Sometimes a book makes your heart sing. The last time that happened was with “Sensemaking”. “Big Magic: How to Live a Creative Life, and Let Go of Your Fear” reminds me of “Deep work“ and “Perennial Seller“. It is a delight.
Big magic is about purpose, doing your best work, self-expression. Being brave and courageous. Pursuing your art. Expressing your treasures inside. The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all and then stands back to see if we can find them. A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner—continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you—is a fine art, in and of itself. Because creative living is where big magic will always abide.
Do you want an amplified existence?
A life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear. A life that isn’t always comfortable or easy. But it’s always worth it, because if you can’t learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you’ll never be able to go anywhere interesting or do anything interesting. And that would be a pity, because your life is short and rare and amazing and miraculous, and you want to do really interesting things and make really interesting things while you’re still here.
- Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?
- And what are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?
- What would you do if you knew that you could not fail?
- 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?
Live a vivid life
You want to live the most vividly decorated temporary life that you can. Not just physically; also emotionally, spiritually, intellectually. Don’t be afraid of bright colours, new sounds, big love, risky decisions, strange experiences, weird endeavours, sudden changes, or even failure.
You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life. The earliest evidence of recognisable human art is forty thousand years old. The earliest evidence of human agriculture, by contrast, is only ten thousand years old. This means that somewhere in our collective evolutionary story, we decided it was way more important to make attractive, superfluous items than it was to learn how to feed ourselves regularly. Do you want to write a book? Make a song? Direct a movie? Decorate pottery? Learn a dance? Explore a new land? Do you want to draw a penis on your wall? Do it. Who cares? It’s your birthright as a human being, so do it with a cheerful heart.
For the craig and nothing else
You need to move away from thinking that 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. But what does any of that have to do with vocation? What does any of that have to do with the pursuit of love? What does any of that have to do with the quiet glory of merely making things and then sharing those things with an open heart and no expectations? Art for art sake. Work for work sake.
We are all capable at times of brushing up against a sense of mystery. The supernatural, the mystical, the inexplicable, the surreal, the divine, the transcendent, the otherworldly. Because the truth is that creativity is a force of enchantment—not entirely human in its origins. Our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form.
Don’t fret about the irrationality and unpredictability of it al. Give in to it. Such is the bizarre, unearthly contract of creative living. There is no theft; there is no ownership. There is only the stubbornness of the idea itself, refusing to stop searching until it has found an equally stubborn collaborator. (Or multiple collaborators). Work with all your heart, because if you show up for your work day after day after day after day, you just might get lucky.
Pure creativity is magnificent expressly because it is the opposite of everything else in life that’s essential or inescapable. Pure creativity is something better than a necessity; it’s a gift. Creativity is a wild and unexpected bonus from the universe. It is in our nature.
Tom Waits chimes in
Some songs, he said, will come to him with an almost absurd ease, “like dreams taken through a straw.” Other songs, though, he has to work hard for, “like digging potatoes out of the ground.” Still, other songs are sticky and weird, “like gum found under an old table,” while some songs are like wild birds that he must come at sideways, sneaking up on them gently so as not to scare them into flight. However, the most difficult and petulant songs will only respond to a firm hand and an authoritative voice. There are songs, Waits says, that simply will not allow themselves to be born and that will hold up the recording of an entire album. He noticed that his children felt fully entitled to make up songs all the time, and when they were done with them, they would toss them out “like little origami things, or paper aeroplanes.” Then they would sing the next song that came through the channel. They never seemed to worry that the flow of ideas would dry up. They never stressed about their creativity, and they never competed against themselves; they merely lived within their inspiration, comfortably and unquestioningly.
Be open. Trust in the miraculous truth that new and marvellous ideas are looking for human collaborators every single day. Be ready. Keep your eyes open. Listen. Follow your curiosity. Ask questions. Sniff around. Watch for the chills up the arms, the hair standing up on the back of the neck, the nervous stomach, the buzzy thoughts, that feeling of falling into love or obsession). Inspiration will always try its best to work with you—but if you are not ready or available, it may indeed choose to leave you and to search for a different human collaborator. The idea will organise coincidences and portents to tumble across your path to keep your interest keen. You will start to notice all sorts of signs pointing you toward the idea. Everything you see and touch and do will remind you of the idea.
Ideas want to manifest
Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. Therefore, ideas spend eternity swirling around us, searching for available and willing human partners. But sometimes—rarely, but magnificently—there comes a day when you’re open and relaxed enough to actually receive something. The idea, sensing your openness, will start to do its work on you.
