Anyone who's ever written a literary work might have heard this advice: Find readers to give feedback on your work, but best not to get feedback from other writers. The thinking is that if the work is brilliant, you'll depress them. Also, if it's purely bad, you'll depress them.
But maybe the people who give out this advice have never met Elizabeth Gilbert. Her latest book, Big Magic, tackles the challenges of living the creative life. And with her trademark relentless candor, Gilbert seems determined to give away all the protected trade secrets. Reading it is a little like having a coach by your side, cheering on your efforts – whatever they are – candidly and selflessly.
The first generous thing Gilbert does here – not having seen the memo that artists are competitive – is to demystify the artistic process. It is clear that Gilbert understands inspiration, and that she understands depression: Readers of "Eat, Pray, Love" will recall an episode where she goes off the antidepressants in favor of pure Italian sunshine and antipasti.
But here, Gilbert has no patience for the dramatics. "Fear is Boring" proclaims one chapter. Let's not get "all La Boheme" about this, she yawns. And the Tortured Artist? No.
Instead, a big part of Gilbert’s premise is to advise creators to go "lightly.” It’s OK to enjoy art and life. Be a "trickster," she urges, not a "martyr."
So, if not drinking too much or having nervous breakdowns, then, what is an an artist to do? Simply say yes, Gilbert seems to advise. Show up, work hard, and leave your windows open to inspiration.
At this inspirational point, readers will recall that a big part of "Eat, Pray, Love" is the prayer. And, similarly, a big part of "Big Magic," is the magic. Writing – like life, death, and everything in between – for Gilbert, is spiritual. Intangible ideas, for her, are animated with their own life force. Inspiration will choose you, save you, and occasionally abandon you.
In a small section titled "WTF," Gilbert explains that one of her big ideas for a novel came to her, and then willfully left her, after she ignored it, at which time it moved on to inhabit the mind of Ann Patchett. Seriously.
Another favorite piece of advice: Don’t worry about what people think of your work. And here’s the brilliant reason why: Everyone’s too focused on themselves to notice you anyway. Problem solved!
As a writer, Gilbert is nothing if not clever. And she always brings a strong, compelling tone and voice to her work. But here the insights don't always come with enough information or context to hold up the premises. Gilbert – a champion wordsmith – wants us to take her word for it.
Where in many nonfiction narratives, it's easy to feel like you're wading through the moralizing to get to the engaging personal stories; here, readers encounter that formula inverted. This is Extreme Anecdote – Gilbert is the X Gamester of personal insights – with only the occasional outside fact punctuating the narrative.
Gilbert briefly references writers and historical figures – Laurence Sterne, Marcus Aurelius, Einstein. But these glimpses only illuminate the missed opportunity here, to apply Gilbert’s gift for original insight to a lively interpretation of biographical history on her chosen topic – surviving the creative life – and providing real context to back up the riffs.
"Big Magic" reminds me of an NPR commentaries editor who used to advise writers that if they turn in a piece with ideas she and her friends could come up with off the cuff, say, sitting around the kitchen table, they haven't done their job. Commentary needs to provide insights, perspective, and more than what one says to girlfriends off the top of one’s head.
Still, this is Elizabeth Gilbert. The one and only, and the ultimate girlfriend: A formidably smart, original woman pouring her heart out to you. And doing everything she can to save your creative life.