Book Review: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

“Shake yourself free of all your cumbersome ideas about what you require in order to become ‘creatively legitimate’… You do not need a permission slip from the principal’s office to live a creative life. Or if you do worry that you need a permission slip—THERE, I just gave it to you… Now go make something.”

I love a bit of self-improvement, and have set myself several goals in the positivity/wellness department over the summer. I’ve often seen Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert (the author of Eat, Pray, Love) raved about in the health/vegan/wellness world and I’ve always wondered what makes it so good that everyone finds it life changing. Well, I don’t think my life has been changed. I don’t feel like a creative portal has opened inside me and ideas are flooding in. If anything, I feel patronised. I can see why most people don’t fall for this new-age hippie spiel.

The book is split into six sections – Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, Divinity – and to be honest, half the time her subject matter splays far beyond these parameters. She defines being creative as literally doing anything as long as you enjoy it. The pages are full of dramatic and *powerful* statements like this, big, sweeping generalisations which while sound lovely on paper, don’t translate into real life well. Does this mean doing squats is creative? As much as I love doing squats – and exercise in general – I’d argue for a very solid no. Does this mean drinking yourself into oblivion because you love a beer is creative? Again, no.

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I feel like it’ll be good for people that believe in divine intervention or are religious, purely because Gilbert believes that ideas are living beings (with no physical form) that float around and find people, but leave if you take to long to execute them. I mean, really? This concept was a turning point for me – while I can totally get on board with most new-age ideas this one really struck a nerve.

I often got distracted while reading – her writing style and voice just doesn’t command attention. She also is quite self-indulgent and narcissistic; she doesn’t stick to her ideas, often changing her mind about them within a few pages. She’ll also cite “friends” as official sources, without any facts, figures or evaluation of the concept she’s considering. It’s word vomit. Because several influencers (I hate that word) I admire have this on their must-read lists, I thought it was going to be great and informative and inspiring, but I just felt inadequate and patronised. I didn’t want to keep reading.

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While I feel that Gilbert did have good intentions when writing this, I don’t think any of her big points are well-explained, but I can appreciate her point that authenticity should be a focus of any creative work you do. Yet she somehow seems to disregard originality – but is is creative if it isn’t original? When she speaks of her childhood, she says how she used to be scared of everything – water, leaving the house – and that she had a mother who forced her into doing everything she feared, and suddenly, she wasn’t scared anymore! She writes as though this is a feeling and experience everyone can relate to – but it very much isn’t. I think that’s what bothered me the most about this book – that she believes that because she did whatever she wanted, everyone else can too. Unfortunately for the rest of us mere mortals, we can’t all write a best-selling self-help book about our travels and rake in the royalties for the rest of our lives.

If you want to read a scathing review of this book, read Zoe Williams’ piece for The Guardian. She communicates my thoughts better than I ever could.