Books Nonfiction

“Inspiration is trying to send me messages in every form it can”

Big Magic is about cultivating inspiration, and having the courage to live a creative life. For Elizabeth Gilbert, there is magic in this.

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Pair With: Middle of the shelf rosé, on your couch by yourself, under a blanket with a journal.

One of my favorite scenes in Big Magic involves Brene Brown, the researcher turned bestselling author and self-help sensation, struggling with her writing. Brown is a masterful storyteller, which is why her TED talk is one of the most viewed on the internet. Yet her writing — perhaps owing to training in academia — brings forth none of her energy and feels impersonal and uninspired. She knows this as she reads back her progress, but the words will not flow. She is stuck. 

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s retelling, Brown eventually lands on a solution: She brings some girlfriends on a [paid] vacation, and, over nightly sessions with food and wine, delivers sections of her book orally. In exchange for their trip, the friends jot notes and transcribe. Brown is able to shine in this setting, a Texan storyteller holding court, charming and delighting friends. The change in process clears Brown’s creative block — and helps her develop a more conversational writing voice — and the notes ultimately become a book. 

Book doodle by @fml_fishtowndogtown, discovered by accident via the #PhillyArtist tag shortly after finishing Big Magic.

Big Magic is about creativity: how we find and cultivate inspiration, and also the courage that it takes to live a creative life. For Elizabeth Gilbert, there is magic in this. Ideas live and breathe. (In one case, a complex plot idea jumps from Gilbert’s brain into Ann Pachett’s — another wonderful anecdote in Big Magic.) If we make ourselves suitable conduits, the universe will conspire with us to bring creativity into the world. 

And on that note: 

Not more than 24 hours after I finished Big Magic, I attended a reading and book signing with another author, Liz Moore. Her new novel, Long Bright River, is a melding of family drama and detective thriller, and takes place in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood in the throes of the opioid epidemic. (More on this later, perhaps.

At the very end of the audience Q&A, a woman said she wanted to ask Moore a question not directly related to the book. “I teach students with special needs,” she said. “And they hate writing. What can I do to make writing more enjoyable and approachable?” 

Moore offered some thoughts, but generally deferred to the questioner’s own experience and expertise as a teacher, which was kind. But then another woman stood up in the audience. 

“I bet they like to talk,” she said. “Maybe if they just told stories to a classmate? Their classmate can take notes. Maybe they wouldn’t feel so much pressure to write if they were just telling a story. Maybe they could see that writing is really just telling stories.” 

Wait, what?

Coincidences are often subtle, but occasionally they call out more loudly. You read a book about creative “magic” — living ideas, muses, signals and signs — and immediately thereafter hear your favorite anecdote repeated back in a wholly unrelated context. 

Does it mean anything? Who knows. But being in the right place at the right time, being open to little nudges and winks from the universe, is the type of “big magic” that Gilbert describes so magically. 

I count myself fortunate to have read the book and received just such a wink.

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