Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert


I just finished reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. 📚

Admittedly this is not the kind of book I would usually pick up and read of my own volition. But a friend had heard me talking about ‘creativity’ and thought I might resonate with this book.

Despite all my attempts not to resonate with it, I did.

Gilbert’s book is about creativity. In a set of interconnected essays she essentially lays out her own roadmap for how to invite, tame, handle, and harness creativity in one’s life, with (I guess) the hope that her roadmap might be helpful to others.

The strongest and most resonant theme for me in this book (and the most likely to alienate other readers maybe) is that creativity/inspiration/ideas are metaphysical entities sitting outside of us, waiting to use us to manifest themselves. It isn’t that ‘I’ am creative. Rather ‘I’ can be a better or worse vessel through which creativity can express itself. As you read this, I suspect you might have a number of reactions:

  • What the fuck?
  • Yep – totally
  • What a load of crap

I happen to curiously be the second of these. I remember distinctly only a few weeks ago trying to explain to someone that when I do art, I don’t really feel like I am the artist, rather I am just the physical form with the tools and hands to bring the art to physical form. They thought I was crazy – 🙂

Another strong theme is around success, an unavoidable topic given that many readers of this book (artists, musicians, writers etc) are hoping their creative outlets meet with ‘success’ at some point, but the reality is most will not achieve the widespread success that Gilbert has with her writing.

I suspect success is a difficult topic for a successful writer to talk about. Gilbert does her best to be realistic about likelihood of success but also tries to redefine the notion of success, i.e. that creativity is not necessarily the production of something that is popular, but that creativity is a force that one repeatedly aligns oneself with in their life because being creative itself is the reward, regardless of the output and how it is received by others. This aligns with me, but I am in the fortunate position that my creative outlets (art, music, gardening) don’t have to support me financially. I can engage in my creativity without concern about whether it is liked (and thus purchased).

Talking about success means talking about failure and Gilbert tries hard to document all of her failures and reframe them so as to give the reader some sense that she too has failed, and she generally minimizes her successes as simply those times where the ideas the universe had sent her and her readiness and willingness to bring them into being have aligned for the better. She writes about failure a lot, almost like she is responding to a large set of questions she has been sent on the topic, by disgruntled creatives sick of rejection. Her answers are varied and at times fairly convincing. For example, she’s realistic about the idea of working separately from one’s creative outlet, citing this as her main strategy up till the point she had success. She’s quick to challenge the idea that you have to support yourself financially with your creative outlets.

I suspect her takes on success and failure will have varying mileage, depending on the reader.

A final strong theme in this book is fear. I quite like Gilbert’s treatment of fear. I’d say it is consistent with modern mindfulness-based approaches to understanding and sitting with one’s emotion. Her description of willingly carrying and listening to her fear as she sets off on new projects, but not letting it make important decisions is one I like and makes for a nice visual metaphor one can use: setting off on a roadtrip with fear and inspiration in the passenger seats.

Whilst metaphysical in her conceptualisation of the source of creativity, Gilbert seems far more grounded in what it looks like at the everyday level: persistence, hard work, research, consistent effort, fluctuating emotions and motivation, regular attention to underlying attitude, reframing failure and challenging creativity myths (e.g. suffering = creativity). I imagine at the daily level, she’d make a good coach for someone setting off to create something new.

I am not confident in my predictions about who this book with resonate with, but here goes:

  • you have a creative outlet (e.g. dance, writing, music, art, photography etc) but you feel you’ve lost some of the momentum that has been driving it
  • you’ve never really had a creative outlet, but want one, and want permission to start, regardless of your age or skill level
  • you feel you are holding back on living a better life for fear of exposing yourself (and what you create) to the wider world

I was speaking to a friend about this book and used the idea of having an ‘inner scientist’ and ‘inner poet’. A person’s reaction to this book might depend on the relative loudness of each of these parts of self.

I think if your inner scientist is much louder than your inner poet, then you might find this book on the soft side (at best) and complete metaphysical crap (at worst). But my inner scientist and poet are fairly well matched. So my inner scientist admonished me for reading something so subjective and based on anecdote and story and individual narratives. But my inner poet says ‘that is the point! It is the narrative of one person’s creative  journey (Gilbert’s) that is intended to trigger others to create their own’. The goal isn’t a homogeneous collection of Gilbert clones who have read the book and adopted her exact approach. The goal is that one puts this book down, in inspiration or frustration, and sets off to answer the creativity puzzle for themselves.

I think that is reflected in the structure of the book – varying length essays covering a wide terrain of creativity topics. Some will grip you. Some will annoy you. Some will disappoint you. Some will inspire you.

As a Goodreads user, I am encouraged to rate a book out of 5 stars when I finish it, on the assumption that I can sum up a book in a single score.

But increasingly I think of reading as a kind of mental fitness workout 💪. You’ll get exposed to different people’s ways of thinking about and living life. Each of these exposures is a mental exercise. Some exercises you love, some you hate. Sometimes you finish a workout feeling exhilarated, sometimes exhausted. But in the days that follow, as your mind wraps itself around those perspectives and ideas, you are fitter for the experience.

Gilbert’s book was a gentle mental workout that I am not sure if I enjoyed, but I know I am mentally fitter for the experience.

I’m off to do some drawing 😊 ✏️

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