The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The hunt to uncover those jewels – that’s creative living. The courage to go on that hunt in the first place – that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one. (Pg. 8)
Fair warning: this is a long post. Probably one of the longer posts I’ll ever do. Haha. But I hope you take the time to read through it.
Before I even get into all the amazing things that I got out of Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, let me go back to how I even came across this book in the first place.
Back in February, I made a trip to Santa Fe for a photo printing workshop. The workshop took place on a Tuesday and Wednesday. I didn’t leave to come home until Friday, so I had Thursday to hang out and explore the Santa Fe area. John Charbonneau was gracious enough to meet me in the morning to discuss selling at art shows. I really wanted to talk to someone who had experience with this while I was in Santa Fe, so I was super excited to get to visit with him for a bit, and I’m super thankful he took the time to meet with me.
After that, my plan was to take a road trip and try to grab some fire hydrant pictures in the small towns around Santa Fe. However, after the conversation with John, I decided to go check out a few of the art galleries around Santa Fe instead. One of the first (if not the first) gallery I stopped at was the Photo Eye gallery. As I was looking at the art there, one of the assistants started a conversation with me, and I mentioned that I was getting ready to get into selling my work at art shows. During the course of our conversation, she suggested I read Big Magic. I had never heard of the book before that, so I made a note to look into it later.
I’m not much of a reader, so I didn’t rush off and buy it right away. Plus, I was busy with getting my business up and running. But a couple months later, on my way out of town for a camping trip, I stopped and purchased the book since I figured I would have some time to read during the camping trip.
Funny side note regarding purchasing the book: When I purchased the book, the cashier mentioned something about how awesome it would be to have Julia Roberts play you in a movie. I had no idea what the cashier was talking about. Surely a movie wasn’t made about the book I was buying. It wasn’t until nearly two months later, when my friend mentioned it, that I finally realized that a movie was created from the “Eat Pray Love” book that Gilbert had written. Haha.
Anyway, I got a lot read during the camping trip, but it took me around a month and a half to actually finish the book. I would read a big chunk, then set it down for a week or two, and then read another big chunk.
Now, as I mentioned already, I’m not much of a reader. Generally I read something because I have to, not because I want to, and I don’t think I have ever read a complete book twice. However, this book was different. By the time I finished reading this book the first time, I had already made up my mind I was going to read it again so I could write down some of my favorite passages from the book. Thankfully I haven’t been as busy lately, so the second time it only took me a couple weeks to get through it.
So why this story? The more I think about this whole thing, the more I see what Gilbert calls Big Magic behind it all. I was supposed to go on a fire hydrant trip, but instead went to an art gallery where I got a recommendation for a book, and even though I’m not a reader, something made follow through on reading it. Maybe it was because someone at an art gallery recommended it. Maybe it was because the gallery assistant was cute. Or just maybe Big Magic was behind getting me to read Big Magic.
Anyway, that’s the backstory. Now on to all the great lessons I pulled from the book.
It’s Not About Pleasing Other People
One of the first steps I took towards starting to sell my art at art shows was talking to a fellow coworker about his experience selling his art. He is a painter, not a photographer. Why does this matter? During the course of our conversation, he brought up the point that some other artists don’t think photographers should be part of fine art shows.
Prior to this conversation, I had always viewed painters as superior to photographers. It seems like it takes so much more time and effort and talent to make really good paintings vs really good photographs. But it wasn’t to the point that I thought photographers should be excluded from fine art shows. Maybe that was because I had always seen photographers in shows. Regardless, my coworker bringing this up didn’t help things. It definitely made me pause and rethink if I wanted to take part in shows if I wasn’t welcomed by some of the artists. I obviously decided to press onward, even before reading this book, but it was encouraging to read the passages below, and know that I don’t have to be worried about pleasing other artists, potential customers, or anybody else.
I also liked the passage about perfection. I’m really OCD, and I try to get everything just right. Sometimes it’s a good thing, and sometimes not so good. I decided fairly early on in creating my art that trying to make it perfect wasn’t going to be a good thing. It would take way too much time, and probably result in a lot of frustration. That’s not to say that I don’t take it seriously and don’t put effort and care into it. But I just have to be careful not to go overboard. As the passage states, chances are someone will find something wrong with it no matter how particular I am. Haters gonna hate. But I just have to remember to keep pressing onward and doing my thing.
