“My painting carries with it the message of pain.” Frida Kahlo
Arguably one of the most famous examples of a creative chronic pain sufferer, Frida Kahlo was involved in a horrific bus accident when she was in her late teens and spent the rest of her life in tremendous pain. In spite of this, she managed to become one of the most prolific and highly-regarded artists of her time, often painting flat on her back in bed after one of her many surgeries.
Kahlo’s story is one example of what Elizabeth Gilbert is talking about in her latest book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Less a how-to manual for motivating creativity and more an encouraging shove towards finding, embracing, and cultivating your own creative impulse, Big Magic addresses the larger themes of what living a creative life takes: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust, and divinity. These themes seem to pair exceptionally well with the everyday challenges of living with chronic pain.
Courage: Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?
Gilbert believes – truly, madly, deeply believes – that everyone walking the planet has some creative treasure that is hidden or lying dormant within them. As with most things for the chronic pain patient, this creative treasure can be deeply buried underneath layers of pain, therapy, and medications. Gilbert uses her own story and the story of her friends to demonstrate that the first step towards the big magic of living a creative life is to find the courage to uncover that creative impulse, regardless of the obstacles, doing it only because it must be done.
She argues against fear and for embracing that unknown just to let whatever light you have shine out, freely. She points out that if you “argue for your limitations you get to keep them.” Courage is feeling the fear, knowing it’s there, and sallying forth anyway.
Enchantment: Do you want to work with me?
When chronic pain seems to shrink the world to the smallest manageable bits that scream “no!” at every turn, Big Magic is all about saying yes. Gilbert posits that ideas come to those they want to work with, and if the chosen person is unwilling or unavailable, they will simply move on.
Simply put, this is about embracing opportunity when it is presented, allowing yourself to use the courage that you have to say yes to things. Chronic pain can put us into little boxes; enchantment pulls back the lid and opens to the possibilities.
Permission: You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life
Ever heard the old saying, “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission”? This section of Big Magic is all about claiming creativity and a creative life as your birthright as a human being. Many times those in chronic pain begin to feel a sense of guilt about their condition. They may be more dependent on others. They may not be able to work much, if at all, and household duties are often divided based on the day’s pain intensity score rather than a sense of equality or fairness. In these times, many people would feel as if they were going too far to be allowed to create something that contributes nothing except the joy of creation.
That thinking, says Gilbert, is false and damaging. She writes:
“Human beings have been creative beings for a really long time – long enough and consistently enough that it appears to be a totally natural impulse…Let inspiration lead you where it wants to lead you. “
In short, you help no one by denying your natural impulses to create something, whether it is a poem or a painting or a finely baked loaf of bread. Kahlo used her art as a way to feel powerful when she was helpless in bed; Gilbert believes we should all expect no less of ourselves.
Persistence: What are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?
Every chronic pain patient knows persistence intimately. Persistence in getting out of bed. Getting dressed. Being patient when every nerve in the body is screaming in pain. Big Magic is not about being persistent in the ways that get you a recording contract or a show in a gallery or publisher to sell your book.
Just as persistence in chronic pain is about pushing through the pain in the morning to have breakfast with your kids because it matters, persistence in creativity is about pushing through the mundane parts of creative endeavors to get to the good stuff. It’s about writing every day to get better before you have anything you want to share. It’s about cleaning your brushes and taking care of materials so they serve you well the next time you need them.
Chronic pain is written on the map of persistence, with the myriad indignities and painful moments endured so that a person can focus on what matters. So, too, creativity is a matter of persistence. A quote in Big Magic sticks out and is perhaps what Frida Kahlo felt all those days her arms ached from being held above her head, painting her pain:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is within you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.”
Save your life. Persist. Create.
Trust and Divinity: Why would your creativity not love you?
Of all of the sections in Big Magic, this may be the hardest, and it is perhaps related to the last section (divinity): you have to trust that your creative impulse loves you and wants you to succeed. In these last two sections, Gilbert makes the final case for embracing, accepting, and pursuing the creative life that is already inside us. She believes that you need to understand that your work loves you just as much as you love it. The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made by you.
You don’t need to be a tortured artist to be creative. You don’t need to behave badly or suffer for your creative work to be valuable.
With regard to divinity, Gilbert believes that for as sacred as creativity is, it is also meant to be shaken up. It is serious and playful, light and dark. There is no reason why things should change, yet nothing should be forced to stay the same. Approaching the creative life in this way, in much the same way you would approach chronic pain in an effort to find a pain-free path, creating is less fraught with pressure to be any certain way. This can be freeing, and isn’t that what creating is ultimately about? Creating a sense of space and freedom?
While Big Magic is more a theoretical cheerleading session than a concrete, step-by-step way to achieve this freedom and lightness in life with chronic pain and creating, there is something very valuable in having someone who believes in you so desperately that you cannot but help believe in yourself just a little bit more every time you read the book.
Elizabeth Gilbert is also remarkably accessible on Facebook and on other social media. Check her out, then let us know what you thought of the book!
Image by Nicolas Raymond via Flickr