Pen and Tell Her
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert really wants you to just do your thing. “You want to write a book?” she asks in her own new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear:
Make a song? Direct a movie? Decorate pottery? Learn a dance? Explore a new land? You want to draw a penis on your wall? Do it. Who cares? It’s your birthright as a human being, so do it with a cheerful heart. (I mean, take it seriously, sure — but don’t take it seriously.) Let inspiration lead you wherever it wants to lead you. Keep in mind that for most of history people just made things, and they didn’t make such a big freaking deal about it.
Big Magic is dedicated to helping us follow our inspiration, wherever it leads us; the only thing Gilbert makes a big freaking deal about is identifying and overcoming the obstacles that prevent us. Its tone at once chummy and bracing, its approach relentlessly positive, Big Magic packages common-sense advice with Gilbert’s own idiosyncratic brand of magical thinking to convince us that a truly creative life is within reach for us all. “Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?” asks Gilbert; you’d have to be immune to her considerable charm, as well as stubbornly resistant to her book’s uplifting message, to finish Big Magic saying anything but “I do!” That’s certainly what I said — though not, perhaps, with quite the results Gilbert intended.
Gilbert defines a creative life as one “that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” Our biggest challenge, then, is staring down all the things we are afraid of. Gilbert’s list of these will be familiar to most aspiring artists: “You’re afraid you have no talent,” for example;
You’re afraid you’ll be rejected or criticized or ridiculed or misunderstood or — worst of all — ignored. . . .
You’re afraid somebody else already did it better.
You’re afraid everybody else already did it better. . . .
You’re afraid your work isn’t politically, emotionally, or artistically important enough to change anyone’s life. . . .
These fears are familiar to Gilbert too. “I’ve been a frightened person my entire life,” she tells us; in fact, as a child she was so timid her father nicknamed her “Pitiful Pearl.” What liberated her was realizing that all this fear was not just inhibiting but boring:
My fear was a song with only one note — only one word, actually — and that word was “STOP!” My fear never had anything more interesting or subtle to offer than that one emphatic word, repeated at full volume on an endless loop: “STOP, STOP, STOP, STOP!”
“Everyone’s song of fear has exactly that same tedious lyric,” she observes, so being afraid doesn’t make us special or interesting. Above all, it doesn’t let us be creative: “when courage dies, creativity dies with it.” We can’t make the fear go away altogether, but if we can learn, as she has, to live with it, then at least we can get on with our creative lives.
It’s not enough to be unafraid, though: what we really need, Gilbert argues, is to feel “entitled,” a word she admits has negative connotations but which she wants to “appropriate” to mean “a good kind of arrogance.” Too often, she says, we feel that we need permission to express ourselves artistically. Adding to our own inhibitions are “the guardians of high culture,” who try to convince us “that the arts belong only to a chosen few.” “They are wrong,” she asserts, “and they are also annoying. We are all the chosen few. We are all makers by design.” Creativity is our birthright:
You and I and everyone you know are descended from tens of thousands of years of makers. Decorators, tinkerers, storytellers, dancers, explorers, fiddlers, drummers, builders, growers, problem-solvers, and embellishers — these are our common ancestors.
“Merely by being here,” she insists, “you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.” So just do it: “go make something.”
Gilbert’s advice to just get on with it, without excuses or apologies, is rousing but also commonsensical to the point of banality. It’s good, sometimes even vital, to hear that kind of positive message, and Gilbert has a winningly down-to-earth style, but there’s really nothing surprising or original about any of it. Gilbert’s theory about how ideas work, on the other hand, is fairly strange. “Here is what I choose to believe about how creativity functions,” she tells us:
I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us — albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.
We don’t have ideas, in other words: they have us, and if we don’t live up to their needs and expectations — if we don’t commit completely to fulfilling them — they’ll move on, as she proposes happened to her idea for a novel “about a middle-aged spinster from Minnesota who’s been quietly in love with her married boss for many years”:
He gets involved in a harebrained business scheme down in the Amazon jungle. A bunch of money and a person go missing, and my character gets sent down there to solve things, at which point her quiet life is completely turned into chaos. Also, it’s a love story.
Gilbert never finished that novel, but Ann Patchett did; Gilbert believes that the idea for the novel transferred itself to Patchett on the day the two authors first met, though not a word was said about it. “And that, my friends,” pronounces Gilbert, “is Big Magic.” It’s a pleasantly kooky way of explaining a coincidence that could no doubt be parsed into more conventional intelligibility with the right information. But if it’s motivating to believe that your idea will leave you if you don’t pay enough attention to it, where’s the harm?
