If you’re standing on the brink of a new endeavor, suffering from a bit of writer’s (or artist’s or musician’s) block, or struggling to referee the squabbling voices of creativity and fear in your head, reading Big Magic is the next best thing to hiring Elizabeth Gilbert to coach you through it.
And as life coaches go, you can’t do much better than the hard-working, straight-talking Gilbert. She has won high praise for her fiction, including the New York Times bestselling novel, The Signature of All Things; earned a nomination for the PEN/Hemingway Award for her short story collection, Pilgrims; been a finalist for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for the nonfiction The Last American Man; and three times made the finalist list for the National Magazine Award. In her nonfiction, where Gilbert speaks directly to readers in her own voice, we get to experience even more of her big heart, expansive manner, and remarkable grit — which is why she may still be best known for turning her post-divorce travels into the blockbuster Eat Pray Love (and its follow-up on marriage, Committed).
The point is: The woman knows what she’s doing. We’d do well to listen when she talks about how she does it. (For more about the book, check out the review by our friends at Chapter16.) Hear her speak in person when she visits Nashville next Wednesday, October 21, at Hume-Fogg High School. Meanwhile, here’s an interview between Gilbert and our Musing editor, Mary Laura Philpott. Enjoy!
First off, for folks who have only seen the beautiful cover and don’t know the origin story of Big Magic, tell us a bit about how this book idea originated. What was the moment you first dreamed it up?
LG: This was a funny one, because the idea didn’t really come to me at once. In fact, this idea has been inching toward me for at least 12 years — maybe even more. The ideas in Big Magic (about how it’s necessary, if you want to live a creative life, to have room in your brain for both magical thinking and extremely pragmatic rationalism) have been brewing in my mind for decades. I’ve always had a different relationship with creativity than the stereotypical notion of the tormented artist, but I’ve been shy about discussing my way of doing things — for two reasons: 1.) I feared that the airy-fairy part of me would turn people off, and 2.) I feared that my fierce Yankee pragmatism would be too hard-core for people to bear. In other words, I feared that I am simultaneously too much of a flake and too much of a hard-ass to be much use to anyone. But then I gave my TED talk about creativity in 2009 — in which I revealed both my mysticism and my pragmatism — and people seemed to like it. From then on, it was as if I had a sign around my neck reading, “COME TO ME WITH YOUR QUESTIONS AND ANXIETIES ABOUT CREATIVITY.” After enough years of that, I finally decided that the most efficient thing to do would be to just write a book about it all, and lay it out there for people to pick through. And that book, at long last, became Big Magic.
Whenever I get questions about social media — like how to use it effectively and authentically — I point people in your direction. You interact with readers on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in such a real, human way. Do you think that’s part of why folks believe they can come to you with their creative challenges and questions?
LG: Oh god, I love social media. I never thought I would say such a thing. Five years ago, I was the biggest snob about it. Like all other snobs, I regarded Facebook and Twitter as a giant time-suck, in addition to stupefyingly dumb. I can’t even tell you how much I have changed my mind about that. I reluctantly started Facebook about three years ago, expecting it to be a swamp of snark and silliness, but instead I discovered that I suddenly had access to the most giant-hearted, open-minded, intelligent and searching global community of (mostly) women — all of who were looking for answers about how to live more meaningful lives just as fiercely as I am. I fell in love.
Do you consider Big Magic a gift to those folks?
It’s the first thing I do every morning — sign onto my Facebook page — and I spend a great deal of time throughout the day pondering what subjects we should talk about tomorrow. There is no subject we cannot address on social media together. We discuss spirituality, literature, courage, creativity, the troubles and traumas of love and family, the role of women in today’s world… everything. And the love and support that those people on my Facebook page demonstrate not only to me but too each other (sending love and encouragement to each other from Kentucky to Mexico to Saudi Arabia to South Africa) is so overwhelming and so heartening. I feel a little bit like an advertisement for a utopian future by saying this, but here goes: It’s a beautiful new world. So yes, without hesitation, I can say that Big Magic is definitely a gift to those folks.
I listen to the Magic Lessons podcast while I walk my dogs, and I love it. How much fun was that to do? Any plans to continue it past the publication of the book?
LG: So glad you liked it! I will definitely be continuing the podcast once my book tour is over. I loved, loved, loved doing Magic Lessons. It’s just another miraculous way to take this conversation about creativity out into the world, into the lives of real people who are trying to figure out how they can make more interesting things and be more interesting people. The courage of the women who came on that podcast to discuss their creative dreams and challenges was stunning. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it is that there are no shortage of creative obstacles for people, and therefore I don’t think we’ll be running out of subject matter anytime soon.
There’s a fantastic anecdote in Big Magic about the first time you met Ann Patchett, who is now a good friend of yours. You believe that in that friendly kiss and embrace when you met, the idea for a novel was transferred from you to her. Are you at all worried that now people will be coming up and trying to smooch you on book tour?
LG: Everyone is welcome to kiss me. Everyone in the world, at any time whatsoever. For better or for worse, this is how I have always been.
You’ve had some phenomenal opportunities for travel in your life, and that comes up as a theme in a lot of your writing — how a fresh perspective can spark the magic of creativity. What about folks who don’t get to travel much, if at all? How can people who are stuck where they are get a fresh perspective?
