‘Eat, Pray, Love’ author Elizabeth Gilbert isn’t afraid to embrace the much-scorned self-help genre with ‘Big Magic’
Before Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love hit the New York Times bestseller list like a tidal wave, her first book, Pilgrims, received a Pushcart Prize, and her third, The Last American Man, was nominated for the National Book Award. Her novel The Signature of All Things dazzled readers with a galloping adventure of botanical discovery. Her work reflects a spirited sense that curiosity is the key to a well-lived life, and her new book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear is no exception.
Gilbert and I share a fascination with the self-help genre, and we laugh about it during our phone conversation.
“People dance around it with Big Magic,” she says. “They go, ‘it’s sort of like a self-help book,’ worried I’ll be insulted. But I tell them, ‘Dude, it’s the definition of a self-help book.’” When we talk, I recognize the funny relatable voice that narrated Eat, Pray, Love. Quenching as a cold beer on a hot day, it drives Big Magic, too.
I want to thank you for pulling creativity out of the clutches of that evil word, success.
ELIZABETH GILBERT: The Yankee pragmatist in me shares space with the airy-fairy, woo-hoo freak. I wanted to reach out to people who’ve said to me, “I quit my job so I can write a novel,” which makes me break out in hives. I’m in combat with that most dangerous of bumper stickers: “jump and the net will catch you.” My life experience suggests, “jump and the net might catch you.”
But doesn’t that squash people’s dreams?
I didn’t quit my day job, even after three books published. It’s great to be childlike in your creativity, but don’t be childish in your life. Wishing for something doesn’t make it happen. Even performing doesn’t always do it. You have to have another reason to create, and it had better be because you love it. Nothing else will hold up.
That’s a hard pill to swallow.
It can be. I talked with a woman at an event who said, “I risked everything for this creative project, and it bombed. I feel enraged.” I asked who she was enraged with, and she said, “Inspiration.” Well that’s like trying to punch a raindrop. The hippie in me says “create, create, create,” but the farmer’s daughter says, “don’t take out a loan to become a painter.”
Your book empowers people who have less time than they want, less money, less confidence, but it also scolds gatekeepers who preach that we can’t create unless conditions are right.
You can’t put it all on someone else, but I can imagine when you’re 21 years old and just got accepted into a prestigious fine arts program, you just want to go. They don’t have any money for you, so you get it however you can, and tell yourself you’re investing in your future. But my friend, Ann Patchett, wisely says, “if they don’t give you money, you didn’t really get in, they’re just letting you attend.” I try really hard to stay away from the word “racket.”
Even so, that doesn’t mean you don’t have the goods.
Right. I can point to many people doing amazing things without those degrees, including me.
You talk about having genius as opposed to being a genius. It makes me feel like if I’m open and ready, it will find me.
As it found your ancestors, and mine. They were makers, every one. They designed and built things, made up songs and stories. There’s this idea now, that unless you live in the right city, go to the right schools, and grow up in the right family, you’re not allowed to be creative, but that’s our human heritage. The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you. The most playful and liberating way we can engage with that idea is to believe that some really weird force we don’t understand wants to play with us, because we play well with it.
Where does talent come in?
It’s one of the least important parts of the story, because it’s so subjective. I don’t know how much innate writing talent I have, but I do know how much life I’ve devoted to it. I’ve known people I thought were way more talented than me, who never used it, and others I arrogantly dismissed as untalented, who blew my mind. The real question is, what are you going to do to uncover whatever it is that’s inside you?
How has travel informed your thoughts on creativity?
A creative life is one where you make decisions based more strongly on curiosity than fear. Travel fits in because it’s informed by both, but it can be planting a garden or learning Italian. Whenever you respond to that tap on your shoulder, asking you to look more deeply into something, there’s big magic at work, and whether you follow it or ignore it will determine the size of your life. Most people I know want a bigger life. I do.
Elizabeth Gilbert will speak at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 10 at the Santa Cruz High School Theater. Tickets are $27.15 and include a copy of her new book, ‘Big Magic.’ bookshopsantacruz.com.
MAGIC SHOW Bookshop Santa Cruz will present an event with Elizabeth Gilbert, whose new book is ‘Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear,’ on Saturday, Oct. 10 at the Santa Cruz High School Theater.