Summary of “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert: In sharing her personal experience as a writer, Elizabeth Gilbert offers us her philosophy of creativity. She reveals how to discover the creative nuggets that are tucked inside each one of us through magical creativity that must be shared without fear, in joy and wonder.
By Elizabeth Gilbert, 2017, 288 pages
Full title: “Big magic | Creative living beyond fear”
Chronicle and summary of “Big magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert
Part I – Courage
“Q: What is creativity? A: The relationship between a human being and the mystery of inspiration.”
1.1 – Creative living or the quest for our hidden treasure…
Elizabeth Gilbert begins “Big magic” with the story of the life of Jack Gilbert. This important poet refused celebrity and was not well known to the general public. One day, he asked one of his students who wanted to become a writer the following question:
“Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.”
Elizabeth Gilbert tells this anecdote because according to her, it is the pivotal question on which any creative existence turns. For the author, we are all living repositories for buried treasures. We all have something wonderful inside us. The creative life is the quest that leads to the discovery of marvellous treasures. The courage to embark upon this quest is “what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.”
Finally, the author sums up with a reference to the title of the book – Big magic.
“The often surprising results of this hunt – that’s what I call Big Magic.”
1.2 – Creative living is amplified living
“Creative living”, according to Elizabeth Gilbert, is a life that is governed more by curiosity than by fear.
To understand this better, the author tells the story of her friend Susan who took up ice-skating when she was quite a few decades old. Skating made her feel young again. More especially, it gave her the impression that she was living life to the full. She was no longer just a consumer, fulfilling her daily obligations and duties.
Finally, creative living is, to use the author’s terms, a happier, bigger and much more interesting life. Living this way – obstinately revealing the hidden treasure inside day after day – is an art in itself.
1.3 – Fear holds back creativity
In “Big magic“, Elizabeth Gilbert hopes to give us the strength to reveal the treasure buried inside each of us. Very often, a lack of courage, or fear, stops us from living a creative life.
“When courage dies, creativity dies with it. Fear is a desolate boneyard where our dreams go to dessicate in the hot sun.”
It is important to make a distinction between courage and fearlessness:
- Being courageous means accomplishing something that scares us.
- Being fearless means not understanding the meaning of the word “fear”.
In reality, we need our fear. It is necessary to protect us from danger. However, it has no place in the field of creative expression.
“Fear will always show up – especially when you’re trying to be inventive or innovative. Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into the realm of uncertain outcomes. Fear hates uncertain outcome. […] This is all totally natural and human. […] It is, however, something that very much needs to be dealt with.”
For Elizabeth Gilbert, if you want to leave some room for creativity in your life, you also have to leave some room for fear. Finally, if you stop fighting your fear, it will fight back less.
“When people try to kill off their fear, they often end up inadvertently murdering their creativity in the process.”
Part II – Enchantment
2.1 – Elizabeth Gilbert’s magical vision of creativity
For the author, creativity is entirely founded on magical thought (in the literal sense of the term).
“I am referring to the supernatural, the mystical, the inexplicable, the surreal, the divine, the transcendent, the otherworldly. Because the truth is, I believe that creativity is a force of enchantment – not entirely human in its origins.”
The author’s vision of creativity has nothing scientific about it. Here is what she decided to believe about how creativity works.
Our planet is inhabited by humans, plants, animals, bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. According to the author, ideas:
- are a “disembodied, energetic life form”, totally distinct from ourselves, yet capable of interacting with us.
- have no material shape, but have consciousness and will.
- are driven by a single impulse: to reveal themselves.
2.2 – Ideas try to attract our attention
According to “Big magic”, the only way for an idea to reveal itself in our world is to associate with a human being. An idea can only appear in the real world through human effort. In consequence, ideas are constantly weaving themselves around us, searching for available and consenting human partners. When an idea considers that it has found someone capable of making it appear in this world, it tries to attract their attention.
Two things can now happen:
- We are too preoccupied or distracted by our personal problems, anxieties or duties, and therefore we are not receptive. When it realises that we have not noticed it, the idea will go and look for someone else.
