Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic

bigmagicI am a fully paid-up card-carrying fan of Elizabeth Gilbert, but there is often a moment at the start of her books where I feel like I might have sat next to the wrong person on the overnight bus and will live to regret it. Big Magic was no different as Gilbert begins it in kooky, mystical mode with injunctions to find my inner treasure and believe in the big magic of creativity. It felt at first like the quinetessence of self-help with a big dose of my daily horoscope.

I have read a lot of books about creativity, finding it a fascinating topic, and many books about the lives of authors. The relentless, upbeat positivity of Gilbert’s prose was initially a little grating. I couldn’t help but remember the story about Hans Christian Andersen, when he was visiting Charles Dickens and overstaying his welcome by about two months. Dickens came home one day and said to the kids, where’s Hans? And they said, he’s outside, face down on the grass sobbing because he got a bad review.

I remember poor old Hermann Hesse, champion hypochondriac of the early 20th century who, during WW1, wrote a very mild little article about how nice peace might be, only to find himself facing widespread condemnation for his unpatriotic attitude and blackballed by all the booksellers in Germany.

I remember Dodie Smith, who reluctantly agreed to spend the duration of the Second World War in America because her husband really badly wanted to go, and when they finally returned twenty years later everything Dodie feared had come to pass: she was completely out of touch with the London theatre scene and never staged another successful play (after an unparalleled five in a row before the outbreak of war).

When I read about these authors I admit I was comforted by them; they felt like my tribe. I cherished the idea that you might suck at life but create wonderful things nevertheless. And I thought that creativity was not an easy road to choose, that it was full of pitholes and that inevitably, you might end up alongside Hans Christian Andersen, face down on the lawn and weeping.

Well, Elizabeth Gilbert is having none of that. Creativity isn’t necessarily an easy choice, she agrees, but it’s the most interesting thing you’ll do and it’s open to each and every one of us. Her perspective is tailored to encourage everyone just to have a jolly good go at it, regardless of the outcome. All you need for creative living on her terms is courage, enchantment, permission, persistence and trust. Each of these qualities heads up a chunk of her text, and each is explored with her customary kindness and wisdom and lots of really good anecdotes.

I particularly enjoyed the story she tells about a novel she so nearly wrote concerning the Brazilian rain forest. Years later, when that book had withered away to nothing, she met and befriended Ann Patchett, who was astonished to hear about Elizabeth’s near-miss and confessed she was writing the exact same story that Elizabeth had passed over. It became State of Wonder and won Patchett the (then) Orange prize for fiction. Gilbert points out that she could have been downcast or upset by this turn of affairs, she could have decided that the universe was against her. Instead, she felt a little miracle had happened and that she was absolutely right to turn up at her desk every day waiting for inspiration. Because ideas really do come knocking with some insistence, and they’ll move on if you can’t bring them to fruition quickly enough.

Gilbert’s premise is that the world of creativity is a very strange one and it functions by unusual laws. You might work for years without recognition, or watch less gifted people pick up all the awards. It isn’t a clear meritocracy, and you can’t control the outcome. She tells a story I loved about asking her new husband, Felipe, if he minded her writing about him in a little thing called Eat, Pray, Love she was working on. Well, he said, what was at stake? And she laughed and said, nothing at all, no one ever reads my books. In a way, that’s why Gilbert is a very good person to be writing this guide. She’s had one massive bestseller and five other books, and she says she could not tell you what was different; it’s purely about chance.

She is actually very good on overcoming one’s fears and giving oneself permission even to try (‘Speak to your darkest and most negative interior voices the way a hostage negotiator speaks to a violent psychopath: calmly but firmly. Most of all, never back down.’) And on dismissing the reception, good, bad and ugly, that results from taking the plunge and putting stuff out there (‘I can only be in charge of producing the work itself. That’s a hard enough job. I refuse to take on additional jobs, such as trying to police what anybody thinks about my work once it leaves my desk.’) She is also against perfectionism, even if this leads her into a slightly eyebrow-raising anecdote about letting The Signature of All Things out into the world imperfect, because it was good enough.

