Book Review: Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Creativity is one of the most wondrous and mysterious aspects of the human experience. Seemingly unique to us amongst species, it serves no biological purpose in the struggle to survive, and yet it has played a powerful role in human society since long before agriculture or civilization even began. I’ll leave it to sociologists or anthropologists to explain that perhaps it does enhance our survival as a species, but for my own experiences, I will say one thing: I couldn’t live without it.

Both as a consumer and a wannabe artist, I live surrounded by creativity, and my only struggle with it is how to have more. How can I improve my own creativity? How can I live a more successful creative life?

For everyone, creativity is a little bit different—for some, it’s about channeling natural impulses; for others, it’s about chasing after the stubbornly elusive muse; and for the determined realists, it’s about willful discipline and an unromantic slog. Some are filled with creativity and need only the willpower to focus it; others want nothing more than that impulse but have to mine it out of their own depths like an oil drill.

With creativity being such a quixotic and unique experience for all, an authoritative guide to harnessing creativity may seem like a futile exercise—and for some readers, perhaps this one will be just that.

But for this reader? Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert is, well, magical.

Gilbert’s voice is understanding and compassionate as she offers her own opinions and advice on creativity, while always allowing for other voices that may differ—a decidedly un-authoritative approach that I feel is the best way to approach creativity in general. Through a mix of personal anecdotes, some bits of history, and mystical philosophy, Gilbert offers an understanding of creativity that is fluid and open, invoking the powers of the universe at work in ourselves and our ideas. It may be a bit too otherworldly (and potentially hokey) for some, but beyond the spiritual understanding of creativity, I found a lot of encouragement and inspiration in the sense of a bigger picture: a feeling of trust, patience, and acceptance in the trials and frustrations (and fears) of everyday creating.

While it may seem a bit counterintuitive, reading this book made creativity feel small and simple and almost insignificant… which is exactly what I need to feel the freedom to create at will. We’ve all heard it before—no one cares what you’re doing, just put things out there and let whatever happens next happen, failure is a necessary part of the process—but somehow, by tying it to grander forces working through you, by making all of the ups and downs a fluid part of the universe itself, Gilbert makes those old adages feel newly powerful and true (to me, at least).

I don’t necessarily ascribe to everything Gilbert advocates. She’s a major proponent of not relying on your creativity financially, and that’s pretty much my life goal—with that said, I wouldn’t say that I disagree with her, so much as I’m willfully ignoring her very sound advice. And the verdict is not yet in on whether this book will actually change my creative habits for the better, or if it was just an interesting and powerful reading experience.

I’ve read a fair amount of creativity guides (I’d recommend Eric Maisel, Austin Kleon, and these books by Jill Badonsky and Nancy Pickard and Lynn Lott); often, reading them is very inspirational but I fall back into my old habits before long. And if you’re looking for specific exercises, this book doesn’t have them (which I don’t mind, seeing as I never do them anyway).  Who’s to say that one’s individual creativity can even be improved or changed by reading someone else’s advice and process anyway? We may be doomed to the bad habits and mental pitfalls that we’ve made for ourselves.

But I also believe that we are the only ones who can help ourselves, too, and that a creative life is an ongoing process that we can make the most of—even if we never control or conquer it. Big Magic reinforced that feeling for me and gave me some new perspectives that I hope transfer to my creativity; even if they don’t, I enjoyed reading the book and would definitely recommend it.

I like the idea that writing loves me back, and that if I open myself to ideas, they will find me (though not without a great deal of work to show them I’m serious). Big Magic is a mix of mysticism and down-to-earth practicality that makes a creative life feel not just rewarding… but possible.

Some days, that’s all I need.

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
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