It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say this book changed my creative life. I first read Big Magic when I was in a serious creative rut. I hadn’t made any art in at least a year, and I was starting to think that all of the time, money and effort I had put into my art career was nothing but a waste of resources.
I was especially hung up on the idea that if what I made didn’t generate income, then it wasn’t worth making.
In 2004 I enrolled in art school with hopes of becoming a full-time artist. I finished school and had mild success selling my work at art fairs and galleries, but was far from making a living from my art. In 2010 I decided to go back to school to get my MFA so I could teach at the college level and (hopefully) make a living from my craft. I realized during my MFA program though that getting a full time teaching position would take years, and would involve adjunct teaching around the country, moving every few months to take whatever position I could get. As many universities started employing more adjunct teachers, and less full time professors, the prospect of teaching full time started to dwindle. I realized I had spent years struggling for something that didn’t even seem reachable anymore. I was exhausted from completing my MFA degree, and couldn’t see how all the years (and student loan debt) would ever pay off.
This is when I started doubting my whole thinking process. Why had I even studied art? Why couldn’t I be one of those normal people who chooses a sensible career like nursing or business? Art seemed to be doing nothing but making my life harder, so I decided to take a break.
I took all my art supplies out of the closet, put them in a box, and took them to the local university. I knew I needed to get far away from anything related to my art career, and I wasn’t sure if I would ever let it back into my life. I was angry at myself for “wasting” so many years in art school. I was embarrassed by the amount of student loan debt I had racked up over the years. I was suspicious of all the people throughout my life who had encouraged me to continue my life in art. Were they just setting me up for failure?
In essence I broke up with art. I found a sensible job. I worked my way up the ladder in customer service in art organizations over the next few years, and found myself in what is probably the best customer service job available. I worked for Spoonflower, a print on demand company that mirrors Google in many aspects of its company culture. I was surrounded by great coworkers, a creative community, and I could use my art and design skills at work to help customers complete their creative projects.
On the outside, it seemed perfect. But something didn’t feel right. I felt like I was living in someone else’s skin. While I was helping other people realize their creative goals, I wasn’t making anything myself. To quote a quote within a quote from Big Magic:
“Not expressing creativity turns people crazy. (“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is within you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.”—Gospel of Thomas.)” ― Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
When I read this line in Big Magic, I felt like it was speaking directly to me. Not creating was actually driving me crazy. It gave me the sense that I was not myself. I was living someone else’s life, watching it from the outside as a voyeur.
Reading this book was the beginning of my path back to making. While I listened to the audio book, I sat at a table in my kitchen and drew circles. I didn’t know what else to draw! I hadn’t made anything in years, and I couldn’t fathom drawing anything, so circles seemed like a good place to start. Over the years, these circles turned into patterns, which turned into flowers, and led me to where I am today. I truly credit this book with lighting the spark that encouraged me to take the scary step of rearranging my life to let art back in.
In the book, Gilbert challenges us to be curious about our interests and desires without judgement. She explains how her friend took up ice skating late in life, not to become a professional skater, but to enjoy the feeling of waking up the morning, putting on ice skates, and soaring across the ice with the cool wind blowing on her cheeks.
The creative life Gilbert asks us to lead is not one that necessarily generates income, and certainly not one that asks us to quit our jobs and become full time makers. Rather, its about stealing moments of creativity throughout the day, without asking these moments to be productive. When I finally started approaching my creative process without any expectations for results, I started making the best work of my life. Perhaps that is the secret that Gilbert is letting us in on. The pressure to produce work with an expectation of results can kill the creative process. If we approach our work with curiosity rather than expectation, we just might find what we’re looking for.