The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you. The simplest answer, of course, is just to say no. Then you’re off the hook. The idea will eventually go away, and—congratulations!—you don’t need to bother creating anything. When you do say yes to an idea, now it’s showtime. Now your job becomes both simple and difficult. You have officially entered into a contract with inspiration.
In contemporary Western civilisation, the most common creative contract still seems to be one of suffering. When so many people treat their creative process as a war zone, is it any wonder there are such severe casualties? So much despair, so much darkness. And at such a cost! Why would your creativity not love you? Why not cooperating fully, humbly, and joyfully with inspiration. You can receive your ideas with respect and curiosity, not with drama or dread. You can clear out whatever obstacles prevent you from living your most creative life, with the simple understanding that whatever is bad for you is probably also bad for your work. You can lay off the booze a bit in order to have a keener mind. You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures. You can battle your demons (through therapy, recovery, prayer, or humility) instead of battling your gifts—in part by realising that your demons were never the ones doing the work, anyhow. And at the end of your days, you can thank creativity for having blessed you with a charmed, interesting, passionate existence.
When you get serious about a project or a pursuit: clear space for it. Clear off your desk, literally and figuratively. Commit yourself to several hours of research every morning. Go to bed early so you can get up at dawn and be ready for work. Say no to alluring distractions and social invitations. Most of it, to be perfectly honest, is not freaky, old-timey, voodoo-style Big Magic. Most of my writing life consists of sitting at a desk and work like a farmer, and that’s how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least. But sometimes it is fairy dust. You may know this feeling. It’s the feeling you get when you’ve made something wonderful or done something wonderful, and when you look back at it later, you can’t repeat it. You can’t explain it. But it felt as if you were possessed.
It’s a simple and generous rule of life that whatever you practice, you will improve at. If you devote yourself to anything diligently for ten years, that will make you an expert. Heaney said that—when one is learning how to write poetry—one should not expect it to be immediately good. 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.
Let your spirit guide you
In ancient Greek, the word for the highest degree of human happiness is eudaimonia, which basically means “well-daemon”—that is, nicely taken care of by spirits. The Greeks and the Romans both believed in the idea of an external daemon of creativity—a sort of house elf, if you will, who lived within the walls of your home. External from you. Romans didn’t believe that the gifted person was a genius; they believed that you had access to an exceptionally gifted spirit. The most important thing to understand about eudaimonia, though—about that exhilarating encounter between a human being and divine creative inspiration—is that you cannot expect it to be there for you all the time. It will come and go, and you must let it come, and a genius—wherever it comes from—does not keep regular hours. So don’t sit around waiting to write until your genius decides to pay you a visit. Take it that your genius spends a lot of time waiting around, waiting to see if you are truly serious about this line of work. When that assistance does arrive, you will lose track of time and space and self. While it’s happening, thank the mystery for its help. Collaborate to the best of your ability with forces of inspiration that you can neither see, nor prove, nor command, nor understand. Let inspiration lead you wherever it wants to lead you.
Do not worry about originality
Worry about authenticity. Share whatever you are driven to share. If it’s authentic enough, it will feel original. Your art not only doesn’t have to be original, in other words; it also doesn’t have to be important. It’s okay if your work is fun for you. It’s also okay if your work is healing for you, or fascinating for you, or redemptive for you, or if it’s maybe just a hobby that keeps you from going crazy. It’s even okay if your work is totally frivolous. That’s allowed. It’s all allowed. Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart. The rest of it will take care of itself.
We are all makers
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. Creative entitlement simply means believing that you are allowed to be here and that—merely by being here—you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own. Without the arrogance of belonging, you will never be able to take any creative risks whatsoever. The arrogance of belonging is not about egotism or self-absorption. In a strange way, it’s the opposite; it is a divine force that will actually take you out of yourself and allow you to engage more fully with life—Mis en place.
Define yourself as a maker
Defending yourself as a creative person begins by defining yourself. It begins when you declare your intent. Stand up tall and say it aloud, whatever it is: I’m a writer. I’m a singer. I’m an actor. I’m a gardener. I’m a dancer. I’m an inventor. I’m a photographer. I’m a chef. I’m a designer. I am this, and I am that, and I am also this other thing, too! I don’t yet know exactly what I am, but I’m curious enough to go find out! Hearing this announcement, your soul will mobilise accordingly. This proclamation of intent and entitlement is not something you can do just once and then expect miracles; it’s something you must do daily, forever. Most of all, never back down. You cannot afford to back down. The life you are negotiating to save, after all, is your own.
