Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert, is the latest in a tidal wave of creativity books, and a very fine one. I believe it will be the go-to creativity guide for the next decade. It was only in the last twenty years that bookstores developed sections devoted to creativity in the written or visual arts. For many years it was just If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland , Art and Fear by David Bayles, or The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. And you never knew what section to find them in the bookstore; they were obscure. Gilbert’s message is not new. In fact it is ancient, but is desperately needed today. Why are we dealing with an erosion in the basic knowledge of how imagination and creativity work? Is creativity among our endangered species? Why is a book on creativity a best seller, besides the fact that Gilbert writes like an angel, or a daimon? Anyway, Big Magic was in my bag during my recent open studios. Interesting that its cover is abstract art. Hey, I make that stuff.
I approve of Big Magic and its exploration of Big-I Imagination. I first learned the tenets of Imagination that Gilbert espouses through studying the Romantic Poets with poet Diane di Prima. The primacy of Imagination was stressed; the world be damned, and often was. David Meltzer taught gematria and the concepts word-as-creator, letter as energy, word itself creating the universe, for good or creepiness…. go Golem!
I’ve always been lucky with teachers; I was taught about Blake’s Spiritual Sensation. The line was drawn deeply in the existential sand. Imagination is more important than reality. It creates reality, in fact. Ideas exist independently of us. The Big-I Imaginations fly, walk, swim, or lump about all on their own, shedding light and shadow, ambrosia and dung.
Diane di Prima also taught Western Magical tradition and guided visualization to students back in the 1980s, long before the vogue, as part of her own rich creative resources. In Big Magic, Gilbert quotes her friend and mine, Caroline Casey: “Better a trickster than a martyr be.” And Gilbert has the right idea on gods, spirits, angels, archetypes: they are both real and unreal, terribly important and trivial at the same time. Her approach is positive and full of stubborn gladness and a durable mysticism. I think it is the creativity book for our time, just as The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron touched a nerve in the 1980s. Cameron’s book was based on an archetype of wounding, addiction, and a 12-step style reclamation of damaged creative impulse. I prefer Gilbert’s straight-ahead optimism and humor.
Here’s what I loved in the book: The return of the notion of the individual creative daimon or genius. We each have a little whiz-bang spirit assigned to us at birth to guide or goad us. Ideas have lives independent of us. Court them, invite them, respect them, don’t ignore them too long. If you lack inspiration, curiosity and showing up are enough. Permission– Bob Burridge’s permission slips for painting, for example. The right kind of entitlement. Her own experience with the Day Job: no shame, keep it as long as you need to. Your art is not actually your “baby.” You can’t dissect, discard, neglect, or chop up a real baby. You can’t ignore it in garages or sell it.
She’s so funny! How to speak to your inner critic: “It’s best to be insistent, but affable. Repeat yourself, but don’t get shrill. Speak to your darkest and most negative interior voices the way a hostage negotiator speaks to a violent psychopath: calmly, but firmly.”
And when you’re in a lull– as I am right now, exhausted from open studios and down with a cold– she writes, “Any motion whatsover beats intertia, because inspiration will always be drawn to motion. Make something. Do something. Do anything.” And some sort of inspiration has visited… the next step in narrative abstraction, the next series, maybe called “Themis.” Or not. Or maybe some silly illustrated journaling or un-sellable Metaphoracards. But something, something, to give a little pinch of snuff or spice or something stronger to my daimon.
In Sonoma County, one person in ten describes themselves as some kind of artist. For each one of those, there may be a hundred who want to be. In the meantime, we swim in a polluted ocean of information and mind-waste created by nameless others. (I have just read the excellent novel The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. The book postulates a nightmarish culture where we all must hear everyone’s thoughts, all the time, a decent metaphor for the interweb. Fortunately, in his book, men are more susceptible than women to this infection.)We have become greedy gluttons of instant, fragmented nano-art rather than makers of a modest, enlivening, everyday creation. Everyone wants to be an artist. Gilbert’s Big Magic could help.
Suzanne– and thanks to the talented Adrian Mendoza for the portrait