On Disagreeing; Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic; and the Importance of Art, Your Ego, and Your Place in the Universe

With the release of her new book about creativity, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert (known for her book Eat Pray Love) is in the news.


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A little over a month ago, a blog reader sent me this interview that Marie Forleo did with Gilbert. I had heard of her prior to that but had not read anything of hers.

I enjoyed the interview. Gilbert had a lot of interesting things to say. But I sensed that our approaches were different. I decided to pick up the book and check it out, even though I suspected I would disagree with it.

Yup.

I did a lot of disagreeing, in fact. Most of it out loud to the cat.

The very patient cat

Patient cat is patient.

At first I thought that because I disagreed with so much of it, I wouldn’t write about it. You see, I am bad at disagreeing. I don’t know how to do it with class. I get angry. I yell. I talk down to people (and I hate it when people talk down to me!).

I have a good friend who is also this way, and he rages openly. He calls people terrible names when he disagrees with them. He treats them like they are utter morons and like he has no respect for them. It destroys his relationships. I don’t like that part of him, and I don’t want to be like that.

So I tend to handle my own trouble with it by, um, not disagreeing.

But I also want to change that, because I have a lot of disagreements with a lot of people, some of whom are smart people. I want to foster a culture in my life in which being wrong is not a big deal — when you’re willing to have a conversation. When you’re willing to pay attention to something you might’ve missed. When you’re willing to follow the facts and change your mind accordingly. When you’re willing to use reason. As long as we’ve got that, we’ve got everything we need.

But that means I have to learn to settle down, turn my emotions on low, and take a closer look at what I’m seeing that’s leading me to disagree so passionately. I have to follow the facts and not get lost in the feelings.

As I read Big Magic, and as I folded over more and more pages, noting my disagreement with dog-ears, I thought, well, why not write about it? Disagreeing is certainly a legitimate reason to write about something, as much as agreeing with it. Maybe moreso.

So instead of continuing to subject the poor cat to my disagreements, I started writing. I pulled together the basic outline. I came across a Fast Company article and made notes on incorporating that (I later decided not to).

But then … I searched the hashtag #BigMagic on Twitter, and I found hundreds of glowing tweets. People quoted from the book; they loved it. They were inspired by it. Was I about to rain on their parade? Was I the Negative Nelly who came to the party to bitch? Should I just shut my mouth?

But that was fear talking, too. It has to be possible to discuss ideas without it turning into a war. Disagreement doesn’t have to be violent or hostile. It doesn’t even have to be condescending. But it can be productive. It can be useful. I have to learn how to make it a positive force rather than a negative one.

A big part of my mission with this blog is to stay committed to not holding back out of fear.

And so, with that, and with all due respect to Elizabeth Gilbert, here are my disagreements with Big Magic.

Is Art Superfluous?

Via Big Magic:

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. To put the story in perspective, consider this fact: The earliest evidence of recognizable human art is forty thousand years old. The earliest evidence of human agriculture, by contrast, is only ten thousand years old. Which 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 regularly feed ourselves.”

Wait — what? Art is forty thousand years old, from before agriculture, yet it’s superfluous? Human beings were making paintings before they consistently had enough to eat, and making art doesn’t matter?

No way!

Art is not superfluous to life.

The reason human beings have been making it for forty thousand years is: We need it.

We really, really need it.

Your physical body is fueled with food. When you get hungry, you eat. No one would argue that eating is superfluous, right? We need to do it. Every day.

Art is also fuel. It’s fuel — or food — for your mind. For your soul. For your spirit. It is fuel for your struggle to live, not at a subsistence level like an animal, but as a fully realized human being. You need that fuel as much as you need food to fuel your physical body. If your soul doesn’t get fed, you die, same as you would if your body didn’t get fed.

You cannot live on an empty soul any more than you can live on an empty stomach.

It might be a slower, more torturous death than starvation, but at the end all deaths look the same.

Don’t neglect the feeding of your soul. Consume art often and greedily. It will keep you alive.