Not all of Gilbert’s underlying premises are so innocuous, though. Her protest against perfectionism, for instance, starts out reasonably enough by identifying perfectionism as just another manifestation of fear: “perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, ‘I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.’” Fair enough. But she goes on,
We must understand that the drive for perfectionism is a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism. . . . At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it as is — if only so that you can go on to make other things with a glad and determined heart.
Which is the entire point.
Or should be.
Wait, what? Her “entire point” is to encourage everyone to be creative. But is the entire point of creativity really just to get something, anything, out there, “as is”? Gilbert certainly thinks so. “Done is better than good,” she proclaims; “you may want your work to be perfect …. I just want mine to be finished.” Don’t bother interrupting what she proudly calls “the Song of the Disciplined Half-Ass” with cavils about aspiring to excellence: it turns out that along with the all-purpose permission slip she offers us comes an injunction against judgment or evaluation. And that’s where, for me, Gilbert loses her magic.
It actually took longer than I expected for me to turn against her. I am usually a self-help skeptic, but I picked up Big Magic in the first place because I was feeling a little discouraged about my writing and I wondered if it would inspire me. It did — but in a paradoxical way: the further I read in Gilbert’s book, the more I wanted to argue with it, to respond to it, to review it. Criticism is my thing, after all, not decorating pottery or drawing penises on the wall. But it turns out that Gilbert’s approach to creativity shuts down the very conversations I value most: for her, criticism is not a form of creativity but antithetical to it. As a result, she ends up doing a disservice to the art that her book purports to celebrate — art which in my opinion deserves to be taken seriously, even seriously.
Big Magic conveniently provides a perfect example of the difference between our two approaches — not just in theory, but in practice. “In my most recent novel, The Signature of All Things,” Gilbert tells us,
there is an unfortunately underdeveloped character. She is rather egregiously improbable (I believe, anyhow), and her presence is little more than a convenience to the plot. . . . To solve the problems of this character, I would’ve had to dismantle the entire novel back down to the early chapters and start over — and in rebuilding the story so radically, I feared I might end up destroying a book that was already done, and that was already good enough.
And so she “let it go,” releasing her “admittedly imperfect” book into the world, where it got “some good reviews, some bad reviews, some indifferent reviews.” But none of them really mattered: “A whole bunch of people had some opinions about my novel for a short while, and then everyone moved on.” They especially didn’t matter to Gilbert herself, because
that work was finished, and it was time for me to shift my attention to something new — something that would also, someday, be released as good enough. This is how I’ve always done it, and this is how I will keep doing it, so long as I am able.
Because that is the anthem of my people.
That is the Song of the Disciplined Half-Ass.
As it happens, one of those people with opinions about The Signature of All Things was me: I reviewed it here in Open Letters Monthly. My review was mixed: I appreciated the ambitious scope of the novel but thought it was poorly executed and thematically incoherent. I suppose on balance, then, mine was one of the “bad reviews,” but I certainly didn’t toss off my opinions lightly before moving on. I assumed Gilbert had put everything she had into her novel and that it was my responsibility to take her writing seriously in return — to read and think as hard as I was capable of, and then to be scrupulous in reporting my conclusions. It never occurred to me to approach The Signature of All Things as a novel that wasn’t intended to be anything more than “good enough.” I’m not sure I know how — or even whether — to review work by a self-proclaimed “half-ass” … but here I am, doing it again.
At least now I know. And as a result, Gilbert’s next book is quite safe from me, because it offends me as a reader, as well as a critic, that Gilbert can’t be bothered to make her books better. Sure, as she says, literary judgments can all seem “wildly subjective.” The specific flaw she perceived in The Signature of All Things is not the same one other readers detected; it’s not one of the features of the novel that I objected to. But it’s something she felt, by her own standards, was not well done — and rather than fix it, she shrugged it off. “I feel that she is giving me everything she’s got,” the great literary critic Wayne Booth says about Anne Tyler’s unassuming novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant — that earns her his reader’s trust. Gilbert broke that bond with me when she admitted she didn’t really care — not about my review (which she is well within her rights to ignore) but about the book she gave me to read.
I understand that as a cheerleader for universal creativity, Gilbert has to set herself against gatekeeping, but inspiration needn’t rule out aspiration. And while the perfect may be the enemy of the good, “good enough” is the handmaiden of deliberate mediocrity. Exhibit A:
I like that James Franco takes whatever acting job he wants …. because he recognizes that it doesn’t all have to earn him an Oscar nomination — and I like that, between acting gigs, he also pursues his interests in art, fashion, academia, and writing. (Is his extracurricular creativity any good? I don’t care! I just like that the dude does whatever he wants.)
