Review: BIG MAGIC by Elizabeth Gilbert (& #Giveaway)

First, apologies to those of you who subscribe by email; I skated my mouse across the publish button while working on a bog post for next week and accidentally published it, then had to unpublish it. So yeah, there’s a Bucket List post coming next week. LOL.

Second, and thanks to Miki for pointing this out, you can use this link to go to the Night Owl Reviews Scavenger Hunt, and all the hunting takes place on the NOR website. So you’ll find the cupcake with a word on it for Susannah Sandlin, for example, on my NOR web page–not on this website. Same with the other participating authors.


Happy Friday! I’m so excited to see Friday roll around since my office has been without AC this week and the temps have gone from 101 degrees F on Monday to a frigid 96 on Thursday. Today, back up to 100. I’m off work a couple of days next week and there should be climate control by the time I return. It has been miserable.

Anyway, my usual book reviews—and rare they are—are pretty short. I suspect today’s will not be at all short, and if you get bored and wander away, that’s okay. But this book had a profound impact on me, at least in the short term, so I wanted to yap about it a bit.

BIG MAGICABOUT BIG MAGIC: CREATIVE LIVING BEYOND FEAR, by Elizabeth Gilbert: Readers of all ages and walks of life have drawn inspiration and empowerment from Elizabeth Gilbert’s books for years. Now this beloved author digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity. With profound empathy and radiant generosity, she offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives. Balancing between soulful spirituality and cheerful pragmatism, Gilbert encourages us to uncover the “strange jewels” that are hidden within each of us. Whether we are looking to write a book, make art, find new ways to address challenges in our work, embark on a dream long deferred, or simply infuse our everyday lives with more mindfulness and passion, Big Magic cracks open a world of wonder and joy.


A couple of confessions and a couple of disclaimers. First, this isn’t just a book for writers or artists or “creative” people in the traditional sense—Gilbert’s philosophy matches my own: that we each, in our own way, are creative if we choose to pursue it. It might be gardening or cooking or doing unique algorithms or organizing our homes. We’re all creative in some way. For some it becomes an occupation, for others a hobby, and for many, along the way of life’s ups and downs and minutiae, we lose track of it altogether. (What brought you great joy when you were younger and made you lose track of time? That’s often a hint.)

Second, I’m probably the only person on God’s green earth who never read Elizabeth Gilbert’s EAT, PRAY, LOVE. I’m enough of an anarchist to figure any book being raved about that much would be something I wouldn’t like. I still haven’t read it. (I also haven’t read 50 SHADES or most of the YA blockbusters of the last few years. I’m stubborn like that.)

And so, third, I approached this book because I’d stumbled across an Elizabeth Gilbert lecture online that I found interesting (I wrote about it earlier, about following curiosity), so I decided to buy the book on which that lecture had been based. I had ZERO expectations except that it fulfilled one of the New Year’s resolutions I had made and, so far, have actually kept: read one chapter of fiction a day, one chapter of nonfiction a day, and one chapter of the Bible a day. I’ve almost made it six months without missing a day. Yay me! We won’t talk about those other resolutions that didn’t last a week.

Finally, when I started this book, I was in a black, muddy, ugly mental funk. I was worried, you see. I’d committed to leaving my day job next spring so I could fulfill that dream of writing full time, and yet my book sales since then have been tepid at best. I’d just gotten some bad book news on several fronts, series-wise. It was eye-opening when I did taxes this year to learn that I spent as much on giveaways and promotion and postage last year as I made on my books. It’s not supposed to work that way.

So I was worried about leaving my job to live beneath the poverty level for the first time since I got out of college. Okay, let’s call it what it is–wallowing in self-pity. I was wallowing, big-time.

I needed to come up with a new idea for a book project, but I was depressed and exhausted from working two jobs, and every idea I came up with was stale and boring. I know what the adrenaline rush of a workable idea feels like, and it wasn’t there. I didn’t know where to find it and was trying to force it. I read articles to inspire me. I made lists. I was stalled and mired in inertia.

I began binge-watching “Naked and Afraid.” It had come to that. (Shhh…don’t tell anyone. That’s pretty pathetic! LOL.)

And then I began reading BIG MAGIC. It didn’t just speak to my self-pitying ass; it SANG, and some of the lyrics hit too close for comfort. By the time I finished it, I had filled a notebook with quotes I wanted to remember.

