Book Review: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert, creative, fear, motivation, inspiration, failure, rejection, success, vocation, writers, advice, tips, writers block, creativity, book review, lessons

Over the past few months, I’ve been feeling a definite dearth of creative inspiration. Some of it’s to do with feeling the blues over rejections for my last piece of work, some of it is from a general creative block and also a lack of inspiration over the new projects I’ve been trying to move onto. Basically, I’ve been feeling flat, uninspired and pretty worried about it at all.

Well, no better time than now, then, to pick up Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Everyone was reading and raving about this book last year, but I deliberately held off on reading it because I had a kind of premonition that it wasn’t yet the right time for me to read it. As it turns out, right now was the time to do so because this book is a book I’d recommend to any artist/writer who is feeling uninspired over their work or experiencing a mental block and needs a pick-me-up. In this book, Gilbert shares anecdotes and tips on how to open up that joyful, childlike, fun-loving creative spirit in us and get immersed in the fun of ‘making stuff’ again.

Some of the ideas which rang true to me and which I found really helpful include:

Honing your creative self-entitlement as an artist: This is something I do a lot. I don’t call myself a writer, I call myself an “aspiring author.” When people ask me what I do with my free time, I hang my head and I mumble something and I don’t tell them that I write. Because I don’t feel I have the right to call myself a writer unless I’ve had an actual published book out there in the bookshops of the world.

But that’s wrong. Everyone who writes is a writer, published or not. Just as anyone who draws is an artist, even if it’s just a doodle, or anyone who dances is a dancer, even if they’re not professionally trained. And as Gilbert points out, if you don’t recognise yourself as such, you won’t be able to engage fully with your creative self and all you have to offer the world out there. Say it, and say it with wholehearted belief, loud and proud. I am a writer/[fill in the blank with whatever it is you are and that you do].

Done is better than Good: This one is something I’ve touched on before, but I like the way Gilbert puts it here so I’m going to bring it up again. Don’t strive for perfection because fear of perfection is what keeps so many of us creatives from actually setting out to do anything. One of the big mental blocks I’ve been experiencing lately is the fear that my new work will never be good enough because I’m not getting there yet, I can’t see the whole story yet and I think it will never be as good as my last work which I felt so excited and passionate about (and which incidentally has been met with countless rejections.) But I realise that I need to get out of this mindset and just keep working on my current WIP, whether or not I think it’s going to be some amazing perfect bestselling story. Because I don’t know yet what it’s going to be and how good it’s going to be – it may be a dud or, who knows, it may be the most fantastic thing I’ve ever written, but the thing is I won’t know until I’ve finished it. And at the end of it all, at least I would have finished something and at the very least I would have had the experience of it and then I can move on to doing something else. I wouldn’t be stuck in one static spot, never moving on, never doing anything, never practising or improving or honing my craft or giving my artistic self the chance it needs to be what it could be.

Do what you love even if you fail: One thing I love is the way Gilbert address the issue of rejection and failure in her book. And this is a big one because if you are an aspiring author, chances are you are going to (and probably already have) experience a ton of rejection. And a lot of setbacks. And, unless you’re one of the lucky few (like, say, JK Rowling or Gilbert herself), even if you’re published you’re not necessarily going to be able to make a living doing what you love best.

And so one thing Gilbert said that had me nodding and saying, “Yes!!” is that she doesn’t believe in telling people, “All you need to do is follow your passion and everything will be fine.” And I have to agree with that because for the past several years I’ve been following that mindset of “do what you love and the money will follow.”

Well, the money hasn’t followed so far. And neither has a great deal of success either.

What I have got, though, is about a gazillion rejection letters and the resultant pain and demotivation that comes with it.

Someone posted a meme the other day with the title, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” And below that: “Ate pizza, drank wine, took a 5 hour nap in my underwear and took selfies with my dog. Now I wait…”

That made me laugh out loud. And that also made me remember that I’ve been trying to do what I love for years now, spending hours working and writing and editing and sweating over my believed stories, and what does it say about me that the damn money or the success hasn’t come yet?!? And maybe never will?

Gawd, the thought alone doesn’t bear thinking about.

But somehow I found comfort and solace and a kind of encouragement in what Gilbert has to say about this. And I think it’s really important too for any number of artists/creatives/writers out there who are trying desperately do what they love and not seeing any joy from it and getting worried about whether they can make a living out of doing what they love, that they hear this too. Instead of thinking about doing what you love and worrying over whether you can make a living out of it, think instead, “what do I love doing so much that I’ll keep doing it whether or not I get anything else out of it?” Or as Gilbert says, “What are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?”

