Thursday, February 4, 2016

Book Review: BIG MAGIC, CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR by Elizabeth Gilbert

This book has earned a permanent place on my desk. It keeps good company with Stephen King’s ON WRITING, and Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT series as well as a few other beloved titles. In BIG MAGIC, you will not find one lesson on grammar or usage. There's no talk of fleshing out characters, or how to rescue that ever sagging second act. This book is about the magic of ideas and the joy of choosing to live a creative life. 

Her thoughts about what ideas actually are was a little hard for me to swallow at first. But as I kept reading, I realized how right she is. Ideas, or the Muse, or the Universe, wants its stories told, its art created. After she explained how she came to believe this, I embraced her theory because I too, have had similar experiences. When I was writing what would become my first published story, I remember pausing, deciding on a word. But as I typed it, my finger twitched, hitting the wrong key. That twitch created a different word than I had intended, and ultimately, changed the entire direction of the story. I’ve also had dreams of characters and stories, and amazing synchronicities (See My Own Real Life Example of Big Magic, below). All of this, Liz says, is normal. It’s the intention of Ideas and by living a creative life, these experiences are likely to happen to you, too. 

And what about that living beyond fear part? Well, Liz climbs into your brain and lays out all of your fears about your artistic ability as well as your fears about success and failure. She then gives you a rough road map on how to live with fear. Because, unfortunately, fear is not going anywhere. But it also doesn’t have to be the loudest voice on your journey. 

Throughout the book, Liz shares many beautiful anecdotes about the joys and pitfalls of living a creative life. She talks about how artists lose and re-gain their creativity (and how you can too!) and that being blocked is a normal part of the process. She also addresses the darker side of artistry and how NOT to live a creative life. She discusses whether or not graduate school is worth the investment (Spoiler alert! The answer is, no), and the common pitfalls that lead one into the life of a ‘tortured’ artist. She also talks about treating your creativity as someone you love and respect. She writes:

“Every time you express a complaint about how difficult and tiresome it is to be creative, inspiration takes another step away from you, offended.” 

She also says you shouldn't demand your creativity to support you financially. If it does, that’s great, but if you expect too much of your creativity, it might not bother to visit. And, as she says that each of us are meant to express creativity, it would a tragedy to scare it off. 

At times, it felt like I was being beaten over the head with the same message, which almost made me stop reading, but I’m glad I didn’t. The anecdotes at the end were too funny and inspiring to miss. This is a book that will make you laugh, give you a hundred new ways to befriend your creativity, and stoke your ambition. I highly recommend BIG MAGIC, CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR.  

My own real life example of Big Magic:

Years ago, when I wrote picture books, my daughter came up with the most brilliant character name ever. That name, Carolina Carrotworks, unleashed a super-fantastic idea for a book. I rushed to my laptop and started writing. Carolina had an amazing amount of hair that could do things all by itself. And it wasn’t always well behaved. In fact, kindergarten was quite a nightmare. It was a funny story. And I was completely enchanted. When I finished, my critique partners loved it. My family loved it. And, after many revisions, I still loved it. So, I took the next step and starting drafting a query letter. 

Before I could mail it off, however, my mother-in-law called. “I need to come over,” she said. “Today.” Now, my mother-in-law lives an hour away so if she’s going to make this trip to tell me something, it was not likely to be good news. When she arrived, she looked heartbroken as she held out a book to me.

It was a picture book. With MY story in it. The one I had just finished writing the query letter for. This book had been recently released by a different author, and… it was beautiful! Oh, there were some differences, of course. But mostly, it was the same story. Even the hair color was the same (red). My first thoughts were a less polite version of, “GOLLY GEE! WELL, DARN!” 

But then I checked out the author and nearly fainted. Not only was it someone well known, but someone whose work I deeply admired.

I started to laugh. And cry. Because the Muse or Idea Goddess that talked to me also talked to other authors that I loved! So here I was, holding this book, laughing and crying and babbling about muses, and my mother-in-law, clearly thinking that her son had married a lunatic, took several steps back and reminded me that this was, in fact, a library book and that I probably shouldn’t cry on it. But holy mother of amazing! My story had made it into the world - just… not through me. 

I was a little mad, but I also saw it as a clear sign that I was on the right track towards publication. My ideas were solid. And my execution was too - as the structure and rhythm of both books were similar.

That, Elizabeth Gilbert would say, is Big Magic at work. 

I can’t help but agree.