Week 10: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (Audiobook)

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Published in 2015 by Riverhead Books | Hardcover: 288 pages | Goodreads Rating: 4.00 based on 4529 ratings

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic may be the most atypical book I’ve ever blogged about, and that includes my read-along of Dragon Bound, a book about a woman getting brutally fucked by a dragon. (It’s a romance novel, so, naturally, she loved it.)

I don’t usually have time for self-help books or the kind of platitude-spouting quasi-spiritualism that Gilbert’s become famous for. She writes as if every sentence is an opportunity for an empowering, resonant phrase destined for immortality on Google Images. Sentences like, “There’s a crack (or cracks) in everyone…that’s how the light of God gets in,” are the norm, not the exception, as evidenced in zingers like, “I want God to play in my bloodstream the way sunlight amuses itself on the water,” and “God never slams a door in your face without opening a box of Girl Scout cookies.” Someone should could make a Truism Generator based on Gilbert quotes alone.

Big Magic–the newest cultural phenomenon from the writer of Eat, Pray, Love–is a book I normally would have avoided like the plague. But then I listened to her 2-hour appearance on my favorite podcast, You Made It Weird, and I found myself strangely becoming a fan of Gilbert as a person, if not her as an author.

She talked with passion and clarity about her life, the nature of creativity, and about getting over creative hangups. She was funny, she was relatable, she wasn’t at all the obnoxious mystic I’d built her up to be. Sure, she said a few things that made me roll my eyes (“I believe creativity is a farce of enchantment, not entirely human in its origins”), but when I got past those petty irritants I realized that what she’s really good at is looking creators, or wannabe creators, in the eyes and saying, Get Over Your Fear You Narcissitic Milksop.

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I realized how much I liked Big Magic after reading Zoe Williams’s ridiculously biased review in The Guardian. Until that point, every part of me wanted to dislike it. Do I really want to be the guy who likes the new self-help book from the Eat, Pray, Love girl? But then I read Williams’ piece and saw how she completely missed the point, and it became very clear to me that this book not only has something to say, but what it says is important.

Big Magic confronts the very real battle between creators (both amateur and professional) and the fear that prevents them from fulfilling their passion(s). It’s understanding of the impulse to abandon a project or not even start it in the first place because you’re afraid that it won’t be as good as you want it to be, or as good as another project it will be competing with. But it also confronts this impulse and shows how self-destructive, restrictive, and cowardly it is, and how, by yielding to our creative fears we never become the greatest versions of ourselves, versions that are in there. We just need to let them out.

Whether or not Williams likes Elizabeth Gilbert is irrelevant (and to be clear, she quite obviously does not), the question that must be answered when reviewing Big Magic is this: can this book help unburden people of their stifled creativity? My answer is a resounding Yes.

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Is Gilbert still a little bit annoying? Of course she is. She’s still the person who ate, prayed, and loved her way to a career as a professional TED Talker. But she’s also a really good writer, and it kind of sucks that that fact is lost on a lot of people.

She was the first unpublished short story writer to debut in Esquire since Norman Mailer.

She’s been an award-winning journalist for The New York Times, GQ, and SPIN, among others.

Her novel The Last American Man was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Her short story collection Pilgrims won the Pushcart Prize and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award.

She’s not an idiot. She was simply unlucky enough to have her life painted that way by the incredibly tiresome Julia Roberts. Gilbert is accomplished, she’s talented, she’s incredibly intelligent, and she has genuine, hard-earned insight about the creative process. She’s a novelist, above all things. She isn’t the petty memoirist she’s known as. And if you think you have a novel or a sculpture or an album buried inside you but you’re too scared to take a chance on it, try reading Big Magic. I truly believe it will be a help to you.

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6 thoughts on “Week 10: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (Audiobook)

  1. It’s a shame about the truisms–one of them at least seems to be lifted from Leonard Cohen (“There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”) Really appreciate that you want to talk about Gilbert as someone to be taken seriously, though; I’ve never read any of her work, but I can see how it would be all too easy to smear someone as a privileged white lady who doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and to overlook the fact that her career and abilities are impressive indeed. Thanks for that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I should also point out that if a reader doesn’t like Gilbert’s style, they’re not wrong. I 100% understand why it won’t jive with some. But she’s not useless, that’s for sure.

      About the Cohen quote, she constantly quotes her influences so I’m not surprised that’s not hers. At a certain point it can become difficult to discern what’s hers and what isn’t.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m happy to see you pointing out all Gilbert’s talents, because I have loved everything I have read by her (which hasn’t been everything she’s written). One of my favourite reads of the year has been The Signature of All Things. I didn’t want it to end.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gilbert’s “put something out there” policy is one of the issues I had with the book, for sure. Chose not to include any negatives in my post because ultimately the negatives shouldn’t outweigh the overall positive.

      Gilbert thinks like this because she values the creative process over the actual piece it produces. So for her, spending an extra year getting your novel just right is wasted time. She’d rather finish it 90% to her satisfaction, then move onto the next creative piece. I can’t say I agree with her, but from a certain point of view I can’t say it’s wrong to think like she does.

      What she is ultimately getting at is that perfectionism is a form of fear. When we can’t seem to call our creations finished that’s because we fear how people will react to them. For her this is wasted energy, and a life lived in servitude to fear.

      It’s an interesting point, and I can’t say she’s altogether wrong. But any behaviour that allows a person to put out a product they’re not 100% happy with is not something I can get behind.

      Like

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