Related: 3 Reasons Adults Are Reading Books for Teens

Elizabeth Gilbert is not the only one who thinks that art is superfluous. It’s a commonly held view.

I originally wanted to have a whole subtopic here about why that’s the case, but it needs an essay of its own about what art is and what its purpose is in human life. That’s beyond the scope of this post, which I’d like to keep focused on Big Magic.

So here’s the short version: Precious few people understand the nature of art and its purpose in human life, and as a result a lot of what’s being produced and passed off as “art” is not art at all, and the fact that people pretend that it is undermines art and makes it hard for good art to succeed.

We need art that inspires us. We need heroes, we need plots, we need happy endings. We need beauty and courage. We need conflict that makes sense and shows us what’s possible to us. Of course there must be obstacles. Of course there must be pain and darkness and a true fight. But at the end of the day, we need art that shows us that that stuff is not what matters. That overcoming it and succeeding is normal and common and possible for us. We need to know that suffering is not our natural state—that, to quote one of my favorite writers, Ayn Rand, “the pain only goes down to a certain point.”

Related: Why You Need Heroes (Even If You Aren’t Sure You Believe in Them)

When you think those giant collections of pieces of metal by Mark di Suvero are art (pro tip: They’re not), it is superfluous. Nobody needs that giant collection of metal. It’s not doing what art is supposed to do; it’s not doing anything for you — quite the opposite, in fact, it’s destroying something you do need by laughing in the face of art.

Are Creators Useless?

Later in the book, Gilbert says that almost every other job is objectively more valuable to society than that of the writer: from teachers to doctors to firemen to security guards and even sex workers:

“Each is infinitely more essential to the smooth maintenance of the human community than any novelist ever was, or ever will be.”

I guess Elizabeth Gilbert has not had her life changed by a novelist. But …

Ideas are the motive force in life, and writers (artists) deal in ideas.

As a creator, you’re communicating ideas to your readers and viewers and listeners; you’re offering up a philosophy — a guide to living. Whether you realize it or not, what you think about how people should live shows in your work.

Why do you think religion offers up so many parables? Why do you think such a thing as morality plays exist? Why did even cultures without writing tell stories of how their tribe came to be? The best way to learn ethics (i.e., how to live, what’s best for your life, what’s good) is through stories. In stories, we see principles brought to life in made-up people and sample conflict. Stories turn abstract ideas into concrete examples. In addition, when we see someone overcome similar challenges to our own and succeed with similar values, we are inspired to keep overcoming and moving forward in our own lives.

Creators provide guidance, challenge, and inspiration. They feed souls. They fuel spirits.

This is why so many people’s lives HAVE been changed by a novelist.

This is not a useless job. It is arguably one of the most important jobs you could have in modern civilization.

Philosophy comes before health, in terms of fundamentals — you have to know that health, for example, is important before you’ll start figuring out how to take care of it. Whether you value health at all is rooted in your ideas about what’s good for your life.

Gilbert goes on to say that writers are useless in a post-apocalyptic world. Given that we don’t live in a post-apocalyptic world, I’m not much concerned with it, but you know what? Even if we did, someone would need to tell stories around the bonfire. Someone would need to record the heroic histories of the life that had disappeared. As society is rebuilt, those records and stories could prove to be the most valuable of all (think of what the revival of ancient Greek wisdom created … the Renaissance).

Now. I think Gilbert’s intentions here are noble. I think she was trying to do an important thing by saying that art doesn’t matter and creators are useless. I think that she was trying to take the pressure off. I think she was trying to help us intense creators feel less like every step we take is monumental and WE MUST NOT SCREW IT UP. I think she was trying to help us feel more like we have permission to be like little kids and play with our art. Maybe this is how she helps herself with that. Maybe the idea of art being so important scares her, and this is how she deals and gets to work.

I’m one hundred percent in favor of dealing and getting to work.

Related: 6 Ways to Deal With Your Creative Anxiety So You Can Get to Work

But for me, the fact that art is so important is one of the reasons I do it. It’s exciting. It’s a chance to move people. It’s a chance, maybe, someday, to move the world.