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. Let other people pigeonhole you however they need to…It doesn’t matter in the least. Let people have their opinions. More than that – let people be in lovewith their opinions, just as you and I are in love with ours. But 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 judgements about you are none of your business…Just keep doing your thing. (Pg. 120-121)
Recognizing this reality – that the reaction doesn’t belong to you – is the only sane way to create. If people enjoy what you’ve created, terrific. If people ignore what you’ve created, too bad. If people misunderstand what you’ve created, don’t sweat it. And what if people absolutely hate what you’ve created? What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud?
Just smile sweetly and suggest – as politely as you possibly can – that they go make their own fucking art.
Then stubbornly continue making yours. (Pg. 125)
We must understand that the drive for perfectionism is a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism. No matter how many hours you spend attempting to render something flawless, somebody will always be able to find fault with it…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.
Which is the entire point.
Or should be. (Pg. 169)
Not about success/making money
Making money off my art wasn’t the main reason I decided to start selling my art. I decided to do it more so because I felt like I was wasting my talent by taking pictures and then putting them on my computer to never be seen by the outside world again. However, as part of this selling my art decision, I decided to start a business, and I didn’t start the business with the intention of being unsuccessful. I knew there was the potential that things wouldn’t go well, but I obviously wanted to be successful. So this talk about it not being about success/making money is a little counter intuitive. It’s a great thing to keep in the back of my mind though. I don’t want to keep making art to the point where I have run myself bankrupt. But at the same time, I can’t get so focused on success that it becomes the only thing that matters.
My first two “shows” have been a great opportunity to put this to practice. I put shows in quotes because my first two shows have really been anything but shows. I did a grand opening for friends and family at my house where it rained nearly the whole time and nobody showed up. And then my first official show ended up being a disaster due to the weather. These were obviously disappointing. I could have taken the stance that it isn’t meant to be and that mother nature is against me and I should just quit before things get even worse. But instead, like the quote from the book below, I have been able to look at these and find lessons learned and things I can improve upon for the next show. I’m also just happy to have the opportunity to get my art out into the world at this point. Even though I didn’t sell anything, it wasn’t a complete loss, and I can hopefully be better at the next show. So while success matters, it also matters to enjoy the creative process.
As for having reached the top, with only one way to go from there, Lee had a point, no? I mean, if you cannot repeat a once-in-a-lifetime miracle – if you can never again reach the top – then why bother creating at all?…
But such thinking assumes there is a “top” – and that reaching the 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. (Pg. 69-70)
No way was I going to give up on my work simply because it wasn’t “working”. That wasn’t the point of it. The rewards could not come from the external results – I knew that. The rewards had to come from the joy of puzzling out the work itself, and from the private awareness I held that I had chosen a devotional path and I was being true to it. If someday I got lucky enough to be paid for my work, that would be great, but in the meantime, money could always come from other places. There are so many ways in this world to make a good enough living, and I tried lots of them, and I always got by well enough.
I was happy. I was a total nobody, and I was happy. (Pg. 113)
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. (Pg. 118)
I kept working.
I kept writing.
I kept not getting published, but that was okay, because I was getting educated. (Pg. 146)
I have a friend, an aspiring musician, whose sister said to her one day, quite reasonably, “What happens if you never get anything out of this? What happens if you pursue your passion forever, but success never comes? How will you feel then, having wasted your entire life for nothing?”
My friend, with equal reason, replied, “If you can’t see what I’m already getting out of this, then I’ll never be able to explain it to you.”
When it’s for love, you will always do it anyhow. (Pg. 184)
Think Twice About Making Art My Career
Ever since getting into photography, I’ve thought it would be really cool to be able to do fine art photography as a career. I have always admired the photographers with their own studios in artsy towns who get paid to take amazing trips to capture photographs. At the same time, I have always been a little weary about making that jump as I was worried making photography my career might take the fun and enjoyment out of it. It was nice to hear the encouragement in the passages below that I don’t necessarily need to make it my career. In fact, it may be a good thing not to make it my career.
