On My Bookshelf: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

On My Bookshelf: Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

If the title doesn’t tip you off, Elizabeth Gilbert’s theories about creativity and ideas are a bit woo-woo. Sometimes, seriously woo-woo. But most of her new book Big Magic is an easy-to-read take from somebody who is serious about her dedication to writing, and who sees creativity as a guiding life force rather than as something that could or should drive you to self-destruction.

A recurring theme in Big Magic is the tremendous success of Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, which, as she repeatedly reminds us, was a huge bestseller, and should be particularly interesting for those who fear success as much as failure. Her discipline and commitment to the act of writing—before EPL when nobody bought her books, and then after, when people told her she’d already peaked—make for inspiring reading.

According to Gilbert, everyone who read EPL either loved or hated it. (I read EPL when it first came out, thought it was good not great, and never understood the tremendous reaction it has received.) If you were in the like/love camp, you’ll probably enjoy this one too. And if you haven’t read many books about the creative process, this is not a bad place to begin.

One takeaway of particular interest to freelance writers who fear that their ideas may be stolen by editors is Gilbert’s explanation of how multiple discovery happens in the scientific world:

How can two people who have never heard of each other’s work both arrive at the same scientific conclusions at the same historical moment? Yet it happens more often than you might imagine. When the nineteenth-century Hungarian mathematician János Bolyai invented non-Euclidean geometry, his father urged him to publish his findings immediately, before someone else landed on the same idea, saying, “When the time is ripe for certain things, they appear at different places, in the manner of violets coming to light in early spring.”

In more than a decade of pitching ideas, I’ve never thought that an editor took a story idea that I proposed and reassigned it to someone else. I have heard a number of complaints from writers that this happens to them, though it usually seems to be something along the lines of, “I pitched a profile of a celebrity with a new project coming out and didn’t follow up and now 6 months later they’ve gone and done my story.”

A few unscrupulous (or possibly genuinely clueless) editors are indeed out there, but in most cases, writers come up with ideas that are very similar to one another. For example: “I’ll write my impressions of a #1 bestseller on my blog.” Timely, but not the most original idea.