Having fallen in love with Elizabeth Gilbert after reading Eat, Pray, Love (as I imagine many of her fans have), I was really looking forward to reading Big Magic. There’s something about the conversational tone that she seems to always adopt in her books that really creates a sense of closeness between you as a reader and Gilbert herself. It feels like the two of you are engaged in a private conversation. Big Magic is the same.
The thing is, though, I’m not one for motivational/inspiring/guiding books. They put me on edge. They seem to point out one way to do things, and if I’m not already planning on doing them in the same manner, they create a sense of failure. Self-help books such as Big Magic never really seem to do the trick for me, so I proceeded with caution.
Big Magic has a very promising start.
The book opens with a section about fear and the way it holds you back, eventually getting to the idea that only courage will allow you to be more creative. It’s not anything ground-breaking, but I consider it a very good opening to a self-help book; we can never be reminded too often to try and let go of our fears. Gilbert accompanies this motivational message with a personal example, something which she consistently does throughout the book. In this case, she talks about her friend who, after years of not practicing, decides to pick up figure ice skating again. While talking about this, Gilbert stresses both the simplicity of the action – her friend didn’t aim to get competitive again, nor did she completely change her lifestyle to accommodate this new pursuit, she simply enjoyed the sport and wanted to practice it – while also emphasising the impact this creative pursuit had on her friend – it brought her a lot of joy, which she did not get from other activities in her life.
Now, with the reader all fired up, wanting to gain the same pleasure from their own brave, creative pursuits, Gilbert does a U-turn. She talks about creativity as something bigger than us, mentioning the “external daemon of creativity”, which the ancient Greeks and Romans believed lived in your walls and helped you with your work – the message being, you are not a genius, you have a genius. She also talks about ideas floating around, searching for a human that will put them into practice. While I have a hard time getting behind her former belief in a creative genius, I do like the latter. It encourages you to hold on to the moments of inspiration you experience, and try to turn them into something solid as soon as you get the chance, otherwise they might float away. I have heard a similar idea from a Creative Writing teacher of mine – she told her students that if we don’t turn our ideas into a story, if we let them hang in the air, someone else will think of those same ideas and they will use them instead. So if you have a great idea, don’t let it go. Gilbert states that “Done is better than perfect.”
There are a lot of great lessons to take away from Big Magic.
The most important one, that runs across the whole book, is to cut yourself some slack. Perfectionism holds you back. It’s something that I have had to come to terms with as well – we all want to make sure that everything we do is perfect, so that we won’t get badly judged by others. However, most of the time, it turns out that the person judging you the harshest is yourself. This usually applies the most in the case of anything creative, and Big Magic really brought home the relief that it’s fine for creative work to have rough edges. Gilbert stresses the importance of keeping at it, working daily at your craft, and letting your inspiration and creativity do its thing. Persistence brings about the idea of learning to stop procrastinating, since there will never be a perfect time for putting your ideas into action – Gilbert insists that you have to make the time for your creative pursuit.
She also reassures us that we do not have to worry about having a “big idea” as soon as possible, to put it into motion as quickly as can be. We can take our time. It’s important to continue being actively creative and curious. Gilbert uses an example from her own life, telling us how a simple desire to have a garden turned into a new novel – as her interest in flowers grew, and she did more research about them, the idea for a new story appeared, and turned into her new novel. You never know when inspiration may hit you.
I absolutely appreciate that Gilbert talks down the “suffering artist” myth. I personally haven’t seen it done before, and I feel like people really need to understand that creativity does not need to come from pain and suffering, and romanticising the negative things in your life does not mean you are making art, nor does it necessarily help you in healing/overcoming them.
There is something which really, really irritated me. At one point in Big Magic, Gilbert says you don’t have to quit your job to write, or be creative. It will do your craft no good to put the pressure of making it pay the bills on it. She points out that it can be reassuring to know you are being creative only for the sake of it, for yourself. This, however, does not mean that you are not allowed to dedicate all your time to your creativity. Talking about this, Gilbert gives herself as an example, telling us how she kept her day job for years, never wanting to let the responsibility of having to make her writing pay the bills tamper with her creativity. That’s all good, but she adopts a tone that I feel is different to the one she used until this point. She becomes preachy.
She continues the next section by saying how you shouldn’t pursue a degree in the arts to be creative. She is very against creative related higher education, painting a very false, very negative picture of it, saying it only results in debt while having no benefits. As an English Literature student, and someone who has loved all the Creative Writing courses and workshops I have attended in my lifetime, this almost made me give up on the book. (I never stop hallway through books, but this infuriated me so much I did consider it). Pursuing higher education in the arts is a very rewarding experience that feeds into everything you do – and it will make a very noticeable difference. You become exposed to so many different styles of art (writing, literature, painting, drawing, sculpting…you name it) that will then allow you to figure out your personal taste and style. Sure, you don’t need a degree in the arts to be creative – curiosity, passion and perseverance are all you need to succeed in your pursuit, but it doesn’t mean it’s not helpful. And, first of all, a degree paves the way for your future, so if you want to study the arts and work in that domain after you graduate, go ahead. I salute you, I am doing the same.
Yes, this bit made me really mad. It does not take away from all the good bits, however. I just needed to step away from the book for a while, and accept that opinions differ from one person to another. The book can be a very easy read. It’s not split into long chapters, but rather into sections, which are further spilt into subsections. It makes it really easy to stop reading at any point during the book, and continue later on. Moreover, Gilbert’s writing style is very conversational – easy going and comforting. This makes all the important messages in the book stand out. They are very complex, yet told to you with such ease, it’s really easy to take it. And it’s all very motivational, without seeming to be trying too hard.