How to Stimulate Creativity: Get in Touch With Big Magic

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Big Magic" by Elizabeth Gilbert. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do you stimulate creativity? More importantly, how do you see your creative idea to fruition?

In her book Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says that ideas come to you from the creative realm of “Big Magic.” When this happens, there are a number of responses you can give. The most common is to pass on the idea. The idea will then move on to find another host who can take it on. The other response is to say yes. When you say yes to an idea, you choose to work together and see the idea through to the end, whatever that end looks like. 

In this article, we’ll explore Gilbert’s tips on how to act when a creative idea visits you, how to take it on, and how to work with it to see it through to the end. 

When a Creative Idea Visits You

Gilbert believes that when you respond in the affirmative to an idea, you must make an agreement with it so that you complete it to the best of your ability. But creators often find that despite their best efforts, an idea just doesn’t work, and they must decide whether to keep at it or drop it. Abandoning an idea doesn’t mean tossing it in the waste bin, though. It can live on in another iteration or even within a different idea. It can also simply be set aside and revisited at a later date, when the writer achieves some distance from their work.)

When you make an agreement with an idea, follow these good practices to ensure your work with it is satisfying and fruitful:

Practice #1: Cooperate With the Idea

Rather than fretting over the idea, fighting with the idea, or just plain putting it off (which are all common responses), work with the idea, writes Gilbert. Think of your idea as a human creative partner, and treat it with dignity and respect. 

Gilbert says that in practice, this might mean getting more rest, so you’re more alert, and setting aside uninterrupted time to work with the idea, so you’re more productive. It also might mean building a healthy mindset toward your process: appreciating the journey, rather than worrying about the outcome, and allowing yourself moments of satisfaction when something has turned out well. 

Other Ways to Stimulate Creativity

Gilbert advises you to cooperate more effectively with your ideas by resting, increasing your productivity, and building a healthy mindset. But these suggestions may not be realistic for everyone. For instance, people with busy careers or children may not have the time to rest more or become more productive. Further, changing your mindset isn’t a quick fix; it can take time and hard work.

Daniel Pink’s Drive offers alternative ways to effectively cooperate with ideas. Pink suggests that developing intrinsic motivation, the urge to do something because you want to, not because you might receive external validation, is the key to accomplishing high-quality creative work—in other words, cooperating with an idea. 

Intrinsic motivation can form when you have autonomy over what you’re doing, the opportunity for mastery or improvement, and a solid purpose—a “why.” To cooperate with an idea, therefore, ensure that you have control over how you execute it, that you can learn and grow from the idea, and that you feel a strong sense of purpose in the pursuit of this idea.

Practice #2: View the Idea as a Separate Entity

Gilbert imagines ideas as independently-functioning entities with wills of their own. Ideas visit people; people don’t produce ideas. This isn’t just a cute way to visualize the creative process. It’s also a productive and sanity-saving approach to your creative work for two reasons:

1) You honor the idea: The perception of your idea as an independent being keeps you invested and committed to your idea, says Gilbert. If you neglect an idea, it has the agency to leave you and inspire someone else. 

(Shortform note: Gilbert’s description of honoring an idea and sticking with it is similar to Angela Duckworth’s concept of “grit,” as described in her eponymous book. Duckworth states that grit is made up of perseverance and passion and is a prime predictor of success, more so than talent or IQ. Though Gilbert doesn’t recommend striving for creative success, she does, like Duckworth, believe that the only thing you can control on your creative journey is your effort.)

2) You protect your ego: Feeling that you are an ideator can cause all sorts of unproductive mental anguish, says Gilbert. If your idea is well received, you can develop an over-inflated ego and sense of superiority. Conversely, if your idea falls flat, you may crush your ego and feel inferior. Separating yourself from the idea allows you to work without your ego becoming damaged or overinflated. 

(Shortform note: Gilbert says to view ideas as separate entities to protect your ego from either over-inflation or damage. In his book Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday proposes a different way to deal with your ego: Instead of protecting it, as Gilbert advises, Holiday advocates for limiting its influence over you by, for instance, refraining from talking or thinking about yourself excessively. When you do this, your ego can’t cause you to overestimate your abilities and underestimate obstacles, thereby preventing you from satisfactorily completing projects. Whether you protect your ego by separating yourself from it, as Gilbert suggests, or you limit your ego’s influence over your actions, as Holiday suggests, the result is a smoother creative process.)

Practice #3: Adopt a Perspective of Abundance

According to Gilbert, a perspective of abundance is the belief that there are many ideas floating around, looking for hosts. Taking this view, says Gilbert, can mitigate disappointment if things don’t go as planned between you and the idea. If, for instance, either you or the idea abandons the other, you know there are still many other ideas seeking individuals to take them on. By framing the idea’s loss as an opportunity to get to know a new idea, you avoid the pitfalls of anger, jealousy, and self-reproach, which only stymie your creativity the next time around. 

(Shortform note: Gilbert’s perspective of abundance is at odds with the pre-existing concept of abundance in Buddhism. According to author and Buddhist practitioner Jack Kornfield, we all contain abundance within ourselves. Each of us possesses abundant love, connection, and freedom, and we don’t need to seek external validation or possessions to acquire these qualities or prove we have them. Extrapolating this notion, Kornfield would probably also say that we contain all the ideas of the universe within us and needn’t look outside of ourselves for them, unlike Gilbert, who sees ideas as an external abundance to search for.) 

How to Stimulate Creativity: Get in Touch With Big Magic

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Elizabeth Gilbert's "Big Magic" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Big Magic summary:

  • Why integrating creativity into your daily life will make you feel more fulfilled
  • Why creating for money is a form of self-sabotage
  • Why you should never focus on external validation of your creations

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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