A Book for Creative Types Who Believe in Magic

by Abby on January 6, 2016

I don’t buy many hardback books, let alone the week they come out, not because I don’t like to support authors but mostly because my shelf-space is already overcrowded with the entire Captain Underpants series and a perplexing number of nonfiction books about LEGOs. And also, because I don’t usually re-read books after I’ve read them once. However, I made an exception for Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic, headshotDo you know Elizabeth Gilbert? She is perhaps best known for her 2006 memoir, Eat Pray Love. But I actually became familiar with her in a different, decidedly 2015 way: by watching her on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, listening to her podcast, and following her on Instagram and Twitter.

What I didn’t know about Gilbert is that she is a) very funny, b) pragmatic in a kind rather than curmudgeonly way, and c) she has a lovely speaking voice. Leading up to her book’s publication, she did a free 12-part podcast called “Magic Lessons,” which you should go listen to immediately. You basically get to eavesdrop on her conversations with her best friends, who include Brene Brown, Ann Patchett, and Cheryl Strayed, while she helps regular people like you and me with their creative struggles. (Ep. #1, “Do What Ignites Your Soul,” is one of my favorites.)

I read Big Magic cover to cover the week I got it, live-tweeting it as I did. And not to brag, but Elizabeth Gilbert herself liked my tweets more than once. If THAT is not social-media savvy and proof of her awesomeness, I don’t know what is.

Elizabeth Gilbert favorited my tweets!

But fan-girling all over her isn’t the point of this post. In fact, I wasn’t even going to write about the book because I felt I’d missed the window and frankly, it’s a lot of work to write any sort of book review. You have to look up page numbers and cite specific quotes and I DO PLENTY OF THAT IN MY DAY JOB, THANKYOUVERYMUCH.

I am writing about the book now, though, for a couple reasons: a) it really is a timely and unique book for us creative types and I’ve found myself recommending it to several people, and b) I had my own “big magic” experience recently.

In the book, Gilbert writes, “I believe the creative process is both magical and magic.” She then goes on to describe an idea she once had about a book set in the Amazon jungle, which she didn’t end up writing for various reasons. As it turns out, she meets another author who DOES end up writing a shockingly similar book. As I was reading this, I started to get a funny feeling which was soon explained – Gilbert was talking about Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, which I happened to be reading at THE EXACT SAME TIME as Big Magic. Now that’s just weird, right?

But that’s not the “big magic” I’m talking about. This week I was thinking about this book, re-reading parts of it, and wondering whether I should blog about it. And then I started thinking about a former writing student of mine and wondering what ever happened to her. The next morning, I opened my email to find a note from this woman, who lives in Ireland, in which she recommends the book Big Magic. COME ON. That’s just freaky!!

But that’s all just a big wind-up to tell you about the actual book, and why I liked it so much. As I said, it’s mostly because of Gilbert’s warm, funny voice and clear-eyed insights. This is not a book of advice on how to write or get published; it’s not even that encouraging in parts. She outright says, “Creative fields make for crap careers.”

She does not advise us to quit our day jobs or get advanced degrees. She disabuses us of the notion that talent is the key factor in success, and assures us that even if we do reach a certain level of success, it’s not like we have it made for life … and as a NYT bestselling author, she should know. She firmly believes that finished is better than perfect, and that “good enough” work can still be satisfying. Her anthem is “The Song of the Disciplined Half-Ass.” I love that!

I also love that she pays attention to the fun parts of living a creative life. I have been freelance writing for almost 20 YEARS, if you can believe it. (Yes, I did start as a toddler, how kind of you to comment on my youthfulness!) A lot of it has been fun, I will admit. I’ve done travel writing, spa and movie reviews, interviewed celebrities.

The life of a freelance writer. See my copy of Big Magic on my desk?

But a lot of it has also been a struggle — financially, socially, emotionally, mentally… I have struggled between thinking of myself as an artist or a businessperson. I have grappled with whether it’s possible to earn a living doing work you love. I’ve had second thoughts about encouraging my kids to chase their dreams when they grow up.

So I fully appreciate the messages Gilbert shares in Big Magic, such as:

“You are not required to save the world with your creativity.”

“It’s okay if your work is totally frivolous. That’s allowed.”

It’s not necessary or even desirable to be fearless in order to live a more creative life. “The only truly fearless people I’ve ever met were straight-up sociopaths and a few exceptionally reckless three-year-olds.” (Note: I gave birth to one of those.)

“You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life.”

“Don’t let go of your courage the moment things stop being easy or rewarding.”

Passion is overrated; curiosity is the key. “Curiosity is the truth and the way of creative living… Furthermore, curiosity is accessible to everyone.” For more on this idea, watch this clip from Gilbert’s Super Soul Sessions talk.

Big Magic is both the encouragement and the kick in the pants many of us creative types need, especially if we’ve been at it for a long time and feel like we’ve lost our way or our joy.

In another weirdly magical twist, my former student’s email also mentioned Gretchen Rubin’s books and podcasts, which I was also considering writing about. Stay tuned! And thanks for the inspiration, LL. 🙂

PIC O’ THE WEEK: The last remaining Christmas decoration I can’t bring myself to put away. It lights up by itself at random times. If that’s not big magic, I don’t know what is!

JOY marquee

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Kate Hopper January 7, 2016 at 9:30 am

Abby, I love this post. I especially love this quote: “Curiosity is the truth and the way of creative living… Furthermore, curiosity is accessible to everyone.” I was interested in this book, but then forgot about it, so thank you for reminding me.


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