She’s one of the most famous living writers but at one time Elizabeth Gilbert was like any other aspiring author: insecure, full of doubts, fearful – and with a drawer full of rejection letters. On the face of it, Big Magic is a self-help manual for creative types but it’s much more than this; it’s an honest memoir of the writing life, brimming with wise advice for would-be writers or artists of any kind.
Gilbert draws on her personal experience and that of friends, family and other writers, to give us a glimpse into the life of a full-time writer and the bumpy road to get there. While some of her language hints at the mystical, with frequent references to the universe, much of the advice is sensible, practical and down-to-earth.
According to Gilbert, being a successful writer is not about what school you went to, your contacts, or about noble aspirations and suffering in the attic – it’s more about hard work, coping with rejection and being totally committed to the craft. At the same time she knocks many myths about being an artist on the head. You don’t have to give up your day job – in fact you shouldn’t give up your day job, says Gilbert. And she rejects the age-old depictions of long-suffering artists; you don’t have to suffer to be an artist – in fact it’s okay to enjoy it!
Gilbert is of course best known for her 2006 international bestselling memoir Eat Pray Love, but it’s worth remembering that before EPL, Gilbert had published numerous critically acclaimed books, essays and magazine articles.
The acceptance of her article Pilgrims by the prestigious US magazine Esquire was her first big break and this forms one of the book’s most interesting – and inspiring – anecdotes. Before publication Gilbert was asked to slash the piece by a third. She initially baulked and many less pragmatic writers would have been too precious to cut their work – Gilbert did it anyway and the rest is history.
Big Magic is a great read for anyone wanting to pursue a creative life, whether as a writer or painter or landscape gardener, but given her own background the emphasis is on writing. She offers real insight into how we can all free ourselves from the constraints that hold us back – from our fear of rejection and ridicule, to striving for perfection and our obsession with what people think of us.
Big Magic offers genuine and warm advice and is told with humility – Gilbert speaks of the runaway success of Eat Pray Love as if she simply lucked out. If we had to sum up Elizabeth Gilbert’s advice in a few words it would be this… Get on with it. So go on then, what are you waiting for?
Photography © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders