Muses, Money and Big Magic

The Moneychanger and his Wife

I started listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s audiobook, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, late last September when it first came out. I think I even pre-ordered it through my audiobook subscription service because I was so eager to get my hands on it. Gilbert’s talk, Your Elusive Creative Genius, remains one of my all-time favourite TEDtalks and, since it’s been viewed over 10 million times as of this writing, I know I’m not alone in loving to hear her speak on the subject of creativity.

Once I started into Big Magic though, I found it wasn’t what I expected. For some reason I thought I was getting something more along the lines of Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way with lots of exercises and creativity prompts. Gilbert’s book however is not so much about the act of creativity itself, as it is about surviving a creative life. As I got further in though, the book started to grow on me and, after a lengthy break from it over the holiday season, I actually went back to the beginning and started listening to it again earlier this month. I wanted to be able to listen to it properly without it being tainted by my false preconceptions.

Big Magic by Elizabeth GilbertI’ll probably come back and blog about it further once I’ve finished it since there are a lot of interesting little nuggets that she has buried within its pages. For this post though, I wanted to write a little bit about money as I know from personal experience that it often feels like the creative’s ultimate nemesis.

Gilbert writes at length in Big Magic about her belief that the source of our creativity is external from us and bordering on divine—it’s some of the same ground that she covers in her TEDtalk. I don’t know that I quite subscribe to the divinity angle, but I do think it’s a very useful construct when it comes to understanding how we utilize our minds for creative purposes.

According to her our disembodied creative geniuses are great for giving us ideas, but kind of lousy about tying those ideas to more practical matters such as making money. In fact, it can get so confused by our monetary demands of it, that our creativity would rather flee than help us.

But to yell at your creativity, saying, “You must earn money for me!” is sort of like yelling at a cat; it has no idea what you’re talking about, and all you’re doing is scaring it away, because you’re making really loud noises and your face looks weird when you do that.
~ Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

While I consider myself an extremely practical person, particularly in the area of money, I do feel like I’ve encountered this exact phenomenon. After I was hit by a car in 2003 and my creativity fled due to PTSD and depression, I spent a great deal of time feeling like I was trying to coax it back to me. It seemed like every time I sat down to try and work on a personal creative project, the minute I started thinking “this could go on my demo reel to get me a job” or “I wonder if there’s any kind of paying market for this type of work”… zippppppp! … that creative idea would rocket away like a skittish cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

Frustrating? You bet.

It took me years to figure out that the way I needed to coax back and motivate my particular creative muse was by putting all my focus on learning. Instead of asking “how can this work make me money now or in the future?”, I started asking “what do I want to learn from this project?” Once I figured this out, I went about trying to frame all my projects around satisfying my desire to investigate new things and hone my skills.

For instance, my 100 Faces project from a couple years ago was all about trying to figure out how to draw faces. Although it had been inspired by a paid gig I had undertaken when I had been asked to do caricatures of a company’s staff members, the 100 Faces project itself and its ultimate outcome was strictly about trying to unlock the puzzle of the human face. Drawing faces has always been an Achilles’ heel of mine, so I already felt a lot of pressure from that angle. I absolutely did not want to add more pressure to the project by even remotely suggesting to my creativity that I was planning to monetize this new skill should I develop it successfully.

Stained glass painting - work-in-progress

Similarly, when I started doing my stained glass style paintings, I had begun with the intention of trying to figure out what it was about stained glass that I loved so much. What was it about the colours that made them look so vibrant? How does the light coming through the glass change the look of it? How can I paint the illusion of different kinds of glass? I had all these questions and I still do, which is why after all these years I’m still doing this kind of painting. I love scouring Pinterest and pinning future bits and pieces of painting inspiration on my stained glass pin board. Quite unintentionally this line of investigation has given me a growing collection of work in a particular style, however I think if I’d told my creativity at the beginning that my end goal was to create a “recognizable style for myself as an artist” it would’ve high-tailed it for the hills in five seconds flat.

At one point in her book, Gilbert describes how as a teenager she made up vows to take as a writer in much the same way that a nun might take vows to join a religious order. One of the vows she took was that she would not ask her creativity to provide for her, but instead she vowed she would provide for her creativity. I thought this was really interesting because it runs counter to a lot of the self-help tomes out there that encourage people to turn their creative passions into their full-time paying job.

I think all of us have that dream to be able to make enough money from our creative endeavors that we can do that work full-time. We envision ourselves sitting in our perpetually sunlit studio and just getting to paint all day long. It’s a great dream, but I think what gets lost in that fantasy is the pressure that gets put on our creativity to perform. Some people can work very successfully like that. They’ve hammered out a contract with their particular creative genius that allows them to get the work done—and that’s great, all the power to them.

For some people, like me, who have creative geniuses that are a little less robust and have been put through the wringer a time or two, I have to take a different approach. There was a time when this would’ve frustrated me a great deal and I would’ve seen my inability to push my artist work into a full-time job as a personal failing. These days though I am much more okay with it because I love my unique brand of creativity and the surprising gifts it gives me.

So even as I contemplate more commission work and setting up long-term business objectives, my first priority has to continue to be giving my creativity what it needs to be happy.

What do I want to learn?

What skills do I want to hone?

What am I setting out to discover in 2016?

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Do you have creative objectives for the coming year? I’d love to hear about them, so please post them in the comments.