This reminded me of another book on creativity I read by the social scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (I’m typing that once and never again, okay?). His thesis is that something can only be deemed creative by the experts in the field, not by the person doing the creating, which probably works for science but is a real dog’s dinner in the arts where no one ever agrees on these things. He also says that only time can tell – what might seem creative at first turns out not to be creative if opinion decides against it in later years. Which means poor old Swedenborg, for instance – ridiculed in his native Sweden, a hit a century later in Europe and now more or less sunk into obscurity – was creative posthumously for a hundred or so discountable years. It’s madness, right? Though if we accept that Gilbert’s Big Magic is a strange beast indeed, it does seem to be the case that we don’t know what we are creating and we don’t know what ‘perfect’ looks like. Certainly down here at amoeba level, the posts I slave over for this blog get the smallest amount of traffic, and those I toss out simply because I have to put something up can sometimes attract lots of comments and likes.

So Gilbert, as ever, won me around to her way of thinking, which is that if you’re going to try and be creative, you do it only ever because the process is fun. And the more you can get your head around the obstacles and problems that befall you, the more fun you can have. We all use delusions to make sense of what we do, she argues, isn’t it best to have life-enhancing, sensible ones? In the end I couldn’t imagine anyone reading this book and not feeling heartened, encouraged and braced for the challenges ahead. Though I can’t quite get out of my mind an image of Filipe holding the telephone receiver and calling, ‘Liz, I’ve got Hans Christian Anderson on the phone and he says he’s still feeling miserable. Will you come and talk to him?’

29 thoughts on “Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic

  1. What a great review! I’m at the moment in my own ‘walk’ through Gilbert’s thinking about creativity…and as someone who comes from academic world – science doesn’t have all the answers. I like Gilbert’s optimism and cheering you can feel by reading the book. Very inspirational.

    • Indeed it does not – I do agree with you there! I’m really glad you’re enjoying the book. I think you can feel Gilbert willing you on with every fibre of her being, which is endearing.

  2. Ah, I can so understand Hans – and poor Dodie Smith! Great review of a fascinating topic. I am not quite so enamoured by Elizabeth Gilbert – or at least not of Eat Pray Love, but this does sound good.

    • Funnily enough I have just started Eat, Pray, Love, which is one of her books I’ve never read before. I began with Committed, which I enjoyed, and then The Signature of All Things, which I didn’t expect to like much but did enjoy. As for Hans, oh I do think of him so often. I am glad you feel for him – I don’t often have mystical moments, but if anyone could lean in from the afterlife, obsessively checking his popularity, it would be Hans. So it’s nice to give him a cheer from time to time.

  3. How interesting! I have to agree with Marina – an excellent review of what sounds like a very thought-provoking book. The story of the novels on the Brazilian rain forest is very spooky – quite a coincidence. I’m impressed by Gilbert’s response to it.

    • I know! In all honesty, I think I would have been kicking the cat and sulking a bit. But Gilbert is quite persuasive about her ability to roll with the punches. There’s another good story about her having to reduce her first ever to-be-published story by 30%, which was a nightmare after she’d spent a year and a half perfecting it. But she got on and did it, and won her literary agent out of the publication. So hats off to her!

  4. I enjoyed reading your post very much. It was quite cheering on an increasingly grey and cold day. Loved all the author anecdotes. And I had to laugh about you comment regarding blog posts. The same thing happens to me. Sometimes the ones I think are most brilliant and thought-provoking and that I work hardest on hardly get any attention and ones I dash off in half an hour get tons of comments. What’s that all about?

    • Stef, I find my cohort of dead writers immensely cheering in their flakiness and idiocy. I love them dearly. And hey, I am SO glad this also happens to you! I remember chatting with Danielle about it once and she said the same thing. What IS all that about????

    • Ha, love it, I’ll bet it is! I’d never thought of following her on facebook, but of course I could. As for poor Hans, do send him love. I feel sure he is still monitoring his popularity some way or another.

  5. Well, not to be contrarian, but I definitely finished it without feeling heartened or encouraged – in fact, I finished it extremely irritated! (I reviewed it for Open Letters this month.)

    • Oh dear! I am sorry to hear that – it is always disappointing to be irritated by a book. She IS somewhat fey and mystical, which I can well imagine getting on a reader’s nerves. Or was it what she said about academics following the martyr model of creativity? (alas, it was definitely true at Cambridge, but other places may be more enlightened!) Well, I should stop guessing and read your review!

  6. I loved Big Magic, as I love all her books, and you shine a light on some of the best bits. I have to say, as someone who is putting stuff out there and who has had at least one terrible review, I found her words about being responsible for the product and nothing more extremely comforting.