- We are relaxed, sufficiently open, our defences are down. Now magic can find a passageway, and the idea, sensing our availability, will begin to operate on us by sending its universal signals of physical and emotional inspiration.
The idea will strew our path with coincidences and premonitions in order to keep our interest awake. Then it will ask us if we want to work with it. At this stage, two possibilities present themselves to us:
- We say “no”: we are released and the idea will eventually leave. Nothing happens at all. This is what most people do.
- We say “yes”: it’s showtime! The work will be both easy and difficult.
2.3 – Cooperation rather than creative suffering
In contemporary western civilisation, the most common creative contract still seems to be one of suffering. Elizabeth Gilbert explains that the stereotype of the Tortured Artist who only imagines creativity through suffering is a pathway that is not productive. It is not capable of offering peace and satisfaction (to ourselves or those around us). It is synonymous with a short, glamorous and tragic life.
Another way to live your creativity consists of cooperating fully with the inspiration, humbly and joyfully. This implies that we eliminate the obstacles that prevent us from leading our most creative life: avoid alcohol, maintain healthier relationships, resist the temptations of pomp, guilt and shame…
2.4 – Big magic…
In this part of “Big magic”, Elizabeth Gilbert tells us about the episode that she believes was the most magical moment of her life.
One day, when chatting with her partner about a news story from the Amazon, the author suddenly found herself inspired by an idea for a book. It would be a story that takes place in Brazil in the 1960s! She immediately began work on the novel, full of enthusiasm. Suddenly, an event in her personal life forced her to interrupt the writing of this book.
Two years later, when she finally got back to writing the book, Elizabeth Gilbert found that she couldn’t do it. It was as if the idea had grown tired of waiting and gone away.
“This is the other side of the contract with creativity. If inspiration is allowed to unexpectedly enter you, it is also allowed to unexpectedly leave you.”
When this happens, the author strongly advises us to keep going, to find another task and get back to work without delay.
“Keep busy. Most of all, be ready. Keep your eyes open. Listen. Follow your curiosity. Ask questions. Sniff around. Remain open. Trust in the miraculous truth that new and marvellous ideas are looking for human collaborators every single day.”
But the story doesn’t end there. A few years later, a friend of hers, the novelist Ann Patchett, described a writing project that she had in progress to Elizabeth. And as incredible as it may seem, the book that Ann was writing was the exact same Amazon book that Elizabeth had begun. With the exception of the era in which the story took place, the tale was completely identical. It had the same characters, the same places, the same mystery, the same romance.
The two artists came to the conclusion that the idea was officially passed from one to the other on the day they first met, when they kissed hello…
2.5 – Inspiration, that strange phenomenon!
The event that she experienced with her friend Ann strengthened Elizabeth Gilbert’s idea that there is no point in seeking to elucidate the strange, irrational and unpredictable phenomenon that is inspiration.
“I believe that inspiration will always try its best to work with you – but if you are not ready or available, it may indeed choose to leave you and to search for a different human collaborator”.
That is also how the author explains why, one day, you may notice that someone else has written your book, performed your play, released your music, produced your film, financed your company, launched your restaurant, patented your invention, etc. In short, someone else “in any way whatsoever manifested some spark of inspiration that you’d had years ago, but had never entirely cultivated”. That is why you see other people enjoying the success and the victories that you wanted for yourself…
When this happens, “Big magic” discourages feelings of resentment or jealousy, accusing others of stealing your destiny. It also advises against getting angry with yourself (considering yourself to be a failure because someone else has succeeded). It is not a question of theft or ownership. There is no tragedy or problem. For Elizabeth Gilbert:
“There is no time or space where inspiration comes from – and also no competition, no ego, no limitations.”
2.6 – Hard work versus fairy dust
In reality, inspiration is not always sudden and obvious. Elizabeth Gilbert explains that most of the time, as a writer, she has to observe a certain discipline in her work.
“I sit at my desk and I work like a farmer, and that’s how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least.”
