the canon, not to challenge the system, not to show the bastards, not to prove to my family that I was worthy, not as a form of deep therapeutic emotional catharsis…but simply because I liked it. So try saying this: “I enjoy my creativity.” And when you say it, be sure to actually mean it.

  • I certainly don’t ever want to confidently announce that this person is destined to become an important artist, while that person should give it up. How do I know? How does anyone know? It’s all so wildly subjective, and, anyhow, life has surprised me too many times in this realm. On one hand, I’ve known brilliant people who created absolutely nothing from their talents. On the other hand, there are people whom I once arrogantly dismissed who later staggered me with the gravity and beauty of their work. It has all humbled me far beyond the ability to judge anyone’s potential, or to rule anybody out.

  • I beg you not to worry about such definitions and distinctions, then, okay? It will only weigh you down and trouble your mind, and we need you to stay as light and unburdened as possible in order to keep you creating. Whether you think you’re brilliant or you think you’re a loser, just make whatever you need to make and toss it out there.

  • pigeonholing is something people need to do in order to feel that they have set the chaos of existence into some kind of reassuring order.

  • never delude yourself into believing that you require someone else’s blessing (or even their comprehension) in order to make your own creative work. And always remember that people’s judgments about you are none of your business.

  • …what W. C. Fields had to say on this point: “It ain’t what they call you; it’s what you answer to.”

  • If I am allowed to speak my inner truth, then my critics are allowed to speak their inner truths, as well. Fair’s fair.

  • The paradox that you need to comfortably inhabit, if you wish to live a contented creative life, goes something like this: “My creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me (if I am to live artistically), and it also must not matter at all (if I am to live sanely).”

  • I simply vowed to the universe that I would write forever, regardless of the result. I promised that I would try to be brave about it, and grateful, and as uncomplaining as I could possibly be. I also promised that I would never ask writing to take care of me financially, but that I would always take care of it—meaning that I would always support us both, by any means necessary. I did not ask for any external rewards for my devotion; I just wanted to spend my life as near to writing as possible—forever close to that source of all my curiosity and contentment—and so I was willing to make whatever arrangements needed to be made in order to get by.

  • It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at.

  • It’s never too late.

  • …your education isn’t over when they say it’s over; your education is over when you say it’s over.

  • I found that if I just stayed with the process and didn’t panic, I could pass safely through each stage of anxiety and on to the next level. I heartened myself with reminders that these fears were completely natural human reactions to interaction with the unknown.

  • Mark Manson, who said that the secret to finding your purpose in life is to answer this question in total honesty: “What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich?”…every single pursuit—no matter how wonderful and exciting and glamorous it may initially seem—comes with its own brand of shit sandwich, its own lousy side effects.

  • “Everything sucks, some of the time.”

  • I held on to those other sources of income for so long because I never wanted to burden my writing with the responsibility of paying for my life.

  • Most individuals have never had enough time, and they’ve never had enough resources, and they’ve never had enough support or patronage or reward…and yet still they persist in creating.

  • The writer Rebecca Solnit puts it well: “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, and the fun.”

  • Perfectionism stops people from completing their work, yes—but even worse, it often stops people from beginning their work. Perfectionists often decide in advance that the end product is never going to be satisfactory, so they don’t even bother trying to be creative in the first place.

  • Too many women still seem to believe that they are not allowed to put themselves forward at all, until both they and their work are perfect and beyond criticism. Meanwhile, putting forth work that is far from perfect rarely stops men from participating in the global cultural conversation. Just sayin’.

  • I’ve watched far too many brilliant and gifted female creators say, “I am 99.8 percent qualified for this task, but until I master that last smidgen of ability, I will hold myself back, just to be on the safe side.”

  • No matter how many hours you spend attempting to render something flawless, somebody will always be able to find fault with it. (There are people out there who still consider Beethoven’s symphonies a little bit too, you know, loud.) At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is—if only so that you can go on to make other things with a glad and determined heart.

