June 7, 2016

Book Review - Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

by Elizabeth Gilbert

"Fear is boring."

I have to admit that I was a little wary of starting Elizabeth Gilbert's nonfiction book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear because I had very mixed feelings about Eat, Pray, Love. Though I found some parts of the latter interesting, there were large sections I strongly disliked. A number of my friends, however, had read Big Magic and given it favorable reviews, so I decided to give it a try. I am glad that I did.

Over six sections, Gilbert muses on why we stop ourselves from achieving our dreams and proposes that fear is our biggest obstacle. For Gilbert, creativity and dreams go hand-in-hand--we achieve, overcome, and thrive when we create and defy.

In Part One, "Courage," Gilbert convincingly argues that "fear is boring" because fear means every day is exactly the same and we are prevented from pursuing areas where we might fail. She believes, however, that fear and creativity are necessary partners. Gilbert posits that we cannot attempt to banish fear because this inevitably leads to boredom; we must invite fear along for the journey but never let it drive.

Gilbert relates an interesting personal experience of having an idea for a novel set in the Brazilian Amazon during the 1960's but setting it aside for two years and having the initial creative spark flounder. Years later, she formed a friendship with another writer and learned her friend was currently at work on a novel with a very similar plot. A very similar plot. After some calculations they determined that when the idea ended with Gilbert it somehow replanted itself in her friend. It wasn't theft, but inspiration. This story may seem somewhat otherworldly, but her belief is sound: there is magic in creativity and in the process of shaping ideas. If you fail to make something of it, it may find genesis elsewhere. There are enough creative ideas to go around, but they need nurturing beyond the initial spark to survive. I really liked this idea.

In Part Two, "Enchantment," Gilbert addresses the difference between hard work and fairy dust. The hard effort is always there, but occasionally creators feel led on by a magical force. The label "genius" is too burdensome to carry (think of the old adage that there's only one way to go after you've hit the top), but you must keep creating to see what might happen with that gift, whether for your audience or yourself. Gilbert encourages audiences not to let moments of success instill fear within you that you'll never reach that height again. Just work steadily and with gratitude.

I had mixed feelings about this proposal. While I agree that achieving grand success can be intimidating and there are undoubtedly many one-hit wonders, I also think that genius is more often found within the sweat of hard work than it is within the randomness of waiting for lightning to strike. American painter Chuck Close phrased this perfectly: "Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work." In his book On Writing, author Stephen King holds to this idea as well. If every would-be children's author sat on the subway waiting for a lightning-bolt idea as it did with J.K. Rowling (a lightning bolt of genius conjuring the image of a lightning-bolt-scarred boy), then they'd wait forever.

In parts three and four, Gilbert continues her theory with sections on permission and persistence. Regarding permission, she encourages readers to be rebellious and do whatever is necessary to incorporate your dream into your everyday life (juggling responsibilities, cutting out other duties to make time for your dreams, etc.). She contends that we don't need anyone's permission to lead a creative life and that we are each entitled to try. It doesn't matter if we worry someone else has already had our idea because we haven't yet given it a shot. She encourages artists and dreamers of all varieties to do what we do because we like it, not because we're obsessed with a possible outcome (fame, financially success, etc.).

In "Persistence," Gilbert suggests learning to deal with failing and frustration is a constant part of trying to live the life of an artist: get over it and yourself, it's not going anywhere so if you can't deal with it, you're not an artist. True artists love all parts of the process and don't complain about the bad components. Her advice is refreshingly no-nonsense. You can't demand a regular paycheck from your dreams; be smart about providing for yourself. If your creativity matters to you, you make time for it, not the other way around. It's necessary to give your mind a job to do or you'll find yourself wasting energy on useless pursuits. She also warns that artists shouldn't do anything for attention, but should do everything for themselves. This sounds selfish, but really it's just the opposite of vanity: vain artists want money and fame and recognition for their labors while true crafters do the work because it matters and that's sufficient. I also appreciate her warning that artists should never sentimentalize madness (a failing I've observed in many novice creative writers). Artistry is not martyrdom and your mental and physical health are very important.

Out of Gilbert's final two sections on trust and divinity, I liked her section on trust more. She argues that creators need to trust artistry and that this force will compel you onward: "The work wants to be made and it wants to be made through you." She concludes with the advice not to be a martyr but rather a trickster that trusts that the universe is always at play. Artists must ask themselves if without the guarantee of success, do they still love their work regardless of the outcome?

If you're interested in a relatively quick though inspiring read about creativity, I'd encourage you to pick up Big Magic. It's motivating, a relatively fast read, and perfect for days at the beach or sitting by the pool.

Have you read Big Magic? What helps inspire and encourage you to be creative and follow your dreams?

1 comment :

  1. I'm reading this right now, actually! I'm about half-way through, with a few mixed reactions. (I loathed "Eat Pray Love" but have always conceded that Gilbert is an excellent writer...hence picking up something NOT based on her relationships/love life/etc.)