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Monday, February 29, 2016

BIG MAGIC: CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR, by Elizabeth Gilbert: Book Review (Audio Version)

Why should we even bother about creating anything or living a life imbued with creativity? Who has time for creativity when we need to make a living? Elizabeth Gilbert advocates that as human beings, we desperately need to express ourselves through creativity—and many times that creative expression has no other purpose than to please the senses and be enjoyed, or not, on its own merits, like art. Even better if you can use the creation for shelter or eat it. We are consumers, after all.

Creativity belongs to all great disciplines, including art: science, medicine, math, teaching and philosophy, to name a few. Furthermore, without the urgency to create something, we’d all be naked and sucking our thumbs in a bramble patch.

We tend to think of art first, however, when thinking of living a creative life. What is art? Who knows? I’d need a few hundred pages to figure that one out, probably. Instead, I’ll simply say that art is anything we say it is, almost. I’d qualify that by saying that art must be relevant to the nature of the relationship between the one making the art and the one viewing it. (I just made that up, but it sounded good.)

Does some art offend? Yes. Does some art make you feel great joy, love, and heartache? Surely. But art must come through the spirit of the maker; otherwise, it’s just junk. I’d liken it to what makes yoga, yoga. And as all first-class yogis have learned—it’s the intention which makes yoga, yoga; instead of simply a bunch of weird poses and atypical breathing.

The intention of union with the mind, body and breathe turns odd stretching into yoga. The intention of union with the universe and human inventiveness turns by-product into Big Magic. Satisfying the intention of creation conceives art, music, science, philosophy, and life, for that matter. No wonder Gilbert calls it magic.   

Enough preaching and on to an appraisal of BIG MAGIC: Creative Living Beyond Fear:

 “I’m writing a book to help people;” a budding author announced to Elizabeth Gilbert.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s reply: “Please. Don’t. Please don’t write a book to help me.”

Well said, Ms. Gilbert! Gilbert acknowledges that she has written a book categorized as self-help. She defends such an appalling gesture by telling us that she wrote it for herself. She likes the subject of creative living and wanted to write about it—if the end product helps motivate others to pursue creative living with an artistic bent, then so be it!  And that is what makes Big Magic happen—you create something for the simple pleasure of creating; and if you’re lucky, you experience big magic flowing through you.

Gilbert reads her book very well. She begins with a question: “What is Creativity?” Answer: Creativity is the relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration.” Inspiration, however, tends to play hide-and-seek, so best not to depend upon it to show up on command.

Creative inspiration is a treasure hunt that the universe has arranged for its amusement, muses Gilbert. We all have hidden treasures, and the universe wants us to uncover them and bring them to light. The hunt is living creatively, and that requires courage. The results of that hunt are another of what Gilbert calls “Big Magic.”

Gilbert asks the reader wanting to live creatively: “Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?” (And if not, why not? What else have you got going on?) However, Gilbert acknowledges that courage entails facing fears. We have all met these fears before; but Gilbert trots them out for another performance and then walks us through those fears while demonstrating ways to side-track them. She uses her own creative life and lifestyle to illustrate how it can be done.

Here’s an example of her laundry list of fears that face those on the quest for creative living:
Fear you’re no good
No market for your creative works, so why bother
Ideas stolen
Won’t change the world
It’s been done before
I’m undisciplined have no training, experience, intellect
Family won’t like it
What will people say?
Don’t want to discover my demons
and you’re FAT!

Do your art anyway, damn the torpedoes.

Gilbert says make your art, put it out there and move on to the next project! Forget perfection (you know it does not exist anyway.)

Gilbert maligns the ubiquitous “passion” argument for pursuing your work. She reproaches the “follow your passion and riches are yours” imperative of the self-help and money-making genres. To rely on passion to fuel your creativity cramps the inspiration-god’s hands. Also, maintaining intense passion requires too damn much energy.

Instead of “passion,” Gilbert espouses passion’s sister: curiosity. When passion or inspiration wanes, ask yourself “What am I interested in, even just a little bit?” Then follow all clues that those answers provide. That is how Gilbert got the idea for her novel The Signature of all Things, which she considers her best work.

After a period of drifting, Gilbert asked herself what, if anything was she interested in? She had just moved to a small town and felt like putting a garden in her back yard. Gardening? Her gardening interest led to her latest novel about botanical adventurers and took her around the world and through history. I read The Signature of all Things and found it a fascinating read, despite myself. I learned what detailed research means to the structure and nuance of novel writing. 

Passion may be creativity's soul, but curiosity is creativity's energetic soulmate.

Gilbert must have paid extra for the expanded version of the Thesaurus, as she seems excessively fond of adjectives, lists and metaphors. For example, she often uses at least three adjectives to make a point; which I found a bit draining, raining, exhausting and redundant. On the other hand, I like driving a good point home—I have a short attention span and need repetition. I also like words.

Gilbert cringes when an aspiring creative creature tells her they plan to quit their day job to write their novel, or screenplay, or symphony, etc. Gilbert kept her day job until she hit it big with her fourth book, Eat Pray Love. She literally made a pact with her writing: that she would do the work of writing and not expect it to support her. And that she loved it enough to do it for life.

A creative life does not mean that you must make a career out of it. Very few can live off their art in a consistent fashion, so do not expect to, or your creativity, and your art, will suffer and so will you. She also reminds us that some of the greatest novels were written in only one hour a day, over a period of years. Go for it, but pay the bills!

Gilbert notes that maintaining a day job to support yourself, and that means also supporting you art, is an honorable way to live. Providing yourself financial support frees up your creative spirits because you have relieved them of the demands and stress of obligatory money-making. Gilbert held many odd jobs to support her art including bartender and working in Montana as a cowgirl.That's courage.

Gilbert’s sentiments on that score reminds me of the Zen quote,
Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

I put in my hour of creative writing today. I’m off to chop some wood and carry some water.


  1. Good review (now I don't need to read the book). I think creativity is one of the keys to internal being the other. I tend to keep my creative side hidden.

  2. Or wine. That's one of Gilbert's points--you may keep your creative side totally "hidden," and share it just with yourself. BTW: Fly-boys must use their creativity to navigate the skies--right, Officer?