Big Magic Summary

Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magic

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Big Magic Summary

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Big Magic: Creative Living Behind Fear (2015), a self-help book by Elizabeth Gilbert, is Gilbert’s attempt to elucidate a philosophical program through which an individual can act well on his or her creative impulses. The book blends references from pop culture with positive aphorisms about life to convey Gilbert’s method, recounting how coming to learn it has helped her succeed in her creative endeavors.

Gilbert asserts that her entire life has been dedicated to creativity. She traces her current ability to create to the formation of a belief system and way of working that starts with the conception of creativity as serendipitous or spontaneous, for which she uses the word “magical.” Acknowledging that this is not the most rational way to understand a human value, she states that she does not fully believe in the process or didacticism of science.

Elaborating, Gilbert believes ideas are organic and animated as are plants and animals. Like the plant or animal, she conceives of the idea as a separate entity that interacts with us, having its own consciousness and will to existence. Further, she states that human collaboration is the act that gives rise to the manifestation of an idea. She models this phenomenon as an act of possession, using the imagery of a ghost “swirling around” for “eternity,” waiting for a human host.

Next, she gives a diagnosis for the problem of the uninspired person. She posits that uninspired people merely are distracted by their anxieties and insecurities, blocking out the ideas that are searching for hosts. The uninspired person misses various signals that the ideas are out there, because they are busy with mundane activities, such as shopping, or engaged in pointless emotional cycles. She argues that it is critical to notice ideas, for if they realize they are unable to get in, they will move on to look for a new host. However, if an individual notices an idea, he or she is then given an ultimatum between accepting and rejecting it.

Breaking down how this ultimatum can go, Gilbert describes the process of rejecting an idea. Explicitly saying “no,” the simplest answer, is the easiest way to make an idea disappear. She says that the choice to say no can be either lazy or responsible, depending on the motives behind it. Here, she personifies the idea, stating that it is important to decline one with politeness and thoughtfulness rather than abrasiveness or contempt. She treats this personified idea like a completely neutral organism, driven by the singular desire to be heard and realized. Finally, she laments that most people choose to say “no” to almost every idea in their lives.

Gilbert proposes taking the alternative path: saying “yes.” At the moment of accepting an idea, Gilbert argues that one enters a contract with it and must try one’s best to see it to fruition, whatever that may mean. She opposes the stereotype of the suffering idea-maker, borrowing from the trope of the tormented artist, and treats artists going through a difficult time with overt disdain. She decomposes the stereotype into several beliefs that she then rejects as trite, voluntary, and invalid. She sarcastically endorses a list of supposedly “voluntary” conditions that fit the stereotype, including alcoholism, depression and anxiety, apathy, jealousy, and low self-esteem. She then argues that the conditions induced by this “method” can prove fatal.

Yet, Gilbert offers a path to redemption, arguing that breaking from this stereotype is an easy matter of will. She gives directions for how to do so, saying that one must treat ideas with curiosity and respect rather than resistance and dread. She believes also that one can clear out the mental obstacles that impede creativity and personal growth. Further, she endorses the nourishing of personal relationships and the distancing of oneself from the unnecessary social dramas, which mostly happen in the head. Finally, she argues that one can isolate the “demons” that impede growth, and fend them off using prayer or therapy. Treating emotional problems with little sympathy, she arrives at a somewhat existentialist definition of what it means to be a human in a complex world.

Gilbert concludes by redefining the individual’s relationship to inspiration, not as a master-slave relationship, but rather, as a partnership evolving towards an undefined and abstract goal. Though this goal may never be reached, and in fact, the creative person may never make money from his or her endeavors, the real purpose of a creative mindset is to live happily and passionately. Thus, Gilbert conceives of creativity as primarily a state of mind that is nourished and guided by the individual and not beholden to external perceptions or judgments.