Book Review: BIG MAGIC: Creative Living Beyond Fear

I didn’t expect to read about being creative over my holiday vacation week. I expected to BE creative, to do some writing during a family visit with our older daughter/big sister, who lives on the opposite coast.[1] I got off to a great start on the long plane ride, refining the plot of my work-in-progress on my portable plot board, which was inspired by Alison Potoma’s post Plotting a Novel With Sticky Notes. But I came down sick 48 hours after landing (3 airports, 2 planes, and who knows how many germs?) and wasn’t well enough to do much of anything the rest of the week. I was able to read in short stints, however, and BIG MAGIC: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert was the perfect consolation.[2]

Gilbert’s book is a series of short pieces on how to live a creative life. She divides the book into six parts, organized by theme: Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust, and Divinity. Each part has a collection of meditations, anecdotes, personal experiences, and advice around that theme as it relates to creativity. It helps to read the book in order, but it isn’t necessary to do so.

To Gilbert, Big Magic consists of the treasures that lie hidden within each of us, our own unique contributions to the world, which creative living brings forth. She assumes that many of her readers are also writers, but she makes the point that creative living is not necessarily defined by a creative pursuit (writing, music, etc.). It encompasses anything done for the sheer pleasure of it, whether that is ice skating, or investigating Ancient Mesopotamia, or decorating the horns of your ox, or what-have-you. Creative living is about saying yes, and watching Big Magic happen.[3] Sometimes it’s okay to say no, as long as you say YES when the right opportunity comes along. But a constant refrain of NO does not make for a creative life.

Gilbert writes with both humor and seriousness—sometimes at the same time. For example, she has a two-and-a-half page list of things writers are scared of. I started out nodding seriously in recognition, but by the end was laughing aloud at how absurd it was for anyone—even me!—to be stopped by these fears, some of which contradict each other, plus there’s this one tossed in the middle:

You’re afraid you’re too fat. (I don’t know what this has to do with being creative, exactly, but experience has taught me that most of us are afraid we’re too fat, so let’s just put that on the anxiety list for good measure.)

In addition to fear, Gilbert weighs in on Perfectionism (not a virtue, “just a high-end, haute couture version of fear”), Permission (you don’t need anyone’s but your own), the Suffering Artist stereotype (forget it! creativity happens in spite of suffering, not because of it), MFA programs (“if you’re not rolling in cash, I’m telling you—you can live without it.”) and the notion of expecting your creativity to earn you a living (“sort of like yelling at a cat; it has no idea what you’re talking about, and all you’re doing is scaring it away. . .”) She goes on at length about the notion, not unique to her, that ideas themselves exist as separate entities and enter into contracts with the people who bring them to life. There is a particularly magical story about an idea that left her and was later picked up by her friend Ann Patchett—entirely without any communication between them.

It’s clear from her tone that Gilbert either takes her subject very seriously or not seriously at all—or maybe both. And in fact, about midway through the book, she describes what she calls the Central Paradox: That art is both absolutely meaningless, and at the same time, deeply meaningful. It matters, and it doesn’t matter. By holding both views at once, we are most free to live our creative lives.

After a week sick in bed during my precious paid time off, a week when I wanted to write, to bounce ideas off family members, to explore Southern California settings for my novel—after missing out on all this, I could be angry, or frustrated, or self-pitying, or I could give up. But reading BIG MAGIC, surrounded by my creative family, I couldn’t even “go there” emotionally. None of those responses would get me to YES, or further my creativity, or help me uncover my hidden gems. So instead, I lay in bed THINKING about my novel, and coming up with a Plan B for getting it started. I’ll get there. I have to! I’ve made a contract with this idea.

BIG MAGIC: Creative Living Beyond Fear
©2015 by Elizabeth Gilbert
Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House



[1] Our family has a tradition of taking some time for creative, independent pursuits while vacationing together. So no, I wasn’t planning to ignore them! 😉

[2] My daughter gave me this book as a Christmas present, and she got the idea from Carol Ekster’s post The Gift of Giving Books. So in a way, this gift comes from two dear people who don’t even know each other, but who both know me. 🙂

[3] “Saying yes” is also one of William Shatner’s rules for living. See Shatner Rules.


  1. Seems that your illness, though ill timed, lead to something very useful to you. It’s another of those “things happen for a reason” episodes. Hopefully since you read the book you are healthier and heading in the right direction on your novel. Thanks for the inspiration. We all can use that!


  2. So sorry you spent your vacation not feeling well, but I am thrilled that your daughter read my post and in response got you this inspirational book. Now look how many creatives you’ve inspired with this post!


  3. This book has been sitting on my nightstand since summer. Great review, you’ve inspired me to get going with it already! Thanks and hope you’re feeling better!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for a great review, Marianne. I’m sorry you were sick during vacation week, but your post makes me feel like picking up up BIG MAGIC again. I started at a time when I didn’t have the bandwidth for books on creativity 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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