Big Magic, big dreams (Or, How Elizabeth Gilbert Saved My Life, Again)

Posted on Nov 16, 2015 in Blog


One of the things that’s been nicest about coming back to myself–or approaching myself, anyway, the way you might approach an old friend that you haven’t seen in years and are afraid won’t recognize you, or will be disconcerted by what and who you’ve become–has been the re-appearance of dreams. Big dreams, capital D. The kinds of dreams that are maybe unreachable (or maybe not) and not entirely practical and in some cases don’t even make sense. The kinds of dreams that maybe lend themselves more to the idea of daydreaming than anything else. You know. You walk to work with headphones in your ears and you’re complacent on the sidewalk but in your head, you’re the principal cellist of an orchestra.

And other stuff like that. A couple of weeks ago, I read BIG MAGIC. I read it in two sittings, curled on my little couch in the apartment that I’ve–thank goodness–once more come to love. Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a long time will know about my not-so-secret love for Elizabeth Gilbert. (If you are new to it, please see here and here and–most importantly–here.) I have yet to attend one of Liz’s readings (one day, perhaps, one day) and I’ve mostly contented myself with worshiping from afar. But EAT, PRAY, LOVE came at a very good/very low point in my life, and as it happens, BIG MAGIC did the same.

Sometimes I feel like this woman has my number, in the best possible way.

(Cheryl Strayed has my number too. Also, Roxane Gay. Speaking of dreams — if I ever get to be in the same room as these three women, at the same time, I might just pass into nirvana incoherence.)

One of the hardest things about this past year and summer–and there were plenty of really hard things–was my inability to dream. I could no longer see a way out of the life that I had, or a way to be grateful for the life that I had, or a way to make even the smallest of changes. My life was going to be work and sleep and paying off debt, forever. I would no longer travel, because there was no money, I would no longer write, because there was no point, I would no longer think about silly things like performing in an orchestra or going back to school or getting back into photography or going away for a weekend just for fun because I did not deserve these things, these things were frivolous, this money that I was making could be put to such better use and hadn’t I already done enough, in my twenties? Hadn’t I lived overseas already, hadn’t I traveled, hadn’t I done things, hadn’t I broken my heart again and again and loved and been brave and hadn’t it all come to nothing more than debt? Hadn’t I done all of these things at the expense of being practical, of ensuring that my future wouldn’t be riddled with money woes and worry? Hadn’t I set myself up for failure from the very beginning?

And on, and on. Dreams just made no sense. (My spiritual self got swallowed into all of this, as well, but that is another story for another day.)

There is and was a chemical reason for some of this, for sure. The fact that the ability to dream came back into my life when I went on medication isn’t a coincidence. But I do think there were/are other things at play, too. Things like guilt, things like the fear that I wasn’t good enough. Things like the creeping conviction that maybe art wasn’t important as I’d once thought it was. Were my little books going to save children who were starving? No. They were not. Were my books of any importance when placed alongside the realities of people who built things and fed people and made hearts start again? No. They were not. Each day I went to work and spoke with doctors and nurses who saw people through that space between the living and the dead. Anything that I wanted seemed less than insignificant, by comparison.

But things got better, slowly. By the time I read BIG MAGIC I’d been on medication for just over a month and I was dreaming again, in tiny ways–making plans, considering other things. Playing the cello. (More importantly–I was playing the cello and not caring that it sounded terrible.)

And then I cracked open the book, and read about what Gilbert calls “the artist’s paradox” — that is, the idea that the act of creating art both matters a great deal and yet, at the same time, doesn’t matter at all. What matters, according to Gilbert, is the fact that you continue to create, to make things, to do. If you want to live a creative life, this choice to get up and keep making has to be of utmost importance to you.

But whether or not you choose to get up and keep making doesn’t matter at all to the wider world. Are your books going to save those people who are dying? Probably not. Is your neighbour down the street going to care that you got published in The New Yorker, or won a contest? Not really. (Side note: I’d love to be published in The New Yorker, not gonna lie.)

Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred.

