Book review: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert was propelled into international fame from the cultural phenomenon of “Eat, Pray, Love” — the memoir which sold 10 million copies worldwide and made her wealthy, famous, and controversial. In “Big Magic”, Gilbert returns to the self-actualization realm and provides a self-help guide for anyone to pursue creative living. This book doesn’t define creativity as pursuing a life that is exclusively or professionally devoted to the arts, rather it’s written as a manual with universal aspirations and provides lessons in how to unleash your creativity.
Gilbert is a master storyteller and this book explores her love of pursuing the creative life as the path to achieving a richer, varied, and more fulfilling existence. Her tone is friendly, engaging, and conversational which places the reader in a comfortable position where although the topics are grandiose — the writing purposely isn’t. “Big Magic” is broken into six sections — Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity. Gilbert’s initial question at the outset is thought-provoking yet universal:
Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?
She depicts fear as a desolate boneyard where our dreams go to desiccate in the hot sun and argue convincingly that our fear isn’t rare or unique — it’s just a mass-produced item that limits our creative freedom. If Gilbert wasn’t an author, she could easily be a cheerleading coach with the extended pep talks to encourage even the most introverted of creatives — “Fear and creativity shared a womb — but creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way”.
Gilbert’s advice is at times paradoxical — swerving from the mystical and divine to pragmatism. In ‘Enchantment’, she purports that creativity has agency and it is a force of enchantment, not entirely human in its origins. Although critics have condemned this re-imagination of creativity as hocus-pocus, I believe the provision of autonomy to creativity actually diminishes the pressure that creatives place upon themselves. Gilbert asserts:
If inspiration is allowed to unexpectedly enter you, it is also allowed to unexpectedly exit you.
Creativity is then a gift to the creator, not just a gift to the audience. As our time on earth is limited, it’s only logical that we live the most “vividly decorated temporary life” that’s possible. Gilbert’s optimism is like a fortune cookie, a nice surprise amidst our chaotic and at times stressful existence. She wants us to embrace creative living rather than waiting for anyone’s permission to do so, and to remember:
Never back down, you cannot afford to back down. The life you are negotiating to save, after all, is your own.
Gilbert’s belief in the abstract philosophy of creativity as having willpower and being delivered to patient human beings sounds like a New Age-y sentiment where “positive thinking” is said to attract positive outcomes. However, Gilbert also acknowledges the quintessential fear of most creatives that what they are creating is not original or authentic. It’s here where she provides heartwarming and practical advice — “Just say what you want to say, and say it with all your heart, if it’s authentic enough, believe me, it will feel original.” After all,
Your art not only doesn’t have to be original, but it also doesn’t have to be important
However, the real triumph of this book is Gilbert’s pragmatic musings on the pursuit of creativity, she explores the difficult yet necessary truth that there is no job security in creativity, and there never will be. Pure creativity is rooted in human artistic expression, which Gilbert described as “blessedly, refreshingly non-essential” and perhaps we should engage with creativity not to achieve anything useful, but simply because we are doing something that we really enjoy. Gilbert believes that —
The secret to finding your purpose in life is to answer this question in total honesty:
“Whats your favourite flavour of shit sandwich?”
The fact that creativity does not pay the bills is a well-established yet often hidden fact amongst most creatives. The expectation that your creativity should provide a regular paycheck is — as Gilbert reflects — “so cruel to your work as if creativity were a government job or trust fund.” It’s important to work hard at your bread and butter job so that your creativity can play lightly — it is not a source of embarrassment or shame to indulge in creative pursuits on the side.
The final tidbit of advice that’s simultaneously simple yet profound is Gilbert’s derision of perfectionism. She states (correctly) that perfectionism stops people from completing their work, but even worse, it often stops people from beginning their work. It’s time we re-evaluated our attitude towards our work and start striving for done rather than perfect. I liked Gilbert’s understanding that the pursuit of perfection is often the fatal flaw for women, she writes —
Too many women still seem to believe that they are not allowed to put themselves forward at all, until both they and their work are perfect and beyond criticism
Overall, “Big Magic” is a guide filled with great advice, although Gilbert glosses over certain topics such as how to handle rejection and doubt in the pursuit of creative living. Her desire to help the reader embrace creativity is evident in her writing. She wants you to realize that although you might spend your whole life following your curiosity and having absolutely nothing to show for it, you will have the satisfaction of knowing that you passed your entire existence in devotion to the noble human virtue of inquisitiveness. As we all need to trust ourselves in putting our work out there — fierce trust knows that the outcome does not matter, it cannot matter.