Title: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Pages: 276 pages
Publisher/Date: Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, c2015.
There is a famous question that shows up, it seems, in every single self-help book ever written: What would you do if you knew that you could not fail? But I’ve always seen it differently. I think the fiercest question of all is this one: What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail? What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant? (pg. 259)
About halfway through the book, Elizabeth Gilbert summarizes her entire book in just two sentences: “The essential ingredients for creativity remain exactly the same for everybody: courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, trust – and those elements are universally accessible. Which doesn’t mean that creative living is always easy; it merely means that creative living is always possible.” (158) Disregard all the other distractions, excuses, and doubts, and just make an effort, and if you don’t think creativity is present at the start, it will be at the end, because it’s always available if you are willing to use it. She supports her claims with stories from her own past and those of people she has met, with a few quotes from other, primarily spiritual, sources.
If you are looking for the science behind creativity, or specific steps to increase or improve your creativity, you’ll be disappointed. I did something that I don’t typically do, and read the book with a packet of sticky notes. When I compiled those quotable moments, it amounted to less than two pages. Once I realized that she’d done TED Talks on creativity (which I haven’t seen), the dearth of real advice became more understandable, and it felt like she had tried to hard to expand her ideas to cover a book length.
Her personification of creativity and other traits as spirits was a detour I could have done without, especially in the chapter about “Enchantment”, which boils down creativity to a combination of a state of mind and dumb luck. The chapter about “Permission” was equally vague, stressing the fact you need to abandon your own doubts about whether you should be attempting creative endeavors. In fact all of the concepts mentioned are internalized, and Gilbert encourages people to either stop or start thinking in a certain way, with few suggestions on how to do that, at one point telling people that if they dress up and make themselves appealing, creativity will find them and want to work with them. I find myself shaking my head thinking “If only it were that easy”.
One portion I specifically found contradictory, in which she tells readers “Whenever anybody tells me they want to write a book in order to help other people, I always think Oh, please don’t. (98)” She defends herself by further justifying that “I did not write this book for you; I wrote it for me. I wrote this book for my own pleasure, because I truly enjoy thinking about the subject of creativity. It’s enjoyable and useful for me to meditate on this topic.” (100) While I agree that she seems to find pleasure in the writing, if she was just doing it for herself then she wouldn’t have published the book, and simply would have kept a meditation journal instead of a manuscript. Anyone who publishes anything has ideas that they want to share with people, and something as philosophical, abstract, and communicative about establishing patterns of behavior as this book is certainly intended to invoke change and ultimately help people; in this specific case, help them be creative. Readers may find kernels of truth, like I did with my two pages of quotes, but the book didn’t need the rest of the background noise.
This review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.