Elizabeth Gilbert, the critically-acclaimed author best known for her 2006 memoir, Eat Pray Love, takes a bold turn in her latest book, BIG MAGIC. In BIG MAGIC, Gilbert shares her own creative process and offers insights into what it takes to ignite your own sense of creativity. She discusses the curious and often fleeting nature of inspiration and how to truly capture it. She encourages readers to go after what you love and handle the fear that often comes with it.
Gilbert was kind enough to answer OUR questions about creativity, boldness, and BIG MAGIC. See what she had to say AND find out how to win a signed copy of BIG MAGIC below!
How much research went into the creation of Big Magic and how much of it was based on your own creative process and life?
EG: Well, there are two ways of answering this…. Either I did no research at all for Big Magic, or I’ve been researching it my entire life. Let me explain!
All of my books prior to this one have been heavily researched. Whether I am writing fiction or nonfiction, I always have to do a lot of studying and investigation before I begin a project — sometimes years of investigation. I’ve been thinking about writing a book on creativity for a long time (for well over twelve years) and I had always anticipated that it would be the same process as always — very research-driven. So for years and years I gathered up every book on creativity I could find (books on the neuroscience of creativity, books on the cultural history of creativity, studies of the psychological links between creativity and madness, et cetera, et cetera). I ended up not reading a single one of those books. Not one of them. I just couldn’t. Even their titles sucked the life out of me. Every time I looked at my bookshelf full of books that were trying to deconstruct and demystify creativity, I would get depressed. I didn’t know why, until I realized: I don’t care about any of this stuff! I don’t care about trying to deconstruct and comprehend the science and the facts and the statistics of creativity. All I care about is living (as I have always lived) deep within the beautiful mystery — the Big Magic — of this strange pursuit of human collaboration with inspiration. Once I realized that—that the empirical evidence of the story of creativity meant nothing to me—writing this book became both simple and joyful and…creative. All I had to do was sit down and write what I know about creativity from my own lived experience, from the “research” I’ve been doing my whole life about how to engage with this force in a way that is generative, sacred, delightful, and reverent.
The message and lesson throughout Big Magic is learning how to find the courage in yourself to release your creativity and “treasures.” Was there one moment in your life or career that helped you to find that courage in yourself?
EG: If you want to live a creative life, it’s almost more important that you be curious than that you be brave. The thing is, I’m not a particularly brave person. I’ve always been kind of high-strung and nervous. I don’t like to fail, I don’t like to get hurt, I don’t like confrontation, and I don’t like to be in situations where I can’t anticipate in advance exactly what the outcome will be. By all rights, I should be a person who has spent her life cowering in a corner with a blanket over her head. But I have one saving grace: I am deeply curious.
I am approximately 1 percent more curious about the world than I am afraid of it — and that critical 1 percent has made all the difference. So my entire life has been shaped by one incident after another in which I was terrified, but then my curiosity got the better of my fear, and I thought, “I will never forgive myself for not knocking on that door or trying this new scary thing.” The most profound moment of curiosity over fear was probably when, as an unpublished writer back in my early twenties, I marched into the offices of a major New York magazine and just straight-up asked for a job. No resumé, no clippings to my name, no degree in journalism — nothing. I was nobody. I just talked my way into the editor-in-chief’s office and asked him, “Can you hire me to be a writer here?” It was ludicrous, and I was visibly shaking the whole time, but I had to do it. My curiosity told me: “Make the bold move. You have nothing to lose; they don’t know who you are anyhow, so it’s not like you have a reputation to uphold. Just ask, and see what happens!” So I marched in there, and I asked. And they didn’t hire me. (Of course they didn’t! Who would hire an unknown young writer with no experience?) But two things happened that day. One: I realized I can be outrageously bold if the situation is interesting enough, and two: I made an impression on the editor-in-chief…and a year later, I did get a job there, once I had proven myself elsewhere.
Of your seven published books, which one was the hardest to write and which did you find to be the easiest?
EG: They all had their own challenges; they all had their own graces. But the hardest was surely my memoir Committed— the book that I wrote after Eat Pray Love. And that was precisely because it was the book that came after Eat Pray Love. I knew that I was in a lose-lose position with that book — whatever it was going to be. There was nothing I could create that could ever possibly compete with the mad tsunami-like success of EAT PRAY LOVE. Part of me said, “Well then, why not just hang it up and quit? You’re at the peak of your success right now, and you can never beat this, so why not just retire while you’re at the top?” But another, deeper part of me knew better.