Flow and genius
When inspiration does arrive, the author feels herself “gently propelled by some exterior force”. To describe this sensation, some people use the term “flow” or the expression “being in the zone”.
“Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of writing, I feel like I am suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks that you find in a big airport terminal…. Something is carrying me along — something powerful and generous—and that something is decidedly not me.”
The Greeks and the Romans believed in the concept of a divine spirit of creativity, a sort of house elf that can sometimes help you with your work. The called it “genius”. To put it another way, an exceptional individual was not a genius – he or she had a genius!
Allow inspiration to come and go
As we have said, creative inspiration is not always around. Sometimes the author has to wait for two years before she can recover her “pure creative passion”. Sometimes she only has to wait ten minutes for it to return. So inspiration comes and goes. We don’t know where it comes from and when it will arrive, but it will leave again, and we have to let it go.
Elizabeth Gilbert works in one of two ways: with or without inspiration. According to her, this is what it takes to leave a fully creative life.
“This is how I want to spend my life: collaborating as much as I can with the forces of inspiration that I cannot see, prove, command or understand.”
Part III – Permission
3.1 – You don’t need permission to lead a creative life
In the third part of “Big magic”, Elizabeth Gilbert looks back at her family history. She explains that she does not come from a family of artists, but a background in which people had more ordinary careers. However, and even though they were fine, upstanding citizens, her parents did whatever they pleased in life, and were marvellously carefree. It was undoubtedly this, combined with the “impudent self-assertion” that her parents discreetly demonstrated that gave her the idea of becoming a writer.
She stresses the following:
“It never occurred to me to ask anyone’s permission to become a writer. I never saw anyone in my family ask anyone’s permission to do anything at all. We simply did stuff. That is how I decided to act: to get started and do stuff.”
Through her experience, Elizabeth Gilbert wants to tell us that nobody needs anyone else’s permission to lead a creative life. Humans are creative beings and have been for a very long time. It is a completely natural impulse:
“We have the senses for it; we have the curiosity for it; we have the opposable thumbs for it; we have the rhythm for it; we have the language and the excitement and the innate connection to divinity for it.”
3.2 – Creative arrogance
To feel free to create and explore, the author believes that we should cultivate a solid dose of arrogance:
“Creative entitlement doesn’t mean behaving like a princess or acting as though the world owes you anything whatsoever. No, creative entitlement simply means believing that you are allowed to be here, and that—merely by being here—you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.”
If we do not have the desire to exist and to express ourselves, we will never be able to take any kind of creative risk. We will never dare to leave our stifling little cocoon of protection to set off on an adventure to encounter beauty and the unexpected.
That is why the author invites us to firmly state our intentions.
“Speak to your darkest and most negative interior voices the way a hostage negotiator speaks to a violent psychopath: calmly, but firmly. Most of all, never back down. You cannot afford to back down. The life you are negotiating to save, after all, is your own.”
3.3 – Originality versus authenticity
In this part of “Big magic”, Elizabeth Gilbert suggests that we should not seek originality at all costs.
We are often afraid that we are not original enough, that our ideas and ordinary and mundane, and therefore not worth carrying out. Well, it must be admitted that this is often the case. Most things have already been done. However, Elizabeth Gilbert insists on two things:
- Those things that have already been done have never been done by you! When you express an idea in your own way, with passion, it becomes your own. This makes it different from the rest.
- Trying to be original can sometimes come across as forced or fake, while authenticity resonates in a more discreet and moving manner.
The author suggests that we overcome our fears and take the plunge:
“Share whatever you are driven to share. If it’s authentic enough, believe me—it will feel original.”
The author stresses two other points:
- Not only does your art not need to be original; it does not need to be important either.
- Whatever the reasons you create, they are sufficient in themselves.
“Do whatever brings you to life, then.
Follow your own fascinations, obsessions and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart. The rest of it will take care of itself.”
3.4 – Artistic studies
In this part of “Big magic”, Elizabeth Gilbert (who has no teaching or writing diplomas) warns us about the trap that artistic studies can lay for us.