I still try to do it like a little kid and play with it and not worry about screwing it up. I still try to get it done rather than getting it perfect.

But for me, the knowledge that it’s such an important part of human life adds an extra dimension of amazing. I get a chance to not only inspire people, but to potentially change their lives. I get to offer them all the good stuff I know that they haven’t learned yet. Of course it scares me to do it, but I’d rather work on overcoming the fear than pretend that what I’m trying to do is not important.

Everything that’s worth something stands on the other side of obstacles. You wouldn’t value it if it didn’t.

Is Your Ego in the Way? Must You Set It Aside?

Via Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert’s discussion of ego:

But do not let your ego totally run the show, or it will shut down the show. Your ego is a wonderful servant, but it’s a terrible master — because the only thing your ego ever wants is reward, reward, and more reward. … An unchecked ego is what the Buddhists call ‘a hungry ghost’ — forever famished, eternally howling with need and greed.’”

Hmm, seems to me like Gilbert has confused “ego” with Freud’s id.

She calls ego a lunatic. She’s obsessed with the idea that it’s never satisfied. She separates ego and soul.

But your ego is not a lunatic because it’s never satisfied — it’s keeping you alive. If your ego were satisfied, you’d curl up and die. Always wanting reward — values — is what keeps you working, which is what living is. If you didn’t want or need anything, there’d be no reason to stay alive.

Your ego and your soul are the same thing. Your soul or your spirit or whatever you want to call it, is just another facet of your ego. Your ego is your mind. Your mind is you. You are what you think, and you feel based on what you think.

Meaning: Your ideas are what move you. You might hold them consciously or subconsciously, but they are there either way, dictating how you will act and what you will feel.

Your feelings come from your mind.

Your mind works it all.

There is no hungry ghost.

There is nothing wrong with wanting rewards, and there is nothing wrong with wanting it from your creative work.

Again, however, Gilbert’s solution is not without its uses. She splits apart ego and soul. To her ego she attributes negative reactions to feedback and her inclination to respond with outrage. She leaves her defensiveness there. Then she is able to keep what she thinks of as her soul clean for creative work.

Via Big Magic:

“My soul desires only one thing: wonder.”

This is your ego (your mind), too, and it’s more than a desire. Your mind has a deep need for wonder.

As such, I can see why Gilbert wants a box for the negative emotions and a box for wonder.

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When we are kids, wonder is honored. We are allowed to roam and explore and play, to discover the nooks and crannies of the world. We goggle at flora and fauna; they are alien species we must study. We make potions and imagine things as they aren’t (that piece of plywood becomes a sword so easily). We dive in without hesitating, unfettered by routine.

But as adults we become complacent and anxious, and it becomes more difficult to honor wonder. Our minds become buried in worrisome details and the weight of our future — culminating in our own mortality, which looms larger with every passing year. Time becomes so precious and yet so tricksy, so easy to let slip away in our anxiety about it slipping away. We want stability and security, more and more, and it is tough to find and honor wonder in the midst of chasing down survival.

Creatively, we want to set aside defensiveness and fear. We want to relax into our making. We want to play in the world and honor wonder.

I agree with that destination, but my way of getting there is different from Gilbert’s.

I keep my wonder squarely in the highest part of my ego. The other stuff is primal defense mechanism, survival at any cost, part of my lizard brain. But survival as a human being, in all its nobility, is a different thing. And my ego — my mind — is at the very heart of my ability to do that.

Is The Universe Thinking of You?

Via Big Magic:

I recently spoke to a woman who said, ‘I’m almost ready to start writing my book, but I’m having trouble trusting that the universe will grant me the outcome I want.”

Now, as you might expect, Gilbert uses this to say, hey, yanno, the universe might not give you the outcome you want.

Which is true, except, hey, yanno, the universe is not a person with emotions. The universe doesn’t feel anything. The universe is a concept that denotes everything that exists. The universe has no FEELS. The “universe” is not out there caring about you or not caring about you. It just is.

Know what that means?

