A review of Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Big Magic
Creative Living Beyond Fear
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN: 9781408866740, Paperback, 288 pages, Sept 2015

Although I’ve never read a single one of Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestsellers, I heard her interviewed about her latest book Big Magic on the Sydney Writers Festival podcast, and was so impressed by what she had to say (and the way she said it) that I ordered a copy of the book that evening. Big Magic is an easy and fast read. Gilbert’s book – so full of soundbites it’s almost impossible not to begin quoting it immediately – urges readers to pursue a creative life, without becoming bogged down by questions of talent, and by all-pervasive fear. Creativity is its own end, and Gilbert suggests that it’s the birthright of all human beings. So clear and compelling is Gilbert’s argument, that, after reading Big Magic, it feels greedy not to write; guilty not to paint; wrong to let one’s creativity submerge into the busyness of life’s daily demands.

The magic part is the creative force. You can call it what you like, or rationalise it in any way you want, but Gilbert is resolute that this is real magic. She personifies creativity as an external force in search of a human conduit to manifest itself. Her arguments are compelling and she provides some fairly spooky examples of how that creative force has manifest (and disappeared) in her own life. Basically the book has one main message which can be summarised as: “you have treasures hidden within you—extraordinary treasures—and so do I, and so does everyone around us. And bringing those treasures to light takes work and faith and focus and courage and hours of devotion, and the clock is ticking, and the world is spinning, and we simply do not have time anymore to think so small.” (27). In other words, stop sabotaging yourself with fear and distraction and get on with it.

Of course Big Magic contains more than this single message. It’s funny and wise and warm and helpful in many ways, balancing perfectly between clarity and avoiding the easy directive. Though Big Magic is written in simple, non-academic language, with short chapters and plenty of white space, it’s anything but facile. Gilbert doesn’t underplay the difficulty that comes with any creative pursuit, but she also provides very compelling reasons why the joy of creativity is not limited to a few talented folk working on it full time as a career, but is, and has always been, the basis of everyone’s most self-actualised life. There are six sections: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust and Divinity, all focusing on another aspect of what is necessary to ‘bring those treasures to light’. By treasures, Gilbert means anything that gives you creative satisfaction, whether that be writing, painting, crafting, or figure skating. Each of the chapters talks about specific things that often hold many of us back. The biggest and most pervasive is fear, and Gilbert tackles that up-front: “fear is a desolate boneyard where our dreams go to desiccate in the hot sun.” Gilbert doesn’t make light of fear, but she does urge readers to put it in its place through a metaphor which may feel a little glib (fear has to sit in the backseat of life’s car and can’t drive), but which is easy to remember and actually pretty helpful if you’re in the throes of fear-induced creative paralysis. Some of the key lessons of this book include the notion that we are both entitled to do creative work by virtue of being here (there’s your permission slip), but also not required to do something earth-shattering: the work itself is the reward and everything else is extra. This leads to the idea of persisting through the fear and any other limitations such as the public’s opinion (or lack of opinion) of your work, a desire for your creation to be perfect: “perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear.“ (167) Finally, the book teaches us to trust in the work, in ourselves, in the divinity and beauty of the creative impulse and in the sheer joy of the next project, because that’s all we have and it’s enough:

Because without that source of wonder, I know that I am doomed. Without it, I will forever wander the world in a state of bottomless dissatisfaction—nothing but a howling ghost, trapped in a body made of slowly deteriorating meet. (251)

Big Magic’s simplicity belies how strong and powerful its message is. There’s magic in creativity and creativity is itself, a reward. However simple the message may seem, to me, it comes as a complete shift in thinking from letting the market decide what matters to accepting that a life without creativity is no life. Big Magic is a beautifully written, inclusive and expansive guide to opening yourself up to the magic of creativity. I can think of nothing more important.