The problem is not that (or whether) she overestimates Franco’s talent — it’s that she explicitly doesn’t care if his work is any good. She champions a kindergarten model of creative success: anything you make, however sloppy, haphazard, and unskilled, deserves a place on the wall of fame! But we stop applauding children for making anything at all once we (and they) realize it’s time to acknowledge there’s more to art than unthinking self-expression — that there’s an adult version of creativity, one that reaches beyond the solipsistic gratification of doing whatever you want. “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp,” as Browning’s Andrea del Sarto says, “or what’s a heaven for?”
Gilbert’s overt hostility to the very idea of artistic standards only makes sense if you think the creative process is more important than the created product — that the experience matters more than the art. And that is her view, it seems. “I’d had a thrilling intellectual and emotional experience writing The Signature of All Things,” she tells us,
and the merits of that creative adventure were mine to keep forever. Those four years of my life had been wonderfully well spent. . . . I would not trade a minute of that encounter for anything.
As she sees it, her primary responsibility is to herself, and her personal priority is feeling good, not bad (a long section of Big Magic is devoted to debunking the myth of the Tormented Artist). But are happy indifference and miserable martyrdom the only options? And is there nothing beyond our own feelings to which we might want to hold ourselves accountable? “It would hurt like hell,” says Harriet Vane in Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night, when Lord Peter Wimsey advises her “to abandon the jig-saw kind of story and write about human beings for a change.” “What would that matter,” replies Lord Peter, “if it made a good book?”
Gilbert doesn’t see the point in suffering for art because she thinks art itself is fundamentally useless — and therefore not worth taking seriously (sorry, seriously). “You would be hard-pressed,” she says blithely, “to identify a job that is not more objectively valuable to society than mine”:
Name a profession, any profession: teacher, fireman, custodian, roofer, rancher, security guard, political lobbyist, sex worker, even the ever-meaningless “consultant” — each is infinitely more essential to the smooth maintenance of the human community than any novelist ever was, or ever will be.
If you are “one of those people who believe that the arts are the most serious and important thing in the world,” begone! Because Gilbert not only doesn’t agree, but she relishes her “total frivolousness.” Again, there’s some truth to her position: art reduced to overt utilitarianism is a sorry spectacle, and the freedom to play is a wonderful thing. But I disagree profoundly with her conclusion that art is therefore without value to society — that it’s all “just decoration.”
There are other problems with Big Magic. One that particularly bothered me — and that returns us to the difference between good enough and as good as possible — is that there is a body of actual research on some of the topics she addresses, such as the relationship between creativity and depression or other mental illnesses. Big Magic doesn’t so much as mention it, though: its treatment of all of its topics consists entirely of Gilbert opining based on personal experience and anecdote. Should entitlement — that “good kind of arrogance” — really extend quite so far into matters of fact? The style of the book is also almost flamboyantly colloquial and the structure is loose and often repetitive: it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Big Magic was written in one draft, with much enthusiasm but no editing, before being launched into the world “as is.”
Big Magic didn’t need to be any better, of course: Gilbert’s celebrity guarantees its sales and insulates her against negative judgments. It’s hard for me to imagine, though, that Big Magic will make any writers without Gilbert’s current advantages better or more successful. But it might make them happier, and that’s really all Gilbert wants for them. If that’s all you want for yourself — if like Gilbert, you’re more interested in affirmation than in integrity, more dedicated to self-expression than to art — you’ll find Big Magic inspiring. For an account of creative living beyond fear, though, I much prefer Molly Peacock’s The Paper Garden, which celebrates not the capacity of every person to make at least something, however crappy, but the wonder of one individual woman’s unique artistic accomplishment. Peacock’s story of Mary Delany and her fantastic flower collages isn’t a feel-good template for generic creativity. Instead, it’s inspirational in its very particularity: it directs us inward, to think about what beautiful, difficult thing might be, in Peacock’s words, “[our] own form among the endless varieties of life on earth.”
Peacock’s book filled me with delight at the multitudinous possibilities of an artistic life: it made me hopeful that I too could find and perfect my own real work. To its credit, Big Magic provoked me to do that work: to “go make something.” I don’t think a negative review of Big Magic is quite what Gilbert meant to be the result, but at least I’ve lived up to one of her precepts: “Do whatever brings you to life. . . Follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions.” In other words, she started it! And since I’m not a half-ass, disciplined or otherwise, I had to give it my best shot. Seriously.
Rohan Maitzen teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and blogs at Novel Readings.