Book Review: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic

Book Review: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic

 Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?

-Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert

I recently borrowed Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic” from the Los Angeles Public Library. It’s a quick read and highly recommended for anyone pursuing a creative, artistic life. You can see a Clif Notes version of what she covers in her book in her widely viewed TED Talk. Elizabeth Gilbert also wrote the New York Time Best selling book, “Eat, Pray, Love. ”

The central question of Big Magic is, “Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?” That’s a meaty question and she offers her point of view on creative living beyond fear. The hidden gem of the book is that she’s walking the walk – she wrote it because it was a passion project. Second, she could have rested on her laurels after Eat, Pray, Love, but she is committed to writing books and expressing her creativity.

There’s a bunch of gems. Here are the ones that jumped out at me:

“The paradox you need to inhabit if you wish to live a contented creative life, goes something like this: ‘My creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me (if I am to live artistically), and it also must not matter at all (if I am to live sanely).'”

“Creative living doesn’t necessarily mean selling everything you own to pursue a life in the arts. It’s certainly an option, but she’s more interested in the creativity that inspires us, delights us and keeps us sane.”

“If you’re going to do anything creative, you have to make space for fear.”

“Creativity is a birthright.”

“Push yourself deeper into the world, to explore more bravely.”

Some other pieces of advice:

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

Pay your bills. Don’t strangle your creativity or resent it because of bankruptcy. Jim Henson worked in advertising for 20 years before realizing his dream – The Muppets. Toni Morrison used to work on her novels before going off to her publishing job. J. K. Rowling did too. The LA conundrum.

Don’t be a Tormented Artist

She offers an alternative to the Tormented Artist. She suggests clearing out the obstacles holding you back, treating “failure” as an experiment, and measuring success by the process, not product.

The Shit Sandwich

What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich? Mark Manson is a blogger and entrepreneur. He offers seven questions to consider when determining your life’s purpose. What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich is one of them. He writes:

Everything involves sacrifice. Everything includes some sort of cost. Nothing is pleasurable or uplifting all of the time. So the question becomes: what struggle or sacrifice are you willing to tolerate? Ultimately, what determines our ability to stick with something we care about is our ability to handle the rough patches and ride out the inevitable rotten days.

Grab the tiger by the tail

Creative ideas present themselves to us all the time. We have a choice. If we say no. It goes elsewhere. If we say yes, then we enter a contract with it and should put time and energy into it making the idea blossom. She shares a story int he book of Ruth Stone, an American Poet. When working in the fields, Ruth would sometimes hear a poem coming toward her and she would run like hell to the house to get a piece of a paper and write it down. She could feel the poem rushing through her, the lines falling on the page. Sometimes, she would nearly miss the poem. In these instances, she’d “catch it,” like a tiger by the tail, and the words would come out backwards.

Tom Waits has a similar story. Gilbert interviewed him for GQ years earlier and he said some songs come to him like a dream through a straw while others are like digging up potatoes. Some are sticky and weird like gum under the table and some are like wild birds that he must sneak up on them sideways. He now trusts songs will come to him. How did he come to this conclusion? His children. They create so freely. He said, “I realized that, as a songwriter, the only thing I really do is make jewelry for the inside of people’s minds.”

Keep Creating

Champion yourself.

Done is better than good.

Don’t dwell on failures. Keep moving forward.

The Teaching of Pain – distrust pleasure and put their faith in struggle alone.

It’s not your baby. Edit, cut, refine.

Stop complaining. Do the work.

Create for yourself, not others.

Trust the process.

If you wait for inspiration, you may be waiting forever.

Stick with It

Don’t quit when things get interesting. That’s the transformative part, when you push past the difficulty and enter into some raw new unexplored universe within yourself. Reminds me of Ira Glass’ thoughts on The Gap.

Opening the Creative Pathway

How can you open the creative pathway? Einstein used to call it Combinatory Play – the act of opening up one mental channel while dabbling in another. That’s why he would play violin when he was having difficulty solving a mathematical puzzle. This jumped out at me because I have studied at the AdlerImprov Acting Studio for the past two years and change. Rob Adler uses Viola Spolin’s games to encourage presence, spontaneity and play. Viola’s games provide a focus, point of concentration, that puts the brain on one mental channel while freeing up one’s creative genius. How about that?





St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day

St. Patrick’s Day. One of my favorite holidays. When I was a kid, my parents would make corned beef and cabbage. I hated it. It wasn’t until years later that I appreciated its delicious goodness. Every St. Patrick’s Day, my father would put his Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem Live at Carnegie Hall record on heavy rotation. To this day, it is one of my favorites.

St. Patrick’s Day is a cultural institution in Chicago. They dye the Chicago River neon green. The South Side Parade is a fixture. And if you ever get the chance to go to Chief O’Neills Pub, it’s packed to the gills and the Trinity Irish Dancers make several appearances and Elevation, the U2 cover band closes the night.

During my high school and college years, we lived down the block from the Irish American Heritage Center, which meant during St. Patrick’s Day, the neighborhood was buzzing with bagpipes and drums. The neighborhood, Mayfair Park, was very Irish Catholic too and several families were composed of fireman and cops, some second and third generation – Kelly, Bresnahan and Coughlin.

Years ago, I had a breather between corporate gigs and decided to travel and use my then brand new passport to visit London, Scotland and Ireland for two weeks. I enjoyed London and Scotland, but absolutely loved Ireland. It’s called the Emerald Isle for a reason – the shades of green grass are unlike any other. I stayed in Cork, Dingle, Galway and eventually made my way to Dublin to fly back home to Chicago.

