You can read Elizabeth Gilbert’s new guide to creativity, “Big Magic,” as a love letter to her fans and a coded kiss-off to her critics. Legions of women consumed her 2006 memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” and thought, “I’ll have what she’s having.” This is Gilbert’s attempt to show them how. And as for the author’s detractors — people who dismissed “Eat, Pray, Love” as sappy and self-absorbed or took Gilbert to task for financing her journey of self-discovery with a book contract — whole sections of “Big Magic” might as well be telling them where to go.
“Big Magic” is a celebration of a creative life. That doesn’t mean (just) painting or writing but encompasses something larger: a worldview that extols the pursuit of any activity that takes you out of yourself and opens you to the experience of wonder and joy. This could mean drawing, it could mean raising goats, it could mean learning to ice skate. For Gilbert, that activity has been writing — her clear, all-embracing purpose since adolescence. She describes how she went about cultivating the curiosity, tenacity and courage that allowed her to toil happily for years in relative obscurity before the success of “Eat, Pray, Love.” In Gilbert’s view, the work is its own reward.
That may sound like just another bromide, but Gilbert’s love of creativity is infectious, and there’s a lot of great advice in this sunny book about setting your own agenda, overcoming self-doubt and avoiding perfectionism, a buzzy subject these days thanks to the popularity of vulnerability guru Brené Brown, who has appeared on Gilbert’s podcast .
“You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures,” Gilbert writes. “You can battle your demons (through therapy, recovery, prayer, or humility) instead of battling your gifts — in part by realizing that your demons were never the ones doing the work, anyhow.”
And yet there also are flights of fancy here that may make even sympathetic readers wince and send her critics into raptures of derision.
“Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us — albeit strangely,” Gilbert writes in her chapter on inspiration. “Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest.” Gilbert is convinced that the idea for a novel set in the Amazon flitted from her to the writer Ann Patchett when they met at a conference and exchanged a kiss.
One could point out that this is kind of dotty. One also could argue that it is courageous. Gilbert is an old pro, and she knows exactly what the cool kids are going to say about the “freaky, old-timey, voodoo-style Big Magic” in her book, her accounts of ideas passing from one writer to another in a kiss, of a poem “rushing across the landscape” toward a young artist “like a galloping horse.”
She doesn’t care. Gilbert doesn’t just call for aspiring artists to speak their truth, however daffy that may appear to others; she is showing them how. “What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud?” she asks. “Just smile sweetly and suggest — as politely as you possibly can — that they go make their own f---ing art.”
That’s the kind of sharp talk you might expect from Cheryl Strayed, who is something of Gilbert’s foil in the genre of female empowerment books. Gilbert is an effusive confidante, while Strayed, who made her name with her 2012 memoir “Wild,” is the tough-love truth-teller. These best-selling memoirists hit the same notes again and again: Trust yourself. Quash self-pity. Ignore naysayers. Go for it. Or as Strayed puts it in her forthcoming book, “Brave Enough”: “Don’t own other people’s crap.” In the introduction to this short, taut collection of quotations from her previous work, Strayed writes that a good quote can provide in a sentence or two “a clear eyed perspective or a swift kick in the pants.” Hers do both.
Although she offers counsel here for aspiring artists (“Keep writing and quit your bitching”), Strayed has slogged through thicker mud than Gilbert and also addresses betrayal, forgiveness and grief. A few of her shorter selections may look trite on their own (“Vulnerability is strength”), but taken as a whole, these quotations amount to a galvanizing call to be bigger, bolder, more generous. We already know what to do, Strayed believes; we just need to heed that inner voice.
“There isn’t a single dumbass thing I’ve done in my adult life that I didn’t know was a dumbass thing to do when I was doing it,” Strayed writes. This is a Swiss Army knife of quotations, one that applies to deciding whether to have a third doughnut or an extramarital affair, make a mean-spirited joke or get up from the desk before a book review is finished.
“I believe in the power of words to help us reset our intentions, clarify our thoughts, and create a counternarrative to the voice of doubt many of us have murmuring in our heads — the one that says, You can’t, you won’t, you shouldn’t have,” Strayed writes. “Quotes, at their core, almost always shout Yes!”
Both of these books will help you create that counter-narrative. Both, in their very different voices, shout, “Yes!”
On Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m., Elizabeth Gilbert will speak at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW, Washington. For tickets, call Politics & Prose Bookstore at 202-364-1919.
On Nov. 18 at 7 p.m., Cheryl Strayed will speak at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW, For tickets, call 877-987-6487.
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Riverhead. 276 pp. $24.95
By Cheryl Strayed
Knopf. 160 pp. $16.95