HSL Book Club Pick: Big Magic By Elizabeth Gilbert (Summary and Discussion Questions)

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Last fall I picked up the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. You probably know her name because of that other book she wrote or maybe because Julia Roberts played her once (#goals.)

My ears perked when I heard that Gilbert was penning this book because her TedTalk on creativity really made an impact on me. And here she was writing a whole book about the very same topic. YES! 

I waited for a while for Liz’s book to come out. Thanks to an incredibly well-executed social media and marketing strategy (complete with a short-term podcast and beautiful quote images on Instagram), I had Big Magic on the brain for several months before I got to read it. 

I finally got my own copy and set about reading it in the fall. And in January I got some friends together to do a “Pop Up Book Club” (new term, but so great for the busy/commitment-phobic types!)

The summary of Big Magic can actually be found right on its dust jacket. It reads: 

Creativity is sacred, 
and it is not sacred. 
What we make matters enormously, 
and it doesn't matter at all.
We toil alone, and we are
accompanied by spirits.
We are terrified, and we are brave.
Art is a crushing chore and a wonderful privilege.
The work wants to be made, and
it wants to be made through you.

As you can see this book is full of paradoxes—and so is creativity, of course. To become better artists we must become prolific. To be prolific we cannot be perfectionistic. We must not be afraid to be bad in order to become good. 

Viewing our art as sacred can be paralyzing. We have to hold it lightly in order to produce. We must value it deeply in order to have the commitment it takes to grow. We must take our work seriously and not seriously at all.  

A few of my favorite quotes from Big Magic: 

“To even call somebody a ‘creative person’ is almost laughably redundant; creativity is the hallmark of our species…If you’re alive, you’re a creative person.” (89)
“Never delude yourself into believing that you require someone else’s blessing (or even their comprehension) in order to make your own creative work. And always remember that people’s judgments about you are none of your business…remember what W.C. Fields had to say on this point: ‘It ain’t what they call you; it’s what you answer to.’” (121) 
“The image of the tragic artist who lays down his tools rather than fall short of his impeccable ideals holds no romance for me. I don’t see this path as heroic. I think it’s far more honorable to stay in the game—even if you’re objectively failing at the game—than to excuse yourself from participation because of your delicate sensibilities. But in order to stay in the game, you must let go of your fantasy of perfection.” (166)
“Whatever you do, try not to dwell too long on your failures. You don’t need to conduct autopsies on your disasters. You don’t need to know what anything means. Remember: the gods of creativity are not obliged to explain anything to us. Own your disappointment, acknowledge it for what it is, and move on. Chop up that failure and use it for bait to try to catch another project. Someday it might all make sense to you—why you needed to go through this botched up mess in order to land in a better place. Or maybe it will never make sense. 
So be it.
Move on, anyhow.” (252) 

And perhaps my favorite:

“Maybe I won’t always be successful at my creativity, but the world won’t end because of that. Maybe I won’t always be able to make a living out of my writing, but that’s not the end of the world, either, because there are lots of other ways to make a living besides writing books—and many of them are easier than writing books. And while it’s definitely true that failure and criticism may bruise my precious ego, the fate of nations does not depend upon my precious ego. (Thank God.) 
So let’s try to wrap our minds around this reality: There’s probably never going to be any such thing in your life or mine as ‘an arts emergency.’ 
That being the case, why not make art?” (130) 

If you decide to read this through with a few friends or even make it your official book club pick, here are some discussion questions you can use to guide your conversation. 

Big Magic Discussion Questions

1. Have you had an idea for a creative work and found that you lacked the courage to complete it? What do you think that fear stems from? What are you really afraid of? 
2. How do you handle your fear on the “creative road trip of life”? Do you have any techniques you use to put fear in its place? 
3. Liz talked about having a creative idea and then the inspiration leaving her and in some cases even being transferred to someone else. Have you ever had inspiration leave you because you did not act on it? 
4. Have you ever been confronted with your own “notion of scarcity?” How did you combat that? 
5. Do you find yourself waiting for “inspiration to strike” or are you skeptical of “inspiration” altogether? 
6. Have you folded your dreams into your every day life or do you struggle with feeling like not quitting your day job means you're not doing it right? 
7. Liz talks about taking your art seriously but not taking it seriously. Does this sound like a relief to you or are you skeptical of this approach? 
8. John Updike said some of the best novels you’ve ever read were written in a day. Have you found this idea to be true in your creative journey? Have you ever had creativity just spill out of you? 
9. What are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work? 
10. Liz said “the work wants to be made and it wants to be made through you.” Do you feel that deeply? Do you doubt it? If so, why? 

If you've read this book or you end up reading it, drop me a line! I'd love to hear your take on it. And if you have any other inspiring reads send me your recommendations! I'm always looking for a good book. 

Want to learn how to combat fear in your creative process? Download the free infographic here