Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Sit Down and Read
One Line Summary
Eat, Pray, and Love your creative life
Had I known this was a book written by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, I probably would have never picked up Big Magic. But I don’t choose which books I read based on extensive research. Rather, they tend to choose me. I have books which I’ve owned for years and never have read because I never felt called to open them. But when I saw Big Magic, I immediately got that sense that this was something I wanted to check out.
It couldn’t have come at a better time. Big Magic is a book about how and what it means to live a creative life. In it, Gilbert tackles issues from fear of judgment to the source of inspiration to self-destruction. And she does it all with a sense of humor.
Why it’s Awesome
What is it that holds artists back? Why is it that some seem to just be able to create masterpiece after masterpiece while others can’t even finish a manuscript? That’s the question Gilbert tackles in detail in this book.
The answer isn’t talent. It isn’t divine choosing. It’s your beliefs about the world.
If you’ve ever read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, there are shocking similarities. And that’s why I like to read multiple books on the same topic. It allows you to cross-reference.
Just like in The War of Art, Gilbert argues that the number one killer of creativity is fear. Fear that your work won’t be good enough, and so you as a person aren’t good enough.
This is where the power of self-love and acceptance becomes very practical. A person who can’t love themselves UNCONDITIONALLY will always have difficulty trying to create because their inner voice will always be holding them back. As a quick note, everyone has fear and self-doubt. So don’t think this book will be about “destroying your fear”.
Just like in The War of Art, Gilbert also argues that one has to give themselves over to their vocation for the sake of simply doing the work instead of external rewards. You can’t control how the world will receive your work, all you can control is what you put into it.
This universal principle of “action for the sake of action” has been around since the ancients. In the Bhagavad Gita, it’s written that you are not entitled to the fruits of your action, only the action itself. That doesn’t mean you can’t charge for your work or make a living doing it. Rather that you’d be doing it anyway. What would you do with your life if you knew you’d be a failure at it?
Just like in The War of Art, Gilbert writes that inspiration does not come from us. Rather inspiration comes from a place far outside of our own capacities. Realizing this source means acknowledging that our work is more of a manifestation and co-creative process than something in which to attach your identity to and take very seriously.
Gilbert isn’t just a Pressfield knock-off though. She also talks about a topic that hit home with me deeply: the image of being the tortured artist.
There are many people who take pride in their suffering as an artist. They see it as necessary for them to do great work. And while the image can seem romantic, Gilbert calls it out for what it is: fear disguising itself.
As one artist put it, they’re afraid that “if my demons leave me, my angels will as well”. They’re afraid to lose their pain because they’re afraid if they did their work wouldn’t be good enough. And so they unnecessarily continue to suffer.
I’ve been depressed before. And while I’d like to think that any suffering I went through was a necessary part of me achieving my goals, I also know that depression is terribly destructive to creativity. Depression is lethargy, self-doubt and paralysis. Your mind is sick. Nothing feels worthwhile. How could anyone create something incredible from that kind of mental space?
In other words, drugs and inner demons don’t make great works. The former only helps to subdue the latter long enough in order to allow the spark of creativity to shine through.
Instead of suffering, Gilbert introduces a new way of thinking about creativity: curiosity. Not passion. Passion is a buzz word with all sorts of unrealistic connotations attached to it. But natural curiosity is accessible to everyone.
Looking back at my life, curiosity has been much more of a driving force for me than passion. I didn’t read all the books that I’ve read on this blog for money or for some impossible higher purpose. I read them because I was curious. Yes, I love all the benefits that come from applying the advice in self-development books. But really I just find them fascinating to read. I learn so much and they constantly challenge the way I look at the world.
If you can’t tell already, I think this is an amazing book. The writing is simple, fun, smart and uplifting. It’s easy to see Gilbert’s joy (I’ll stay away from passion) for writing in her words.
Why Does It Suck
If you’re looking for a highly intellectual book about creativity, this isn’t it. Gilbert uses very plain language and uses anecdotes over any sort of scientific research. She makes a claim that creative ideas are like ghosts floating throughout the universe, searching for a person to realize them into form. I won’t say she’s wrong. Let’s just chalk it up to “stuff we don’t have to believe is true”.
The Wrap Up
Overall I love this book. If you’re at all a creative type, read at least this or The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. At least one of them will resonate with you, and you’ll get a lot of the same ideas put in a different way. Or if you want to cross-reference like I did, read both.
The creative process is a mysterious thing. Everyone seems to have their own way of doing it. But if you read this book, you’ll see that it’s not so mysterious after all. And that’s a great thing, because that means it’s accessible to anyone.
That’s real Big Magic.