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Oct 16

Book Review: Big Magic

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond FearBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

This was one of those “right book at the right time” moments, except it came a few years too late. The best of its advice I’d already figured out on my own in the past few years, so instead of lightbulbs springing on all over the place, I found myself nodding in agreement.
Make no mistake: this book is full of woo. It’s so woo-woo that I am going to not recommend it for everyone, because rolling your eyes at concepts such as “be the trickster, not the martyr” won’t help you learn from them. For example, she suggests that you love your writing, but do you believe that your writing loves you? (It was originally asked of budding young ecologists who all loved nature, none of whom believed that nature loved them back.) And if not, why not? My friend suggested that was kind of ridiculous. Art can’t love you back. Nature can’t love you back. I pointed out that it is physically impossible for a dead man to love complete strangers who weren’t even born for centuries after he died, and yet a lot of people feel their lives have been profoundly changed by the love of Jesus. Just because it’s weird and not factual doesn’t mean it’s not helpful.

I try once a year to read a book on the craft of writing. I go for the ones about which people say “this is the only one, read none other! Only this will do!” because there are a lot of them and they are all pretty much identical. Mixed in with that, it’s good to occasionally read a book like this, about the spiritual side of creativity. There are fewer books like this, probably because it’s easier to say things like “use all five senses” and “plot is about conflict” and “make sure your characters have a strong motive” than “why are you bothering to write your umpteenth novel when there’s a near certain chance you will never receive any money or respect or fame for any of it?”

This book reminds me of a cross between ART & FEAR (comparisons are inevitable, as there are fewer books that deal with the spiritual/emotional side of creativity) and A WOMAN’S WORTH. I love Gilbert’s ideas of art being the collaboration between an artist and a muse or creative spirit. I love the idea that ideas are floating around in the ether, searching for the right artist to bring them to life. It’s such a beautiful, feminine concept, that by creating we are not suffering, but rather collaborating with the divine.

Gilbert also adds a spiritual twist to the old (true) adage “don’t quit your day job.” For one thing, your day job can provide a lot of fodder for your creative life (she got more than one story out of her job as a cook on a ranch in Wyoming). Also it’s unfair, she says, to burden your fragile, wonderful, muse with the mundane task of supporting you. If it does, that’s great, but don’t expect it to. Similarly, she advises not to go into debt for that MFA. The amazing writers you admire probably didn’t become great because of hours in a classroom, and you will only incur crushing debt that you will then expect your fledgling muse to fix.

This is a gentle, encouraging sort of book that can help creative types, especially writers, to remember that the creation process is meant to be fun. Martyrdom and suffering doesn’t make you a good artist, it just makes you a suffering martyr who has a harder time making things.

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