In Cork, I met Finbar and Sean. I was watching the World Cup while enjoying a Murphy’s Irish Stout when those two knuckleheads came up and asked me where I was from. After replying “Chicago,” they said, “You’re partying with us. Cork won the hurling championship!” I took them up on their offer and had a great time.

I also saw a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at a park/playground in Cork. The audience stood around a pool as the actors moved around the space. I happened to be standing near a corner of the pool where a family of tiny ducks gathered to sleep for the evening. As the actors would near the corner, the ducks would stand up and waddle over to the pool to find safety and security in the water. They’d paddle around quacking until the actors left. Then they would pop out of the pool, shake the water off and huddle together for sleep. Inevitably, the actors would return and the process would repeat.

In Dingle, I rode around the peninsula on a bike I rented from a hardware store. I saw sheep cross the road from one pen to another. It was 75 and sunny with a light breeze. It was one of the most peaceful days of my adult life. I also had to stop about halfway through the bike ride because I wasn’t in bike riding shape. There was a brief period of time where I thought I might not make it back to the town proper. That evening, I went to a local watering hole and saw a three piece band play traditional Irish songs. A woman lead the band in a couple songs. And at one point, a large, early 40’s man with a beer belly engaged her in some Irish step dancing. It was lovely. And magical.

In Galway, I went to an open mic night with some folks from my hostel. I vividly recall a woman singing Radiohead’s Fake Plastic Trees. Mesmerizing. I also remember a white gentlemen who resembled a young Val Kilmer calling himself White Chocolate and singing an 80’s tune. George Michael or WHAM if I recall correctly.

I arrived in Dublin six hours later than I originally intended. I forgot my passport and credentials in my pillow, so two hours into my trip from Galway to Dublin, I had to hop on a bus back to Galway, walk back to the hostel, grab my info and then head back to the terminal to get on a bus. By the time I got to Dublin, I just wanted to eat and sleep. I had the best fish and chips I’ve ever had in my life and a Guinness to wash it down and called it a night.

Ireland holds a special place in my heart and St. Patrick’s Day is a warm reminder of those days. I love Irish music. I love St. Patrick’s Day. I loathe Notre Dame.

Later today, you can find me at Ye Rustic Inn enjoying some corned beef and cabbage. Until then, The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem will be on heavy rotation. Enjoy this St. Patrick’s Day. Slainte!

Pilot Season Prep: AdlerImprov Acting Studio

Pilot Season Prep: AdlerImprov Acting Studio

Back in December, Hollywood Reporter compiled a guide of all the pilots each network was producing. Nearly 100, not including Netflix, Amazon, HULU, etc. Pilot Season is the reason many actors visit Hollywood for the first quarter of the year hoping to kickstart their career. That rhymed. Twice. Nice.

For the past six weeks, I’ve been taking the Pilot Season Prep class at AdlerImprov Acting Studio with Rob Adler and Amie Farrell. The class simulates a pilot season audition. Sides and scripts are sent the day before. You sign up for your audition slot when you arrive to the studio. You audition. You may or may not get a redirect, especially in the first couple classes. And then you head back out to the hallway. After everyone auditions, you head into the studio to watch each person’s audition. If you’re unaccustomed to watching yourself on screen, it can be a bit unnerving, but the camera doesn’t lie. What you see is what the casting director sees. It’s extremely useful.

Pilot Season Prep Class

Aside from tips and tricks Rob and Amie shared, this pilot season class taught me a lot about my audition process, including what works and what doesn’t. Things I learned:

  • Small things make a big difference – a tilt of the head, a look away and back, body position, etc. all communicate something and can set you apart on the screen.
  • What’s your role, both as a character and in telling the story?
  • Who’s producing it, what have they produced in the past and what assumptions can you make as a result?
  • Lesly’s Comedy Intensive paid off in spades with comedy scripts. By knowing the map of the scene, including builds and reversals, heightened emotions in multicam vs. single cam, and pace, etc., those auditions sang.
  • The WHERE game Rob Adler teaches (among many other tools) makes staying present in the audition room much, much easier.

A couple weeks ago, Larry Bates came to the AdlerImprov Acting Studio to share some insight regarding his process. You may not know who he is, but my guess is that’s going to change because he has some very exciting projects in the works. One of the things he discussed was making choices in his auditions. He said he rarely reads the character breakdown first because he doesn’t want it to inform his initial choices. He goes through the script and figures out the story that needs to be told. Then he starts making his choices – the choices that tickle him or engage him. He shapes the space, figuring out what’s in the room so he’s comfortable when he walks into the audition. And then he might go back and review the breakdown. That’s particularly important insight because I think there’s a prevailing mindset among actors to give the producers and directors what you think they want vs. the best of you and your interpretation of the character.

That small piece of advice changed my approach. It reminded me of something Bryan Cranston said at the Oscars a couple years ago. He said your job as an actor is to create a compelling, interesting character that serves the text, present it in the audition environment and walk away. The rest is out of your hands.

Wise words. One of the tenants of Rob Adler’s teaching is you’re the artist. You get to decide which tools and colors you paint with on the canvas. Now I’m figuring out what tickles me and causes me to light up. I’m choosing MY colors and painting MY pictures. I’m making stronger, more playful choices for me. And the results are pretty damn awesome.

We had a guest casting director for the final class (Veronica Mars, Smallville, Switched at Birth) and she said my audition was callback worthy and could see me cast me in the role, depending on the look the directors and producers were looking for. She also discussed what goes on behind the scenes, what actors can and can’t control and, most importantly, how casting is rooting for us in the room. In other words, focus on process, not product. More wise words.

Aside from offering pilot season tips and tricks, Rob and Amie are very supportive and warm teachers. Highly recommend the class.

For pilot season tips, click here. For more information on AdlerImprov Acting Studio’s Pilot Season Prep class, contact Rob Adler.