Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert’s Paean to the Magic & Mysteries of Writing

Some days, there’s no way I’d believe there’s any magic at all in the writing process. And I’m sure you’d probably agree with me, especially if you, like me, sat for three hours in front of a blank computer screen. And only managed to write one lousy sentence. Before I picked up Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which I confess I did because I just LOVED her novel titled The Signature of All Things, (and didn’t like Eat, Pray, Love all that much)I’d stopped off at the only viable local bookstore left in town. I meandered among the labyrinthine shelves, most stuffed with used books and an increasing number of “gifty” exotic ceramics and silky scarves the color of turquoise in the sun.

There it sat, Big Magic, abandoned on the tiled table in the back of the shop, by some reader who probably hated Eat, Pray, Love. You see, sometimes I really do believe in magic when it comes to me and books, because I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stumbled across just the right book at just the right moment in my life. Uncanny doesn’t nail it. It’s more than uncanny, it’s a bit magical, a tad ethereal.

So I thumbed through the book, put it down for a moment, took a few steps away from the table, and went back to fetch the book.

When I began reading Big Magic, I could tell that this self-help book, as some critics labeled it, would not be the usual pabulum spooned out to wannabe writers, writers so blocked that all the prune juice in the world would fail.

Now, I’m not going to spill the details about all the magic bits in Gilbert’s book, because what’s magic for me might not be for you.  But you do need to know that there’s long been a theory in anthropology, where it seems as if the Universe throws out all the clues, the tools, and the inspiration for big ideas to gel and come to fruition. Anthropologists call this phenomenon “parallelism.” Or, as Gilbert calls it, “multiple discovery.”

This, I think, is why clusters of creative people become prominent in the history of the arts. Think Paris when the Impressionists painted their masterpieces. Think New York during the Harlem Renaissance. Think Paris, again, in the 1930s. You probably can come up with other, more modern, examples.

The biggest takeaway for me in Gilbert’s book popped up on page 67. She speaks of eudeaimonia, or the state of being “well-demoned.” Or as the Greeks put it, the happiest a human could ever be. The part that grabbed me, that woke me up, came next: “But the Greeks and the Romans both believed in the idea of an external demon of creativity –  a sort of house elf, if you will, who lived within the walls of your home and who sometimes aided you in your labors. The Romans had a specific term for that helpful house elf. They called it your genius – your guardian deity, the conduit of your inspiration. Which is to say, the Romans didn’t believe that an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; that believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius.”

And, yes, Gilbert also talks about “permission.” What does that mean?  It means that you, and I, can create whatever we want, however we want to, that what we create doesn’t have to end being up on the bestseller list or whatever. That just mere act of sitting down to write, to paint, to compose is in itself enough.

Showing up, doing the work, with no ulterior motives.

You’ll have to read Gilbert’s book yourself to truly understand how refreshing it is to hear what she has to say about the creative life. In short, Big Magic is one of the most freeing books about writing I have ever read. And, believe me, I’ve read lots!

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