Even illness has its gifts -- and the most precious of them (as I've noted in a previous post) is the time to read, which brings me treasures I might have missed in the busy-ness of ordinary life. Of the books I've devoured during this recent round of illness, there's one I now find myself recommending to just about everyone I know: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, a guide to creative writing and creative living.
Big Magic is written in a breezy, conversational style, but there is true wisdom underlying Gilbert's deliberately populist approach to the subject of creativity, presented in a generous and open-hearted manner, but also with no punches pulled. Her ideas about inspiration are colored by myth and mysticism, drawing on the Greco-Roman concept of creative genius as a force outside ourselves with whom we collaborate (as we've explored here in posts on the work of Lewis Hyde, among others), so it's not a book I'd recommend to hardcore cynics. I'm assuming, however, that Myth & Moor readers are likely to be open to a bit of myth, magic, and enchantment. If you struggle with your creative work at all (and perhaps even if you don't), please consider giving Gilbert's delightful and insightful book at try. (I should warn you that the book's cover is garishly off-putting, but that's the publisher's doing, not the author's.)
Here's a taste of Big Magic, from a chapter on the concept of "creative permission" (another subject we've talked about here before):
"You do not need anybody's permission to live a creative life," Gilbert states emphatically. "Maybe you didn't receive this kind of message growing up. Maybe your parents were terrified of risk in any form. Maybe your parents were obsessive-compulsive rule-followers, or maybe they were too busy being melancholic depressives, or addicts, or abusers to ever use their imaginations towards creativity. Maybe they were afraid of what the neighbors would say. Maybe your parents weren't makers in the least. Maybe you grew up in an environment where people just sat around watching TV and waiting for stuff to happen to them. Forget about it. It doesn't matter.
"Look a little further back in your family's history. Look at your grandparents: Odds are pretty good they were makers. No? Not yet? Keep looking back, then. Go back further still. Look at your great-grandparents. Look at your ancestors. Look at the ones who were immigrants, or slaves, or soldiers, or farmers, or sailors, or the original people who watched the ships arrive with strangers on board. Go back far enough and you will find people who were not consumers, people who were not sitting around passively waiting for stuff to happen to them. You will find people who spent their lives making things. This is where you come from. This is where we all come from.
"Human beings have been creative beings for a really long time -- long enough and consistently enough that it appears to be a totally natural impulse...[and] the diversity in our creative expression is fantastic. Some of the most enduring and beloved artwork on earth is unmistakably majestic. Some of it makes you want to drop to your knees and weep. Some of it doesn't, though. Some acts of artistic expression might stir and excite you, but bore me to death. Some of the art that people have created across the centuries is absolutely sublime, and probably did emerge from a grand sense of seriousness and sacredness, but a lot of it didn't. A lot of it is just folks messing around for their own diversion -- making their pottery a little prettier, or building a nicer chair, or drawing penises on the walls to pass the time. And that's fine too.
"You want to write a book? Make a song? Direct a movie? Decorate pottery? Learn to dance? Explore a new land? You want to draw a penise on your wall? Do it. Who cares? It's your birthright as a human being, so do it with a cheerful heart. (I mean, take it seriously, sure -- but don't take it seriously.) Let inspiration lead you wherever it wants to lead you. Keep in mind that for most of history people just made things, and they didn't make such a freaking deal out of it.
"We make things because we like making things."
"If you're alive, you're a creative person," Gilbert continues. "You and I and everyone you know are descended from tens of thousands of years of makers. Decorators, tinkerers, storytellers, dancers, explorers, fiddlers, drummers, builders, growers, problem-solvers, and embellishers -- these are our common ancestors.
"The guardians of high culture will try to convince you that the arts belong only to a chosen few, but they are wrong and they are also annoying. We are all the chosen few. We are all makers by design. Even if you grew up watching cartoons in a sugar stupor from dawn to dusk, creativity still lurks within you. Your creativity is older than you are, older than any of us. Your very body and your very being are perfectly designed to live in collaboration with inspiration, and inspiration is still trying to find you -- the same way it hunted down your ancestors.
"All of which is to say: You do not need permission from the principal's office to live a creative life."