A love letter to Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic”

It is fitting that I located a book on magic in a magical bookshop. Unity Books, the bookshop situated in quirky colorful High Street, Auckland – is the best book shop in my world.

It’s the magical book shop you see in films. There are towering piles of books everywhere. There are friendly learned staff. Should they happen not to have some obscure paper gem in stock, they’ll get it in for you. There are even ladders.

It’s very romantic. It’s also extremely small. There’s not a lot of room for the humans.

Which makes for a very intimate literary atmosphere.

You need to squeeze past your fellow humans. You need to murmur “excuse me”, and “sorry”. You smile at them as you reach for the same book.

And you talk to them.

I was crammed in the pop psychology section with a fellow punter, when we struck up a conversation about Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book “Big Magic”, which I was pulling off the shelf.

My fellow punter was a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert, but not of Big Magic. She’d enjoyed all of Elizabeth Gilbert’s earlier books, but she was half-way through Big Magic and not enjoying it.

My fellow punter explained: “Big Magic isn’t like her other books at all. It’s like she’s trying too hard to be hip and cool”.

I pondered.

“If you don’t like the style, you don’t like the style”, I replied, “but I heard her speak in San Francisco recently. I really don’t think she’s trying to be hip and cool. She is hip and cool.”

I explained that I had originally decided not to buy Big Magic. This was based on my dislike of the film of Gilbert’s best-selling book “Eat, pray, love”. While I had enjoyed her fascinating TED talk on your elusive creative genius, the film put me off reading any of her books.

I also explained to my fellow punter how I’d come to change my mind about buying Big Magic. This change of heart came after an up close and visceral experience of Gilbert’s speaking prowess.

I’d travelled to San Francisco to hear Gilbert’s friend, Dr. Brené Brown, speak at the Emerging Women conference. And, having heard Gilbert’s TED talk, I was pleased to see she was also part of the speaker lineup.

And….VaVoom! What a speaker. I hadn’t gone to the conference for her, but I should have.

What a delight to be in her audience. She dazzles.

She is very hip and very cool.

If I had time I’d tell you about how she catches her amethyst-butterfly-book-ideas and transmogrifies them into clunky wooden butterflies, held together with sticky tape, and offers them to you – “Look what I made. Its the very best I could do”.

If I had time I’d tell you about how she refuses to take responsibility for her creative failures. Failure isn’t her fault. If she’d known at the time how to do it better, she would have done so. But she didn’t know. And this creation, this wonky wooden butterfly, is her very best work from that time.

I don’t have time to tell you these things, but that evening, after hearing her speak, I was discussing Gilbert’s books with a fellow conference attendee.

My fellow attendee had read all of Gilbert’s books including Big Magic, and, unlike my fellow bookshop punter, she liked all of them. But my fellow attendee did agree that Big Magic was different. It was written differently. Unlike her other books, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote Big Magic like she speaks.

That was the moment I decided to buy the book.

I LOVE LOVE LOVE how Elizabeth Gilbert speaks.

So, skip forward a few months. I’ve just finished reading the book.

I give Big Magic five out of five stars

It’s not a perfect amethyst butterfly of a book. It would however be perfect with a bit more editing (specifically, a reduction in parenthetic-abuse).

Ironically, I have been profoundly guilty of this punctuation crime myself. However, after either editing my own work more objectively after a decent time-lapse, or reading the work of others who have also abused the innocent parentheses, it has become clear to me how parentheses almost always unnecessarily interrupt the flow of words.

Attention Liz Gilbert. I, Rebecca Stafford, would be beyond honoured to be your sub-editor on your next creation. Just puttin’ it out there.

My parenthetic complaint is a quibble. I give Big Magic five stars for many reasons.

Big Magic is charming and funny.

Gilbert shares with Brené Brown an opinion that unused creativity is destructive. She gives advice on how to constructively channel your creativity so, unlike a bored and restless Border Collie dog, you don’t eat the couch.

Big Magic is, well….magical.

There’s a part of me that adores this. The part that is tired of randomised controlled trials, and probabilities, and odds ratios, and structural equation modelling.

It’s also the part of me that misses the time when I hoped and wished magic was real. And the part of me that has experienced things that science can’t yet explain.

So make sure you don’t miss the magical bit in the book where a neglected story jumps ship during a kiss between Gilbert and author Ann Patchet.

Big Magic is philosophical.

I love it that, apparently, the ancient Greek word for the ultimate human happiness is eudaimonia, which translates as well-daemoned. A timely reminder to take better care of my more useful demons.

Big Magic is inspirational.

In exploring philosophies on creativity through the ages, Gilbert has inspired and reminded me to do further reading on philosophers, writers, and poets from Marcus Auralius to Ann Patchett to Clive James.

Big Magic is pure delight.

Where else are you going to read, “Without [wonder], I will forever wander the world in a state of bottomless dissatisfaction – […] trapped in a body made of slowly deteriorating meat.” (p.252)

You may be grossed out – like Gorgeous Man – rather than delighted – like me – by this mortality-reminder. But let me assure you that, in addition to such delightfully gross phrases being very few, I’m confident you will be charmed by the ultimate magical tale of the mediaeval lobster.

The moral of the (lobster’s) tail is that when you have the courage to show up, you may just get to dance with Queens.

There are no guarantees that if you show up you will definitely get to dance with Queens.

But you are 100% guaranteed that you won’t get to dance with a real Queen if you pick up your orange home-made lobster tail and run from the mediaeval court themed fancy-dress ball.

And that’s what I believe Big Magic is mainly about. Courage.

Courage to create in the face of no guarantees. Courage to persist creatively in the face of criticism. Courage to ignore the haters. Courage to hear the constructive criticism.

The courage to persist despite the struggle. The courage to realise that it doesn’t have to be a struggle.

And the courage to insist on being banker when you are playing poker with the deadliest critic of all – yourself.

Big Magic helps me feel more courageous, and I’ll take all the courage I can get.

I’m keeping my highlighted copy of Big Magic close at hand – in the extremely likely event of courage emergencies.

Cheers Elizabeth Gilbert.

 

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What do you think? Have you read Big Magic? If so – what do you think of it? If not – does my review inspire or ‘out-spire’ you to read it? I’d love to know your opinion. Please comment below.

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