When we talk about our writing lives, we often exist in the confining black and white binary of either/or.
Either we write the next Great American Novel or a trashy paperback.
Either we quit our jobs and be “real” artists or suffer the soul-sucking 9-to-5 and slowly lose our will to live in a dreary gray cubicle.
Either we write a massively successful New York Times best seller or fail.
Either we’re darlings of the critics or dismissed, shunned and ignored.
Either we catapult to literary superstardom or toil away for years, pathetic and unknown.
Either art sparks revolutions, changes people’s lives and makes a difference in the world or it sits, limpid and lifeless, on book shelves and gallery walls.
Either art expands our hearts and stirs our souls or provides momentary entertainment— nothing more.
Either what we create matters or it doesn’t matter at all.
However if we are to live a creative life, bubbly, buoyant Elizabeth Gilbert suggests we should embrace the puzzling paradox of “and” and reject the overly simplistic mindset of “either/or.” Much like Gretchen Rubin, who observed that the opposite of a great truth is also true, Gilbert believes two contradictory ideas can be correct at the same time. Art is useless and worthwhile. Composing a poem is not nearly as important as stopping global warming or finding a cure for cancer and it’s just as crucial. Sonnets and symphonies are both pointless pleasures and nourishment for the soul. Making things is a frivolous pastime and a miracle.
In the conclusion to her gleeful guide to creative living Big Magic, which I’ve reread at least once a year since first discovering it three years ago, Gilbert shares her creative manifesto:
“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.
Only when we are at our most playful can divinity finally get serious with us.”
In the end, if you want to write (or paint or sculpt or film or draw or sew), you must love your work deeply yet regard it lightly, you must take what you do seriously yet not care about it at all. Writing a sentence, you consider each word: its meaning, its melody, its connotations, its tone. In much the same way a chef considers whether his roasted duck will pair well with Merlot, you select your sentences with care and savor the sumptuous feast of your every word. However— if after all your labor— you realize what you wrote doesn’t work, you’re willing to send it to the chopping block and start over. As Gilbert says with refreshing irreverence, what we create is sacred and not sacred: our words are just words.
Big Magic is as indispensable to a writer’s library as The Artist’s Way, as wondrous as If You Want to Write, and as consoling and comforting as Bird by Bird. Want more maps to chart the at times difficult writing life? Read Anne Lamott on the antidote to overwhelm and the beauty of short assignments, Brenda Ueland on why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies and Rilke on how to know you’re an artist and why you must be patient if you’re going to lead a creative life.
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