Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’
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.”
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.
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.
By Elizabeth Gilbert
276 pp. Riverhead Books. $24.95.