Chances are, if you’re interested in tarot, you’re a creative person – or at least, interested in other peoples’ creativity. Jeanna from Girlboss Woo is here to talk about how reading “Big Magic” changed her perspective and relationship with creative writing.
This is a part of the Summer Reading Coven series hosted by Northern Lights Witch. Throughout the summer, we will be highlighting books that have moved us deeply and impacted our practices as witches and occult practitioners.
You are going to have a big reaction to Big Magic. Some people find it easy to read, easy to be inspired by. Big ideas. Others want to throw it at the wall. Big triggers.
Like I said: it evokes many feelings. Apathy is not one of them.
Personally, I’m in the camp of folks who immediately re-read it after finishing, who started listening to Gilbert’s podcast Magic Lessons, and who keeps the book itself nearby in case it would be handier.
Let me tell you why Big Magic lit a creative fire under my ass faster than any other book I’ve read in recent memory.
There are plenty of topics from Big Magic that we could discuss today — how to live with fear as a creative, the myth of the tortured artist, the concept of ideas as “alive” — but, practical Capricorn that I am, I want to talk with you about the monetary burdens we put on our creativity.
Of all the big ideas in Big Magic, this is the concept that resonated with me the most, and that has had repercussions far beyond my initial read of it — in the best way possible.
Like Gilbert, I’ve identified as a writer since I was six years old. Like Gilbert, I have a longstanding contract with myself: that my writing would not have to pay the bills.
Unlike Gilbert, I have a sneaking suspicion that this contract was not entirely of my own making.
Gilbert’s insistence on having a day job is built from her years watching her creative friends self-implode on the road to genius:
“I’ve seen artists drive themselves broke and crazy because of this insistence that they are not legitimate creators unless they can exclusively live off their creativity. And when their creativity fails them (meaning: doesn’t pay the rent), they descend into resentment, anxiety, even bankruptcy. Worst of all, they often quit creating.” (152-153)
This deceptive thinking (and impatience) that leads so many creatives to burnout is real. It’s why, when I was six years old, someone told me that you couldn’t make a living as a writer. I was a very precocious child, but I doubt that six-year-old Jeanna had the maturity or knowledge (coming from a blue collar family) to definitively assess that writing would not be a well-paying career.
So, since I was a child, writing has existed alongside my other career pursuits. “I can do X and write,” has been my mantra.
Here’s the catch: over the years, those “other things” that would pay the bills became the focus, and any impulse to write professionally fell to the wayside. Even in college, as an English major, I focused on Literature, capital-L, disdainfully leaving the creative writing classes to the dreamers who actually thought you could make a living doing that stuff.
I carried that belief that writing couldn’t (and wouldn’t) pay into a Ph.D. English program, where I was going to be professionally paid to write and research shit that “mattered.” Shit that would be listened to because I had three little letters behind my name.
Here’s the thing: I was still writing every day, usually in a journal. I assumed I was fine – much of the conversation about “committing to writing” centers on writing every day. I was consistent in my production. I was fine.
But I didn’t take my writing seriously. I didn’t revise. I wasn’t intentional about what I was writing. I never thought about submitting my work to literary journals and professional publications. And I stopped writing fiction altogether.
For me, my contract with myself wasn’t “I won’t make my writing pay the bills — I’ll keep my day job.” My contract was, “Since my writing can’t pay the bills, why try to be professional at it?”
I operated on this assumption even as I dropped out of that Ph.D. program and started a new business — an online lingerie shop with a social mission. Unsurprisingly, my favorite part of running the business was writing the blog. I called it “content marketing” and assured myself (and everyone) that it was okay to spend so much time writing for the blog because it was marketing strategy.
Do you sense a theme here?
Enter Big Magic.
When I first read Gilbert’s exhortation to writers to keep their day job if only to provide their creativity with a soft place to land, I initially thought “Well, duh,” in a grotesquely self-congratulating way.
I had never fallen for the myth that you could actually make a living writing, unless you’re a unicorn who gets a New York Times bestseller (and maybe not even then). I had never been so shortsighted as to pursue an advanced degree that would never pay me back (doctorates are funded). I hadn’t let my creativity be murdered by the need to pay my bills.
… or had I?
One of the slow realizations that I’ve unearthed post-Big Magic is that I did, in fact, murder some of my creativity in order to pay the bills. I put paying the bills and being “respectable” above the writing. I let myself write, when it would be good for business. I did not take my writing seriously. I did not let myself take creative writing classes unless it was a “self-care thing.”
For many years, my creativity has been walled off into a safe corner, where it exists within the confines of my professional pursuits. The writing itself is never let out of the small, dark room in order to be its own professional pursuit.
Big Magic changed that for me.
Not immediately, mind. When I first read Big Magic, I thought I had a creative practice.
But I had the wrong mindset.
The “Aha!” moment came only a few weeks ago. I went on “summer break” from running my online shop (aka, taking a breather). I needed space to just think.
One day, a major thought came flying out of nowhere. Simply put, it was this:
When, exactly, did I decide that this was what I wanted to do with my life? Why, exactly, am I not pursuing writing professionally?
Not blogging. Writing. The kinds of creative non-fiction essays and short stories you submit to literary journals after a stiff shot of whiskey to numb the self-doubt. That kind of writing. The writing that would actually lead to the memoir that had been buzzing around my brain for months but that hadn’t yet taken form on paper.
And in that moment, Big Magic happened.
I re-did the long-term plan for Girlboss Woo so that it focused less on infoproducts and more encompassed my writing pursuits. I spent hours that night making a list of the various story and essay ideas that have been bouncing around in my head, of everywhere I wanted to submit work.
I won’t say that moment changed everything, even though it did. It takes time to peel off layers. To figure out all of the assumptions you’ve accrued over the course of a life.
It takes time to make the connection that this realization happened because once, a few months ago, I read (and reread) a book called Big Magic.
It takes time to follow through, to establish the discipline, to start practicing what you’ve realized.
It’s not just the Aha! Moment.
It’s everything you do after, to create the life you most desire for yourself.
That’s Big Magic.