To say Elizabeth Gilbert is inspiring is a little like describing a picturesque vista of mountains scraping across blue sky as “pretty,” or the experience of watching your favorite band play from front row seats as merely “cool.” It’s just a slight understatement. As I read her writing, I find my head nodding along consistently; so skilled is she at highlighting my innermost thoughts and dissecting them, that I can’t help but feel more encouraged and understood by the last page.
Gilbert first leaped into our collective consciousness after the publication and runaway success of her bestselling memoir, Eat, Pray, Love. Since then, she’s written both fiction and non-fiction, including, most recently, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which was released in paperback this week. In it, Gilbert argues that humans are inherently creative beings—makers at heart—and it’s only when we are open to inspiration, we put in the work and let go of our fears, do we uncover the “strange jewels” inside each of us.
Recently, I saw Elizabeth Gilbert speak to a sold-out crowd in New York City about Big Magic and her own generative process. She revealed to the crowd that in writing it, she didn’t quite realize she’d written a manifesto. “All of my other books have been asking questions and in Big Magic, I’m telling people what to do in order to locate their creativity!” She knew, that when she went on book tour, she couldn’t preach while not practicing what she was preaching, so she set her intention: while she couldn’t embark on a new book while traveling around the country and the world, she could make every human interaction she encountered a meaningful one. She asked every cab driver, hotel clerk, and barista the same question: “what are you most excited about in your life right now?” Their resulting answers resulted in incredible instances of what Gilbert calls “that human-to-human spark.” By asking such a question, she essentially hotwired intimacy, cutting through the usual B.S. of the “where are you froms” and “what do you dos.”
This is big magic—doing something, taking a risk and getting an unexpected reward; choosing the path of curiosity rather than the path of fear. Elizabeth Gilbert talked with Read it Forward’s editor Abbe Wright about uncovering latent creativity, being afraid (but keeping it in check) and experiencing magical moments while reading.
Read it Forward: In Big Magic, you write an analogy for the creative process that I just love. You say that, in order to create, you and inspiration must go on a road trip together. Your inner critic—which is really fear in one of its many disguises—can come along, but it can’t choose the snacks or the radio station and you definitely cannot let fear drive. But you acknowledge that it does need to come along for the ride. Is that your way of saying that we must operate with some small amount of fear, which helps keep us out of harm’s way?
Elizabeth Gilbert: Oh yeah. One of the biggest and most broken psychological concepts in contemporary American culture is the idea of fearlessness. All the language around it is so aggressive, macho and shrill—like, “Kick fear in the ass; punch fear in the face; show fear who’s boss.” It feels inhumane! I don’t know anybody who really is like that, do you? I know people who can put on some sort of armor and go into the world and pretend to be like that but no one who I know or love walks around the world that way.
All the people who I know and love and learn from are the people who are really open and candid about their fear and about their anxiety. They find really compassionate ways to work with it, rather than constantly trying to either pretend it doesn’t exist or do some sort of massive genocidal eradication. I just don’t see that as a very creative way to live. I think it’s much more interesting to find ways to make peace with all the things that you are and then go from there. So yeah, everything gets to stay in the minivan; fear gets to stay there, shame gets to stay there, anxiety, depression, all of it. It’s all part of the family and none of it is excluded or can be excluded.
RIF: But it can’t drive.
EG: No, it can’t drive. When fear makes you go to war against it, that’s fear taking the wheel. But when you just let it be there, sharing a space with you, it becomes less of a battle. Fear is a really good sign that you’ve got skin in the game, that what you’re doing matters to you and it has an impact on your psyche. That’s often a very good indication that you’re on the right track, that you’re doing something that’s really scary. That’s good.
RIF: In our culture, we have this idea of the suffering artist who is depressed and in pain and it is only because of this innate pain that they are able to create. But in Big Magic, you want to put a stop to this idea. You write that you don’t give space to those people who say, “I must suffer for my art and if I’m not suffering, I’m not creating.” You argue that putting yourself first and taking care of yourself will lead to creation and that those people who create while suffering almost do so in spite of it and not because of it, right?
EG: Look, I get suffering. I am not, in any way, trying to make some sort of argument that suffering does not or should not exist. I have an enormous amount of respect for it in the way that it’s operated in my life and the way that it’s operated in other people’s life. What I’m taking issue with is the fetishization of it. I think that that’s a really recent development in human creative history.
It’s a story we love because it’s really glamorous and it’s really romantic. The stories of people who died for their art or died from their art make for great biopics or movies—think about Black Swan for instance— but I think the danger of it is then people get this idea that that’s what an artist looks like. And young artists, I think, are drawn to that image and try to cultivate that darkness in themselves, in order to try to appear more authentic, because there’s this idea that if you’re not destroying your life and the lives of everybody around you while you’re making art then you’re doing it wrong.
If the only story that you are telling about creativity is the story of pain, then you’re only telling half the human story—you’re leaving out half of what it is to be a human. And if you’re not telling the entire human story, then you’ve crippled your art. And if you’re insisting on only telling stories that are about brokenness and misery, then you’re doing a tremendous disservice to anybody who wants to live a whole human life which includes brokenness and misery and also includes resilience and joy and generosity and grace. These are also parts of human experience. And you’re also negating the work of anybody who ever dares to enjoy what it is they’re making, which just feels, like, incredibly savage in a way. I think it’s a really limited view of what it is to be a person.
