We’re Clever and We Work Hard: On Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

I can’t think of the last time I felt my enthusiasm drain away so quickly while reading a book.

Recently, Lin-Manuel Miranda gave a full-throated endorsement of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Since Lin single-handedly rejuvenated my love of language and writing with Hamilton, I’ve generally trusted his judgment on creative work. He’s got a process that’s relentlessly craft-focused, which speaks to me and my sensibilities a lot. To put it succinctly, he does the work. Respect.

So based on the strength of all of that, I bought Big Magic, sight unseen, even though the subtitle (Creative Living Beyond Fear) doesn’t speak to me. (If anything, my problems are more about throwing myself into things with too-high expectations, taking years to get around to a project because I hadn’t found the correct form for it, seeing the potential for a project despite not having the right tools available at the time, or setting increasingly high bars that I force myself to clear, year after year – darn near the exact opposite of anything to do with fear.) There’s always something to be learned from different peoples’ different experiences, and I looked forward to getting into the research and writing part of the book.

I’m still looking forward to that stuff. But boy, did I hit a bump on the road to get there.

big magic by elizabeth gilbert

In the chapter An Idea Arrives, Gilbert writes:

… along the way I’ve developed a set of beliefs about how it [creativity] works – and how to work with it – that is entirely and unapologetically based on magical thinking… Because the truth is, I believe that creativity is a force of enchantment – not entirely human in its origins.

My skeptic spidey sense, which was already been thrumming along like the baseline coming from the radio in the car idling next to you at a stoplight, went on full blast.

I believe our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us – albeit strangely.

I wasn’t quite prepared to react with my whole body. You know when it’s the middle of the night, and you’re going from the bed to the bathroom, and on the return trip you walk directly into the bedframe? You were so looking forward to getting comfortable again, and now you’re wide awake and disoriented and sheepish because you can’t believe you walked right into it.

That was me as I put Big Magic down and picked it up again, read and reread the couple of pages where Gilbert lays out her beliefs about ideas as metaphysical other, about how ideas and humans have a symbiotic relationship, how they are conscious entities looking to be discovered and ushered into our realm.

I responded to all of this with the same kind of reaction I have for a lot of unsubstantiated claims – not with outright dismissal (I think it’s silly, but I also think that things like the stock market and tapirs are silly, and they both exist and are interesting in their own rights) but with a question: why? 

Ignoring for a minute that there’s no justification given for this belief and that there are immense philosophical ramifications if you play this out even a heartbeat past where she went with it, there’s a far simpler and – to me – a far more exciting explanation for creativity’s existence. Simply put – it’s human.

To frame this, let me tell you one of my favourite stories about a creator. Gene Roddenberry, creator of Star Trek, was famously generous with his fans. Star Trek fans, let me tell you, can be an exhausting bunch, and I include myself in that criticism. But Gene was patient with them and their obsession over minutiae and canon and all those silly but interesting things. At a convention, a fan began to ask him about the hypothesis some people had that ancient aliens built the pyramids, because there’s no way that people could have done it.

By some accounts, Gene lost it on the fan – the first and only time he did so. Ancient astronauts didn’t build the pyramids, he shouted. We did that. Human beings. Human beings built the pyramids. Because we’re clever. And we work hard.

This exchange is dear to me, and is a foundational part of my personal brand of skepticism. The seamless application Occam’s razor and the fulsome endorsement of human ingenuity – in the same breath, no less – make it a story I come back to again and again.

So in that moment, when I read Gilbert assert that ideas – my ideas – are separate from the creatives that generate them, I found myself in the position that Gene found himself in that day. Offended on my own behalf, stunned at the audaciousness of her claim, but mostly rising to my feet to energetically defend the human race.

I think it’s safe to say that collectively, we know little about the neuroscience of creativity. But studies indicate that creative thought – coming up with ideas, in other words – is related to engaging multiple networks and systems in the brain simultaneously. The stronger the connections between those networks, the more creative an idea can be. This is both observable and predictive – if you look at an fMRI scan of someone coming up with an idea, you can infer how creative the idea will be based on how those networks light up. You can literally see people doing the work.

This is my big problem with Big Magic‘s assertion. I can’t say definitively that ideas come from somewhere ethereal. But they don’t need to, and the evidence makes it likely that it’s not magic – it’s just us.

And so my question for Gilbert, then, is – don’t you already know that? Can’t you feel it happening? And if not, aren’t you paying attention? We created tools to rise above the limits of our senses. We use them peer inside that wonderful accident of adaptation, the human brain. We can watch as it does its thing, lighting up connections that we make through experience and practice, more and more until they’re complex networks, firing away. Does this not eliminate any need for magical thinking about creativity? Isn’t that, in fact, more wondrous? That we can and do accomplish such wonderful things?

It’s the explanation of where ideas come from that requires the fewest unknowns, the fewest assertions. It’s the most likely one. And it so happens that it’s also the most romantic one, and the one that speaks to our better angels, all at the same time. It’s the one I’m going with.

We humans are clever. And we work hard.

Our creativity is our own.

Don’t let anyone tell you different.


As always, everyone, paddle your own canoe.

– Trevor

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