  • 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).

  • We all need something that helps us to forget ourselves for a while—to momentarily forget our age, our gender, our socioeconomic background, our duties, our failures, and all that we have lost and screwed up.

  • Perhaps creativity’s greatest mercy is this: By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, it can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are.

  • “We all spend our twenties and thirties trying so hard to be perfect, because we’re so worried about what people will think of us. Then we get into our forties and fifties, and we finally start to be free, because we decide that we don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of us. But you won’t be completely free until you reach your sixties and seventies, when you finally realize this liberating truth—nobody was ever thinking about you, anyhow.”

    — Anonymous 70-something woman
  • People are mostly just thinking about themselves. People don’t have time to worry about what you’re doing, or how well you’re doing it, because they’re all caught up in their own dramas…While it may seem lonely and horrible at first to imagine that you aren’t anyone else’s first order of business, there is also a great release to be found in this idea. You are free, because everyone is too busy fussing over themselves to worry all that much about you.

  • Done Is Better Than Good

  • You do what you can do, as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then you let it go.

  • Look around you, the evidence is everywhere: People don’t finish. They begin ambitious projects with the best of intentions, but then they get stuck in a mire of insecurity and doubt and hairsplitting…and they stop. So if you can just complete something—merely complete it!—you’re already miles ahead of the pack, right there.

  • Creative living is stranger than other, more worldly pursuits. The usual rules do not apply. In normal life, if you’re good at something and you work hard at it, you will likely succeed. In creative endeavors, maybe not. Or maybe you will succeed for a spell, and then never succeed again.

  • …the goddess of creative success may show up for you, or she may not. Probably best, then, if you don’t count on her, or attach your definition of personal happiness to her whims.

  • When it’s for love, you will always do it anyhow.

  • Even if things work out for you in the arts, parts of your career will likely always remain crap…Trust me, if you want to complain, you’ll always find plenty to complain about, even when fortune appears to be shining her favor upon you.

  • The first question is: “Do you love nature?” Every hand in the room goes up. The second question is: “Do you believe that nature loves you in return?” Every hand in the room goes down. At which point Robin says, “Then we have a problem already.”…These earnest young world-savers honestly believe that the living earth is indifferent to them. They believe that humans are nothing but passive consumers, and that our presence here on earth is a destructive force. (We take, take, take and offer nothing of benefit to nature in return.) They believe that humans are here on this planet by random accident, and that therefore the earth doesn’t give a damn about us…Our ancestors always operated with a sense of being in a reciprocal emotional relationship with their physical surroundings. Whether they felt that they were being rewarded by Mother Nature or punished by her, at least they were engaged in a constant conversation with her.

    — Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s environmental bio clas at SUNY
  • What you produce is not necessarily always sacred, I realized, just because you think it’s sacred. What is sacred is the time that you spend working on the project, and what that time does to expand your imagination, and what that expanded imagination does to transform your life.

  • My favorite meditation teacher, Pema Chödrön, once said that the biggest problem she sees with people’s meditation practice is that they quit just when things are starting to get interesting. Which is to say, they quit as soon as things aren’t easy anymore, as soon as it gets painful, or boring, or agitating. They quit as soon as they see something in their minds that scares them or hurts them. So they miss the good part, the wild part, the transformative part—the part when you push past the difficulty and enter into some raw new unexplored universe within yourself…Whatever it is you are pursuing, whatever it is you are seeking, whatever it is you are creating, be careful not to quit too soon.

  • You don’t need to conduct autopsies on your disasters. You don’t need to know what anything means. Remember: The gods of creativity are not obliged to explain anything to us. Own your disappointment, acknowledge it for what it is, and move on. Chop up that failure and use it for bait to try to catch another project.

  • Einstein called this tactic “combinatory play”—the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another. This is why he would often play the violin when he was having difficulty solving a mathematical puzzle; after a few hours of sonatas, he could usually find the answer he needed.

  • What do you love even more than you love your own ego?