RIF: Imagine with me: if everyone let go of their fear and started making things that brought them joy—not to sell on Etsy or to find fame—but just for the sheer fun of it, what would the world look like?
EG: Well it would probably look a lot like a lot of preindustrial cultures look like, which would be societies where everybody’s a maker and where the entire village is filled with the stuff that a whole bunch of people made together.
If you go to Papua New Guinea and the whole tribe is in a circle, singing, there are not going to be four people who are outside of that circle saying, “You know what, I’m not a good singer. Yeah, I don’t sing, that’s not my thing.” No, everybody contributes and the entire world has been shaped by that ethic.
Whenever people challenge me on this idea that everyone is naturally creative, my rebuttal is that you and I and every single person we know are descended from people who made things for tens of thousands of years. My grandmother made these beautiful hooked and crocheted rugs and she made quilts; they had no money, she had no training, and no education but the things that she made were beautiful. Actually—and this is my favorite definition of art—they were unnecessarily beautiful. She needed a quilt to keep her children warm—that’s necessity—but they didn’t have to be gorgeous. She could have just hacked something together and thrown a kid underneath for warmth, but something in her felt it was important that they be unnecessarily beautiful.
This is what humans do, it’s our little trick; we possess this desire to make something far better than it has to be. Humans have been into the idea of ornamentation for our entire existence. Throughout history, as soon as there is enough to eat and everyone is safe, we start adorning and changing and altering and decorating things to be more pretty than they have to be. That’s who we are and that’s where we come from.
The other piece of evidence to prove it is that that’s what every kid does automatically and instinctively. There’s not a child out there, that you put some crayons and a piece of paper in front of them, doesn’t get it that they’re supposed to, like, make something. They just dive in because making things is in our DNA.
And we live now in a society where, as with everything else, there’s become this rigid professionalism of art in the same way that everything else is rigid and professional. And so now you don’t get to do it unless you have a certain amount of training, unless you’ve won a certain number of competitions, unless you’ve been published in a certain number of journals.
Our capitalist society has created this really efficient model where only a few people are the best at making and everybody else has to be producers and consumers. And, at our roots, that’s not what we’re about.
RIF: What do you say to people who say to you, “Liz, of course, you can write about creativity, you’re a bestselling author?”
EG: I say, “Well I wasn’t born one!” I was born on a Christmas tree farm and my parents were a nurse and a Christmas tree farmer. I wasn’t born in the Penguin Random House building. As a child, I never met anyone who was a writer, but despite that fact, this was a path that I etched for myself and started on when I was 15 years old and chose and sacrificed for. It was my decision not to ever have a profession beyond writing; I didn’t have a backup choice. I said to myself, “This is what I do and I’m willing to be a diner waitress and a bartender and an au pair and somebody who sells jewelry at flea markets. I’m willing to not have very nice, fancy things. I’m willing to give up going on vacation with my friends to stay home and write. I’m willing to give up everything for this because this is my source of light.”
And when I was 18 and writing short stories in my bedroom for no reward, I liked the stories and I enjoyed doing it. I liked my writing before anybody else did. Ten to fifteen years before anybody heard of me and twenty years before I was a bestselling author, this is what I was doing.
RIF: As a person who is very visible in the world and open and honest with your fans, how do you manage what you share with the people who love you and look up to you, while still maintaining some resemblance of privacy?
EG: I actually think that social media is the answer to that. I truly love Facebook because I can have that connection with people within the privacy of my own home and under my own control. I can open up a dialog about something that I’m thinking or feeling or noticing and people can respond and I can choose who to respond to and I can engage or not engage. And then I can walk away from my laptop and my house is empty, and I’m alone with my family or alone with my friends. It’s kind of perfect because I like that communion, I like being part of the public conversation, I like putting something in the world and feeling the response to it. I like it when people bring me questions and we discuss it. I just want to be able to manage when I’m doing that, and I can, thanks to Mark Zuckerberg. I don’t feel it’s a burden; I think it’s a real honor that people are interested in what I’m doing and I’m really curious about what they’re doing. And then it’s really easy to cut it off—close the laptop, turn off notifications and go for a walk.
RIF: Can you read while you’re writing or do you really have to separate the two?
EG: I can’t read things that are similar to what I’m writing. Right now I’m working on a novel about New York City showgirls in the 1940s. If anybody hears me say that, they go, “Oh, you know what novel you should read?” and suggest something in the same vein. I will not go anywhere near it because it’s too confusing and distracting. I will read books written in the 1940s about showgirls but I can’t read a novel similar to what I’m trying to do because it just messes with my head. I’ll either think, “This is so much better than I could do, why am I bothering?” or I’ll be afraid of accidently plagiarizing it or being influenced by it, so I have to be careful. There are certain books that people give me while I’m writing on a certain topic and I’ll just put them aside and they don’t get read until my book is published.
RIF: Have you ever experienced “big magic” while reading?
EG: Reading is my first love, even before writing. Often, while reading, I experience a wave of wonder and I will clap out loud alone in a room. There are certain writers who have that effect on me—Martin Amis is one of them. I’ll just start clapping and be like, “yes,” and it’s not because he’s giving me some transcendental philosophical idea; it’s because the sentence is so awesome that I just have to applaud, which I think is a kind of magic, right? It’s part of the reason that the arts are around; to remind us that we’re not just here to pay bills and die, that we’re also here to get excited and to feel wonder and to feel awe.
Author Photo: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders