Curiosity over Passion: Unpacking Big Magic


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I finished reading a borrowed, now dog-eared copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic about, ooh, three or four minutes ago.

It was recommended to me by a friend, and then another friend, and then that first friend again, and then the second friend presented me with her copy and told me to have at. These two friends both seemed convinced it was just the thing I needed to kick my writing back into gear.

Initially, I was merely charmed by the front cover (big, bold letters amidst clouds of paint dust, evoking images of Holi celebrations in India), and curious to see what Lizzie G had to say on the subject of creativity. She is, after all, the author of Eat, Pray, Love — a book that niggles me with its whimsically divine remarks, as well as absurd popularity. (For reasons unknown even to me, I tend to associate soaring popularity with, well, trash for the masses, which I admit is overly harsh.)

But I read Big Magic with gusto and finally placed it down on the coffee table, my head buzzing with renewed perspective. For all my whingeing about Eat, Pray, Love, I can’t say I don’t admire Elizabeth’s self-effacing authenticity of character, and “stubborn gladness” (as she puts it) regarding her hard-earned place in the creative realm. Moreover, I adored her endearing description of creativity is a living, breathing, intuitive creature (or creatures), scouring the Earth in search of willing humans to embody and collaborate with.

But Big Magic unnerved me a little, as well. For all its references I could relate to, laugh with, and cherish, there was one that inevitably arises in every instructive creative text that made me recoil, and question everything about my creative self.


That one thing that drives you to create above and beyond yourself.

That one thing that surpasses the urgency of eating, sleeping, socialising, paying bills, whatever.

That one thing that consumes every spare minute of your time, and every blank space in your brain.

That one thing that invades your mind and body (even when you don’t want it to) and renders you into a kind of artistic trance.

Why does passion unnerve me so much?

Because I’m not convinced I have one.

Sure, I care about lots of things. I’m interested in lots of things. These opinions don’t form themselves, people.

But do I dedicate every moment of my spare time to these things? Remain unshakeably disciplined under the watchful eye of these things until a result is produced?

No, I do not.

I dedicate my time to the pursuit of these interests sometimes. I discipline myself for the sake of creative results sometimes. Everything I do in the creative realm is a sometimes affair.

And therein lies my dilemma, because almost every writer/creative figure I’ve encountered describes their craft as a kind of lifeline; something that must be pursued for fear of going insane otherwise; a vocation they simply cannot survive without. They and their craft are entwined…fatefully, for better or worse, one. And while Elizabeth G does not specifically refer to writing as her passion, she does speak of it as being like a dear friend: someone she will show up to support, day in and day out, no matter her misgivings, no matter what.

Jesus. How am I supposed to compete with that?

You can imagine my confusion as to how I even dare call myself creative when, half the time, I’m not even sure I give two shits about my craft. But writing is my background: it’s what kept my head above water when I was an awkward, spurned kid, and it’s what I was trained for at university. Despite my average grades (second draft? What’s that?), people told me from time to time they liked what I wrote, and still do, and I suppose that affirmation is sometimes enough to keep me going. And it’s true that, when I do finally get going, I occasionally get so absorbed in what I’m producing that bodily pangs like hunger and a pulsing bladder become a hindrance, and their repeated neglect renders me shaky and irritable for the remainder of the day.

But I confess, I feel like a fraud. A lazy, apathetic, confused fraud.

Elizabeth states that writing — like any creative endeavour — should be treated like a lover. It should be sweet-talked, prioritised, flirted with, herded into dark corners at every opportunity. A creative person should have affairs with their craft.

This is an incredibly sweet notion…though really, given the chance, I’d always choose to have an actual affair, with an actual person, as opposed to my dried-up, self-indulging words.

Does this mean I have no place in the artistic world? That I don’t deserve to ever be recognised or paid for my work? Or does it mean, merely, I am simply human?

*Shrugs* I’unno.

As to why I’m writing today, it’s thanks to a Joan Didion quote Elizabeth G included in Big Magic: “I don’t know what I think until I write about it.”

I thought I’d give that tactic a shot.

Oddly enough, I think it’s worked, though not without an initial clue from Lizzie.

Here’s a snippet from her chapter titled, “Devotion to Inquisitiveness”, that made my brain go ping:

I believe that curiosity is the secret. Curiosity is the truth and the way of creative living. Curiosity is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. Furthermore, curiosity is accessible to everyone. Passion can seem intimidatingly out of reach at times — a distant tower of flame, accessible only to geniuses and to those who are specially touched by God. But curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity. The stakes of curiosity are also far lower than the stakes of passion. Passion makes you get divorced and sell all your possessions and shave your head and move to Nepal. Curiosity doesn’t ask nearly so much of you.

In fact, curiosity only ever asks one simple question: “Is there anything you’re interested in? Anything? Even a tiny bit? No matter how mundane or small?

My answer, in short: Yes. Nearly everything I’ve ever heard, seen, experienced, touched, encountered.

I realised (with a sound effect like a cardboard box filled with styrofoam pieces being upturned onto the ground) that the pursuit of curiosity — or what I previously referred to, rather blandly, as learning — is to what I dedicate every moment of my spare time. Those quirky tidbits, those current affairs, those niche topics — I research the hell out of those mofos. It’s why I’m typically pretty adept at trivia games, or useless party tricks like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. It’s why I don’t toil endlessly over one endeavour, but instead pick up a pen or a paintbrush or a book or a gardening hoe and put them down again whenever I damn well feel like it. My attention span is too fleeting, and my dedication to artistic struggle too fickle. As Neil Gaiman once said (in a fantastic opening address to the University of the Arts), “I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.”

Which begs me to ask another question, in response to Devotion to Inquisitiveness: Can curiosity itself count as a passion?

I don’t know.

But I’m making use of Liz’s permission to say yes, yes it does, just so the question doesn’t run laps around my head for the next couple of weeks.

So what does this mean?

Well, it means I’ll try and forgive myself for my sometimes drought-affected well of passion. It means I’ll stop questioning why I’m arranging words on a page, and simply be content that I am. And perhaps — if you’re experiencing a similar dilemma — you should be, too.

It means I acknowledge this scavenger hunt of curiosity — chasing one clue, and then another clue, and then yet another clue — the relentless, burning desire to know the answer to absolutely everything, even if those answers lead me nowhere in particular — is enough to grant me a renewable, all-access pass to the creative realm. It’s all the permission I need.

I’m sure Lizzie G would be down with that.

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