Having a day job right now that is able to provide income for me to do my photo business is a huge stress relief right now. If I didn’t have that income from my day job, I would likely be much more stressed out right now and in a much darker place, which probably wouldn’t be good for creating my art. Now, is there some point at which I’ll decide to make that jump? Quite possibly, and hopefully one day I can make that jump. There will definitely be pros to having more time devoted to my art. But it’s good to have reassurance that there is no rush to drop everything and make art my career.
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. I knew better than to ask this of my writing, because over the years, I have watched so many other people murder their creativity by demanding that their art pay the bills. I’ve seen artists drive themselves broke and crazy because of this insistence that they are not legitimate creators unless they can exclusively live off their creativity. And when their creativity fails them (meaning: doesn’t pay the rent), they descend into resentment, anxiety, or even bankruptcy. Worst of all, they often quit creating at all. (Pg. 152–153)
It’s for these reasons (the difficulty, the unpredictability) that I have always discouraged people from approaching creativity as a career move, and I always will – because with rare exceptions, creative fields make for crap careers…
But creative living can be an amazing vocation, if you have the love and courage and persistence to see it that way. I suggest that this may be the only sanity-preserving way to approach creativity. Because nobody ever told us it would be easy, and uncertainty is what we sign up for when we say that we want to live creative lives. (Pg. 185-186)
Less Pressure, More Enjoyment
The previous lessons each contribute a little bit to this lesson, but there is another part I wanted to touch on with this. Gilbert discusses an interesting paradox in the book: art matters, but at the same time it doesn’t. I’m not going to get into all the details on this, but if you can wrap your head around the fact that art doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things, then it can take a lot of pressure off you in creating the art. It’s more of a thing for fun rather than a necessity. With that in mind, you can relax and enjoy the process.
Pure creativity is magnificent expressly becauseit is the opposite of everything else in life that’s essential or inescapable (food, shelter, medicine, rule of law, social order, community and familial responsibility, sickness, loss, death, taxes, etc.). Pure creativity is something better than a necessity; it’s a gift. It’s the frosting. Our creativity is a wild and unexpected bonus from the universe…It doesn’t discourage me in the least, in other words, to know that my life’s work is arguably useless. All it does is make me want to play. (Pg. 128)
As a creator, you can design any sort of jewelry that you like for the inside of other people’s minds (or simply for the inside of your own mind). You can make work that’s provocative, aggressive, sacred, edgy, traditional, earnest, devastating, entertaining, brutal, fanciful…but when all is said and done, it’s still just intracranial jewelry-making. It’s still just decoration. And that’s glorious. But it’s seriously not something that anybody needs to hurt themselves over, okay?
So relax a bit, is what I’m saying.
Please try to relax.
Otherwise, what’s the point of having all these wonderful senses in the first place? (Pg. 134)
Go be whomever you want to be, then.
Do whatever you want to do.
Pursue whatever fascinates you and brings you to life.
Create whatever you want to create – and let it be stupendously imperfect, because it’s exceedingly likely that nobody will even notice.
And that’s awesome. (Pg. 175)
Don’t Quit Too Soon
A little while after I got my business set up, my dad asked me how long I would go if things weren’t going well. I didn’t give a specific reply, but essentially said I’m going to give it a try for a while. I wouldn’t quit after one bad show. I have no idea at which point I would call it quits. If it gets to the point where I’m going into debt and risking bankruptcy, then yeah, I’ll probably call it quits. But one bad show? Two bad shows? Five bad shows? What constitutes a bad show? I’m just going to go along for the ride and see what happens. But the passages below are a great reminder not to give up too soon, and some great tactics on how to move forward after failure. I’m sure there are going to be plenty of days in my future when I question why I’m doing this, and if my first two shows are any indication, there will be a lot of failure. But hopefully I can remember this lesson and keep pressing onward.