I stood convicted: what holds back creativity, Gilbert says, is fear. And she is right. I was fearful of coming up with another idea that didn’t sell well. I was fearful of screwing up a new Penton book because readers had loved the others so much. I was fearful of once again pouring my heart and soul into something that, for some reason, didn’t resonate with readers. Instead of following my heart, I was second-guessing what someone else’s heart might want.

That never works. Never.

Gilbert acknowledges that it takes bravery to write something, or create art, or prepare a new type of meal for someone whose opinion you value, or develop a new data-entry system at work. The bravery comes in putting it out for strangers or family or coworkers to critique.

After we put it out, however, Gilbert says, our job as the creator is done. It’s out of our hands. Our job isn’t to worry about what we can’t control. You can’t make your spouse enjoy the new recipe you love so much. You can’t make your coworkers be enthusiastic about your new time-management system. You can’t force  your best friend to like your new favorite TV show “Naked and Afraid.” *snort*

And I can’t make readers buy and love my books. I can do the social media I love, such as this blog and my annoying Facebook habits. Beyond that, I can only write the best book I’m capable of at the time of its writing, and after that, ultimately, things are out of my control as a creator.

Our job as creators is to keep creating, and if the ideas aren’t there, to keep working as if they are. Our job is to keep our minds relaxed and open to new ideas when they come along, and just keep working. Our job is to follow any wisp of idea that stirs our curiosity. And sometimes, just sometimes, that relaxed mind and following of curiosity will lead to a workable idea—that’s the Big Magic of which Gilbert speaks.

So while pondering all these things, while having no new ideas of my own, I sat at the computer and opened a blank screen. I made a couple of notes on the next Penton book, which I’ve committed to publishing myself. Then I decided I really needed to clean out some bookshelves (you know I’m desperate if my procrastination technique involves cleaning). I picked up a book from the TBR mountain about body language that I’d thought looked interesting a couple of years ago, but had never read. I saw on the cover that the author had once worked for the FBI.

Well, that was interesting. I flipped to read the back and found that the FBI has agents who are specialists in non-verbal communication. Huh.

Well, that was interesting. I wondered if that was very common? I zoomed around the Internet and began thinking about what kinds of cases a non-verbal analyst for the FBI might handle.

Well, that was interesting. Could he or she tell if a witness was lying by reading verbal cues? I did a little more reading.

What if, I thought, the only witness to a crime couldn’t communicate in any conventional way? What if…what if…what if…

“What If” are Big Magic words for me. I came up with an idea, developed some roughed-out characters and settings, wrote up a mini-proposal, sent it off to my agent, and now it’s out there in the world somewhere. It might become a book, and it might not. Maybe nothing will come of it, but the idea flew past my window (in Elizabeth Gilbert’s mystical terminology) while my mind was open enough for me to reach up and pluck it out of the air. Which means there will be other ideas if i just follow my curiosity.

Take letters, for example. A few nights ago, I was listening to a Zachary Richard song called “Fire in the Night” (videos below), and wondered what his inspiration for it was, so I went to his website, and read where that song was inspired by the friendship, love, and long, personal written correspondence between Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, two authors I loved in my college years but hadn’t thought about in a long time. More a Kerouac reader than Ginsberg, I didn’t know that much about their relationship, so I looked around online and found a couple of cheap used copies of their collected letters and ordered them.

Then, less than two days later, out of the blue, I got a package from an old friend with a long letter in it and three CDs of music. It struck me that my friend Michael and I had had a similar, albeit more sporadic, history of writing each other long, rambling letters of philosophical thoughts and mundane life details, including odds and ends of quotes and clippings from magazines and other things we’d found that we wanted to share. And always, we included music. How I’d missed that! We’d both been in writing-related day jobs but had been late bloomers, creatively, as he began seriously pursuing and producing amazing art photography about the same time I began writing fiction.

Now I’m writing him a long letter and listening to his music as I wait for the letters of Ginsberg and Kerouac to arrive. Will these synchronicities turn into Big Magic? I don’t know, but it’s coincidental and mystical and, yeah, maybe so. I don’t know what it means yet. It might be simply a renewal of correspondence between two people who’ve been close friends practically since first grade but live in cities far apart. And that in itself is pretty Big Magic.

