Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear is noteworthy as a follow-up to the her 2006 national bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love. Standing in contrast to the existential romance about one woman’s journey to (re)discover herself, Gilbert’s newest book nestles itself in the realm of self-help with her commentary on the creative process. While her “love affair with writing” analogies stretch a little far and wide, her understanding of what she calls “the amplified life” of creativity fearlessly bulldozes obstacles for those who would fall victim to the practical resistance of such artistic pursuits.
While it takes a significant amount of pages before this valuable quote is uncovered, it outlines the book’s overall structure, “the essential ingredients for creativity remains exactly the same for everybody: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust – and those elements are universally accessible.” These components, naming the title and theme for each section of Big Magic, further reinforce the fluid, though fitfully inspired, structure for the piece.
Gilbert claims to have written this book for herself and not to educate or inform others, a practice she encourages for all writers, but her book is chock-full of helpful encouragement from someone who has clearly been in the trenches of the creative life. She relates empathically with writers and the struggle that includes the mental roadblock of not being “good enough.” She writes, “if I could convince myself that I was supposed to be there-that we are meant to engage with inspiration, and that inspiration wants to work with us — then I could usually get through my emotional minefield without blowing myself up before the project was finished.” Her wisdom when it comes to the intricacies of fear along with creativity in the creative process are irreplaceable, and she advises writers and artists to learn how those two seemingly opposite concepts must co-exist.
Her book is undeniably encouraging, and it manages to steer clear of naivety or idealism largely thanks to her insightfully critical comments about the creative life, particularly about the “Tortured Artist” persona. She discusses the stereotypical artistic obsession with misery, stating that while she herself “doesn’t deny the reality of suffering,” she also doesn’t fetishize it.
She ventures her voice into the discussion of art as a vocation, too, lamenting the tragedy of watching “so many other people murder their creativity by demanding that their art pay the bills.” Her outlook is surprising for someone who has made such a name for herself in this field, a truth she identifies, as well as noting that she has only recently quit her “day job” and begun to depend on her art as her livelihood.
Readers may struggle with Gilbert’s protracted metaphor of a love affair with writing and creativity, as her illustration alludes to an adulterous, all-encompassing relationship. In addition, the level of commitment to writing draws an uncomfortable parallel to all-encompassing worship that the reader may reserve solely for God. Even her description of ideas as their own entities to be welcomed, entertained, and loved settles a little strangely in the mind, reminiscent more of intrusive ghosts than fluttery inspiration bubbles to be netted. Some writers and creatives may prefer a more logical, grounded approach to the arts, with less of Gilbert’s whimsy and more focus on discipline and tenacity.
Despite the peculiar metaphors, Gilbert’s book reads beautifully and inspirationally without being shallow or naive. This would be a worthwhile purchase for any artist, successful or aspiring, who seeks an encouraging and realistic perspective on the creative process. She asks readers to consider this valuable question when pursuing any calling – “What are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?” Her insight is deep and genuine, and spurs readers on to a feasible grasp of the otherwise elusive life of an artist. She continuously encourages her audience to step beyond obstacles toward achieving their creative goals, though never in such a way that artists following her advice would find themselves shocked by the resistance they will inevitably face. Instead of being surprised by that, she wants artists to be liberated “from the confines of their own grandiosity, panic, and ego” and freed towards brighter, creative ends.