And maybe it’s like that with every important aspect of your life. 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. As my friend Pastor Rob Bell warns: “Don’t rush through the experiences and circumstances that have the most capacity to transform you.:
Don’t let go of your courage the moment things stop being easy or rewarding.
Because that moment?
That’s the moment when interestingbegins. (Pg. 247)
So how do you shake off failure and shame in order to keep living a creative life?
First of all, forgive yourself. If you made something and it didn’t work out, let it go. Remember that you’re nothing but a beginner – even if you’ve been working on your craft for fifty years. We are all just beginners here, and we shall all die beginners. So let it go. Forget about the last project, and go searching with an open heart for the next one…
Whatever you do, try not to dwell too long on your failures. 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. Someday it might all make sense to you – why you needed to go through this botched-up mess in order to land in a better place. Or maybe it will never make sense.
So be it.
Move on, anyhow.
Whatever else happens, stay busy…Find something to do – anything, even a different sort of creative work altogether – just to take your mind off your anxiety and pressure…
Call attention to yourself with some sort of creative action, and – most off all – trustthat if you make enough of a glorious commotion, eventually inspiration will find its way home to you again. (Pgs. 251-254)
And so it came to pass that one of the most important writers of his generation spent several weeks sitting in his driveway, painting thousands and thousands of tiny stars on the bicycles of every child in the area. As he did so, he came to a slow discovery. He realized that “failure has a function. It asks you whether you really want to go on making things.” To his surprise, James realized that the answer was yes. He really did want to go on making things. For the moment, all he wanted to make were beautiful stars on children’s bicycles. But as he did so, something was healing within him. Something was coming back to life. Because when the last bike had been decorated, and every star in his personal cosmos had been diligently painted back into place, Clive James at last had this thought: I will write about this one day.
And in that moment, he was free.
The failure had departed; the creator had returned.
By doing something else – and by doing it with all his heart – he had tricked his way out of the hell of inertia and straight back into the Big Magic. (Pgs. 256-257)
A couple things before I close this out with one final passage from the book. First off, I doubt Juliane ever reads this, but if she does, a huge thank you for recommending this book. The trip to Sante Fe was worth it just as much for getting this book recommendation as it was for learning how to use a photo printer. Second, if you are contemplating, or have even already started, some sort of creative endeavor, I highly encourage you to read this book. I have provided plenty of great snippits from the book in this blog, but these are just a small portion of a great book. There are plenty of other great passages I recorded in a document but didn’t include in this blog. You may not agree with everything in the book, but I’m sure there will be enough gems of knowledge that you will be glad you read it. So with that, one last passage from the book:
The final – and sometimes most difficult – act of creative trust is to put your work out there into the world once you have completed it.
The trust that I’m talking about here is the fiercest trust of all. This is not a trust that says “I am certain I will be a success” – because that is not fierce trust; that is innocent trust, and I am asking you to put aside your innocence for a moment and to step into something far more bracing and far more powerful. As I have said, and as we all know deep in our hearts, there is no guarantee of success in creative realms. Not for you, not for me, not for anyone. Not now, not ever.
Will you put forth your work anyhow?…
Fierce trust demands that you put forth the work anyhow, because fierce trust knows that the outcome does not matter.
The outcome cannot matter.
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. You will never lose trust in the creative process, even when you don’t understand the outcome.”
There is a famous question that shows up, it seems, in every self-help book ever written: What would you do if you knew that you could not fail?
But I’ve always seen it differently. I think the fiercest question of all is this one: What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail?
What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant?
What do you love even more than you love your own ego?
How fierce is your trust in that love?
You might challenge this idea of fierce trust. You might buck against it. You might want to punch and kick at it. You might demand of it, “Why should I go through all the trouble to make something if the outcome might be nothing?”
The answer will usually come with a wicked trickster grin: “Because it’s fun, isn’t it?”
Anyhow, what else are you going to do with your time here on earth – not make things? Not do interesting stuff? Not follow your love and your curiosity?
There is always that alternative, after all. You have free will. If creative living becomes too difficult or too unrewarding for you, you can stop whenever you want.
But seriously: Really?
Because, think about it: Then what? (Pgs. 257-260)