    • Aren’t bad reviews a nasty shock to the system? I came across my bad review (old academic publication) on my own, late at night, with son and husband away, sigh. Gilbert’s take is very comforting and I also send sympathy hugs! I’m sure it was hugely outnumbered by the good ones, though. 🙂

  7. I loved Eat, Pray, Love but this one . . . Some ideas are wonderful. Of course, I liked the rainforest novel story but I disagreed on so many things. I don’t think everyone should write – one of the reasons why I find NaNOWriMo awful – or everyone has a story to tell or . . . But what got to me the most was when I was listening to one of her TED talks and later noticed this book sounds exactly the same. Like she just recorded waht she was saying and then wrote that down. That’s OK for a blog post or a magazine (not a literary magazine) but a whole book? Printed by a publisher?
    And then I was thiking of Brené Brown suddenly and how she addresses some of these things but says them in a different way. How appalling to hear she’s been influenced by Elizabeth Gilbert and will from now possibly write like this.
    The whole book could have been condensed. Sorry fo this rant. I know she means well but it felt like some writing teahers who just encourage everyone who manages to put pen on paper.

    • Does she actually say everyone should write? I can’t say I remember that bit. I had much more the impression that she is promoting creative living – a kind of attitude that fosters creativity in whichever sphere you fancy. Inevitably her own anecdotes are about writing, but I seem to recall her saying you can paint or cook or garden or sculpt or anything else. It’s funny how books can touch such different nerves! I’ve never heard her TED talk, but I found Committed to be quite a chatty book, too. I’m sure it’s not a style that everyone would like!

      • Chatty is the right word. Does she say everyone should write – obviously not in so many words but she mentions Harper Lee and others saying it would have been better if tehx had written more, even if those books were not perfect. As long as you write, so to speak. I disagree. Parts were wonderful, but I just thought it encourages mediocrity. Maybe I’m unkind.

      • Not at all! For my part, I suppose I think that the gatekeepers do a reasonable job of keeping much dross out. Though if you’re asking whether publishers publish mediocre books? For sure – but because they think they can sell them. I still think Fifty Shades has the most publishing crimes to answer for!

        But the difficulty comes in the way that every reader will have a different idea of what mediocre looks like. Your work might be considered a nonsense in your lifetime, and brilliant afterwards… or indeed, vice versa. So all you can do is keep writing and submitting whatever you think is the best you can do, because ultimately, it’s not the writer who decides on the quality of his or her work.

  8. Lovely post! Poor old Hans, indeed. Imagine struggling through life with such a sensitive skin. Gilbert seems to have a much healthier attitude towards putting your work out there and coping with the world’s reaction. Easier said than done, though. Perhaps Hans should have done what lots of creatives say they do and ignore those reviews.

    • Shouldn’t he just? Though I suppose if art is the one thing you use to boost your morale (and heaven knows poor old Hans needed his boosted – he really was the proverbial ugly duckling) then there is this occupational hazard… as you say, easier said than done to ignore the bad reviews! Elizabeth Gilbert’s attitude is remarkably healthy and I did admire it. But I can’t help feeling human beings mostly thrash their way clumsily through existence and particularly the sensitive types. 🙂

  9. I love your image at the end … and I’m a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert, although it’s a sporadic fanship. I’ve never read one of her books cover-to-cover but some of the things I’ve read in her books, or heard in a TED talk of hers, have stayed with me and always encourage me. I don’t think the creative process is fun most of the time but I know I need to do it because I feel better when I do, worse when I don’t. I also know that it’s the process that counts. This I loved from Big Magic: ‘Don’t abandon your creativity the moment things stop being easy or rewarding – because that’s the moment when interesting begins.’

    Now that’s not fun, but it’s true, and an essential piece of advice, at least to me.

    • I did think of you when I was reading it, as many of the things she says about art do chime in with things you have written to me. I completely agree with you that keeping going when it gets difficult is… difficult! There’s much teeth gritting involved, inevitably I think, that she does gloss over. But then I feel like the plan is to replace the bad voices in our heads with her encouraging one. Probably best to pick your moment with it, though! 🙂

  10. Hahaha, oh, your description of the early bits of a Gilbert book are so, so spot on. I always feel resentful that people got so nasty about Eat, Pray, Love, once it became a film — to me it felt like a backlash against something that people felt Liz Gilbert embodied, rather than a backlash against the actual contents of the book. (Though people of good will may disagree on that.) But yeah, she seems a bit mad. The reason I keep on liking her is that she also seems quite aware of the ways in which she is mad, and that counterbalances so much.

  11. Pingback: Big magic « Mirrorgirl

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