It means that YOU are in charge. Just you.

It means that when you say I’m worried that the universe doesn’t love me or won’t do what I want, you mean that you don’t love you and you don’t trust you to be capable of getting what you want.

Oops.

I agree with Gilbert when she says, “The outcome cannot matter.”

Yeah, you gotta give up on the outcome of this particular project in this particular way. You can (and you should) work toward something and not be too sure how exactly it’s going to come out. Go for it! But don’t put it on the universe. It’s way too easy to do that and then sit back and not take responsibility.

Learn and work and learn and work and put your stuff out there. Then get back to learning and working. Keep moving your own life in the direction you want it to go, despite your fear.

The universe is what it is. It’s you that can do the changing, you that can do the getting better, you that can leap right over one rejection and ask for the next, you that has the courage to stick your stuff out there and let whatever comes of it go whatever way it’s going. That’s you.

I guess some people find that scary. They like the idea of having a big beautiful thing out there that will take care of them, whether it’s the universe or God or the Great Mother or whatever. But that sounds terrifying to me. If some kind of undefinable being had control over my life, there would be nothing I could do but throw up my hands. I’d have no control; I’d have to hope for the best and take whatever I got. BAH! I want to make my way. I like that I get to take the reins and decide where I’m going. When I don’t like how things are, I change them. When I’m not happy, I listen to myself, and I do something about it.

Is it hard? Hell yeah. Do I have to push myself? Of course. But given the lame alternative of sitting on my hands (which is its own kind of choice), I’ll take it.

And Now We Have Reached the End of the Disagreeing

So, after all this, you might be thinking I didn’t like Big Magic. But that isn’t exactly true. I wouldn’t say it inspired me or put it at the top of my list of books you should read this minute, but … I still think it’s worth reading. Gilbert has an easy, relaxed style that makes for quick, enjoyable reading. I also find it useful to try to make sense of any work that is as popular as hers.

But most importantly, reading Big Magic did one significant thing: It forced me to get clearer on my own ideas about the creative process.

I had to sit with the book and I had to think about it. I had to feel my frustration when she veered off target and dig into it to figure out where I thought she was wrong. I had to push harder to get at the truth.

And the cool thing is that I think she would appreciate that.

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4 thoughts on “On Disagreeing; Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic; and the Importance of Art, Your Ego, and Your Place in the Universe

  1. I liked this blog post a lot. It made me think, which is a very good thing. And this quote of yours – “Everything that’s worth something stands on the other side of obstacles. You wouldn’t value it if it didn’t.” – I love it.

    Interesting to read that Ayn Rand is one of your favorite authors. My mom gave me a boxed set of her novels when I turned 18. I can’t say I agree with all that she espouses, but she makes you think too. Just like your blog post.

    I’d like to meet both you and your cat one day. I think the conversation would be very interesting.

    • That’s what I’m here for 😀

      Lucky you to have a mom like that! I was religious in high school and stumbled on the Ayn Rand Institute essay contest for The Fountainhead. I’m a different and much happier person as a result — because of some novels!

      But Stinker, of course, is the real conversationalist around here. She’s qween of haus, so whatever she says goes. 😉

  2. Rachel that was so good I had to write. I just recently found your blog and thought there was something about you that interested me. NOW i know why! It was in the previous post, that you’re a fan of Ayn Rand! I found Rand 40 some odd years ago.when i was in college. It didn’t strike me much at first. But grew on me and it all percolated thruout the years. I agree with everything you wrote here. Not only that but being 62 all of what you said becomes even MORE important. Some of us grew up in a time when much of what was known was uninspiring, and unhelpful as a tool in finding our way thru life. I also approach problems very differently than most people making it difficult at times to “:fit in”. Therefore it has taken me many years to “figure life out” for me. But now that i have I am slowly pushing forward with my own art. And your writing IS inspiring! You shine a light of Reason, and Self Respect that is very rare these days. Keep doing what you’re doing Rachel……..it’s wonderful ! P.S. Just saw the movie “TRUTH”…….definitely a must see ! More inspiration …..

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