By taking artistic courses, students of art are often only looking for proof that they are legitimate. They want to prove that they are genuine artists because their diploma says so. In other words, they seek validation.
A lot of people pay a lot of money to take art courses, believing that they are investing in their future. As far as the author is concerned, getting into debt to pay for your studies can cause a lot of stress and worry (instead of joy and freedom).
“…the arts are not a profession, in the manner of regular professions. There is no job security in creativity, and there never will be. There is no job security in creativity, and there never will be.”
That is why, after investing so much in their studies, many artists do not find immediate professional success. They can end up feeling like failures.
3.5 – Run away and explore
“Big magic” suggests trying this instead:
Instead of taking out a loan to go to art school, why not go out into the world and be brave enough to explore it. Why not look deep inside yourself and be brave enough to explore. Make an honest inventory of what you already know – the years you have lived, the difficulties you have experienced, the skills you have acquired along the way.
The author insists that this is valid at any time in life. We need to take stock to enrich and transform our life. Therefore:
- Young people should “open their eyes” and let the world teach them as much as possible. The world needs them to share their creativity, their fresh perspective and their point of view.
- Older people should feel reassured. The world has been teaching them for many years and they know much more than they realise. They are ready, and it is essential that they show us what they know and what they have learned, seen and felt throughout their lives.
“Big magic” also encourages us to:
- Let go of all the notions that are holding us back and stop asking what we need to be legitimately creative.
- Draw inspiration from our mentors: they can be anyone, not necessarily even alive. The author warns however that it does not matter how great our mentors are – at some point we have to do the work ourselves.
3.6 – Appreciate your creativity
Elizabeth Gilbert has noticed that artists complain a lot. This is a damaging attitude for a variety of reasons:
- It is annoying and boring for everyone else.
- Yes, being creative is difficult. If everyone was able to do it, it wouldn’t be exceptional or interesting.
- It is a complete waste of time, because people are mostly preoccupied by their own problems and don’t really listen to the complaints of others.
- That is how you drive inspiration away.
“Every time you express a complaint about how difficult and tiresome it is to be creative, inspiration takes another step away from you, offended.”
Elizabeth Gilbert advises us to follow her example – tell yourself how much you love your work, how you appreciate it with all your heart in all its aspects, suffering and ecstasy, success and failure, joy and pain, the blank page, the everyday slog, the bumps in the road, all the uncertainty and the inanity involved.
3.7 – The trap of being pigeonholed and public reactions
The labels that people stick on us are of no importance
We can all be creative, but many people compare their talents and abilities with others.
Elizabeth Gilbert believes that this attitude should be completely avoided. For her, art is much too subjective to be able to distinguish between great art and ordinary art, or to judge anyone’s potential. Instead of worrying about these kinds of definitions and distinctions, “Big Magic” invites use to create what we need to create and to share it.
“Let other people pigeonhole you however they need to. […] Thus, people will stick you into all sorts of boxes. They’ll call you a genius, or a fraud, or an amateur, or a pretender, or a wannabe, or a has-been, or a hobbyist, or an also-ran, or a rising star, or a master of reinvention. They may say flattering things about you, or they may say dismissive things about you. […] It doesn’t matter in the least!”
Other people’s reactions do not belong to you
So, you should:
- Never give into the illusion of believing that you need anyone’s blessing to produce your own work.
- Simply keep doing what you want to do without even bothering to respond to the judgement of others, because in reality, it does not concern you.
To illustrate this, Elizabeth Gilbert relates her own experience when she published her best-selling book “Eat, pray, love”. Basically, this book became, “a huge screen upon which millions of people projected their most intense emotions. These emotions ranged from absolute hatred to blind adulation. She received letters that said: “I detest everything about you” and others that declared: “You have written my bible.”
Conclusion: you cannot define yourself through the reactions of the public. When you create something and you make it public, it may accidentally cause a reaction, and this is perfectly natural. It is the “eternal inhale and exhale of action and reaction.” But we should under no circumstances feel responsible for the reaction.
