5 Big Ideas from Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

I recently finished reading the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, and in this post I’d like to share five of the most impactful ideas that I encountered within it.

The Road Trip

In this book, Gilbert shares her thoughts on what it looks like to live a creative life.

There’s this analogy that she shares – the road trip – that’s helpful in dealing with the fears that inevitably crop up when doing vulnerable creative work. 

The two passengers on the road trip of a creative life: fear and creativity. Only let one help you make your decisions.

On this road trip are three travelers: you, your creativity, and your fear.

Acknowledging that fear will always be there is step one. As Gilbert says “I don’t try to kill off my fear. I don’t go to war against it. Instead, I make all that space for it.”

Here’s the key, though: you make space for it, but you also put it in its place.

You very directly say to your fear: “Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote.”

I appreciate how this approach acknowledges fear’s existence while stripping away its power over you.

The Paradox

Another idea from Big Magic that I found to be useful has to do with a paradox that people living a creative life need to come to terms with.

The paradox that all people living a creative life need to get comfortable with.

That paradox goes like this.

There are two approaches that you must take when doing and sharing creative work.

Your creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to you, if you are to live artistically.

And it must not matter at all, if you are to live sanely.

At times you’ll have to leap back and forth between these two perspectives in a matter of minutes. 

It’s the second perspective, in which your creative expression doesn’t matter at all, that I often need to remind myself of. It’s weirdly reassuring. In moments when I’m being overly critical of myself, or I’m not satisfied with how others are responding to my work, this is the perspective that I turn to in order to not tie up my self worth with my creative work.

The Well

In the section of Big Magic that talks about persistence, there’s another analogy that I found to be helpful.

This one comes from poet Seamus Heaney, and it starts with the idea that a person should not expect to be immediately good at the thing they’re working on.

In pursuit of your best work and truest self.

Quoting Gilbert, “The aspiring poet is constantly lowering a bucket only halfway down a well, coming up time and again with nothing but empty air. The frustration is immense. But you must keep doing it anyway. After many years of practice, Heaney explained, ‘The chain draws unexpectedly tight and you have dipped into waters that will continue to entice you back. You’ll have broken the skin on the pool of yourself.'”

This echoes nicely Gilbert’s definition of a creative life, which she shared earlier in the book, acknowledging that we all have jewels deep within ourselves, and to live a creative life means to be on the hunt for those jewels.

It’s the hunt, it’s the effort, that makes your life creative, not any particular results.

Inevitable Frustration

In the same section on persistence, Gilbert addresses the inevitable frustrations that come along with your work, and how hard it can be to go from having great ideas one day to no ideas the next. 

Frustration is the process.

But as Gilbert says, “Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process.”

And, just as important, “How you manage yourself between those bright moments is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation.”

I appreciate the wholistic nature of Gilbert’s approach to living a creative life, that a large part of it is about sustaining your body and your mind, giving it what it needs so that it can show up to the creative work in a full way.

Tormented or Tranquil

The last idea that I would like to share here, similar to the paradox that I mentioned a few minutes ago, has to do with the perspective from which you view your creative efforts and the results of those efforts.

The subtle difference between a tormented creative life and a tranquil one.

To quote Gilbert, “Sometimes I think that the difference between a tormented creative life and a tranquil creative life is nothing more than the difference between the word awful and the word interesting.”

“Interesting outcomes, after all, are just awful outcomes with the volume of drama turned way down.” 

It’s sometimes amazing how slight shifts in mindset, like this one here, can have dramatic effects on the quality of your life, once you learn to apply them consistently. 

And that might be what all five of these ideas have in common – they’re about the mindset that you establish as you go about doing your work living a creative life.

Dig Deeper

I hope that you enjoyed seeing these ideas shared in this visual way. I do encourage you to pick up the book Big Magic, because what you’ve seen here is a mere sprinkling of the good ideas that you’ll find throughout it.

And if you’d like to add the skill of visual note-taking to your creative toolkit, to sketch out the ideas that you’re learning in a similar way to what I’ve done above, then check out my course An Introduction to Visual Note-Taking:

Reconnect to making marks by hand as you learn to use text, layout, imagery, and color to engage your visual brain.

That course will walk you step-by-step through the process of developing all of the individual skills you need to take visual notes, and then you’ll get to bring those skills together into your own sketchnoting process.

You can also check out our full course library here.

Till next time,

-Doug