Believing in Big Magic

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I don’t often read self-help books, because they tend to proffer earnest advice like “think positive!” as a remedy for basically everything, which generally does not work for people with depression and anxiety disorders (namely, me). So when I checked Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert out of the library a few weeks ago, I admit that I didn’t want to like it. I figured it would probably tell me that the cure for writer’s block was to think positive, sit down at my keyboard, and let the words pour forth from my fingers. I was already annoyed by the book before I even opened it. Of course Elizabeth Gilbert believes that creativity is magic! She’s a millionaire who had a book on The New York Times Best Seller list for 4 years. What advice can she possibly have for me?

Why bother, then? A friend had strongly recommended that I read it; also, I am on a quest to make 2017 better than 2016, and seeing as I did not read any self-help books in 2016, maybe this was the place to start. Fine: I would read the book. It deserved a chance.

Of course, as often happens with these things, I loved it. I could not have read Big Magic at a better time. The book is written as a series of tiny chapters (often 1-2 pages long), with titles like “Nobody’s Thinking About You,” “Done is Better Than Good,” and “Do Something Else” — all good advice for someone who writes and often gets tripped up in the editing process before a sentence is even complete. I wrote those three statements down on an index card and committed them to memory, because in order to rid myself of perfectionist tendencies, I really need to learn to believe in the following: when the stakes are low, who cares? Just do it. If it sucks, fine; nobody cares, and you learned something. Now try again.

My favourite part of the book is called “Persistence” and includes a passage that stopped me dead in my tracks:

If your calling is to make things, then you still have to make things in order to live out your highest creative potential — and also in order to remain sane. Possessing a creative mind, after all, is something 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 (eating the couch, digging a hole through the living room floor, biting the mailman, etc.). 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).

If you are like me — and chances are you might be, as statistics show that 5% of adults in Canada and 18% of adults in the US live with some degree of anxiety disorder — then perhaps this analogy rang a little close to home. I honestly had to put the book down after I read this part and send a text to a friend: “Too real, Liz Gilbert! Too real!” Because this is exactly what I do — when I’m bored or in a creative lull, I let my brain invent problems to obsess over, often with miserable consequences. The next thing I know, I am awake at 3am, obsessing over something embarrassing that happened in the 7th grade.

This does not help me work, so I’m trying to give my mind a purposeful job to do. Liz concludes the book by writing, “please calm down and get back to work, okay?” So that’s what I’ll be doing in 2017 — immediately after finishing Big Magic, I started this blog, something I’ve been telling myself to do for years. I’m excited about this project, and more importantly, I don’t care if it’s good or not; what matters is that I’m doing it in the first place.

Did you read Big Magic? What did you think?

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