- Quit complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams.
- Start telling yourself that you enjoy my work. Tell the universe (and anyone who would listen) that you are 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 you like it. Best of all, though, by saying that you delight in your work, you will draw inspiration near. Inspiration will be grateful to hear those words coming out of your mouth because inspiration—like all of us—appreciates being appreciated.
- Let people have their opinions. More than that—let people be in love with 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. You can only be in charge of producing the work itself.
- It’s never too late. There are dozens of examples of amazing people who didn’t start following their creative paths until later—sometimes much later—in life.
- Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process. The fun part (the part where it doesn’t feel like work at all) is when you’re actually creating something wonderful, and everything’s going great, and everyone loves it, and you’re flying high. How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going so great, is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation and how equipped you are for the weird demands of creative living.
- Hold on to other sources of income for so long as needed. 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. This is a world, not a womb. You can look after yourself in this world while looking after your creativity at the same time—just as people have done for ages.
- Make time. People don’t do this kind of thing because they have all kinds of extra time and energy for it; they do this kind of thing because their creativity matters to them enough that they are willing to make all kinds of extra sacrifices for it. For most of human history, then, the vast majority of people have made their art in stolen moments, using scraps of borrowed time.
- Have an affair. When people are having an affair, they don’t mind losing sleep or missing meals. They will make whatever sacrifices they have to make, and they will blast through any obstacles in order to be alone with the object of their devotion and obsession—because it matters to them. Let yourself fall in love with your creativity like that and see what happens. Sneak off and have an affair with your most creative self.
- Dress up for the part. A man cannot dress, but his ideas get clothed at the same time; and if he dresses like a gentleman, every one of them stands presented to his imagination. “Fake it till you make it” is the trick. “Dress for the novel you want to write” is another way of saying it.
- You must learn how to become a deeply disciplined half-ass. It starts by forgetting about perfect. We don’t have time for perfect. In any event, perfection is unachievable: Perfectionism stops people from completing their work, yes—but even worse, it often stops people from beginning their work. Perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. We must understand that the drive for perfectionism is a corrosive waste of time because nothing is ever beyond criticism.
- 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.
- Release your work. You do what you can do as competently as possible within a reasonable time frame, and then you let it go. Because the truth of the matter is, most people don’t finish things! Look around you. The evidence is everywhere: People don’t finish. So if you can just complete something—merely complete it!—you’re already miles ahead of the pack, right there.
- Curiosity is the secret. Curiosity is the truth and the way of creative living. Curiosity is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. Passion can seem intimidatingly out of reach at times—a distant tower of flame, accessible only to geniuses and to those who are especially touched by God. But curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity.
Do what you love to do
Do what you love to do, and do it with both seriousness and lightness. At least then you will know that you have tried and that—whatever the outcome—you have travelled a noble path. When it’s for love, you will always do it anyhow. Is it sometimes a difficult path? Sure. Does it make for an interesting life? The most. Will the inevitable difficulties and obstacles associated with creativity make you suffer? That part—cross my heart—is entirely up to you. Because this is how it feels to lead the faithful, creative life: You try and try and try, and nothing works. But you keep trying, and you keep seeking, and then sometimes, in the least expected place and time, it finally happens. So you must keep trying. You must keep calling out in those dark woods for your own Big Magic.
Find something to do—anything, even a different sort of creative work altogether—just to take your mind off your anxiety and pressure. Open up some other kind of creative channel within my mind. Einstein called this tactic “combinatory play”—the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another. Go walk the dog, go pick up every bit of trash on the street outside your home, go walk the dog again, go bake a peach cobbler, go paint some pebbles with brightly coloured nail polish and put them in a pile. Call attention to yourself with some sort of creative action, and—most of all—trust that if you make enough of a glorious commotion, eventually, inspiration will find its way home to you again.
It is good for the soul
Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred. What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all. We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits. We are terrified, and we are brave. Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege. Your soul doesn’t care a whit about reward or failure. Your soul is far more expansive and fascinating source of guidance than your ego will ever be because your soul desires only one thing: wonder. Because without wonder, you will forever wander the world in a state of bottomless dissatisfaction—nothing but a howling ghost, trapped in a body made of slowly deteriorating meat. Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us. Make space for all these paradoxes to be equally true inside your soul, and you can make anything. The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.