Elizabeth Gilbert became a household name with the phenomenal success of her book Eat, Pray, Love. Love it or hate it (critics did both), the book garnered a great deal of attention and topped the bestseller lists for an impressive amount of time (200 weeks in the New York Times). Subsequently, Gilbert has talked about the strangeness of that book’s success and the feelings that came with it, in contrast to the relative ‘failure’ of the books that followed (they weren’t failures, they just didn’t achieve the same dizzying heights as Eat, Pray, Love). Her TED talk on this is particularly interesting and provides good background on her as an author.
Big Magic is Gilbert’s latest offering and it is all about creativity. The chapters are short, it is written in the first person as though Gilbert is actually next to you, at times shaking your shoulders – this isn’t a woman who lets you feel sorry for yourself. It is aimed at those who want to be creative – writers, artists, playwrights, etc – and offers some sage advice (don’t quit your day job until you are at least three books in, don’t waste time wallowing in rejection, search for creativity because it will give you the most interesting life).
The best concept which I personally took away from this book is Gilbert’s notion of ideas, which I actually heard re-iterated over the weekend at the Gollancz New Writers festival held at Waterstones Piccadilly. One of the authors speaking on the panel talked about the same idea as Gilbert (I don’t know if he’d read the book, or had come up with it separately) – but both he and Gilbert essentially said that ideas come to you on their own. In Big Magic, Gilbert personifies the creative spirit, and gives us the quite delightful image of ideas themselves zooming around the universe, latching onto unsuspecting writers or artists and begging to be heard. I love this. Gilbert gives an example of her own – she had an idea to write a story set in the Amazon, which she never finished, only to find that the idea ‘transferred itself’ to the writer Ann Patchett when the pair met and exchanged a kiss on the cheek. Of course, this is her own imagining, but it is a fascinating concept and I am more than prepared to suspend disbelief in order to believe it. Who are we to say it didn’t happen?
What is really lovely, though, is that there is never any bitterness in Gilbert’s writing – nowhere does she say she felt Ann Patchett had ‘stolen’ her idea, rather she sees the world in a positive light and this theme continues throughout the book. Later on she discusses a rejection she received from an American editor for a short story, which was then re-submitted to the magazine by Gilbert’s agent (when she became successful enough to have one). The editor loved the story the second time around and it was published. Rather than see this in a cynical way (editors will only accept agented stories, it was the same text both times, etc etc) – Gilbert believes fatalistically that when the editor came to read the story for the second time, it sparked something in her brain because she had read it once before, and that it was this bell of familiarity which had convinced her that she loved it. She also goes on to say (perhaps slightly more realistically) that so much of the publishing process can come down to straight-up luck; maybe the editor in question was having a particularly bad day the first time she read the story, and a good day the second time around. We can’t know, but it is worth considering, and when reading this book you get the impression that Gilbert is someone who looks on the bright side, sees the best in people, and accepts the universe for what it is. In a world which is, let’s face it, a fairly cynical place to be sometimes, this sort of attitude comes across (to me) as refreshing and inspirational.
You also get the sense in this book that Gilbert has been around the block enough times not to take any sh-t. She sweetly encourages those who have been criticised for their art to: “Just smile sweetly and suggest — as politely as you possibly can — that they go make their own f—ing art.” Gilbert is very much ‘on your side,’ and she manages to make you feel as though she’s championing you through the pages of the book, spurring you on and even acting as that little voice in your head – when you’re facing disappointment or criticism as a writer, you can now remind yourself of Gilbert’s words and maybe feel just that little bit better. She’s not a bad person to have on side.
So this is, in essence, a guide to the craft of creativity; it does focus on writing because that has been Gilbert’s own form of creativity, but is equally relevant if you are creating any kind of art because the ideas are the same. She encourages for you to go for it, to stop complaining, and to trust in the universe. It’s encouraging to hear of a twenty-something Gilbert working her way through various jobs while writing on the side, receiving rejection letters, and keeping her creative spirit aloft. If she can do it, so can you. That’s big magic.