Skip to main content

Book Review: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Submitted by Bethany on Thu, 03/08/2018 - 21:54

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear is written by author Elizabeth Gilbert, most famously known for her other New York Time’s best seller Eat, Pray, Love.  I’ve been hearing good things about Big Magic for years, but I was hesitant to read it, as I heard similar things about Eat, Pray, Love for years and when I finally read it, I did not care for it very much.  I found that book to be self-indulgent, bordering on whiny, and not as insightful or inspiring as people had claimed. 

Having said that however, I am thinking that perhaps I should re-read Eat, Pray, Love.  The first time I read it was about ten years ago, and I was at a very different stage in my life.  I remember being quite jealous of this woman who got paid to go on what sounded to me like a dream trip - spending a year traveling through Italy, India, and Indonesia.  I imagine not a small amount of envy colored my reading of this particular book.  I’ll have to think about checking it out from my local library and giving it another shot. 

In the meantime, let’s get off that rabbit trail and back to the main purpose of this post, a review of Big Magic.  This book I did find insightful and inspiring - her articulation of a definition of creativity, and ways to pursue it in your life is well-written, funny, and makes me want to get up off my couch and create something.  She divides the book into six chapters - covering six elements needed for creativity to flourish in one’s life - courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust, and divinity.  Each chapter is filled with essays that explore her beliefs about creativity, and short anecdotes that illustrate why she holds those beliefs. 

For the most part I found myself nodding along with Gilbert and every point she made.  In Courage she reminds us of the incredible amount of courage it takes to do something creative and to put it out there in the world for others to see, and inevitably, judge.  In Enchantment she shares her hypothesis that ideas exist in the universe, independent of humanity, and they bounce around looking for a willing human host that will help the idea come to life.  This is a truly fascinating premise and I recommend reading the book for what is contained in this chapter alone.  In Permission she speaks about the internal motivation we need for creative pursuits, and reminds us that we don’t need anyone else to validate them for us.  

In Trust she urges us to be curious, to allow that curiosity to take us to new places, and to believe that one does not have to be a tortured soul for artistic pursuits to be good, that creative energy can come from a place of fun and light as well.  Divinity is the shortest chapter of all, just a few pages containing one story about the sacred dances of Bali - in it she speaks to the blurring of the lines between what is sacred and what is ordinary.  As a pastor I found this chapter fascinating and I wish she had explored the connection between creativity and divinity more deeply, but I don’t think that is in her wheelhouse. 

Now you may have noticed that in these brief synopses of each chapter I skipped the one called Persistence - this one I want to delve into a little deeper.  Certain parts of this chapter I feel like could have been written directly to me - I struggle with persistence as I find myself wanting to run to the next thing as soon as something gets hard.  Gilbert speaks about the bad part of any job or creative pursuit as the “sh*t sandwich”.  In other words, no matter how much you love any particular career or vocation, it is always going to come with a certain amount of suckage.  Nothing is ever perfectly enjoyable 100% of the time.  Gilbert asks her readers to think about what you are passionate enough about to put up with the sucky parts.  Or as she puts it, “...if you love and want something enough - whatever it is- then you don’t really mind eating the “sh*t sandwich” that comes with it.  I think I personally am still trying to find what that thing is that I am passionate enough about.

There is another part of this chapter at which I found myself bristling - not because I found myself disagreeing with Gilbert, but because I found myself disappointed in the aspect of society she was naming.  In a section titled “Your Day Job” she talks about the need to not expect your creativity to support your entire existence - at least not at first.  She encourages readers to pursue their creative dream with everything they have - while keeping a regular job that pays the bills.  Admittedly, this makes complete sense.  It is possible that if you put that much pressure on your creativity - to support your life financially, immediately - that creative spark can die out.  You can find yourself struggling so much that you end up giving up completely.  Gilbert herself did not quit her “day jobs” until she had three published, critically acclaimed books. 

At the very end of this section she says this: “People don’t do this kind of thing [creative pursuits] because they have all kinds of extra time and energy for it; they do this kind of thing because their creativity matters to them enough that they are willing to make all kinds of extra sacrifices for it.  Unless you come from landed gentry, that’s what everyone does.”  Here is where I struggle - why should creativity and creative pursuits not be a worthwhile endeavor capable of providing someone with a living.  How many beautiful dances or masterfully written stories or transcendent works of art has the world missed out on because we insist that people must toil for a living?  

As society evolves and technology progresses eventually our economy is going to have to transform - mindless, repetitive jobs can be done by robots - and as those jobs disappear will we simply invent more ways for people to appear “busy” and “productive”?  Imagine a society that embraces universal basic income - the idea that you get paid because you exist - and the creativity that could flourish if people did not have to toil just to make sure they had a roof over their head and food to eat.  Perhaps to you this sounds like some sort of crazy utopia that could never exist in real life, but the discussion and even experimental implementation of universal basic income is starting to happen around the world.  Joel writes about it in a blog post, so you can read more here.  

Which, again, is not to say that Gilbert is wrong in her suggestions on how to cultivate your creativity while surviving in this world.  It’s just to say that perhaps the world could be a better place if our survival was closer to guaranteed because we are human and inherently have value, and therefore our hearts, minds, and souls could be freed up to pursue other creative means of expression. 

Overall I think this is a book of is of incredible value, whether you are someone who wants to live creatively or not.  The lessons contained within about working to find and become our true selves in a world that doesn’t always encourage such a thing are of the utmost importance to us all.  If you are interested in purchasing a copy for yourself, you can find it on Amazon here