“Recognising this reality—that the reaction doesn’t belong to you—is the only sane way to create.”
3.8 – Art is not so serious
If there is one message that is omnipresent in “Big magic”, it is this one:
“Human artistic expression is blessedly, refreshingly nonessential. […] Art is not as important as we sometimes like to believe.”
Elizabeth Gilbert is well aware that her life’s work will probably be of no use, but this does not bother her at all. On the contrary, it shows that our civilisation still has some room for the luxury of imagination, beauty, emotion and even frivolity. That is what the author finds so magnificent about creativity: it is diametrically opposed to everything that is essential or unavoidable in life. Pure creativity “is much more than a necessity: it is a gift. It is the icing on the cake for the author.
3.9 – Relatively high stakes
In some places, for example under totalitarian regimes, creative expression can have very serious consequences. Yet people continue to make art with courage and stubbornness. They are genuinely admirable heroes. However, for most of us, our creative expression does not include risk. There is nothing that we can qualify as “artistic urgency”. If that is how things are, then why not make art?
Elizabeth Gilbert gives the example of Tom Waits. He talks about how, in his youth, he lost himself in the cult of artistic suffering (anxiety, torment, alcoholism, the downward spiral). This was because he wanted to be considered important, serious, meaningful, to be deep and intense and he hoped that his work would be better than that of others. In the end, when he saw how freely his children created, he realised that it was not that important after all.
Basically, for the author, making art should not be something that makes you sick. We would be better off just relaxing!
3.10 – The central paradox
Art is completely meaningless. And yet, it is also profoundly meaningful.
This is the paradox that we must all be able to bear and inhabit if we want to lead a satisfying creative life.
“My creative expression must be the most important thing in the world to me (if I am to live artistically), and it also must not matter at all (if I am to live sanely).”
Part IV- Persistence
4.1 – Take your vows and learn
This part of “Big magic” begins like this:
“When I was about sixteen years old, I took vows to become a writer. I mean, I literally took vows—the way a young woman of an entirely different nature might take vows to become a nun. […] I was willing to make whatever arrangements needed to be made in order to get by.”
Elizabeth Gilbert confides that she promised herself that she would be a writer, and she has never broken that promise. She goes on to talk about how she improved her art, very slowly, obstinately writing every day of her life between the age of 20 and 30, despite the fact that she had no tangible success.
By the way, the author specifies that it is never too late to start on the path of creation. When you are prepared to throw yourself body and soul into something, you can easily become an expert after 10 years. The moment to start your creative and passionate life is the moment you decide to do it!
4.2 – The “shit sandwich”
Learning to put up with disappointment and frustration is a fundamental part of the work of a creative individual, part of the creative process.
Everything may go wonderfully: you can create something truly awesome that everyone adores. However, this rarely happens. Furthermore, every activity, even if it seems exciting and glamorous at the beginning, goes hand in hand with what the writer and blogger Mark Manson calls the “shit sandwich”. In other words, there are always undesirable side effects.
“You don’t just get to leap from bright moment to bright moment How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going so great, is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation, and how equipped you are for the weird demands of
creative living. Holding yourself together through all the phases of creation is where the real work lies.”
So the question is not really: “What are you passionate about?” but rather “What are you so passionate about that you can put up with the most unpleasant aspects of the task?” If you love something and want it enough, you won’t really mind eating the “shit sandwich” that is served with it.
4.3 – Don’t give up your day job
We would all like to have a long period during which we can devote ourselves to creating in peace. But this luxury is almost never within our reach. The demands of reality are always busy disturbing us.
One of the questions you can ask yourself is the following: should I give up my day job to live for my art? Elizabeth Gilbert offers her opinion by telling us how she went about it. She explains that she deliberately chose to hold onto her other working income for a long time before she devoted all her time to writing books. Why? Because she didn’t want writing to bear the huge responsibility of having to provide a living. She refused to demand that her art bring in a regular income.
