Elizabeth Gilbert is cast as an infallible, Oprah-like character as often as a snake oil saleswoman peddling enlightenment. Even after I read Eat, Pray, Love — admittedly a few years late, and only after I saw the movie — I was in the near-empty camp of people who neither scorn nor sermonize the gospel according to Gilbert. I didn't count the days until her next book was released — or the one after that. I was ignorant of her career's progression until coincidence (or the universe) stepped in.
When, by chance, I watched Gilbert's TED Talk on creativity and the nature of genius, I realized an early copy of Big Magic had been nestled amongst the detritus on my desk for over a week. Picking it up was a matter of accident and timing — what I now know Ms. Gilbert would call "creative forces of enchantment." And that choice — that sequence of seemingly meaningless, possibly unconnected events — is what led to this story.
It also happens to exemplify the phenomenon that gave the book its name: Big Magic. Having experienced those forces for myself enables me to say with more conviction than I've had since I was twelve (and assumed everything I wrote was divinely inspired), that those seemingly unconnected events are connected. They have meaning.
I choose to believe that our creative lives, like our lives in general, are defined by the choices we make; by the chances we take, or don't take; and by the way we respond to the unknown. This book has reaffirmed that belief in more ways than I can count — though if I tallied up the notes graffitiing the margins, you'd get an idea.
What Big Magic shares with Eat, Pray, Love is an arc of transformation and liberation, being stuck and getting unstuck, looking fear in the face and holding firmly to your convictions. But that's about it. It's a wholly unique experience.
Rather than tell you how you'll feel, though, I'll share a few of my most significant takeaways from Big Magic and let you draw your own conclusions. If they trigger a creative impulse or encourage you to give an abandoned project another go, know that the book has exponentially more where that came from. But if, say, you find you're too busy writing your book to finish reading this one, I think we can agree it's served its purpose.
1. To embrace and express the fullness of your potential, you must be brave.
It might sound obvious, but it's something most of us don't do. We've all experienced fear. But being afraid and choosing to do the thing that scares us anyway is what separates who we are from the version of ourselves we hope most to become. Elizabeth quotes the poet Jack Gilbert (whose captivating story is told in greater detail in the book): "Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes."
2. The phrase "creative living" applies to everyone.
It's not only poets or painters or photographers who can live creatively. We all have some sort of gift, some passion buried inside us. Living creatively means committing to the pursuit of uncovering yours. That we have something worth sharing is a foregone conclusion. "The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them."
3. "When courage dies, creativity dies with it."
With startling poetry, Gilbert spells out the relationship between fear and creativity: "Fear is a desolate boneyard where our dreams go to desiccate in the hot sun. This is common knowledge; sometimes we just don't know what to do about it." So, how do we overcome that crippling fear and start to fulfill our purpose? She's got an answer for that, too.
4. The only way to realize your potential is to be consistently motivated more by curiosity than fear.
It doesn't matter what you feel moved to pursue, create, or explore. What matters is that you do it. Embrace the thing that allows you to "unfold a certain beauty and transcendence in [your] life that [you] cannot access in any other manner." The goal? To "spend as much time as possible in such a state of transcendence while [we are] still here on earth." And fear does not have the right to keep us from it.
5. You must make space for both creativity and fear, but only be guided by one.
Fear is an evolutionary necessity to protect us from very real dangers. You will never stop feeling fear, and you shouldn't try. "Bravery means doing something scary. Fearlessness means not even understanding what the word scary means." The important thing is to recognize that you don't need fear when you're being creative. This is easier said than done, for one obvious reason.
6. "Your fear will always be triggered by creativity." They are inexorably intertwined.
"Creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcomes." In horror movies, the villain is at his most menacing before he is unmasked. The unknown is always more frightening than the known.
Turning off your fear requires you not to venture into that creative space — that space where uncertainty becomes possibility, and possibility can blossom into creation. The solution our author provides is simple: Acknowledge your fear. Say, "You're allowed to have a seat, and you're allowed to have a voice, but you're not allowed to have a vote."
7. "Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest... [And] they will always try to seek the swiftest and most efficient conduit to the earth."
It's easy to feel like inspiration is eluding you — like an idea wants to play hide and seek, when you just want to force it into a chair and get it talking. But "the only way an idea can be made manifest is through collaboration with a human partner." That means you're a creative team. It's not a giant to be felled or a shadow to be caught. It's a quiet, unassuming friend you don't always pay attention to.
Tuning into the little signs from the universe that we usually brush off, the moments of kismet that give us goosebumps, is what's expected of us. That's how we tell inspiration that we're open, ready, and willing to "cooperate fully, humbly, and joyfully." Before it moves on to a more responsive vessel.
8. Those rare moments of being carried on the wings of an idea (rather than doing the hard work yourself) are the exception, not the rule.
Gilbert describes this as her version of perfect happiness. "In Greek, the word for the highest degree of human happiness is eudaimonia, which basically means 'well-daemoned.' The Greeks and Romans believed in a daemon of creativity... who sometimes aided you in your labors. Your genius — your guardian deity, the conduit of your inspiration."
To think of genius as something separate from ourselves creates a greater sense of responsibility to do the grinding, time-consuming work of creating, whether we have its help or not. To personify genius also protects us from being overly self-congratulatory in the face of success, and from the crippling effects failure can have on self-esteem.
These insights barely scratch the surface of the inspiration, motivation, relief, and comfort for the artist in this book. It doesn't matter what you want to do with your life. If you want your creativity and passion to be put to their best possible uses, consider this book a primer.
For more on harnessing your creativity, start here: