I was just starting out in libraries around the time that Eat, Pray, Love was the big thing everyone was reading in their book clubs. I remember picking up a copy of the book out of curiosity and also watching the movie but my reading amnesia is such that the only thing I remember from either version is the Eddie Vedder song “Better Days.”
I must have liked the book well enough though because I remember when Big Magic first came out, I immediately put it on reserve. I also remember reading the first fifty pages or so and thinking, “Yeah, this isn’t for me.” And that was before I got to the comment that implies a certain lack of glamor in being a writer asked to speak about libraries as part of a panel. Hmph.
But in my quest to expand my readings on creative writing and creativity in general, I happened to catch sight of this book on the library shelf (it’s hard to miss: the colors on the cover are very bright) and on a whim decided to pick it up again. This time I got all the way through it and I’m still pretty sure the book isn’t for me but I was interested to find that in between all the talk about creativity as a magical thing, there was also some talk about research.
For some reason, the copy of this book at my local library has a YA sticker on it, indicating that it’s a book intended for young adults.
I don’t think there’s any real question that Big Magic is not a YA book. But it’s not really clear what it is instead. It’s not a memoir, though it has memoir elements. And it’s not a self-help book, though it has much of the same spirit. It’s also not a practical guide or how-to for cultivating inspiration. The closest cousin I can think of is probably Steal Like an Artist, though that book is presented in a more easily digestible format that makes it easy to pull off the shelf and flip through if you’re in a creative rut and need something to help you feel motivated. Big Magic could be used the same way but would probably be a much longer detour.
So it’s difficult to say what this book is for(1) but there is some interesting stuff here.
Being a genius versus having a genius
What made me put down the book when I first read it is the way that Gilbert talks about creativity almost like a magical, invisible creature that must be welcomed into your life for fear that if you do not open yourself up to it, it will find someone else to hang out with instead. Literally. Her evidence for this is a story she has about how a highly specific idea that she had but later abandoned only to find that Anne Patchett, a famous writer she had never met, later used that same highly specific idea for her own novel. Gilbert and Patchett later bonded over this coincidence, which led Gilbert to believe that when she couldn’t nurture the idea herself, it found someone else who could.
I mean, okay. I see where she’s coming from. It is an awfully weird coincidence. But there was something about talking about creativity in this way that turned me off enough the first time to put the book down.
What I should have done was stick around long enough for Gilbert’s history lesson on the difference between having a genius and being a genius. Apparently, the concept of a genius started out more like what we now think of as a muse. If you were a highly creative person, you were said to have a genius. It was only later that it changed: creative people didn’t have geniuses, they were geniuses. This led to a lot of problems because while (presumably) anyone could have a genius (or be visited by a genius) only certain (white, male) people could be geniuses.
I’ve talked before about how, according to some of the research I’ve read, the myth of the artist as a divinely inspired genius is in large part to blame for the fact that we know next to nothing about the information habits of creative people or the role research plays in the creative process. I thought, despite her advocating for going back to the idea of having a genius, that Gilbert would be in the same boat, pretending that research is not a part of creativity.
Creativity is magic but also research is involved
But actually research comes up a lot in Gilbert’s book. At least, a lot by the standards of books about creativity and writing. That idea she had that was later adopted by Patchett? It had to do with Brazil in the 1960s and in talking about it she references the extensive research she had started to do so that she would be able to credibly write a novel that takes place in that place and in that time. And when she talks about going through her own published books page by page, she mentions their flaws, among which she lists gaps in logic and holes in research. She also discusses how research into gardening led to her first novel.(2)
And, of course, she talks a lot about reading great writers in search of inspiration and creative fodder: “Writers are told to write what they know, and all I knew was that I didn’t know very much, so I went forth in deliberate search of material” (p. 111).
To be sure, this does not add up to much. She mentions doing research and includes some details of what she learned in her “botanical explorations” but not much about how she went about that research or how she used (or didn’t use) the information she found.
Still. It’s interesting that even in a book that talks about creativity in such a reverent way and treats it as this magical, exciting thing, Gilbert does more to acknowledge the necessary research-related work involved than other books I’ve read that claim to cover every aspect of craft and the creative process.
So even now that I’ve read the whole thing, I still don’t think this book is for me but I give it a lot of points, at least for that.
(1) Okay, if I’m being really honest, there’s something about this book that screams “contractual obligation” to me. I’m not saying that to in any way diminish the work and I could be very wrong. But it does sort of feel like maybe there was another project that didn’t quite work out and a last minute substitute had to be made for contractual reasons and this was it.
(2) Why is it always gardening? Anne Lamott talks about similar research into gardening in Bird by Bird.