Review: “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert

BigMagicCoverI was sitting on a beach in Northern Greece and I was about to cry.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic, sat in my lap. I hadn’t opened it yet.

What are the myths of being creative? Come on, we all know them. They’ve been embedded in our cultural landscape: the alcoholic writer, the heroin-addicted musician, the demons that devour those who choose to devote themselves to creating beautiful things.

The Aegean Sea spread before me, smooth and clear, and all I could think of was a short story I struggled to write earlier in the day.

You couldn’t create real art without struggle. Or so the story goes.

Until I cracked Gilbert’s new book.

(It’s a nonfiction beauty that proclaims on its cover: CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR. Most of us would accept WITH fear, but aim high, I get it.)

Funny. Insightful. Honest. Irreverent towards the hulking beast of artistic nihilism. But, of course, most of us have read Gilbert before and these qualities find their way into all of her works. The particular form of magic in Big Magic comes in a very unusual wrapping: hope and love.

Perhaps its Gilbert’s ever-present but unthreatening spiritualism that makes Big Magic read like a devotional. Like a love letter to the earnest artist inside most of our hearts.

In Big Magic, Gilbert says that one should never write books for other people. One must write for oneself. Big Magic explores a great deal of Gilbert’s life and professional hurdles and successes. But inside this personal exploration, Gilbert manages to capture a powerful idea.

What if we chose to love our artist selves instead of trying to sacrifice them on the altar of “great works”? What if the artist was more important than the art? What if we stopped trying to make creativity our job and instead treated it like a prized garden? Tended only for the joy it brings to our hearts. Of course, some people will be better or luckier and find true success in their art, but that will always be the case.

I once had a very talented artist tell me that he could never create a “great” piece of art because his childhood was too perfect. He said he resented his parents sometimes. I, of the dark and artistically-prized childhood, wanted to laugh in his face.

But this is the exact idea that permeates artistic mindsets and Gilbert addresses it beautifully. She pulls apart, piece by piece, the mythology of the suffering artist to offer us something new. A recognition and a refocusing.

Recognition that all artists feel doubt and shame and despair. (Gilbert’s perfect example is the second-century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius writing to himself in his private diaries that it’s alright to not be as good as Plato. Seriously. Everybody feels this way.) Recognition that we don’t have to be dying on the street to be “artists.” And that an artist can be a middle-aged woman who finds transcendent joy in dancing.

Art is not perfection. Art is something much more. It’s the patient and heartfelt work of millions of artists. All connected by the powerful urge to create transcendence within their own lives.

Or so Gilbert says and shows, as she cracks the door open and lets in the light we’ve all been told to avoid.

That’s the Big Magic, of course, letting the light into a house we’ve been trying to board up.

Let yourself be inspired. Be brave. Look into that bright, magical light. Don’t give up. Trust that the act of creating will bring you what you need.

And read Gilbert’s Big Magic. Whisper thank you and believe that in some way she maybe heard it. These things have a way of coming around, you see. And in a week when you’re at a bookshop in Paris, pick up a used copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations that you find for two Euros. Because this is certainly the universe coming around for you.

And now you know enough to watch for it.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert (Riverhead Books | 9781594634710 | September 22, 2015)

Ellen Crispin

Ellen studies the English language: where it has been and where it’s going. She believes there is nothing quite like a Margaret Atwood ending or one of David Mitchell’s woven worlds or the weird brilliance that constitutes a Kelly Link short story. To her, there is nothing as welcoming as a well-written book.