Self-help books routinely ask: “What would you do if you knew that you could not fail?”
Elizabeth Gilbert insists her new book, “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear,” is not a self-help. But if it were, she would alter the question to read: “What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail?”
Gilbert is best known for her bestseller “Eat Pray Love,” which became a mega-movie starring Julia Roberts in 2010. In case you missed it, the book chronicles Gilbert’s journey back to a healthier self in the aftermath of a nasty divorce.
Of her six books, “Big Magic” most resembles “Committed,” her follow-up to “Eat Pray Love.” “Committed” is about her gearing up to marry for a second time and telling herself it’s going to be OK.
“Big Magic” comes off as Gilbert talking herself through the ups and downs of her career. She asserts that the act of writing is not about coming out on top, but is a labor of love she continues for the sake of that love. Writers can work through anything on paper.
“ ‘Big Magic’ is obviously a self-help guide, right?” she writes. “But with all due respect and affection, I did not write this book for you; I wrote it for me. I wrote this book for my own pleasure, because I truly enjoy thinking about the subject of creativity.”
OK, so why should anyone read it? Return to the question we began with: “What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail?”
First, Gilbert says, don’t be concerned about failure. After her success with “Eat Pray Love,” anything short of that triumph would have to feel like failure; but Gilbert says she’s not afraid and doesn’t want you to be either.
She says you need to do what “brings you” awake and “brings you” alive. That can be a lot of things: figure skating, receiving or inking tattoos, writing poetry, refurbishing a bike.
And readers will, perhaps grudgingly, be delighted to accept her permission to create. It feels good to read, “Go make something.” It feels good to read that you don’t have to quit your job or do anything super risky to make a positive change in your life and live more creatively.
One of Gilbert’s charms as a writer is that she follows her curiosity (another bit of advice from the book), which makes her bibliography diverse. “Eat Pray Love” didn’t even hint at the voice or scope she’d later tap into for “Signature of All Things.” And no one who read her fairly humble short story collection, “Pilgrims,” would have expected her to write a memoir that practically sparked a cultural revolution.
One of the brightest thoughts in the book is from her 2009 TED talk entitled, “Your Elusive Creative Genius.”
The Greeks and Romans, she writes, said artists have “an external daemon of creativity,” a “genius” who offers assists to diligent workers. So, a very talented artist had a genius, but was not herself a genius.
“The idea of an external genius helps to keep the artist’s ego in check, distancing him somewhat from the burden of taking either full credit or full blame for the outcome of his work,” she writes.
“Big Magic” won’t change the world and Julia Roberts won’t make an appearance, but that’s OK; it’s a booster that’ll help you out of any rut.
Reach Anne Kniggendorf at email@example.com.
“Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear” by Elizabeth Gilbert (288 pages; $24.95; Riverhead Books)