Book Review: Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert
Posted on June 20, 2016
I have to admit to being very surprised at how much I enjoyed Big Magic, as it was given to me as a gift and I did not expect much. (Then again, it was given to me by my best friend, who knows me.) Until now, I have not followed Elizabeth Gilbert’s career or been a fan of her work. That’s all changed now. I love this book! (Insert hearts, rainbows, unicorns, Hello Kitty and Pusheen emojis, etc.) I received the audio version, read by the author, and was pleased to find that she is an excellent reader of her own work.
What I like best about this book is that you can engage with it on whatever level you like and come away feeling enriched, no matter what you choose to leave or take away. One on level, it is all mystery and metaphysics, but on another, it is excellent practical advice for living your creative life. You do not need to embrace Gilbert’s spiritual perspective to appreciate her advice, and she does not expect or demand that you do so. This is what makes her likable. (There are few things I find more tedious than spiritual over-sharers who insist on the utter rightness of their worldview.)
So, there are readers who will be inclined to accept Gilbert’s whimsical notion that ideas are sentient entities — something akin to butterflies — that choose when to land on us and when to fly away, and there are those who will be inclined to think this is a beautiful metaphor and useful in its way, even if they do not accept it as a real-world perspective. Either way, it works. The point is to remember that what feels lively and vital today may be dead in the water a week, a month, or a year from now, so best act while you can. As someone who has returned to the cold dead embers of half-finished projects that were still burning hot when I left them, I can attest to this.
The book is full of pragmatic wisdom learnt through the author’s own trials and triumphs, which lends her credibility. Whether or not you like her books, you might like what she has to say about commitment to your art (and the excellent advice not to expect your art to support you), staying with it even when you feel like you will never be any good at it (because that’s love), coping with rejection again and again and again, and keeping the humour and lightness in your life while doing so.
I think it’s good to be reminded of these things. As Alain de Botton said in one of his books (Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, if memory serves), human beings need to be reminded of life lessons over and over and over again. This is why we email memes to each other and post them all over Instagram, FB, Pinterest, Twitter. This is why we put post-it notes all over our refrigerators and desks saying things we all already know, right? Often, these are silly themes to remind us to lighten up and laugh. Just as often, they are cliches and life lessons about love, friendship, loss, belonging and not belonging, and keeping hope alive in hard times.
This book’s chapters are a bit like those memes, covering familiar topics that we need to be reminded of, that have to do with honouring our human instinct to make stuff just for the sheer joy of it. Sure, hunting the woolly mammoth and learning about fire were crucial to our survival as a species, but it’s obvious that painting the cave walls was important to our ancestors too, even though there was no chance at all of a gallery in New York offering a show.
If you get absolutely nothing else out of the book, I would say it’s worth reading or listening to for the anecdotes about the bull elk and the lobster. These are such good stories, you will wish they were yours and share them with pleasure. (I trust I am not the only one who had to tell at least two people these stories immediately upon hearing them because they are so amusing.) Having said that, I believe Gilbert has offered us a great deal more than that. Big Magic is a treasure chest of good advice for writers and other artists and, even if you’ve heard it all before, you have not heard it the way she tells it.
Another aspect of this book that I appreciate is that Gilbert reminds us to approach our creative work with a sense of playfulness and pleasure, which is such a wonderful antidote to all the melodrama that flies around the net where writers speak as if working on their novels were drudgery akin to coal-mining in 19th century Ireland, or life on a chain gang. I, for one, am bored to death by this posturing. I think that these people have not had much hardship in life if their big whinges are any of the following: not making money from their writing, the horrors of editing their manuscripts, the evils of the unappreciative marketplace, etc. (There are plenty more, but I will stop there.)
I wonder sometimes if these people are serious, and find them impossible to avoid on any social platform that focuses on writing. But you know, unless you are twelve and have led an enchanted existence so far, complaining about such things makes you sound ridiculous. Even if you haven’t ever faced anything genuinely dire, don’t you ever go outside or read the newspapers? Elizabeth Gilbert apparently shares my irritation at this hype and its related writing advice, such as the infamously misquoted, “Simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed,” * and an equally popular comment (likewise violent) that to edit well you must “kill your darlings.”
Well, perhaps this is sometimes true about opening veins. If you happen to be writing a genuine memoir (as opposed to the big fat lies that sometimes get published as memoirs) of your life as an abused child, a refugee from a war-torn country, an escapee from a psychopathic killer or malicious husband, a person struggling with chronic illness, or a person trying to heal after the death of your spouse or child, then you might feel like you are bleeding out. Rifling through your traumatic memories is potentially re-traumatising and inevitably painful. This would apply also to folks writing nonfiction based on real events that are horrific and traumatic. However, in my experience, these are not the people who go around saying this stuff. So, if you go around quoting this, you will probably sound like an hysterical adolescent.
As for the rather extreme and dubious necessity of “killing your darlings,” I would say that depends entirely on what type of writer you are aspiring to be. There was one Hemingway and one Carver. Hemingway was good at being Hemingway and his minimalism worked beautifully, for him. Carver was one Carver with his editor, and another Carver without. I would say Carver’s editor killed many of his darlings; whether or not the stories are better for it is a matter of opinion. Having read both versions, I would not be willing to say either way. They read like entirely different tales by two different authors.
I am glad to have heard the audio version as I believe Gilbert’s warmth and grace really shone through her reading of her book. However, it is impossible to highlight favourite passages on an MP3 file, so I have ordered myself a paperback copy too. Either version would be a fine gift for yourself or your writerly friends.
* The quote is often attributed to Hemingway but seems originally to have come from journalist Red Smith, who was asked if turning out a daily column wasn’t quite a chore. “Why, no,” dead-panned Red. “Simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” It was a joke, people, not advice.