Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic, is about a subject that has always been, and I imagine will always be, among the topics I am most deeply passionate about: creativity. Or rather it would be more precise to say that Big Magic is about Gilbert’s philosophy for living a creative life, any kind of creative life, with courage and tenacity.
The how-to guide for getting over the hang-ups over one’s innate creativity was once something of an addiction of mine. Books like If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See – I read all these and more. But the sad and funny thing was that while I was reading these books about writing I wasn’t actually doing much writing. This discrepancy used to cause not a little bit of self-loathing. Fortunately, I don’t have this problem anymore and perhaps the encouragements in those books did help in various ways but just needed time to incubate.
There are aspects of Big Magic that resemble the other books I’ve mentioned. Like the others, it seeks to both inspire you and strip you of any excuse to not pursue your creative interests. With its autobiographical interludes it is reminiscent of King’s On Writing. In its mystical approach to creativity it resembles The Artist’s Way. And much like how The War of Art personifies creative “Resistance,” Gilbert personifies creative inspiration.
If you’ve seen Gilbert’s enormously popular TED talks about creativity, Big Magic is basically an extended meditation on the themes she touched upon in those videos, the first one being about the enigmatic magic of creativity and the second being about creative resilience. If you liked those talks you’ll love this book, but I also think that even if you didn’t like the videos you’ll still like this book. One reason for this is Gilbert’s writing voice, her delightful voice: so warm, so funny, so… genuine.
Big Magic is at once an almost inevitable as well as highly logical follow-up to Gilbert’s massive success, Eat Pray Love. As she admits in her second TED video (see below), she had felt that anything she could write on the heels of Eat Pray Love would be a disappointment to her fans because “it wasn’t gonna be Eat Pray Love,” and likewise anything that she wrote would be equally disappointing to her detractors because it would provide “evidence that I still lived.”
Now for those of us who have never tasted such success, this is the kind of dilemma that might make you scoff and think, “Hmpf! I wish I had that kind of problem!” But in all seriousness this is the very sort of creative conundrum that has made many an artist put down her brush, pen, camera, hammer, blowtorch, sewing needle, magic wand or whatever else it may be that one uses to express one’s creative spirit. It is the kind of problem that has brought magnificent artistic careers in their prime to a tragic end, depriving the world of whatever other beauty those artists could have gone on to create, and Gilbert herself even briefly considered pulling out of the game while wrestling with the no-win situation that was publishing something after Eat Pray Love.
Wonderfully, Gilbert solved her dilemma in the best possible way that I think anyone could have: she held a mirror up to her fears and wrote about them along with everything else she had learned throughout her life about how to grapple with those fears. And the fact that this book now exists for us to enjoy is proof that Gilbert practices what she preaches. If nothing else, her detractors have to give her that. The woman practices what she preaches. (And speaking of detractors, Big Magic almost reads like an indirect response to her critics.)
Another reason why, as an artist, I feel connected to Elizabeth Gilbert is that I share many of her feelings and ideas about creativity. She also displays a certain duality in this book that characterizes me as well in that she is both a mystic and a pragmatist. Really, mysticism and pragmatism are not a true dichotomy in that they can in fact coexist besides each other just fine, and this book itself is in part a testament to that. But it is interesting because there does indeed seem to be a bit of an underlying tension, a push-and-pull, between Gilbert’s two sensibilities here, and it is here that I diverge with some of her beliefs about the source of creative inspiration.
Gilbert talks about the source of ideas as coming from some kind of sentient external source, a kind of literal interpretation of the Muses from Greek mythology, and that for this divine source to continue providing ideas and inspiration we need to, in essence, treat it right, to show it that we mean business by meeting it halfway. I’m not sure to what degree she actually means this literally or if she’s just using it as an evocative symbolic construct. I tend to think it doesn’t really matter and that if it works for her, wonderful. If it also works for her readers, then this is all the more wonderful. But for me, personally, this was a huge point of torment throughout much of my early life in that I too felt, vaguely, that creative ideas came from some place beyond myself. And I grieved, like the fictionalized Salieri in Amadeus did, about how this Source seemed to bestow its favor more upon others despite my devotional love to it.
