Creating Big Magic in Student Affairs: A Book Review

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I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic and a few interesting things happened to me. First, many passages resonated with me and I kept coming back to the book. Next, I found myself sharing her message with other people. And then, I started creating. Since reading the book, I have tapped into my creativity in multiple ways. I have written blog posts, created comedy scripts, produced projects at work, painted my house, and it goes on. So I thought I would  share her message with a few more people that I love in Student Affairs, and I offered a workshop on “Creating Big Magic in Student Affairs” at our division-wide staff development day.

What is Big Magic? Think of a time when you created or finished something…and thought, “That is gooooooooood.” It may have been an assignment you completed in school or a picture you drew. Maybe it was something you built or a food you cooked. Another way to describe Big Magic is that while you were doing something you felt it flow easily from you. Gilbert describes it like being on a conveyer belt in an airport…you are being propelled. The time passes quickly. Or you are in the zone.

Big Magic is about tapping into our creativity. EVERYONE IS CREATIVE. Creativity is important because it’s the way we show our unique selves to the world. We need it to be our true and authentic selves. YOUR CREATIVITY DOES NOT HAVE TO BE REVOLUTIONARY OR SERVE A PURPOSE. According to Gilbert, there are no “creative” and “non-creative” people. There are just people who use their creativity and those who don’t.

Some people think creativity is self-indulgent. For some of us it was shut down when we were children. But, if we don’t express our creativity, it can result in resentment, grief and heartbreak. Brene Brown’s research shows 85% of people remembered an event in school that was so shaming that it changed how they thought about themselves for the rest of their lives, and 50% of those shaming events were around creativity, i.e. told they can’t sing, you’re a bad artist, your writing is terrible.

Here are the six principles I took away from Gilbert’s book:

  1. Acknowledge fear but don’t let it drive you. Gilbert says fear and creativity are like conjoined twins. This is why we cannot kill off, deny or avoid fear. Instead, we need to thank it for doing its job (which is to keep us alive) but then recognize that creativity is not (99% of the time) going to kill us. We must make space for fear – Gilbert describes going on a road trip with creativity and fear. Both are invited on the trip, but fear is not allowed to drive. Our fear can manifest itself in excuses, guilt (mom guilt), procrastination, and perfectionism. And it can prevent us from taking the leap towards creativity. IT DOESN’T MATTER IF IT HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE. YOU DON’T NEED PERMISSION TO BE CREATIVE.
  2. Be open to ideas. IDEAS ARE LOOKING FOR HOSTS. That which we are seeking is seeking us. When we are relaxed enough to notice and receive clues, information, and connections, then ideas will come to us. When we let our defenses down and ease our anxiety, creativity will come to us. When we are open, we can receive the physical and emotional signals of inspiration (chills on your arm, hair standing up on your neck, feeling like you’re falling in love). When you’re about to have a big idea, there will be coincidences, signs, everything will remind you of the idea, you may wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it (like I did with my comedy script).
  3. Become partners with your idea. When an idea finds us (because it is chasing us, we are not chasing our ideas), we have the choice to join up with it or let it go. Our creative inspiration can also be called our GENIUS. Gilbert makes the distinction between HAVING A GENIUS VS. BEING A GENIUS. Gilbert describes how the Greeks and Romans both believed in an eternal spirit of creativity – like a house elf from Harry Potter, who lives inside your house and sometimes assists you. The Romans called this your “genius.”
  4. Work hard. This may seem self explanatory, but when it comes to creativity working hard is also about being creative even when you don’t feel inspired. Gilbert emphasizes that our inspiration doesn’t owe us anything. She doesn’t romanticizing quitting your day job and running off to open a night club or kayak shack. She says if we decide to take a leap of faith it should be for the ride not the landing, because we can never guarantee the landing. She also says every creative endeavor has the bits we don’t enjoy. So if you want to pursue something you must choose a pursuit that you enjoy so much that you’re willing to put up with the unpleasant parts. She asks, what do you want to do? What would you do even if you failed? What do you want to do because doing nothing is unacceptable? We must also be patient and compassionate with ourselves when we engage in creative work. People don’t stop being creative because of lack of discipline or willpower. They often stop because of disappointment or judgement. Getting back to work requires forgiving ourselves and having empathy for ourselves.
  5. Be courageous. Gilbert says, “Your life is short and rare and amazing and miraculous, and you want to do really interesting things and make really interesting things while you’re still here. That’s what we all want for ourselves.” She says, “You have hidden treasures in you – everyone does – and bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion.” I strongly believe that statement. Many years ago I created a presentation on time management. The whole reason I created it was because my mom was diagnosed with kidney failure. I wanted to make the most of my time with my family from that day forwarded, and I then I wanted to share that message with everyone. Because life is precious. And we don’t have time to wait.
  6. Channel your inner trickster. SUFFERING IS NOT A PREREQUISITE. Elizabeth talks about the martyr vs. the trickster. There are many artists and writers who are martyrs. In academia there are many martyrs who feel we must suffer and labor, putting in miserably long hours to get published or tenured. Maybe some of us feel like martyrs in our jobs in Student Affairs. The trickster is the opposite of the martyr.

In conclusion, these are the major themes of her book:

  • Everyone is creative
  • Your creativity does not have to be revolutionary or serve a purpose
  • It doesn’t matter if it has been done before
  • You don’t need permission to be creative
  • Ideas are looking for hosts
  • Having a genius vs. being a genius
  • Suffering is not a prerequisite

Try this activity to tap into your creativity:

Fold a piece of paper into four squares.

In the first square, answer the following questions: What do you love to create? What are you curious about? How do you express yourself? What kind of maker are you? What’s worth doing even if you fail?

In the second square,  name any fears or barriers (or guilt) that may keep you from pursuing this interest. Acknowledge them. Thank them and invite them along for the ride but tell them they will not be driving.

In the third square, answer the following questions: What does curiosity want you to do? What would it say to you?

In the fourth square, name one small idea you have for creating what you want to create. Give yourself a deadline.

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