For her, financial demands were a source of stress that put too much pressure on her creativity, which is both irregular and impossible to anticipate. That is why it is much wiser to accomplish your artistic projects without quitting your regular job. Some people get up very early to work on their art. To do this, you need to have creativity that is important enough that you are willing to make sacrifices for it. The author also specifies that the vast majority of people make art in “stolen moments”. They borrow time from other activities “often using pilfered or discarded materials, to boot.”
Basically, the author believes that the creative life is not always easy, but it is always possible.
4.4 – Have an affair with your creativity
Why do people continue to create when it is difficult, uncomfortable and does not offer them any financial gratification? Simply because they are in love…
To illustrate this idea, Elizabeth Gilbert makes a comparison with people who have an extra-marital affair. They always manage to find time to see each other “to have wild, transgressive sex”.
“When people are having an affair, they don’t mind losing sleep, or missing meals They will make whatever sacrifices they have to make, and they will blast through any obstacles, in order to be alone with the object of their devotion and obsession—because it matters to them. Let yourself fall in love with your creativity like that and see what happens. Stop treating your creativity like it’s a tired, old, unhappy marriage (a grind, a drag) and start regarding it with the fresh eyes of a passionate lover. Even if you have only fifteen minutes a day in a stairwell alone with your creativity, take it.”
4.5 – Perfectionism: fear in high heels
Perfectionism is one of the worst defects in someone who wants to lead a creative life. Not only does it stop people from finishing their work, it also stops them from starting.
“I think perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. […] Perfectionism is nothing other than deep existential angst that says, again and again: I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.”
It doesn’t matter how much time you spend perfecting something. Somebody will always find a defect in it. At some point, you simply have to finish your work, publish it as it is, and get on with doing other things with speed and determination.
4.6 – Creativity allows us to escape
For Elizabeth Gilbert, everyone has creative potential. Whether or not we make a career of it, we all need to do something that is not so down-to-earth. We need something that takes us outside the boundaries of the role we have in society (mother, employee, neighbour, brother, boss, etc.).
We all need something to help us forget who we are for a moment – temporarily forget our age, our gender, our socio-economic status, our duties, our dead-ends and everything that we have lost or failed. And we need something that takes us so far outside ourselves that we forget to eat, to go to the toilet, to mow the lawn, to dislike our enemies, to dwell on our uncertainties.
This is what Elizabeth Gilbert considers to be the greatest benefit of creativity:
By completely monopolising our attention for a brief and magical moment, it temporarily relieves us from the weighty and unpleasant obligation to be ourselves. Better than anything, at the end of your creative adventure, you will have a souvenir – something you have made, something that will always remind you of that brief encounter with inspiration that transformed you.
4.7 – Better is the enemy of good
Instead of being perfectionist, “Big magic” simply invites us to do what we can accomplish in a reasonable time, and to do it as best we can. The idea is that above everything else, you get to the end of something, rather than wanting your work to be perfect.
On this topic, Elizabeth Gilbert quotes her mother, who used to say that “a good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” Or that “a good-enough novel violently written now is better than a perfect novel meticulously written never.”
4.8 – Persist and start over
In this part of “Big magic”, Elizabeth Gilbert tells us that one day she submitted one of her stories (“Elk Talk”) to the highly respected editor of a famous magazine. At the time, Elizabeth Gilbert was still an unknown author. The editor refused to publish her story. She found it interesting, but felt it was not a good fit for the magazine. Some years later, once she was successful, Elizabeth Gilbert offered her the story again. This time she was delighted. She immediately accepted to publish the story.
This anecdote taught Elizabeth Gilbert three things:
- It’s not what you know that counts, it’s who you know.
“Talent means nothing, and connections mean everything, and the world of creativity—like the greater world itself—is a mean and unfair place.”
- It’s the proof that you should never give up. No does not always mean no, and destiny can miraculously turn things around for people who persevere.
- The people who “guard the doors to our dreams” are not automatons. They are simply people.
