Book Review: Big Magic Waves Its Wand

Big Magic Elizabeth Gilbert coverI read Eat Pray Love sometime after it first appeared on the bestseller lists (where it stayed for three years). I’m sure I did… though I can’t remember anything about what I found between its covers.

I will remember what lies between the covers of Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Because it hit home in a way that Eat Pray Love never did. I haven’t ever (yet) craved a transformative journey to India, but I did need a kick in the creative pants. And that’s just what this book provides: a reminder that humans should make the effort to create things, even if that effort doesn’t support us financially.

The book came to me at a moment when I’m just diving into a new fictional world, something that I know is both completely unjustifiable financially and extremely important to my definition of self. So I was particularly receptive to Gilbert’s ideas about inspiration: that there are hidden treasures within us all, treasures that are just waiting for us to flesh them out.

The “Big Magic” in Gilbert’s title is the name she gives to her theory: ideas are floating around the universe, in search of humans who can do the work to bring them to life. Just as “Nature provides the seeds; man provides the garden,” creative living is a team effort between inspiration (the body-less seed of an idea) and hard work (the creative human who tends the garden and brings it to life).

How do we find these ideas? Gilbert argues that they find us. All we can do is receive them when they arrive, recognize them as a gift (though one that should come with a big red warning label, “some assembly required”), and give them enough attention so they can flourish and eventually grow to their full potential. Ignored, they may flit off to someone more deserving. (She backs up this last theory with an incredible story about a novel idea that, when neglected due to other demands on her time, disappeared—only to be brought to life by another author only a few years later.)

Passion often leads to inspiration, of course. When we are so doggedly interested in something that we will track down every possible detail, no matter how well hidden it is or unrelated to the big picture it seems, we usually discover something unexpected. But Gilbert points out that “follow your passion” is usually unnecessary advice. Those who know what their passion is are likely already following it.

It’s when we don’t know what our next passion will be that we must trust our curiosity.

That point really hit home with me; how many times have I dug into something with no idea where it was going to lead, only to have it eventually turn into something really exciting? A leaf blows down a street outside my office window, and the next thing I know I’ve written Oliver’s Surprise. If I hadn’t allowed myself to follow that leaf and see where it led, I would’ve missed out on a fantastic ride—a ride that also made me believe in myself as a “real” author.

“Inspiration will always be drawn to motion,” Gilbert says. And this, too, resonates with me. Getting out in the world, and doing something else (like going sailing or paddling) have always been the best ways for me to settle on the next thing worthy of my attention.

My favorite quote of all comes from the section entitled “Persistence.” “Possessing a creative mind,” Gilbert explains, “is something like having a border collie for a pet. It needs to work, or else it will cause you an outrageous amount of trouble. Give your mind a job to do, or else it will find a job to do, and you might not like the job it invents (eating the couch, digging a hole through the living room floor, biting the mailman, etc).” I’ve known this about myself for a long time, but it’s good to have such a cute canine image as a reminder.

Gilbert also believes we are more likely to attract inspiration by being attractive ourselves—by getting out of our ratty sweatpants and putting on lipstick. While I can’t believe any ideas worthy of our efforts would be fooled by such superficial tricks, I do believe that self-confidence is a necessary precursor to inspiration. So if other authors can only feel self-confident by dressing up as if for a first date, go for it. (I’ll stay in my sweatpants, thanks.)

Finally, Gilbert reminds us to “keep the day job.” Maybe our creativity will support us eventually, and maybe it won’t, but that’s dependent on many things outside our own control. “There’s no dishonor in having a job,” she points out. “What is dishonorable is scaring away your creativity by demanding it pay for your entire existence.”

And note that the subtitle of this book is not “Creative Living Without Fear.” Gilbert explains why we will always feel afraid of the unknown, which is where creativity takes us. The trick is to understand that fear, and to get it to work with us—instead of letting it block progress toward that unknown next idea.

Gilbert enriches each global statement about creativity with real life stories about friends, family, and acquaintances, and her writing is simple and elegant at the same time. I don’t know if Big Magic will hit home with non-fiction-writing creatives, those who paint or dance or add stars to bicycles (one of her stories). All I know is this book was exactly what I needed, when I didn’t even know I needed it. Big Magic, indeed.

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