Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’ (2015), my first-year writing class, and the necessity of the artist’s day job

Last semester, I taught one of the most fantastic courses of my teaching career so far.  The class was a Freshman Academic Seminar on “Writing and the Creative Life,” a course plan I’ve been brooding over for nearly two years, but only recently had the chance to teach.  My course question was pretty open-ended: “What does it mean to live the creative life?”  This is something I’ve asked myself for years, especially when I was in the thick of PhD work and felt like the artistic parts of myself were consistently relegated to the sidelines.

I wasn’t really sure how my first-year students would feel about a course question like this, especially since the primary skill we’d be using to explore creativity was writing.  My argument for the class was that all ventures could be creative ventures, but I wanted to give them space to discern what the creative life might look like for them as individuals.  We had some great conversations, and I’d say the reading list was serviceable.  While they loved Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, they pushed back on nearly all the other texts.  Even Ken Robinson’s popular The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, about which they were initially psyched, turned out to be frustrating for them in the long run.

01-big-magic-book-reviewNow that I’m rethinking the class for future semesters, I’m contemplating including Elizabeth Gilbert’s new bestseller, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (2015).  This book has had a lot of hype.  So much so, in fact, that I was skeptical about even picking it up.  I know Gilbert mostly from her popular TED Talk on “the creative spark,” a video I show nearly every semester in my writing classes, so my biggest fear was that the book would only be a slightly expanded version of the talk.  (Alas, is this not the challenge of all TED Talk book deals?)

In a nutshell, Big Magic is Gilbert’s creativity manifesto.  And I think my students would have loved it.  Truly, I think this book could have drastically reshaped the trajectory of the class.

I won’t summarize the book for you (you can find overviews all over the Internet by this point), but there were a few standout moments that I wish I’d had the chance to read with my freshmen.  For instance, one of my favorite sections from Big Magic was Gilbert’s discussion of the “day job.”  In our class, we talked a lot about the marriage between professional sustainability and living richly (one of my own big philosophies for higher ed), but what we didn’t discuss was how these two goals might actually exist in different spheres.  In other words, you might not make a living from your vision of living richly, and that’s OK.

Gilbert does a fine job of debunking the myth that our financial sustenance must come from our art if we want to call ourselves “true artists.”  I would argue that this is one of the most compelling take-aways of Big Magic, particularly because the idea of a day job is so decidedly un-magical.  The desire to have all of your financial support come from your art is a powerful longing, but Gilbert points out that it also places incredible strain on the art itself:

I’ve always felt like this is so cruel to your work—to demand a regular paycheck from it, as if creativity were a government job, or a trust fund.  Look, if you can manage to live comfortably off your inspiration forever, that’s fantastic.  That’s everyone’s dream, right?  But don’t let that dream turn into a nightmare.  Financial demands can put so much pressure on the delicacies and vagaries of inspiration.  You must be smart about providing for yourself.  To claim that you are too creative to think about financial questions is to infantilize yourself—and I beg you not to infantilize yourself, because it’s demeaning to your soul.  (While it’s lovely to be childlike in your pursuit of creativity, in other words, it’s dangerous to be childish.)  (Gilbert 153)

Gilbert also makes the point that we should be proud of our day jobs, and that financial stability can be romantic in its own way.

There’s no dishonor in having a job.  What is dishonorable is scaring away your creativity by demanding that it pay for your entire existence.  This is why, whenever anyone tells me they’re quitting their day job in order to write a novel, my palms get a little sweaty.  This is why, when anyone tells me that their plan for getting out of debt is to sell their first screenplay, I’m like, Yikes.  (Gilbert 155)

While my students and I talked about the concept of having “enough” to be financially sustainable, we didn’t spend much time on the reality that you may not always (or ever) have your dream job.  I had a lot of aspiring creative writers in this class, too, and so I wish we’d spent more time discussing the logistics of working a non-writing related day-job (barista, waitress, insurance representative, etc.) in order to support your creative work.

Obviously, this way of thinking bucks up against the primary way many parents rationalize paying for their child’s education: a ticket to a well-paying job.  I think financial sustainability is a necessary goal for any adult, especially if they have just entered their twenties, but college is more than that.  A good liberal arts education can give you invaluable tools for understanding your potential as a citizen of the world.  The cultural narrative of, “Oh, yes, my daughter has a creative writing degree, but she works at Starbucks,” terrifies parents (and students).  But this seems like a condition of our collective concerns about reputation and cultural clout, not about “success” in its purest sense.

Back to Big Magic, my only critique of Gilbert’s discussion of the “day job” is that she doesn’t take the opportunity to imagine how a “day job” (an unfortunately diminutive term) might actually have a mutually reciprocal relationship with one’s creativity, beyond just keeping the lights on.   If artists can find something redemptive and useful about the day job, then it can stop being cast as a necessary evil.

After all, what’s the use of living creatively if you can use it to reimagine your circumstances?