For Elizabeth Gilbert, there is no way of knowing what will capture the imagination of an individual, what will cause the “divine collision of creative communion”. You simply have to encounter it at the right moment. As this moment is impossible to predict, you have to optimise your chances by persevering and starting over, constantly:
You hang on, keep hunting and sometimes in the place and at the moment you least expect it, things go well.
Part V – Trust
5.1 – Are human beings co-creators of life?
Modern human beings have lost consciousness that Earth communicates with us just as much as we communicate with it. As they are not conscious of the relationship, they miss out on something essential: their potential to become co-creators of life.
Elizabeth Gilbert believes that the Earth asks for our gifts in exchange for hers. It is what the author calls the reciprocal nature of life and creativity: Nature provides the seed; Humans provide the garden. They are mutually grateful for the help that they offer.
5.2 – Suffering, guardian angels and creativity
Here, Elizabeth Gilbert develops another flagship idea from her book “Big magic”. Creative people often believe that pain is the only genuinely authentic emotional experience. But according to her, this confuses self-destruction with serious commitment to creativity.
“I believe that our creativity grows like sidewalk weeds out of the cracks between our pathologies—not from the pathologies themselves.”
Many artists voluntarily hang onto their suffering, their addiction, their fears or their demons, because they are afraid that their identity will disappear if they give them up. Elizabeth Gilbert refuses to voluntarily seek out suffering in the name of artistic authenticity. She warns us against the image of the Tortured Artist. He or she may appear seductive and picturesque, glamorous and romantic, but it is sometimes just a character seeking to justify what can be awful behaviour.
In reality, it is perfectly possible to lead a creative life while trying to be a “good person”.
“My desire to work—my desire to engage with my creativity as intimately and as freely as possible—is my strongest personal incentive to fight back against pain, by any means necessary, and to fashion a life for myself that is as sane and healthy and stable as it can possibly be.”
Instead of the cult of the artistic martyr, she prefers to trust in the idea that her work is a limitless source of joy and love. She chooses to tackle her work with in a state of stubborn gladness.
5.3 – The Martyr versus the Trickster
“Big magic” suggests that we reject the lifestyle of the martyr and adopt that of the trickster to get away from dependence on creative suffering.
- The energy of the martyr is “dark, solemn, macho, hierarchical, fundamentalist, austere, unforgiving and profoundly rigid”.
- The energy of the trickster “light, sly, transgender, transgressive, animist, seditious, primal and endlessly shape-shifting”.
The martyr always ends up dead under the wheel of torment, while the trickster heads towards the future with a spring in his step.
In recent centuries, creativity was “kidnapped by the martyrs” and “held hostage in the camp of suffering”. For the author, it is time to return creativity to the charming and subversive tricksters, who get the job done lightheartedly.
5.4 – Curiosity over passion
In the same way that she refuses to be a tortured artist creating through suffering, Elizabeth Gilbert rejects the apology for passion because, in her mind, the secret of the creative life is not passion, but curiosity. There are two reasons for this:
- The stakes involved in curiosity are much lower than those involved in passion. How can you find inspiration to work if your passion is at a low ebb?
- Curiosity allows us to work in a regular and constant manner. More violent emotions are only passing.
5.5 – The ego or the hungry ghost
We need our ego to build our identity and claim our individuality. But it is dangerous to be led by our ego.
“Your ego is a wonderful servant, but it’s a terrible master—because the only thing your ego ever wants is reward, reward, and more reward.”
Controlled ego is what the Buddhists call a “hungry ghost”. It is never satisfied and is always making noise and demands. To be honest, all of us, deep down, have a part of us that can never be satisfied. In order to keep it quiet, “Big magic” suggests not considering it just as an ego, but also as a soul! This soul is not guided by dreams of praise, or fear or criticism. All is really wants is to be amazed.
“And since creativity is my most efficient pathway to wonder, I take refuge there, and it
feeds my soul, and it quiets the hungry ghost—thereby saving me from the most dangerous aspect of myself.”
5.6 – Do something else
When you create something that doesn’t work, there is no point in hanging onto it. It is better to forget that project and move on to something else.
