Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’

Audrey Niffenegger

Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” sold 10 million copies and became the kind of cultural touchstone that makes its author famous, wealthy and controversial. To the book’s fans, including Oprah Winfrey and Julia Roberts (who starred in the movie adaptation), Gilbert’s tale of overcoming a bad divorce and deep depression by traveling to Italy, India and Indonesia in search of pleasure, devotion and balance felt like an authentic and moving search for happiness and enlightenment. To her critics, many of whom never even read it, “Eat, Pray, Love” was a cannily constructed narrative with a pat happy ending that preached personal satisfaction as the highest goal, one you could attain by throwing money around, especially in the third world.

But “Eat, Pray, Love” was published almost a decade ago, and Gilbert has spent the years since doing her best to become, once again, an author instead of a cultural phenomenon. She first wrote “Committed,” a kind of sequel, in which she percolated on the subject of marriage while making peace with marrying Felipe, the hunky Brazilian from “Eat, Pray, Love” (played, appropriately enough, by Javier Bardem in the movie). Her next book was the well-received novel “The Signature of All Things,” a period page-turner about a 19th-century female botanist, which, on a sentence level especially, served as a reminder that Gilbert had been a finalist for a National Book Award long before “Eat, Pray, Love” made her a household name.

Her follow-up to the follow-up to the follow-up is “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear,” and it returns to the self-­actualizing territory of “Eat, Pray, Love.” “Big Magic” wants to help its readers live creatively, which does not necessarily mean “pursuing a life that is professionally or exclusively devoted to the arts,” but “living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” If you want to write or act or paint, this book wants to help you do that. But if you want to take figure skating lessons, learn to draw or build model airplanes, this book wants to help you do that too.

“Eat, Pray, Love” was a memoir, the story of a personal journey understood by many readers as a guide to greater contentment, to the point that “Eat, Pray, Love” tourism — literally following in Gilbert’s footsteps — briefly became a boom industry. “Big Magic,” by contrast, is an out-and-out self-help book, providing instructions on how to live a life as creative as Gilbert’s. “Eat, Pray, Love” was a deeply personal work, taken to be universal. “Big Magic” is a manual with universal aspirations that feels narrowly personal, a crash course in the mental habits of the highly effective person named Elizabeth Gilbert.

“Big Magic” is broken into six sections: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust and Divinity. Gilbert wonders in the first, “Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you? . . . The hunt to uncover those jewels — that’s creative living.” If the creativity inside of you has not burrowed deeper than ever before upon hearing itself referred to as a “treasure” and “jewels,” it is more stalwart than mine. But Gilbert spends much of the book coaxing out even the shyest creativity with a kind of extended pep talk: Creativity is inside all of us, it should be expressed, and it is not selfish or crazy or foolish to do so — it is, in fact, the best way to live a satisfying life. Gilbert’s advice reads like a positive fortune cookie: a nice surprise you will forget once the taste of won tons has faded from your mouth. Creativity is “your birthright as a human being”; “Even if you grew up watching cartoons in a sugar stupor from dawn to dusk, creativity still lurks within you”; “You are not required to save the world with your creativity.”

It is on the subject of how to foster one’s creativity that Gilbert parts with pabulum and dives into something more mystical and mystifying. Gilbert believes that ideas have agency. “Ideas have no ma­teri­al body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will,” she writes. When this idea “finally realizes that you’re oblivious to its message, it will move on to someone else,” but sometimes, “the idea, sensing your openness, will start to do its work on you.” Gilbert

The Best Essay Writing Service - EssayBox.org

does not appear to be using this as a helpful metaphor, though she invites her readers to do so if that’s what it takes for the magical mumbo jumbo to go down. As proof of the agency of ideas, she tells a story about an idea she had for a novel set in the Amazon that she neglected for so many years that it left her — and took up residence with her friend the novelist Ann Patchett. Gilbert also suggests that an idea about Ozzy Osbourne and his zany family visited her once, but after she ignored it, it graced MTV instead.

This philosophy of creativity, in which ideas have willpower and are delivered to patient human beings in the correct state of mind, is a diluted riff on the “law of attraction” outlined in Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret,” another Oprah-anointed self-help book (and movie), in which “positive thinking” is said to attract positive outcomes. You get back the vibes you put out into the world. (New Age-y as this sounds, it also jibes with certain strands of religious belief, in which good fortune is visited upon the deserving.) Gilbert is not suggesting, as “The Secret” does, that the right attitude will fend off bankruptcy and cure cancer. But imagining that ideas have a will of their own is a cute way of getting to feel blessed by a higher power when one is inspired — at the expense of turning ideas into judgmental gatekeepers, darting around in the atmosphere, eschewing anyone who isn’t inclined to be chipper and cheerful, as if no one with a bad attitude ever deserved to make stuff too.

In broad strokes, “Big Magic” constitutes good advice. Find some time in your life to do something you really enjoy, for no reason other than you really enjoy it. Not a bad fortune cookie. But in explaining how to go about accomplishing this, Gilbert keeps running into an unexpected problem: her own seemingly pristine habits of mind. The woman that emerges in “Big Magic” shares a voice — charming, personable, self-aware, jokey and conversational in the extreme — with the narrator of “Eat, Pray, Love,” but she does not seem to share any of her neuroses.

In the chapter on fear, Gilbert writes, “The only reason I can speak so authoritatively about fear is that I know it so intimately,” referring to a childhood in which she was terrified of everything from the telephone to board games. But Gilbert goes on to say that an effective way to curtail fear is to give it a speech like this: “Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. . . . But understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way. . . . Dude, you are not even allowed to touch the radio.” Does your fear respond to being spoken to so reasonably? Because it seems to me that fear’s inability to respond to reason, or to the honorific “Dude,” is one of its signal characteristics. It’s not rational — it’s scared.

Throughout “Big Magic,” Gilbert glosses over the hardest parts of creative living — not just being terrified, but handling rejection and doubt, and doing the work no matter what. These are all things that, God bless her, seem to come pretty easily to Elizabeth Gilbert. (She got over fear as a teenager when she “realized that my fear was boring.”) Gilbert explains, in passing, that even without inspiration, she sits down and works — this is how she expresses her openness to the universe. Gilbert makes her work ethic seem, at worst, like an afterthought and, at best, like magic’s equal partner, when it is the essential ingredient. This amounts to a kind of false humility; it soft-pedals the tough stuff that Gilbert does so well, to accentuate the magic she has little control over. It is much harder to emulate Gilbert’s devotion and implacable self-​­confidence than to say aloud, “I’m a writer,” as she suggests you do, and expect that upon “hearing this announcement, your soul will mobilize accordingly.”

By Elizabeth Gilbert

276 pp. Riverhead Books. $24.95.

Willa Paskin is the television critic at Slate.

A version of this review appears in print on September 20, 2015, on Page BR13 of theSunday Book Reviewwith the headline: Crash Course.


Category: Review

Similar articles: