February 2, 2017

Big Magic

Filed under: books — Benjamin Vulpes @ 6:17 a.m.

Big Magic1: Creative Living Beyond Fear is a self-help book. Amazon also recommends Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun and Be Your Own Person, and You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life. It's a modern American self-help book, which means that it is relentlessly cheery, schmaltzy and in an twist worthy of M. Night Shamalamadingdong himself, convincingly earnest.

I can smell bullshit, bad writing, and insincerity at sixty yards, and distinguish between them at thirty. Big Magic was no further than an arm's distance from my face for the duration of my sojourn through its pages, and while I did have to squint and furrow my brow through an extraordinary-even-for-American-self-help-books amount of plagiarism poorly-retold stories, it's all in very earnest service of the very earnest exhortation to decouple careerism from the doing of the things that bring one joy. A very humble, and self-conscious thread runs through the whole book: Gilbert tells a story of herself as a woman who writes because it is the creative outlet she must honor first, who specifically decided to enter and persevere in the commercial realm and only then was run over by the steamroller of mass-market success that was Eat, Pray, Love.

The book is a slog (definitely not worth the time for anyone who's not me, I at least get a blog post out of the exercise...), but a few themes bear pointing out: Americans are paralyzed by the fear of "sucking" and lack any framework for addressing said suck; the importance of saying no to ideas; and the perennial imaginary friend/tulpa trick.

Americans...suck. The contention is mean: both hurting feelings and a cheap shot. However, our schools so badly prepare our children that elementary schools in Portland have dropped science teaching altogether, driving family members to cook and operate their own after-school science program2 . A key aspect of the demons that keep Americans from realizing how completely our education system has failed us is the focus on self-esteem and improving the performance of our lowest performers3. The teaching job in America is primarily to make students feel as though they've learned the material while succoring the poor infants' egos instead. It is obviously easier for the public education system to hire incompetents in all fields (how many times have you heard about a PE teacher running the Calculus II class? Chemistry? Post-Revolutionary War American history?), and then cater to *everyone's* weaknesses: the teachers are not required to know anything about the subjects, instead reading from the predefined curriculum, and the children are shoveled relentlessly from grade to grade regardless of achievement or knowledge. The teachers never have to confront their inadequacy for the task, and the children never have to confront their failure to measure up. Institutionalized testing isn't a thing anyone involved either on the educating or educated ends of the spectrum respect or consider a reflection on themselves, which is sensible, it's just another cheap substitute for an actual test written to actual taught material by an actual professor, just like hamburger is an acceptable substitution for steak when calculating CPI.

In a world where nobody demands the children work hard, where their teachers never say "this is a poor essay and you may rewrite it for a better grade if you like, the improved grade of course predicated on fixing A, B and C fundamental problems with the work, and rewriting paragraphs P, Q and R using adult grammar", is it any wonder that my peers, the Millennials, cannot divorce "this work that you've produced sucks" from "you suck"? Millennials balk at being told that their work is substandard. All of the college-educated ones I've had to wrangle have at least four years of constant ego-fluffing in an utter vacuum of negative feedback. They think themselves the greatest generation, ready to Take On The World, Make A Difference, Follow Their Joy and all the other progressive claptrap. Yet, the blow to their egos from being told that using "2cnd." in place of the conventional "2nd" or even simply spelling the whole word out as "second" is embarrassingly pompous will break these fragile wannabe humans. Not that "you suck" is even that harsh a critique if the environment provides paradigmatically and practically for humans to improve themselves, but entertaining that bit of hate speech implies of course that some people suck less than other people, and who are you even to tell me that I suck and need improving? I'm just as good as you are, but in nebulous and ill-defined ways! My emails are top-notch! Just because you're my boss doesn't mean...

Boomers, you failed your children. You coddled my generation such that we're almost entirely incapable of improving ourselves. We're accustomed to trophies for middling attendance and demand the same over-the-top adulations for the same completely mediocre performances in the professional sphere. You convinced yourselves that it was more important to bridge the achievement gap than to teach us algebra and calculus, and so spent three decades slaving to set the impoverished up for success while simultaneously hacking all of the rigor out of our education system; and now you have the temerity to be surprised when your appeals to intelligence, thoughtfulness, compassion and miscellaneous do-goodery are trumped by appeals to nationalism and barely-coded missives to "poor whites who only object to welfare when it benefits not-them" (as you characterize the missives)?