I don’t quite subscribe to Gilbert’s woo-woo thoughts about mystical ideas flying around the universe like owl-carrying missives from Hogwarts, waiting for someone to pluck them up and use them, but I did love this book fiercely. I thought I might be alone until I five-starred it on Goodreads, which got auto-posted on Facebook. I had a quick note from a friend, author Dawn Chartier, who said BIG MAGIC was her go-to book when she needed a creative boost. So I’m not alone.

We’ve talked about creativity on this blog a few times before. If you’ve made it all the way through this monstrous blog post, congratulations to you. All you need to do to be entered for the $5 Amazon GC (or Book Depo equivalent) is tell me: when’s the last time you sat down and wrote (or typed) a letter that would go in the actual mail…because email doesn’t count!

And BIG MAGIC was a five-gator read for me. Maybe I’ll even pick up a copy of EAT PRAY LOVE.

Or maybe not.

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban and paranormal fantasy and romantic suspense, currently living in Auburn, Alabama. Author of the Sentinels of New Orleans series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, and Belle Chasse (Nov 2016). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the upcoming Wilds of the Bayou series (Book 1, Wild Man's Curse) releases April 2016).

29 thoughts on “Review: BIG MAGIC by Elizabeth Gilbert (& #Giveaway)

    • I will stick short notes in packages occasionally (and often even forget to do that), so until now, I don’t remember the last time I actually wrote a “real” letter either. So I doubt you’re alone!

  1. A few years ago I read 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff. The book’s premise is that a pen pal friendship is developed between two people living in separate countries based on an inquiry about second hand books. The book inspired me to send a copy to a friend, my best friend, who lived in Lousiana, with the astounding suggestion that we try writing letters to each other. We corresponded through hand-written letters for almost a year before falling behind and, eventually, stopping (the letters, not the friendship). I think it’s about time I started it up again. 🙂

    • I have read that as well (and I believe a lovely film version also was made from that book) and was thinking about it as I wrote this. I was so glad that my friend reached out and I hope we’ll be able to wrangle our busyness and renew our correspondence too 🙂

  2. a few hours ago ^^, you know i love to write personnal letter ( though yours will come later) If it would make you happy i could try to send you a few letter from time to time without reason as well^^

    i’m really glad your received this pacakge when you needed it teh most and i hope the next one you will get will make you as happy

      • thank you note, small message all those are already precious you know it doesn’t necessarily need to be a long letter ( several sheet long as i do sometimes^^) in my eyes any oen is a little treasure that i dutifully keep in my treasure box

  3. I wrote a thank you letter earlier this year, to one of my regular clients. He goes to Pittsburgh, PA every year and brings me back Pittsburgh Penguins swag. And, we won the Stanley Cup this year! Whoo hooo! <(")

  4. Mostly, I just write cards and thank you notes. I haven’t written a letter in years. I enjoyed your review of Big Magic. Sometimes, the well runs dry and then the universe sends you a spark to look at a different source. Hope your office AC gets fixed soon!

    • Thanks! This is the first letter I’ve tried to write in years. I’m off Monday and Tuesday and by the time I return to work on Wednesday, the AC is supposed to be back up and running. Now if they could just repair the political chaos in which I have to work!

    • LOL–and I don’t even mail Christmas cards anymore! Baby steps…maybe I’ll try that this year. I’m not sure about the handwritten message, but that’s a great thing to do.

  5. If I don’t count letters included with Christmas cards (or letters I type at work!), then it’s been (many) years.

  6. We actually sent a bunch out just a couple of months ago! My Grandpa doesn’t use email yet and kept asking for pictures and letters of our new home in Guam. So we sat down and actually wrote letters.

  7. Loved this blog…always wonderful to read something that really speaks to you. I’m not into “woo woo” either so pretty sure I won’t read Gilbert. My daughter and I used to exchange letters ( I still have them) when she spent a year in France being an au pair ( nanny ) and going to University. That was 18 years ago! Wow where does time go?

    • I don’t know where time goes but it goes fast! Luckily, the “woo woo” part of Big Magic is only a small part of the whole thing. It’s mostly about how we set ourselves up to fail and fear through false expectations. Most of it’s very practical…except for the little “woo woo” parts. LOL.

  8. I can’t even remember the last time I mailed a letter, I’m sure it’s been years. I do send out birthday cards and Christmas cards (with a newsletter) all the time, do those count? 😀

    • They definitely count! I’ve been sending ecards for several years. This year, I actually bought my brother a real birthday card and mailed it–that’s the first in a long time!

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