Review: ‘Big Magic’ by Liz Gilbert

I am a terrible writer.  Not because I can’t construct a sentence or create breathing characters or weave a plot with as many twists and intricacies as a Turkish rug.  Actually, I’m pretty good at those things (most of the time… I think). What I’m God-awful horrendous at is the whole process of writing.  Inspiration burns brighter and hotter than nuclear fusion one minute and then fizzles the next, I work slowly and constantly backspace what I’ve just written because, dammit, it’s just not quite good enough – and do you know what?Maybe that’s because I’m just not quite good enough.  Fear bullies me at every single stage of the process – which is crazy, because writing is something I absolutely love.  If I’m not doing it, I’m miserable (and as a result, tend to make those around me equally as miserable…).

I picked up Big Magic because I wanted a little creative liberation – and I wasn’t disappointed.  Once I cracked the spine, I finished it in two days.  The book essentially tackles the issues and insecurities artists face from the conception of an idea, right through to realisation. Even though a lot of what Liz says is stuff that I think I already knew, really deep down, I needed to hear it – and she packages those lessons in such beautiful stories (from her own journey and those of close friends and colleagues) that writers and artists can relate to and understand in fluid, clear prose.  It’s tough love, with a sympathetic voice.

Liz completely rejects the whole idea of a tortured artist and those who whinge about being martyrs to their talent.  You get nothing out of it at the end of the day.  She explains her theory that ideas for art, books, music have their own energy and whiz around trying to find a suitable host.  They bestow their gifts!  The moment that artist and host are united she describes the feeling as like falling in love, but that at exact moment the artist makes a contract with the idea, vowing to see it through to its end.  If the artist breaks that contract, the idea will leave and never return – worse, it’ll go on looking for a more agreeable host.  She recounts her experience with an idea she had for a book, about a secretary who finds herself in Brazil during the 1960s.  She tells how she was completely consumed with the idea and set about researching and writing notes in a blaze of inspiration – but when real life got in the way, she abandoned it.  A couple of years later, she finds that a fellow writer has begun writing a strikingly similar book herself.  She sees this as proof of Big Magic at work; that ideas can become ‘frustrated’ with their host and move on.  Now… I don’t know if I agree that ideas flit around searching for writers, but I love the warning behind it: if you don’t hustle and get the work done, then someone else will.

I found her notes on FEAR most helpful.  As someone who is constantly haunted by fear (and not only in the creative sense of, “I’m never going to be good enough”), I found it comforting to read her opinions on dealing with fear during the creative process.  She describes the writing process as being like a road trip with two friends; fear and creativity.  You need both of them on that journey – fear is an instinct after all, it’s important – but for the most part fear doesn’t have many interesting things to say.  It says “NO” more than anything else and will attempt to control everything from the songs on the radio to the turns you take along the way.  So she says that fear should go in the back seat; it’s welcome to come along on the journey, but it’s not allowed a voice.  Creativity sits shotgun, always.

You can probably tell, I loved it.  If you’re in danger of becoming a ‘tortured artist’ then you need to read this.  I loved Liz’s firm, yet calming tone and I feel like the things she had to say really changed how I’ll approach my next book.  I’m in discussions with an idea and I’ve pleaded with it not to leave me just yet… Do you think ideas understand how stressful moving house is?

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