Is it mere coincidence that BIG is synonymous with FAT and that MAGIC is one of those oblique words difficult to put your finger on, like CHANCE? Because I think that's a better title for this book: Fat Chance. That's the message here: you're gonna fail, you big loser! Where's the big magic in that?
I get it, some artists are confused about the outcomes or reasons for pursuing creative ventures. It's true, most of us are going to fail and fail again. Many of us will eventually give up trying. Gilbert's aim here seems to be getting people to think differently about art, to force them to realize that the business sucks and the process isn't always easy, but we should all be happy because we're like children, finger painting our hearts out.
Somehow the fact that this advice comes from someone whose net worth is $25 million doesn't make it any easier to swallow.
The very fact I read this book is a testament to Gilbert's brilliance. It was her 2009 TED Talk that turned me onto the author, a writer I had written off previously solely because of her wild success. Not surprisingly, it is Gilbert's wonderful, well-presented argument about the elusive genius that opens up Big Magic. The message in these chapters is more inspirational: we all have creativity; relax, it's not your fault if your genius eludes you.
But the rest of the book gets lost in Gilbert rubbing our faces in her success. I know it's not easy, she seems to be saying, creativity won't pay the bills, so just quit thinking about it as a occupation and think of it more as finger painting!
There's truth there, no doubt. But Gilbert seems too desirous of proving her point by stretching truths. She points out how creative occupations are inherently worthless, the least valuable occupation in society. Objectively, perhaps that roofer's role in society can be more easily quantifiable, but to ignore the artist's role in shaping change and eliciting awe, to call art “arguably useless,” seems rather narrow-minded. (What would your muses think, Liz?) Name one roofer from history whose work was more meaningful than Michelangelo's ceiling. Also, Gilbert belittles creative higher education by smashing the MFA in writing, declaring it a fruitless activity. To prove her point, she highlights that no American winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature had ever earned an MFA. Point proven, well done. Except that half of the winners of the Nobel predated the existence of the MFA. Those who followed were entirely established before the MFA really gained momentum in the writing community. Likewise, the Internet is rather useless because Buddha never surfed the web, and Jesus declared disdain for Starbucks by having never consumed a cup of joe.
In the end, I think there are definitely glimmers of brilliance in this book and perhaps it is a great book for those who are kidding themselves about the arts. Me? I'm prepared for the toughness. I expect rejection. I'm still here because I love doing it. I whine from time to time, but I don't plan on quitting; I have no backup. Perhaps I should enjoy my occupation more, but being told I'm a failure isn't exactly going to make me jump for joy. Gilbert's insight, while largely accurate, is salt on an open wound for those of us who know it sucks. And I guess the message of Big Magic is that it will continue to suck, even when one of my books takes off and is made into a well-financed motion picture. Fat Chance.