The Magic in 'Big Magic' Gets Cheesy -- Even for Elizabeth Gilbert
At its weakest, Big Magic is a rushed response to her viral Ted Talk, but at its best, it’s a persuasive contribution to the current climate of creativity.
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond FearPublisher: Penguin
Length: 276 pages
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Publication date: 2015-09
Almost 11 million people have watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted Talk recounting her struggle with creativity, “My Elusive Creative Genius”. The talk is relatable, witty and refreshingly personal. It showcases her profound ability to reach people while simultaneously dismantling the societally ingrained idea of who is allowed to call themselves an artist. Which is why it comes as no shock that she was prompted by that viral success to scribe a literary sequel to that talk. Her creative call to arms, Big Magicis, largely, an extension of that 18 minute long conversation with the Internet.
This is an inspirational model she’s followed before. Around ten million people have purchased her memoir, Eat Pray Love, detailing her personal journey through divorce and rebirth. Shortly after, and widely unnoticed, she answered that attention with her sequel, Committed, an underrated and well researched pilgrimage to understanding marriage. It’s clear that the unpredicted success of certain work moves her to expand on her subject matter, but the problem with Big Magic is that that it lacks the vulnerability of her other work.
Gilbert isn’t breaking down with her audience here, she’s doing a lot of telling, as in telling you what to do, when she’s best at showing through the dissection and vulnerability of her own excruciating experiences. While constantly reiterating how resilient a writer she’s been over the years she loses the impact, she leaves our side and walks up to a pulpit. I understand how many times she’s got it right, she’s a viral success, but I’m left wanting to hear how she circumvented her individual crises. As she’s mentioned before, there was no way for her to predict the success of Eat Pray Love, so her advice in that book was a peripheral side effect of her own trial and error, but here, Big Magic is a premeditated self-help book and with that intention the intimacy gets lost in commands.
Despite her detachment, the majority of the discussion goes right for Big Magic, namely, crushing the common thought symbiosis of art and pain. "I simply refuse to fetishize suffering,” she says, breaking down the idea that we must suffer through our creative processes. She laments the early death of artists like Dylan Thomas who’ve succumbed to their own suffering, but also the art that ceases to exist with their premature absence.
She says, “If you choose to enter into a contract of creative suffering you should try to identify yourself as much as possible with the stereotype of the tormented artist. You will find no shortage of role models. To honor their example, follow these fundamental rules: Drink as much as you possibly can; sabotage all your relationships; wrestle so vehemently against yourself that you come up bloodied every time; express constant dissatisfaction with your work; jealously compete against your peers; begrudge anybody else’s victories, proclaim yourself cursed (not blessed) by your talents; attach your sense of self worth to eternal rewards; be arrogant when you are successful and self pitying when you fail; honor darkness above light; die young; blame creativity for having killed you. Does it work, this method? Yeah, sure. It works great. Till it kills you.”
Much of Big Magic challenges each of these stereotypes, offering empowering ways to circumvent fear and offers permission for any ol’ human to get out of bed and call themselves an artist. Gilbert takes on higher education for creatives; she takes on her critics; she cites motivating discussions with Tom Waits and Werner Herzog and; she congratulates feminism. Indeed, she's commanding and moving, witty and bold in just the right places.
Her best asset, however, is her deep commitment to research. In almost every Gilbert book there’s passages of rich history woven beautifully into her plots and commandments and Big Magic is no exception. She's a constant scholar of her own curiosity and it always shows. Here, she digs into the history of what it means to be a genius or an artist, going back as far as the Greek understanding and as a reader, the tiny nuggets of history add richness to her thesis.
The research is wonderful and enlightening, but the magic concept in Big Magic gets a little cheesy -- even for Gilbert. She’s a realist, forgiving but commanding and here she offers the concept that ideas are like enchantment moving through us or bouncing off us onto another person depending on how ready we are to receive or work on said ideas. Now, this notion of creativity as magic is great, but it contradicts the romantic ideas of creativity she set out to dismantle.
People are talking a lot more about creativity (Anne Lamott) and vulnerability (Brene Brown) and the universal access to it, as more and more authors are sharing in their creative pathways. One of the most exquisite examples of this is Patti Smith’s tribute to her creative upbringing alongside Robert Mapplethorpe in Just Kids, and still widely circulated, in 1992 Julia Cameron wrote The Artist’s Way, a Tolstoy-sized guide to “unblocking” creative people. Even marketing guru Seth Godin recently challenged creativity in “The Icarus Deception”.
One thing Smith and Gilbert share in common is their commitment to curiosity. Smith was recently quoted in Esquire applauding curiosity, “Maybe curiosity killed the cat, but the lack of curiosity will kill us.” Gilbert spends a lot of time with the subject of curiosity in Big Magic, ignoring the idea that people should chase their passion, claiming that the people that recognize it are already doing just that; Instead, she urges the confused among us to commit to following curiosity, declaring that the direct pathway to a creative life.
Critics have ridiculed Gilbert’s privilege, citing narcissism in her work following the success of Eat Pray Love, but Gilbert’s literary footprint was imprinted long before she started talking about herself. Any discerning book lover can pick up, National Book Award nominee, The Last American Man or more recently, The Signature of All Things, and quickly discover that she is a scribing force to be reckoned with. At its weakest, Big Magic is a rushed response to her Ted Talk, but at its best, it’s a persuasive contribution to the current climate of creativity.