Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
One of the things I find unique – and remarkable – about Elizabeth Gilbert is her natural storytelling ability, not just through her books and public appearances, but most intriguingly through her social media outlets (especially Facebook). In person, before a crowd, she has the preternatural gift of making each of her listeners feel distinctly welcome to the party, but for this inclusiveness, this sense of intimacy, to be transmitted through text to millions of people across the globe all at once is nothing short of magic.
With her Facebook community Gilbert shares stories of what inspires her, whether moments and conversations from her past that she holds onto or new discoveries and ideas that enchant her imagination. She worries less about hashtags and buzzwords - and, my favorite, she gives not a whit whether her stories are long or short. She writes lovingly, and that seems to be her highest priority. But beyond her stories, which often garner hundreds of responses and thousands of interactions, she encourages members of the community to make themselves at home and to share their own stories, to connect with each other and engage their curiosity. It was in many ways from this platform that her new book was born.
Big Magic is a collection of vignettes in which Gilbert muses on the joy and struggle (but especially the joy, and rather struggle-be-damned) that every creative soul is likely to meet in the commitment to one’s art. With her distinctly colorful wit and lightness of character, Gilbert writes with full-hearted heroism on themes of courage, enchantment, permission, persistence, and trust. These, she says, are the pillars of living a joyfully creative life, the sort of playful and curious life to which we’re all entitled. She offers her idea of wondrous creativity as an alternative to the rather twisted perspective that the artist must be tortured, that the work must be painful, in order for any art to be truly great. "Does it work, this method?" she asks of the Tortured Artist; "Yeah, sure. It works great. Till it kills you." (There is a distinction to be made, of course, between the very real struggle of mental illness and the trend of romanticizing a dark side to creativity.)
Instead of tragedy, Gilbert relentlessly praises "stubborn gladness", a phrase she's adopted from the poet Jack Gilbert as something of a moniker for her life - in creativity as in all things. One gets the sense that Big Magic, the extraordinary partnership between creatives and free-wheeling ideas, is the direct result of a life lived with forceful, determined, stubborn gladness. Her approach of joyful art feels, shockingly enough, radical and indulgent in the best possible way. "By saying you delight in your work," she writes, "You will draw inspiration near." Because inspiration responds in a rather human way: it's encouraged by signs of appreciation. And while the purpose of this joyfulness is intended to make the work fun (of course), she wisely advises that it makes the work no less scary, and that the act of practicing stubborn gladness is not necessarily easy. One of the best examples of this rallying against the edge of creativity comes through her exploration of what the poet David Whyte calls "the arrogance of belonging".
Gilbert includes not only her own stories, but those of her friends and the creators she admires. (Her tenacious social passion and her restless curiosity are both largely at play here.) She writes of her friendship with novelist Ann Patchett and the otherworldly journey of one playful idea between them; she writes of the poet Ruth Stone’s extraordinary progress; she writes of Marcus Aurelius and Tom Waits and Tristram Shandy and her wildly tattooed next-door neighbor. She uses not just the ideas of others, but experiences from her own life that shape her creativity practice; she candidly writes about the novel that got away, the critical response to Eat, Pray, Love (and how she dealt with the negative reactions to the book), as well as her early years of her career spent "collecting rejection letters". In her own special way, Gilbert combines her delight for curiosity and conversation to create something less like a guided self-help book and more like a memoir infused with advice.
With a seriousness that doesn’t take itself too seriously, Gilbert writes on the hypocrisy of contemporary arts education (and pokes fun at the highbrow literary scene many times), of the ego – its necessity as well as our tendency to be a slave to it – but perhaps the most powerful stories in Big Magic are when she writes about two of the most often forgotten and necessary ingredients for a creative life: permission and trust. In each of these sections she appeals to her audience in ways that bridge age gaps and life circumstances, relentlessly encouraging the reader to grant oneself permission: permission to practice, to trust one's own creativity, to make mistakes, and ultimately to enjoy.
By becoming an admirer of the nature of creativity – and believing it appreciates her in return – Gilbert puts all of her instructions to use in Big Magic, resulting in a book that’s fearless of voice and heart-opening in authenticity; in short, a book worthy of its name.