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 bookshop in my world.

It’s the magical bookshop you see in films. There are towering piles of books everywhere. There are even ladders. The staff are friendly and helpful – should they happen to not have some obscure paper gem in stock, they’ll get it in for you.

It’s very romantic and very 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 each other as you reach for the same book.

And you talk to them.

I was crammed in the popular psychology section with a fellow book lover, when we struck up a conversation about Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book ‘Big Magic.’

The other book lover was a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert, but not of Big Magic. She’d enjoyed all of Elizabeth Gilbert’s earlier books, but was half-way through Big Magic, and not enjoying it.

She 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 before replying; “If you don’t like the style, you don’t like the style, 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, earlier, I had 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 (really enjoyed) her fascinating TED talk on your elusive creative genius, the film put me off reading her books.

I also explained to my fellow book lover how I’d come to change my mind about buying Big Magic. This change of mind 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 loved Gilbert’s TED talk, I was pleased to see she was also part of the speaker line-up.

And….Vavoom! What a speaker. I hadn’t gone to the conference for Elizabeth Gilbert, 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 for you – it’s the very best I could do”.

And if I had time, I’d explain 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 – and its for you.

I don’t have time to tell you these things, but that evening, after hearing her speak, I was discussing Gilbert’s books – none of which, at that point, I’d read – with a fellow conference attendee.

Unlike me, my fellow attendee had read all of Gilbert’s books, including Big Magic. And, unlike my fellow book lover, 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 Big Magic.

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 nano-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 of me with my hard-won science PhD that is tired of randomized controlled trials, and probabilities, and odds ratios, and structural equation modelling.

It’s the same part of me that misses the time I hoped and wished magic was real. And the same 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 fellow author Ann Patchet.

Big Magic is philosophical.

I love 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 (and I have a sneaky feeling that, when properly cared for, all our daemons are useful).

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 Aurelius 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.” (Big Magic, p.252)

You may be grossed out 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.

While there are no guarantees that if you show up you will get to dance with Queens, 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 realize that it doesn’t have to be a struggle. They courage to let our best work be fast, fun and easy. The courage to forgive ourselves over and over again. 

And the courage to embrace the deadliest critic of all – ourselves.

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. I love you. And you. 


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How to failure-proof yourself #1
How do you know if it’s true love?

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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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