Poor Gilbert now has to pick up the slack that our parents dropped. To paraphrase, "I know that nobody taught you that making art, composing music, writing and raising sane children was going to be an endless, lonely slog. But either you have to dig into the work and demonstrate some grit, or you're going to spend your entire life dreaming about the books you wanted to write instead of sitting down and grunting through the pain and disillusionment that comes from regarding your own work critically, seeing its flaws and trying to do better next time."

Whatever, my generation's flaws are painfully apparent to everyone who looks even casually. We're lazy, and think the world of ourselves for absolutely no reason to pick two at random. Moreover, because nobody ever beat (most of) us into putting in the hard work that's necessary to become even halfway conversant with analytical methods in mathematics, the complexities of organic chemistry, or the historical priors as what lead to the French romping around North America once upon a time (the phrase "New World" doesn't ring a bell? Really?), you left us bereft of both the work ethic necessary to finish our books and the intellectual discipline to consider undertaking some projects and not others.

Nobody likes an "idea man". Everyone mocks the "idea guy" on the team. To quote the Notorious B.I.G., "I got techniques/drippin' out my buttcheeks". Ideas are cheap, man. Sitting around having ideas, feeling smart, getting excited and going on Wikipedia binges may feel good, but it's the least productive thing anyone can do with their time. At least a hundred other people are going to have the same ideas, and if you spend all of your time thinking and none doing, you'll be no better than the rest of the nobodies who did nothing with all of the ideas they had in their lifetime. Life and work are a long and arduous journey and you better learn to enjoy the hard work, aching back and broken fingernails, lest you spend your twenties trapped in a highly-engineered dopamine loop designed to convert your essential energy into eyeballs on investor balance sheets. And to think, we grew up on RAtM...

Gilbert suggests that the tortured, self-identified "creative type" treat ideas as corporeal entities; tulpas if you will. Inspiration strikes vastly more frequently than any of us have the capacity to execute on, and I'll be the first to testify to the power of a healthy practice of welcoming the muse into your soul without promising her you'll do a single thing. It's one thing to beg her for ongoing support before embarking on a project, to spill the blood of virgins upon her altar in exchange for the grit and stamina to grunt this one out, but a shameful betrayal to welcome her into your house and arms without looking her in the eyes and telling her that you might not have the time to make good on the particular inspiration she's prepared to deliver into your mind.

My generation has no work ethic, because our first drafts were always good enough for our teachers. Since we dashed everything off at the last minute before it was due, we never came to grips with the exclusive-choice problems of what to work on.

So Gilbert proposes offloading the genius' work onto a tulpa called...a genius4. It's just...outside of yourself. An imaginary being if you will.

This is the thing most baffling to me: Gilbert, along with the 12-steppers and the Christers all lean on tulpas for mental stability in one form or another. Gilbert's dulls the heartache of writers block by putting that-which-inspires over there, in her genius; 12-steppers rely on a higher power to make the right decision for them in the moment; and Papists emplace responsibility for determining the truth of God's word in the Vatican. All to great success, apparently! Gilbert appears to have a healthy relationship with her creative muscle; the AA higher-power trick works for the attendees for whom it works; and all stripes of Christer derive satisfaction and contentment in this life by putting their faith in God and trusting that all will go according to His unknowable plan.

But AA, the Church and Gilbert's life hacks for the creatively-inclined all only work for those for whom they work, so I'm left at a loss as to how useful the whole tulpa thing is. While I find the practice interesting, I'll continue to eschew.

Gilbert's whole story of being prepared for luck to strike by having practiced for so long could be fabricated whole and I'd never know. The dashed-off tone could be an extraordinary feint! It'd even be entirely reasonable to chalk the earnestness up to self-deception necessary to hit contractual deadlines.

Big Magic is an unenjoyable read. Spare yourself.

  1. Elizabeth Gilbert, 2016. []
  2. While children benefit significantly from socialization with other children (traditionally at schools), the damage to wellbeing and intellectual development from simply being around around people who call a daycare "education" is so obvious at this point that it's hard for me to conscience even spending time with people who put their kids in PPS these days. I get it, you both work, and how would you ever pay for all the new cars and sofas if you didn't. []
  3. Always couched in the language of helping the impoverished or systematically-discriminated-against achieve parity with the white kids, a clever sleight of hand that keeps us from confronting the fact that even the white kids can't even do basic algebra by the end of fifth grade anymore. []
  4. imagine my startlement when I hauled off to find the TED talk from which she'd plagiarized the set of "genius" concepts and found...herself! []

1 Comment »

  1. The folks that submit to imaginary friends - be they gods, doctors, or furry foot fetishists - are dreaming of a master the way the starving dream of food.

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