Indeed, while reading Big Magic that old fear nearly resurfaced. When Gilberts tell a story about how a momentous idea of hers once “left” her for another writer due to her negligence of it, for a brief moment I could feel my old fears trying to reassert themselves again like phantom limbs. I wondered if a certain book I am presently working on might “leave” me for another writer because I wasn’t being dedicated to it enough and for letting things like a medical crisis get in the way of just bulldozing my way through my writing, health be damned. (EDIT: Maybe Gilbert is right about all this because I just found out that someone is indeed publishing a book very similar to mine in late September – ugh!) However, I don’t fault Gilbert for unwittingly scratching my old scars. Such is always the risk whenever you set about to try to help others with a problem that you yourself have overcome (as Gilbert has). Different people have different fears, far too many for any one author or book to address them all.
For want of space I’ve grossly simplified my personal experience here, but it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that my past creative torment (which I now recognize as having been purely self-torment) nearly reached pathological proportions. It was only when I rejected the mental construct of inspiration as coming from an outside source, of art being a living thing, and accepted sole responsibility both for coming up with creative ideas and following through with them that I was able to heal that pathology. And even though I have always been and still am an incorrigible mystic, creative liberation came only when I decided that my creativity came from no other source besides myself. It came when I learned to demystify things that are ordinarily mystified in our culture – chief among these being things like art, creativity and genius. In so doing I fell in love with and chose to mystify something that is far more within our control than the ephemeral flow of ideas: discipline, habit and routine.
The less I relied on the passing phenomenon that is “inspiration,” and the more I came to see my writing as mundane an activity as washing the dishes or taking out the garbage, the more I was able to just shut up, sit down and do it. And therein, for me, lies the true magic of creativity in that it is only when we are willing to do this that those magical moments of being in “the zone,” of being an unstoppable creative force, sometimes creep up on us like a thief in the night. But we musn’t live for those moments or we’ll once again become dependent on something that is unpredictable and unreliable. Instead, we must live for the routine, the banality, the drudging, repetitive work. This is real creativity. Most of the time it is entirely unmagical and unglamorous but we do it anyway because we love every plain and unremarkable moment of it.
Now you might think this means I didn’t like the book. On the contrary, I loved it, and moreover when I don’t agree with an author on a few subjective points I don’t confuse that to mean that I think the book isn’t good. I think Big Magic is quite wonderful: passionate, down-to-earth and bursting with Gilbert’s obvious love for the subject matter and her readers.
Also, one person’s palliative is another person’s pathology, and the kind of unconditional self-responsibility for one’s creativity I’ve mentioned above may also be, for some people, the very source of torment. Gilbert talks about this in Big Magic too, and for these people her method of externalizing inspiration as coming from an external source may be just what the doctor ordered since it takes some of the weight off the artist’s shoulders. As with everything, it depends on the individual and the best thing to do is simply try what appeals to you and keep trying until you find something that works.
In fairness, Gilbert does also talk about the kind of self-responsibility I’ve talked about. She stresses, quite emphatically, the importance of habit, discipline and persistence just as much as she mystifies creative inspiration. In fact, there is a strong pragmatic ethic evident all throughout this book, one that urges creative people of all types to essentially get over their dramas and miseries – to get over themselves – and to just do it. It is these parts of the books that I personally loved most. And even though my beliefs about the source of creative inspiration are different from hers, I still enjoyed her marvelous enthusiasm in sharing her beliefs. The word “enthusiasm,” after all, comes from the Latin entheos which means “possessed by a god” (since we’re talking mysticism here). And I do think that many of Gilbert’s readers will resonate with her mystification of creativity. Even if they don’t, there is still plenty of other no-nonsense, pragmatic advice in this book and, should you choose to apply it, I’m confident it will prove useful in your own creative pursuits, whatever those may happen to be.
There is so much more in this book that I wish I could devote space to because, as I’ve said, the topics Gilbert discusses here are among the ones I am most passionate about. This, as well as the eminent readability of her prose, and the aching sincerity in her voice make Gilbert a delight to read whether I am agreeing with her ideas about the ontological nature of creative ideas or not. Big Magic is an apt title because that’s exactly what her prose is, big and magical – just like her heart.