My friend and visual artist Nancy Benoy recently gave me a copy of the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love). She insisted I read it. I accepted the book from her because it was easier than trying to explain the fraught, complicated way that I choose books to read: how I spend more time thinking about what to read than I do actually reading, how my disappointment and anger can simmer for years if I read a book I don’t like, etc. I accepted this book, but secretly dreaded what would likely follow: I would not read the book but would say that I had; I would read only enough of the book to enable me to bullshit an opinion about it; I would read the book and hate it and then have to conceal my hatred every time I bumped into Nancy. It seemed inevitable the book would turn me into a hideous liar.
Some little voice in my ear kept urging me to read it though. And surprise, surprise, when I finally cracked the spine, Big Magic turned out to be just as revelatory as Nancy Benoy had promised. Essentially it is an essay on creativity, and I think Elizabeth Gilbert does quite a lovely job at removing the pretentions that surround artistic inspiration while simultaneously arguing the importance of it. She asserts that creativity, the act of making or expressing things is basically a dialogue between humans and a sympathetic, responsive universe. It is as innate and restorative an action as breathing, but should also be considered just as commonplace.
What I liked most about Big Magic is that it has a very compelling breakdown of the notion of the artistic muse. In Gilbert’s universe, ideas are these butterfly-like things that float about and sometimes land fleetingly on people’s heads. It is up to those people to seize those ideas and make something of them, or else risk the chance that they may flit away to find a more willing vessel. Artists are not geniuses in this world view; they are simply those in the habit of capturing and physicalizing ideas as they float through the ether. This may all seem like a goofily mystical idea, but I have to admit, it feels far more true to my own creative experience than any other description I’ve encountered.
Gilbert’s depiction also helps me frame a fundamental riddle within my own creative practice, one that has forever plagued me. You see, the thing that I’ve never been able to understand about myself is that the art I am most attracted to tends to be dark, risk-taking, and melancholic. In contrast, the ideas that I am most successful at bringing into being tend to be goofy, light-hearted, and only gently subversive in nature. So why is it that the art that I am good at making is not the kind of art that I most revere?
Put another way, I love the guttural earthy voice of Tom Waits, but I sing best as a clean country tenor; my voice is not suited to sing the music that I love best. Years ago, I was gripped by an urge to yodel. I practiced obsessively in my car until I became relatively good at it. But I don’t like yodel music—to me it can be so joyous and without tension it frequently sounds like superficial nonsense. So why was I compelled to learn how to do it? And why is it, if I don’t like yodel music, that I enjoy yodelling so much?
If I extrapolate on Gilbert’s thesis, maybe the reason is that my physiology is such that I am receptive only to certain kinds of inspiration and not others. Just as my throat and chest and nasal cavities give me a voice that suits only particular kinds of singing, maybe my head is of such a shape or smell that only certain kinds of butterfly-like ideas like to land on it. It’s kind of a frustrating notion, and if I think about it, I have spent a fair bit of time in my life pining for inspirations that were as dark and raw and powerful as the art I adore. But I also think that it’s a pretty cool challenge to have to reconcile yourself to that kind of situation. After all, if I have a little bit of detachment or even contempt for the ideas that inspire me, then I have a better chance of not being precious or coddling with them while I’m whipping them into some kind of shape.
Conversely, if inspiration came in a familiar shape, it wouldn’t be all that inspiring. I never really listened to yodel music until I had a compulsion to learn how to do it. I still can’t say that I like the genre, but I nonetheless have constructed a fairly nuanced way to understand, evaluate, and appreciate it. I can listen to vintage Slim Whitman and find real beauty inside. In other words, the inspiration forced me somewhere that I would never otherwise take myself.
I mean really, what more do you want from inspiration than that?