LG: I think we all have to hold ourselves fiercely self-accountable for seeing the world with fresh eyes every day. It’s not an easy ask, but the alternative is dreadful; the alternative is to fall into the stagnation of despair. (My dear friend Pastor Rob Bell has the best definition of a despair I’ve ever heard. He says it’s a spiritual disease, through which you become convinced that tomorrow is going to be exactly the same thing as today.) In fact, tomorrow is not going to be exactly the same thing as today. The next moment from now is not going to be exactly the same thing as this moment. We live in a world — a universe — that is in constant transformation, endlessly shifting from one reality to the next. Nothing ever stays the same.
When you fall into a dullness of vision and a death of imagination, you look out onto your life and say, with a sigh, “Same old, same old.” When you reignite your vision and fire up your imagination, you see that it’s a different universe every moment. Pay attention — what’s going on around you, right in front of your eyes? Ask questions of people you never talked to before; walk to work via a different route; change up your routine so that you dance at night instead of watching TV.
Become a traveler within your everyday life. See the world around you with the wonder of a visitor who just fell from Mars — THAT’S Big Magic, right there. The true mystics have always known that you don’t need to travel to see new worlds; that new worlds are unfolding around you every single day. The action is all around you. Start paying attention. Start participating. Start changing your own landscape. Become a wanderer of the imagination.
One suggestion I would have is to get a copy of the artist Lynda Barry’s book Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor — in which she teaches you how to see your familiar old world with new eyes. Another great one is Vivian Swift’s When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Travelers Journal of Staying Put, which is also a meditation on the amazing world that is right before your eyes, wherever you are.
I love that you advise people to start by making time for their idea, honoring it with some attention and work, before even considering the concept of monetizing or showing it to the world. Do you think that’s part of what holds people back from going after their ideas — that they can’t quite picture how they will be “packaged” or sold in the end, so they don’t even begin?
LG: I only know this: If I am worrying, before I begin a project, about whether my agent will like it, whether bookstores will be able to sell it, or whether it will be marketable to a wide demographic, then I have already taken the wrong exit SO HARD off the highway that I need to be on, in order to create. That wrong exit is guaranteed to lead me to the worst neighborhood you ever saw, where vandals and bandits will strip my car and steal all my belongings and beat me up and leave me for dead. Nothing good ever comes of beginning the creative journey by veering off instantly onto the exit marked: “BUT WILL THIS THING SELL?” Immediately, with that question, my creative self dies — to be replace by a zombie called “anxiety.” There is only one way to do it. Write, draw, compose, or create whatever it is that ignites your own imagination and makes you excited to get up in the morning and work. It may become successful, it may not. It may sell, it may not. But since there is no guarantee, either way, you might as well do the thing you love. Otherwise, trust me, there are a lot easier ways to make a respectable living than through pure creativity.
With your books and your speaking gigs and your motivational posts online, you inspire so many. What do YOU look at or read or do when you need a quick hit of inspiration?
Sung any more karaoke lately?
LG: Oh baby, you’d better believe it. AND MORE TO COME.
And now for a lightning round!
Most unusual fan/reader interaction at an official book event:
LG: A woman asking me if she should get divorced or not. WAY above my pay grade, that kind of question.
Most unusual fan/reader interaction NOT at a book event:
LG: My favorite was a letter a woman sent me, asking me to write her life story for her. I get that kind of request a lot, but this one was beautifully worded. She said, “The thing is, I exercise a lot, because my health and fitness is important to me, so I can’t just sit around writing a book. So maybe you could do it for me?” (The unspoken implication: “Because clearly, Liz, you don’t mind sitting on YOUR fat butt for many hours at a time.”)
Favorite thing about the real-live bookstore experience:
LG: The aroma of a real-live bookstore. Nothing compares.
A few great books you’ve read lately?
LG: I’m reading a lot of novels from the 1930s and 1940s right now, to prepare me for writing an upcoming novel set in New York City during World War II. I’ll tell you who can really write, and who people have forgotten about, is John O’Hara. Also: Herman Wouk. And the novel The Group by Mary McCarthy is amazing, and due to be rediscovered.
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Ticketing Details: This “Special Edition” Salon@615 event is part of the unique partnership among Parnassus Books, Humanities Tennessee, BookPage, and the Nashville Public Library and Foundation. It is a paid, ticketed event. You must purchase a $30 ticket package to attend, and all attendees will receive a SIGNED copy of Big Magic at the event! Seating is limited (on-site tickets may not be available); so we strongly recommend purchasing your ticket package in advance. You may purchase your ticket package directly from Salon@615. For more information on parking and location, click here.
Don’t miss these great events with visiting authors: Saturday, 10/17 – Bobby Braddock: A Life on Nashville’s Music Row
Sunday, 10/18 – Actress & poet Amber Tamblyn
Sunday, 10/18 – Annotations: Authors at Cheekwood – Tracy Barrett
Monday, 10/19 – Salon@615 presents Margaret Atwood and her masterful new book of “speculative fiction,” The Heart Goes Last
Monday, 10/19 – Chef Amanda Freitag of Chopped and Iron Chef America signs her book, The Chef Next Door
Tuesday, 10/20 – Joy Williams, The Visiting Privilege (read a review here)
Tuesday, 10/20 – National Book Award winner Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming, at University School of Nashville
Also on Wednesday, 10/21 – Wine with the Author: Critically acclaimed debut novelist Garth Risk Hallberg, City on Fire (location: Parnassus Books)