But it just ends up shining a light on the author's blind privilege

Disclaimer: This is a review, and as such will contain opinions, spoilers and (often) general shit talking. (If you talk about what you don’t like about a work, you learn a lot. When you think through a work with the stakes presented to you by the creator, by the context of the work, you learn a lot. I review things, not because I love to dislike things, but because dislike contains rich and vital information for the process of experiencing something, but I cannot access it without interrogating it.) So, if you don’t want to have this thing spoiled for you, or don’t know how to behave when a person on the internet, that you don’t know, has opinions that don’t line up with yours, this review is not for you. It’s also not for the author/creator of the work. Please and thank you.


Maybe if you’re new to the work of a creative, and have no experience with the work itself, the field, or your own creative process, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert could be helpful.

But as a seasoned professional this seemed full of clichés and platitudes with very little real value.

I once wrote a book that accidentally became a giant best seller, and for a few years there, it was like I was living in a hall of fun house mirrors. It was never my intention to write a giant best seller, believe me. I wouldn’t know how to write a giant best seller if I tried. Case in point, I’ve published six books all written with equal passion and effort and five of them were decidedly not giant best sellers.

— Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

I’d recommend Marie Forleo’s Anything Is Figureoutable over this any day. Forleo’s book also has a lot of stuff I already knew before reading, but it has a ton more action points, is much more inspirational, and is better told than Big Magic.

I don’t like this attitude Gilbert has has about school vs doing something yourself. Like school is somehow lesser or not worth the effort – and this despite saying she thinks schooling for creatives is valuable. In some cases, schooling for creatives is necessary and the only way to have a career in a certain field – just as if you want to be a doctor.

Yes, there’s a lot you can learn by yourself as a creative — and you should continually be learning and challenging yourself — but just like with other professions, school is an avenue into that industry. So, if your end goal is to find a path into the industry, then you will need the schooling in most cases.

To simply be a creator in the world, for that you don’t need schooling, and can learn everything you need by yourself.

I disliked how Gilbert kept raising up her own résumé of odd jobs as some kind of equivalent to formal schooling. Yes, you can learn the things you’d learn in school yourself, but it’s going to be just as much, if not more, work to do it yourself rather than to use an existing system.

Also, one of the main purposes of schools is to help you create a network with other industry professionals, and that’s not something that you have access to the same way when you’re going at it by yourself.

Trust me, I’ve done both.

When you want to enter an industry, school is an excellent place for you to make contacts that you’d not otherwise make. Having said that, either school or doing it yourself isn’t a question of which one is better, they both serve their own purpose and the real question is whether it’s right for you.

As I don’t feel like this book is geared towards the professional creative, I can only surmise it’s designed for the amateur or hobbyist. And as such, it reads like almost any self-help book.

Yet, it manages to offer little help.

Gilbert comes off as strongly narcissistic when it’s all about her, all the time. And not in a “Hey, this is my journey and here’s what I learned” kind of way either.

Her advice is mostly for writers, so not universal to creatives. But even then the best advice she has is to not let rejection or bad reviews get to you.

When she isn’t writing in a way that makes me feel like she’s snapping “hard at work” selfies all the time, she fluctuates between urging the aspiring writer to reach for the stars while simultaneously telling you it’s very unlikely any kind of success will ever come your way.

For Gilbert to state that writing and art are the most useless jobs in the world and hold no merit when compared to jobs that “actually benefit society”(and she does so unironically), makes this whole book feel like a post Eat, Pray, Love cash-grab.

Yes, I understand that writing a book and doing heart surgery are wildly different things, but we can’t dismiss the role art and storytelling have for us as humans in our human societies. We wouldn’t be who we are without them.

And for a NYT best selling author to come out and say that writing is a useless and thankless job… I don’t know. I certainly didn’t expect anyone who wrote a book titled Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear to be so cynical.

Clearly, her anti-higher education stance comes from a place of great privilege, and possibly a high degree of blindness to said privilege.

This could have been an impassioned argument for Fine Arts and how important they are to us on both an individual and a societal level. Instead, she tells me to pour my passion into my work, but not too much, because if I do that and don’t see Gilbert’s kind of success, I’ll prolly just want to kill myself.

But the irony of a successful author telling me to be mediocre, because that’s the option that’ll hurt my fragile ego the least, is the height of hypocrisy.

I should choose the safe path and not desire success of any kind, simply to pursue my passion, yet without putting any pressure on it, while she can continue to fail upward.

And the peculiar thing is that I recently wrote this book, this memoir called “Eat, Pray, Love” which, decidedly unlike any of my previous books, went out in the world for some reason, and became this big, mega-sensation, international bestseller thing.

— Elizabeth Gilbert, “Your elusive creative genius”

While Gilbert makes many points that I agree with, I can’t seem to agree 100% with her on any of them. There are some kernels of advice in the book that mean well and are intended to carry you through creative work in a way that doesn’t discourage and depress you, yet it comes from a level of privilege I cannot relate to at all.

I can only surmise that Gilbert is coming from a place where your job is your identity and if you fail at that, all is doomed in life, and this book is her way of attempting to describe how to find some meaning other than the outcome of a job.

What this book is not, is a field guide for how to live a balanced creative life where you pursue a measure of success while not allowing your creative work to consume you in the process, how to find the inherent value and purpose in your work, even when no one else sees or appreciates it.

Because, as I’ve said before, a creative job is just like any other job. It’s going to have boring bits or tasks that you don’t really like doing. But if it is your job, you need to still pursue some measure of success, though I believe there’s a large scale of success that makes it possible for creators of all sizes to exist in an industry (whereas Gilbert seems to say that if you don’t see huge success, it’s just an expensive hobby and you should treat it as such).

I also cannot agree with this idea that you should put sub-par work out simply to lower people’s expectations of your future work. First of all, because this says that the ultimate purpose of doing your creative work is the opinions of other people – and therefore you should be doing work that makes other people look favourably upon you (this is the opposite of pursuing your own path).

Secondly, because it feels like it’s completely neglecting the core of the creative process, which is constantly in flux. There is no eternal high when you do creative work, it’s a roller-coaster that includes both the highs and the lows, and the lows aren’t any less worthy than the highs.

And thirdly, I believe in putting your best effort into your creative work. Some days that’s less, some days it’s more. Some of it you’re going to be happier with while some of it will feel like trash. But the only way to do creative work is to grow through what you go through.

You do the work, you finish the projects, you learn and you move on to the next thing. Because the ultimate reward in a creative career is being able to do the creative work itself. When you love the process, you win every single day you get to do that work.

One point I do agree with Gilbert on, is that your creativity doesn’t always have to be your source of income. Especially not, if putting that pressure on it is what kills it. In some instances, you just enjoy doing the creative thing because you enjoy it.

Like I enjoy knitting, but I’m never going to knit anything professionally. I just don’t have the interest or motivation to do what it takes to make a job out of it. And learning to recognise the difference will save you from a lot of heartache. Then again, I know from experience, that sometimes you don’t know what you like or want to do for a living until you’ve tried a bunch of different things.

So, don’t be afraid to have a job that pays the bills. And that job doesn’t have to fulfil 100% of your needs – that doesn’t make it a bad job. Or you having a day job doesn’t make you a failed writer or artist.

Instead of reading Big Magic, watch Gilbert’s TEDTalk instead. It’s more inspiring and will take up less of your time.


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