According to “Big magic”, there is nothing to be gained from spending too long brooding over our failures. What we need to do is keep busy, find something else to do to forget the anxiety and the pressure. This can be anything, including a creative activity that is completely different to the one we usually perform. Einstein called this tactic of opening one mental channel by playing with another “combinatory play”. That is why he often played the violin while he worked on a mathematical problem. After a few hours of sonatas, he generally found the solution he was looking for.
For Elizabeth Gilbert, the trick of combinatory play works in particular because it silences our ego and our fears. She also points out that it is not a form of procrastination once the intention is good. It is a way to move forward. Inspiration is always attracted by movement.
5.7 – Keep the faith
The ultimate gesture of creative confidence – and sometimes the most difficult – consists of sharing your work with the world once it is finished.
There is no guarantee of success in the creative field, for anyone. So, trust despite the challenges is:
- Publishing your work whatever happens.
- Admitting that the result is of no importance and that you are worthy, whatever the result.
- Continuing to share your work and never losing confidence in the creative process, even if you don’t understand the result.
In response to the question that often comes up in personal development books: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?”, the author prefers the following question: “What would you do even if you knew you could very well fail?” In other words, what do love so much that the words “failure” and “success” no longer have any meaning.
Finally, here is what Elizabeth Gilbert invites us to “think” about our art:
“You must hold your head high. You made it; you get to put it out there. Never apologise 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 that you were given. You were invited, and you showed up, and you simply cannot do more than that. […] What you absolutely must not do is turn around and walk out.”
Conclusion about “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert
The author’s conclusion…
This is how the author ends her book “Big magic”:
“Creativity is sacred, and it is not sacred. What we make matters enormously, and it doesn’t matter at all. We toil alone, and we are accompanied by spirits. We are terrified, and we are brave. Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege. […] Make space for all these paradoxes to be equally true inside your soul, and I promise—you can make anything.”
Joy, let go and magic
I think that three keywords emerge from the approach to the creative process described by Elizabeth Gilbert in “Big magic”:
Elizabeth Gilbert gives us her way of understanding art through her own experience as a writer. It is the polar opposite of the tortured artist who can only be inspired through suffering. Elizabeth Gilbert lives her creativity in the joy of creation, the pleasure of expression. Artistic freedom, the unexpected and play all feed her inspiration.
- Letting go and lightness
Throughout “Big magic”, Elizabeth Gilbert is inviting us to let inspiration take us where it will, without worrying about the result and without taking ourselves too seriously. The idea is to taste the pleasure of creating something that comes from inside ourselves. It is about creating with our hands, our heads, our guts. It is about living in the ecstatic state that is the flow and putting perfection to one side. Once that happens, everything else will happen by itself.
Finally, Elizabeth Gilbert offers us her vision of creativity: a conception of inspiration, ideas and creative genius that some may consider absurd, but that she believes to be magic in the literal sense of the word!
A book that is both light and deep
“Big magic” is a book that is as light as it is deep:
- Light because of the many anecdotes that the author tells about her life. They offer some whimsy and some realism to the story she tells (meeting an elk in the forest one night after a few drinks, the story of the man who appeared at a prestigious mediaeval ball dressed as a lobster, etc.).
- Deep because of all the food for thought that it provides chapter after chapter. It encourages us to think about how we can be free to live our creative life without fear.
All in all, “Big magic” is an inspiring book, a launching pad for the reader to start or return to a creative dynamic!
- The author’s realistic tone, both light and deep.
- Her original and enlightening approach to the magical side of creativity.
- The anecdotes that make reading the book so enjoyable and funny.
- The positive, amusing and joyful vision of the process of creativity: pleasure first and foremost!
- The author mainly talks about her own experience as a writer.
- While the book is helpful in setting the creative machine in motion and it is certainly a pleasant read, it remains quite abstract and general overall.
My rating :
Have you read “Big Magic”? How do you rate it?
Read more reviews on Amazon about “Big Magic”
Buy on Amazon “Big Magic”