Earlier this year I went to a writing class. Not a real one, one of those “pay $15 to sit in a bar and have someone who has no qualifications make up some ideas as they go, and everyone around the room is awkward and it mostly feels like their main goal is to just make new friends; and afterwards you say to yourself NO MORE OF THOSE WEIRD CLASSES then you end up at a cross-stitch one in Preston where you have the same realisation again” sort of class.
At the class they recommended ‘Big Magic’ by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of ‘Eat Pray Love’. The instructor said it was the inspiration for so much of her creativity, and it was full of wonderful stories and tips and encouragement. I had already decided the instructor was my nemesis for no real reason, and I figured the book would be bad, but library books are free, so I went and picked it up.
And then? I absolutely ADORED it. I went in so skeptical, but every page was like sitting for a lovely cup of fancy tea with Elizabeth Gilbert. A proper fancy tea, something from T2, called like, “strawberry blossom wagon” or “lemon drops and unicorn dust”. And every time you expressed doubt she’d excitedly grab your arm and say “oh darling NO! We mustn’t think THAT!”, hopping up and down in her chair, full of enthusiasm about how much fun it is to express yourself. It was infectious.
Reading Big Magic felt like how creativity used to feel when I was little, when my favourite activity in school was creative writing. I’d write these bonkers stories about quadruplet children stealing their parents cars and joining the circus, or magic trees that would plunge you into the depths of hell (that one, I think, was a sort of cross between Enid Blyton and the story of Persephone). It was all so much fun, and I never worried myself into a corner with any of it. Then I turned like, 10, and started what has become a lifelong hobby of Overthinking Everything.
Elizabeth pooh-poohed my overthinking anxious brain on every damn page. Like here, in my favourite bit, where she unearths every single excuse I’ve ever come up with:
“Let me list for you some of the many ways in which you might be afraid to live a more creative life: You’re afraid you have no talent. You’re afraid you’ll be rejected or criticized or ridiculed or misunderstood or—worst of all—ignored. You’re afraid there’s no market for your creativity, and therefore no point in pursuing it. You’re afraid somebody else already did it better. You’re afraid everybody else already did it better. You’re afraid somebody will steal your ideas, so it’s safer to keep them hidden forever in the dark. You’re afraid you won’t be taken seriously. You’re afraid your work isn’t politically, emotionally, or artistically important enough to change anyone’s life. You’re afraid your dreams are embarrassing. You’re afraid that someday you’ll look back on your creative endeavors as having been a giant waste of time, effort, and money. You’re afraid you don’t have the right kind of discipline. You’re afraid you don’t have the right kind of work space, or financial freedom, or empty hours in which to focus on invention or exploration. You’re afraid you don’t have the right kind of training or degree. You’re afraid you’re too fat. (I don’t know what this has to do with creativity, exactly, but experience has taught me that most of us are afraid we’re too fat, so let’s just put that on the anxiety list, for good measure.) You’re afraid of being exposed as a hack, or a fool, or a dilettante, or a narcissist. You’re afraid of upsetting your family with what you may reveal. You’re afraid of what your peers and co-workers will say if you express your personal truth aloud. You’re afraid of unleashing your innermost demons, and you really don’t want to encounter your innermost demons. You’re afraid your best work is behind you. You’re afraid you never had any best work to begin with. You’re afraid you neglected your creativity for so long that now you can never get it back. You’re afraid you’re too old to start. You’re afraid you’re too young to start. You’re afraid because something went well in your life once, so obviously nothing can ever go well again. You’re afraid because nothing has ever gone well in your life, so why bother trying? You’re afraid of being a one-hit wonder. You’re afraid of being a no-hit wonder”.
Isn’t it just marvellous?
When I was done, I made my friend Tony read it. [Editor’s note: the original publication of this piece omitted the fact that Tony is very handsome, charming, and a great cook. This omission was made in error and the team here at Let’s Get Milkshakes sincerely apologises to the subject for forgetting to note these salient and indisputable facts).
Tony and I have always talked about how we will definitely write books, just not YET. And then he loved it too. We decided to just be brave and start our own writing club immediately, which we called The Big Magic Writing Club (I think we always intended to come up with a more creative option, but just never got around to it). On the first meeting of The Big Magic Writing Club we brought along notebooks and pens and decided the first assignment would be to write a thousand words of fiction. We sat at brunch, eating brunch, wondering what our prompt should be.
(The prompt ended up being “brunch”).
As an adult, stories always seemed like something someone else would write, and then I wrote one, and was like… oh. Anyone can do this. These characters now exist, even though they didn’t before. I made them up. And sure, they feel a bit like paper dolls, not real people, but that was the fun of The Big Magic Writing Club. The only goal was to write over a thousand words, loosely connected to “brunch”, and to do it by a certain date. Had the ambitions been bigger – get published, win an award, be entertaining, create something deeply meaningful – then we couldn’t have done it.
Tony wrote a proper story, with a beginning middle and end, a story that even had a twist. I wrote something about a hangover, based on a real life hangover I had once. His was dark, mine was silly. None of that was really that important. It was just so fantastic to make something from nothing.
We sat across from each other, hiding our faces in our hands and squealing, watching as the other read the story that had come out of our brains. It was the craziest thing! We had invented things just by thinking?! How much power we had!
This might be the first chapter about The Big Magic Writing Club; ending in movie deals and awards. Or it might be something we abandon to binge watch Project Runway. Either way, it was so fun to remove the expectations on something and just to find the joy in actually doing it.
My parting advice? Read the book. Tell the perfectionist hiding in your insides to rack off. And just go do the thing.