And I thought about it. And I came to the conclusion that writing is my passion. And it will always be. And even if I don’t make a living with it, I’ll still do it because it’s what makes me happy. The rejections and the failure to be published are what makes me unhappy, but now that I’m looking at it from a different angle, that’s nothing to do with my writing. That’s more to do with my ambition to be a successful, bestselling published author, but whether or not I accomplish that, it doesn’t have (or at least I won’t let it have) the power to stop me from writing. Because that’s what I love.

And so I’ll always write because I’m a writer and writing is what makes me happy.

Trust curiosity over passion: That said, rejection always carries a sting with it. And in the real world, no matter how chipper and optimistic and can-do an attitude you muster up, it can be hard moving on to a new project after you’ve worked so hard over the last one and you’re still seeing the rejection letters file through on it. In Big Magic, Gilbert offers a tip on how to keep persevering even when your passion has flagged, whether it be from the countless rejections and failures or from a mental creative block or something else. And her advice is to follow your curiosity.

[Note, when she said that, I had the image of myself following a cat around called Curiosity. And now I want to own a cat and call it Curiosity.]

As I mentioned above, I’ve been recently trying to move on to a new project. But other than that initial hit when my new story idea first came to me, I just wasn’t feeling the same fiery, starry-eyed, feeling-like-I’m-flying passion that I had for my last project, even as I continue to work steadily on it. And I couldn’t seem to dredge up that same kind of passion about a couple of other story ideas I’ve been working on too. In fact, I was starting to worry that I’ll never, never be able to feel passionate about a new story idea. That I’ve dried up and lost it even before I ever had it. And let me tell you, that was hell daunting for me. And it depressed the hell out of me.

But then I read Big Magic. And somewhere in the book, in the section titled Trust, Gilbert offers just the advice I needed for my dilemma.

Basically, she was talking about the time she was in between books. She’d already had one grand, exciting story idea but that hadn’t panned out. And now she wasn’t sure what to do with herself. No great genius brainwaves or story-ideas-straight-from-the-muse were hitting her. No brand new passion project. And as time went on, still no new ideas continued to ignite. But instead of panicking, she asked herself if there was anything she was interested in, no matter how small or mundane it was.

And so she started to garden.

At first, there was no grand plan to create a book or some exciting new creative project from this. She just began to plant flowers in her garden. She got really interested in her flowers and started to investigate where each plant came from. And bit by bit, her research into this particular subject, which started just because she found it fun and interesting, gradually grew bigger and bigger until suddenly one day she found herself sitting down to write a book about botanical explorers that eventually became The Signature of All Things. And she hadn’t even planned it that way.

So instead of panicking right now that I’m not on fire with passion for my latest project, I’m just going to keep plodding on. I’m going to write my next story, not because I think it’s going to be this big exciting magnum opus, but because it’s something that interests me for now. And it’s kind of working because as the story is continuing to evolve, I’m getting more and more interested and excited by it. It’s, as Gilbert would say, a small, slow-burning flame but it’s still a flame. And it’s gradually getting bigger and bigger.

And finally…

You’re never too old to start: This is something that also starts the panic in me, when I realise suddenly that I’m in my 30s and I still haven’t yet published a book. And I look at all the cool 20-something-year-old published writers that critics and fans are raving about and I start to feel a cold kind of despair.

But then I read Gilbert’s story about a 90-year-old woman who began studying about ancient Mesopotamia when she was 80 and became so interested in the subject that she devoted the next 10 years of her life to learning all she could about it and eventually, at the ripe age of 90, has now become the authority on the subject. And that gave me heart and the realisation that, “Hey, I’m only in my 30s. There’s still plenty of life before me and I can do whatever I set my mind to. Provided I start right away and I’m doing what I love doing.”

I could go on and on about the other awesome bits of advice I picked up from Gilbert which really helped to reignite the creative fire in me and inspire me to keep writing. But I won’t and suggest you pick up a copy of the book yourself. If you’re looking for some inspiration, if you’re looking for some motivation or some help with overcoming a creative block, if you’re looking for a sign to tell you that now’s the time to start doing what you love and keep doing it for as long as you can no matter what – then Big Magic is the book for you.

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