Big Magic: A Brief Review and Summary

For a long time, I resisted reading anything by the author of Eat, Pray, Love.

But after months of badgering from several people I respect and trust, I finally caved and picked up a copy of Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. And I’m very glad I did!

Part creative autobiography, part motivational speech, the book is an inspiring and practical call to action for all of us to break through our fears and unleash the creative force within us, no matter the form—mystery writing, ice-sculpting, zero-scape gardening, whatever.

Because ultimately, life itself is a work of art. Which means, it’s our responsibility—and great joy—to create the best version of it we can.

What follows is a collection of my favorite quotes from the book along with a few brief thoughts of my own.

On Fear

Fear is a deeply ancient instinct, and an evolutionarily vital one… but it ain’t especially smart.

We’re not especially smart in the way we train our fear.

If your fear tells you something’s dangerous and you act accordingly, whether it was truly dangerous or not, you’ve taught it a lesson. When you consider hitting “publish” on your blog and decide not to for fear of embarrassment, you’re training your fear to believe publishing your words is dangerous.

Have the courage to teach your fear the difference between what is truly dangerous and what merely feels like it.

On Courage

When courage dies, creativity dies with it.

Don’t wait around hoping to feel creative in order to do the bold work you were meant for.

Be bold and your creativity will follow.

On Permission

It never occurred to me to go ask an authority figure for permission to become a writer. I’d never seen anybody in my family ask anyone permission to do anything. They just made stuff. So that’s what I decided to do: I just decided to go make stuff.

Practice the art of not asking for permission: Don’t wait to be seated at the restaurant.

No one is qualified to give you permission to create. So why go looking for it?

On Entitlement

You will never be able to create anything interesting out of your life if you don’t believe that you’re entitled to at least try.

What a beautiful metaphor: Learning to see one’s life as an unsculpted work of art.

On Instinct

At the end of the day, I do what I do because I like doing it… Do whatever brings you life, then. Follow your fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions. Trust them. Create whatever causes a revolution in your heart.

I’m not sure I buy this entirely. Unless you have tremendous clarity about what is truly in your heart (that is, what’s a real value rather than a passing whim), this advice could be dangerous.

But I love this bit: Follow your fascinations.

On Subversion

Enjoying your work with all your heart is the only true subversive position left to take as a creative person these days. It’s such a gangster move, because hardly anybody ever dares to speak of creative enjoyment aloud, for fear of not being taken seriously as an artist.

Don’t let your art become a casualty of trying to be an artist.

On Fear (2)

All the good ideas feel daunting at first.

Fear is just as often a signal for what to approach as what to avoid.

On Publishing

Whether you think you’re brilliant or you think you’re a loser, just make whatever you need to make and toss it out there.

Of course, there’s a balance between quality and quantity. Don’t just put stuff out there to put stuff out there. Quality matters.

But most of us have a bias toward endless revising and polishing because, deep down, we’re afraid of putting our work out there and being vulnerable to failure, criticism, and humiliation.

To account for that bias, realize that you should publish sooner than you think. Perhaps much sooner.

Or, put another way, always ask yourself: What’s the opportunity cost of continuing to work on this piece?

On Judgment

People’s judgments about you are none of your business.

Obsessing about other people’s judgments of you is just another form of narcissism.

It’s not about you; it’s about the work.

On Results

The results of my work don’t have much to do with me. I can only be in charge of producing the work itself.

The soul of happiness and productivity lies in taking control over the things you actually have control over and accepting the things you don’t.

On Fear (3)

Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcomes, and fear hates uncertain outcomes.

You can’t be creative until you embrace uncertainty.

On Playfulness

It doesn’t discourage me in the least to know that my life’s work is arguably useless. All it does is make me want to play.

Playfulness just might be the most underrated virtue.

On Freedom

I was always willing to work hard so that my creativity would play lightly. In so doing, I became my own patron; I became my own studio wife.

If you would have your art be a source of freedom, you must be willing to become a slave to your art.

On Mushrooms

Pretend you’re traveling on a business trip when secretly you’re retreating in order to paint, or write poetry, or to draw up plans for your future organic mushroom farm.

Chances are, you’ll need a little less Thor and a little more Loki if you’re going to achieve your creative potential.

On Fear (4)

If you can’t learn to travel comfortably alongside your fear, then you’ll never be able to go anywhere interesting.

We make two equally bad mistakes with fear: Either we hand over the reins entirely or we try and throw it out the window. Neither works and both make your fear stronger.

Instead, welcome your fear to come along for the ride. Just be sure it’s buckled up tight in the back seat.

On Laziness

If you want to live a contented creative life… You must learn how to become a deeply disciplined half-ass.

99% of their lives, cheetahs look identical to sloths.

But that 1%…

On Border Collies

Possessing a creative mind, after all, is something like having a border collie for a pet: It needs to work, or else it will cause you an outrageous amount of trouble.

So much unhappiness comes from not taking responsibility for cultivating creative outlets in our lives.

You were born to create. Own that inheritance. Nurture it. Then watch it bloom.

On Perfectionism

Perfectionism is just a high-end, haute couture version of fear. I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says, again and again, “I am not good enough and I never will be good enough.”

Perfectionists don’t fear imperfect results. They fear imperfect feelings.

You owe it to your work to make peace with feeling bad.

On Critics & Trolls

What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest—as politely as you possibly can—that they go make their own fucking art.


In the end…

Be a maker, a doer, a creator.

Forget the critics—the ones in the world, yes, but more importantly, the ones in your head.

Follow your nose, keep your head down, and soldier on with your art, whatever that might be.

Anyhow, what else are you going to do with your time here on earth—not make things? Not do interesting stuff? Not to follow your love and your curiosity?

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