Book review – Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

24453082Big Magic has been incredibly inspirational, even “life changing,” to a lot of people, but I’m not sold. Throughout the book, I underlined a lot of good ideas and thoughts that I felt were relevant to me. But, I also skimmed over or rolled my eyes at a lot of things. This book made me think about the content well after I was finished, but not all of those thoughts were complementary.

Woowoo

I’m not really into woowoo. I used to be. Or, maybe I just wanted to be because woowoo opened the door to a lot of new, interesting, and non-traditional things for me. But, on the whole, I think woowoo stuff is nonsense: I don’t believe in spirits, I don’t believe in gods, I don’t believe in the the benefits of crystal vibrations, and I certainly don’t believe that inspirations are entities that travel around looking for someone who’s open to their idea. Gilbert does. As an example, she believes that a story she worked on but eventually ignored and lost had actually transferred to another author who nurtured that story into a published book, even though they’d never discussed the premise.

Quotable quotes

I think that one of the reasons this book is so successful is because it’s full of quotable quotes. I would often find myself drifting away from the book when I suddenly found a great line that dragged me back in. I’m pretty sure you could find a good quote on every other page, at least.

Some of these quotes ooze with that syrupy goodness we all love to hate on Instagram and Pinterest, but a lot of them are really good and/or relevant (to me, our times, our society, etc.). I don’t think that she said anything that was new to me or particularly profound, but maybe that’s just because I read and think about things like creativity fairly often.

Mixed emotions

One of the reasons I’ve struggled with how I feel about this book is because it both delighted and frustrated me. Gilbert said a lot of things that really resonated with me and even some things that made me stop, think, and get a little emotional about my own life and my relationship with creativity and art.

But, I also found a lot of her discussions to be frustrating. A good example of this is her advice to avoid fetishizing suffering. I completely agree with her on a high level – suffering is not something we should celebrate or strive for as it hurts us and hurts people who truly are suffering. But, some of her arguments made me feel that she had no understanding or respect for people who truly suffer. I struggled with how to articulate my concern because I couldn’t really pinpoint why I was concerned until I was in the middle of reading Reasons To Be Alive by Matt Haig, a book about depression and his experience living with depression and anxiety. In one section he talked a lot about famous people who’ve dealt with or continue to deal with depression, and he noted that a lot of people (himself included) use creativity as a means of dealing with or mediating their illness. For example, he writes because it helps him deal with his depression.

I think Gilbert’s intention was good and I think that she was trying to remind the reader that you don’t have to suffer in order to be able to be creative or to make things that are worthy. But, the way she did it felt like she was ignoring or possibly belittling the very real and very unavoidable suffering that some artists deal with.

So, if you read the book, remember this: you do not need to suffer to be creative, but being creative may be a good tool for dealing with or processing your experiences if you do suffer.

Confusion

One thing this book does pretty well is champion creativity: anyone can be creative, you don’t have to be “good” to be creative, etc. But, it sometimes felt a bit contradictory. For example, there were a couple of places where I felt like she was preaching that we shouldn’t bother with being professional creatives, but then spent the next several chapters providing advice that seemed geared specifically towards people who were pursuing a creative career. Taken as a whole, the book clearly supports the idea that everyone should be creative, whether you make a career out of it or not, and you don’t have to be a “professional” to share your work. But, her arguments seemed to be a bit all over the place. Maybe it’s the scientist in me, but I found the lack of structure a bit annoying and confusing.

Personally, I found Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and The Shape of Ideas by Grant Snider (see my review here) to be more inspirational and motivating because they presented clear ideas in a more organized manner (read: easy to understand).

The good stuff

Despite my frustrations with the book, I did enjoy it (and, to be fair, I didn’t realize how much the book frustrated me until I thoughts about it and reviewed my notes – so, maybe don’t think too hard about the book). Gilbert said a lot of things that I need to be reminded of often and that I believe to be true:

  • Being creative doesn’t just mean being an artist
  • Your dedication to your creativity is more valuable than talent
  • You don’t need anyone’s permission to do something creative
  • Originality is over-hyped – focus on being authentic to yourself
  • Good enough is better than not at all
  • Don’t look for your passion, just be open to curiosity

You made it; you get to put it out there. Never apologize for it, never explain it away, never be ashamed of it. You did your best with what you knew, and you worked with what you had, in the time you were given. You were invited and you showed up, and you simply cannot do more than that.

I will keep my copy of the book, for now at least, because it has a lot of notes that I think might be valuable when I’m feeling frustrated with my art. But, I’m not sure if this is a good book, or just a well marketed book with great quotes. But, hey, if you get something out of a book, then it’s worth the time it took to read it. So, if the premise interests you and you feel like you could use a pep talk about creativity, then this book is worth considering. If nothing else, you can skim through to the bits that you need most.

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