Love her or hate her—most readers usually fall into either camp when it comes to her books—Elizabeth Gilbert is one gal I would enjoy sharing a bottle of Pinot Grigio with while watching a sunset. I don’t know if we’d be good friends after, but I think we would engage in a good conversation about the creative process and what living a creative life is about.
Like many, I read Gilbert’s travel log, Eat, Pray, Love a few years ago, and I enjoyed her account of a year spent in search of herself while traveling in Italy, India, and Indonesia. Her self-deprecating style, honesty, and vivid descriptions of the people and places she encountered charmed me.
At the time, I could relate to many of her experiences about men, love, and relationships; her journey to find meaning in difficult life events mirrored some of the challenges and obstacles I faced at different times in my life. I enjoyed the book for what it was: one person’s account of what her life was like at the time, with sideway trips to places I wouldn’t mind visiting one day. I never thought the book as life-changing or deep. Instead, I took it as a conversation I would have with a friend who had endured similar experiences as I, and we decided to spend an afternoon comparing scars. Nothing more, nothing less.
Do what you love to do, and do it with both seriousness and lightness. At least then you will know that you have tried and that— whatever the outcome— you have traveled a noble path.
—from Big Magic. Elizabeth Gilbert.
Some friends and colleagues who read her book complained about Gilbert’s self-indulgent style, her simple prose, and happy ending. One friend complained, “How dare she claim she found true love! There’s no such thing! I’ll bet you anything she’ll divorce Javier Bardem in two years or less!”
It took me a while to convince my friend Ms. Gilbert neither married Mr. Bardem, that he was just playing a role in a movie based on the book, and that I was sure Ms. Gilbert was still married to the real Felipe she met during her time in Indonesia. My friend, now divorced, asked me not to mention Ms. Gilbert or any of her books again. She wasn’t buying it. Ever!
Now, a few years later, I found another of Ms. Gilbert’s books at the online bookstore, and I decided to pour myself a glass of Pinot Grigio and read it the way I would like to have the conversation with her: watching the sun set over the Atlantic.
Again, I found myself listening to someone I felt familiar with. In her new book, Ms. Gilbert assumes an intimate, conversational style that sounds more like an extended TED Talk [watch Gilbert speak on success, failure, and creativity] than a travel log. The topic of conversation this time is the creative life, and how to avoid the pitfalls and tortured, misguided notions anyone could have about being a creative person.
Ms. Gilbert points out that one needn’t be a writer, artist, sculptor, or musician to be or feel creative. Rather, anyone can substitute an activity or task and regard it as a creative endeavor so long as it rewards them with a sense of joy, play, and fulfillment. There is nothing deep, profoundly earth-shattering, or new in Ms. Gilbert’s book. In fact, most of what she presents has already been said or covered in a daytime talk show, self-help book, or counseling session anyone may have had with a good friend while diving into a tub of ice cream. What sets the book aside for me, and what made me enjoy it, was Ms. Gilbert’s no nonsense advice, her request that we not turn a task at hand into a tool for martyrdom, and that we return to a mode of thinking that, while a far cry from innocence, reminds us of a time when wonder, awe, mystery, and play infused our days.
In her new book, Ms. Gilbert does not hike the Himalayas, nor does she fall in love with another perfect man. In fact, she doesn’t venture further than her work desk to impart her personal wisdom. Big Magic is a collection of personal anecdotes, reflections, and experiences from her life as a writer. This is a book full of advice one shares with a friend over greasy cheese fries and a diet soft-drink. It hits the spot when you need it and leaves you feeling satisfied for a time.
If, like me, you’re in need of a reality check and a quick pick me up to get you over a hump or funk, Big Magic reminds one that good days and bad are part of anything and everything we do. That life (creative or not) is just that: moments we have an abundance of, and that we can make of them what we will.
Big Magic is about giving ourselves permission to live a creative, happy, and balanced life. While this may sound as common sense to some, for the tortured perfectionists like me, or artists stuck in a rut, it may seem like the most outrageous suggestion anyone could make. Ms. Gilbert suggests: “I think it’s a mighty act of human love to remind somebody that they can accomplish things by themselves, and that the world does not automatically owe them any reward, and that they are not as weak and hobbled as they may believe (p. 116).” Again, no big whoop, but one of those random acts of kindness that, when reflected upon, can turn a bad day into a tolerable one.
There’s plenty to like and enjoy in Big Magic. I certainly highlighted a lot of good advice and scribbled plenty of notes in the margins of the book. But if one passage stood out for me, it had to be the need to declare to ourselves the importance of being and feeling creative:
Defending yourself as a creative person begins by defining yourself. It begins when you declare your intent. Stand up tall and say it aloud, whatever it is: I’m a writer. I’m a singer. I’m an actor. I’m a gardener. I’m a dancer. I’m an inventor. I’m a photographer. I’m a chef. I’m a designer. I am this, and I am that, and I am also this other thing, too! I don’t yet know exactly what I am, but I’m curious enough to go find out! […] Hearing this announcement, your soul will mobilize accordingly. It will mobilize ecstatically, in fact, because this is what your soul was born for. (Trust me, your soul has been waiting for you to wake up to your own existence for years.) […] This proclamation of intent and entitlement is not something you can do just once and then expect miracles; it’s something you must do daily, forever.
—Gilbert, Elizabeth. Big Magic, (p. 94-5).
And she’s right. Anything we do, anything that matters, deserves our attention, commitment, reverence, and devotion. Without them, our passions, relationships, or loved ones become disposable, as fleeting as a Snapchat. Creativity, friendship, love, relationships matter and should be given the definition, care, and devotion anything that is treasured deserves.
When we do such things, when care for the things we love and give them and ourselves permission to love and nurture them, that’s when big magic—real magic—happens.