What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all.

We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits.

We are terrified, and we are brave.

I can’t help but come back to this now, standing as I am once more on the shores of Dreaming Island. Will it matter if I never get to be a principal cellist? (I probably won’t ever get to be a principal cellist.) Will it matter if I never get published in The New Yorker, or win a contest, or write something that manages to make a larger ripple in the world? Will it matter if I never actually live anywhere else again? Does any of this matter in a world where, it seems, hearts are breaking everywhere you turn?

Short answer: no, it won’t. No, it doesn’t. What matters is the fact that I continue to dream about these things, to imagine these things, to step forward into the world and believe that everyone has a right to this kind of dreaming, to think: maybe this could happen, and maybe it won’t, and maybe I can keep on doing things anyway. Maybe I have a right to Dreaming Island as much as anyone else.

It feels silly to talk about dreams–particularly artistic dreams–when there are so many more important things happening on this planet that we love and laugh and cry in. But sometimes I forget that the ability to dream is, in and of itself, one of the things that can lift people out of despair. (It certainly helped me.) And I forget that sometimes, the ability to dream and the occasional chance to act on those magical ideas can, in some small, seemingly insignificant way, change the world, or can inspire others to change the world, or maybe even allow for both of these things at the same time. I forget that dreaming is often braver than it seems on the surface to be, and that small things can often make large ripples when you aren’t looking. Ripples in your life, ripples in the lives of others.

So. May you go forth today and dream as big as you possibly can,  even in the face of fear and sadness and terror, even if those dreams don’t end up coming true. Big dreams and small dreams and seemingly insignificant dreams. Imagine that your life can be bigger than your broken heart, can go farther, can contain more.

I will do it too, even in the times when dreaming seems not to matter all.

Maybe even especially then.



1 Comment

  1. Vanessa
    February 2, 2016

    Amanda, it is so good to see you work yourself out of the hole you were in. Well done, and welcome! I too have walked a mile, or two, in those shoes. I too realized that life is not life when one only works and comes home like a zombie on autopilot. I too have been writing about this on my blog. I have not yet read Big Magic, but have been considering it as I also really love Eat Pray Love. I’ve told you this before, but I will again here, your novel is like nothing else in print. After 3 years, and only reading it once, certain scenes come to me for whatever reason quite vividly still: like Sam spreading his wings for the first time, the cat, Sam and the priest hitting a dear on the road from Tofino, Lilah and her boss’ weird relationship, Lilah’s brother alone on the street yet alright. Keep writing for you! Absolutely.

    Have you ever watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s conversation with Anne Patchett, at the Greater New York Public Library? It’s amazing! And watch it instead of downloading the audio file because they cut it short and it misses the best part: where Anne and Liz finally talk about why they write what they do, who it’s really for (themselves), and how writing women characters who are like real women is so essential. This is my favourite quote from the whole thing: “The women that I know who are wise and remarkable didn’t get that way by stuff working out. They got that way by stuff not working out and using the amazing super-power of women which is to take disappointment and with alchemy turn it into wisdom. Then look back on their lives and say I didn’t necessarily get everything that I wanted but I got amazing things I didn’t expect. I have lived with dignity and I am really glad I did that journey, it’s been interesting.”

    And FYI just a few days after she said that to Anne she said that to me and my book club, because I won a contest give away for her novel The Signature of All Things, and 10 copies came with a one hour phone call with her. If I had known you were such a fan I would have invited you some how. Because my friends and I are all writers, who spoke with her, her advice was this: write. Write every day like your life depends on it. Write to get yourself in this journal or that. Write your book or whatever it is YOU want to write because unfortunately there isn’t someone running around knocking on your door saying, “excuse me, I hear there’s a very talented writer in there that no body knows about and I’m here to publish there work. I’m here to make them famous.” Essentially if you do the work, in time it will show. And you do the work for you, so your soul is satisfied. Like Rilke, we write or we die.

    All the best, and I sooo look forward to reading your stories, blog posts, etc now that I see you’ve got some up!


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