There is a part of my creative soul that thinks far beyond the realm of ego, and who doesn’t care about competition, or winning and losing. There is a part of me who knows that the outcome of our creativity — while always interesting — is not all that important; what’s important is the process. What’s important is continuing to be a person who makes things throughout her whole entire life — rather than just sitting back and being a mere consumer, or a passive bystander. What’s important is to keep digging within yourself to see what’s hiding in there, and then to try like hell to bring it forth. My friend Rob Bell always says, “The universe is looking for collaborators” — and I think it’s important to keep collaborating in the ongoing story of creation and unfolding. As long as you are alive, you should try to be a co-creator of the world; there is no cooler job than that, no matter how it turns out. It was only when I turned my thinking in that direction that I could calm down and just write the poor book that had to come after Eat Pray Love, and then toss it out there in the world and let the chips fall…and then write another book after that…and another…and another. Because anything less than that would be, to put it simply, a failure of imagination, and a great pity and loss for my own life.
We love a good book recommendation (or two…or three). What are you reading right now?
EG: My favorite recent books have been The Light of the World a gorgeous memoir by Elizabeth Alexander; Girl Waits with Gun, a great and delightful romp of a novel by Amy Stewart; The Bone Clocks, because I will go down any rabbit hole David Mitchell wants to lead me into; and Rising Strong, because Brené Brown is the business when it comes to questions of courage and heart.
You describe ideas as conscious beings that “swirl around” looking for “willing human partners” to utilize that idea and bring it to life. Have you always felt this way about ideas and is there someone in your life who seems to attract more ideas than most humans?
EG: Allow me to let you in on a secret: I am not the only person who ever experienced creative ideas as being conscious, animated, willful spirits that swirl around the world, looking for human collaborators. This is why people always say, “An idea came to me!” Because that’s what it feels like. Pretty much everyone in history who ever interacted with inspiration or creativity believed in that sort of thinking — that ideas are electrifyingly alive, and that (mysteriously) they come to you, in flickers of inspiration and visitation, from some unknowable source outside yourself. Or at least that’s how all human beings thought about creativity, back before the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason ruined everything!
To be serious, though — I’m a big fan of the Age of Reason, generally speaking. I think rational thought and scientific process have brought wonderful advancements to our world, and I am grateful to live in an age of science and empiricism. However, I think it’s important not to become too rational when it comes to questions of creativity. Best to keep one small whimsical part of your brain open to the idea of mystery, magic, and miracle. The people I know who are the most open to magic and mystery are the people who seem to attract the most ideas. I don’t think any more ideas come to them than to anyone else, but those sorts of people are just more open, more welcoming…and the ideas like that fertile ground, and make their home inside that person’s imagination.
What words of advice would you give to college students who are struggling to find their creativity or who feel discouraged to pursue it when it may not lead to a traditional career?
EG: Take my ideas here with a grain of salt — what I am about to say is merely one person’s opinion. But you asked, so here goes.
Dear Young Person: Please do not pursue any field of pure creativity as a career, because (with rare exceptions) pure creativity makes for a crap career. Here is my definition of a career: “Something that provides for your material survival in the world, in a predictable and reasonable fashion.” Here is my definition of pure creativity: “WHEEEEEEEEE!” Please do not make your material survival in this world dependent upon “WHEEEEEEEEE!” because that is sheer craziness, and that will lead you to suffering. Worst of all, trying to depend upon your creativity to make a career may lead you to hate your creativity, because you keep trying to rely upon it, and it keeps letting you down. Why? Because curiosity just wants to play in the playground all day (and sometimes in the middle of the night) and you’re like, “Damn you, creativity! You need to provide for me! I need to make a car payment!” and your creativity is like: “What’s a car payment? Oh, look! A slide! WHEEEEEEEEE!”
I believe that there is only one sane way to pursue a creative life, and that is to see your beautiful creativity as a vocation, not a career. Here is my definition of a vocation: “Something that calls you forth into explosive joy.” Do you have something in your life, a creative outlet, that calls you forth into explosive joy? Good. Do that thing. Follow it with all your heart. Invest time and love into it. Do it forever. It’s your responsibility to keep that creative pulse within you alive and beating. But don’t ask anything of your creativity in return — other than the joy of playing with it – because it may or may not deliver for you. Make sure to keep your day job. Separate the material world from the creative world; don’t kill yourself trying to blend them. Most people I know who set out to have “creative careers” end up having a half-assed version of both. (Not quite “creative” enough to satisfy their souls; not quite “career” enough to make them financially comfortable.) You are a resourceful adult human: You can absolutely support yourself in some manner that pays the bills at the same time that you give time and energy on the side to whatever makes your creative soul detonate into explosive joy. And maybe — maybe — if you are very lucky, you will find success and financial reward someday in your creativity. But that has to be the accidental side effect of a life dedicated to creative exploration — not the intended goal. Because creativity is a freaky-deaky spirit, and she may or may not come through for you in the way that you want…although if you love her enough—trust me on this—she will always come through for you in the way that she wants.
*BONUS: WIN A COPY OF BIG MAGIC SIGNED BY ELIZABETH GILBERT
We can’t stop reading (and re-reading) all of the inspiring answers Elizabeth Gilbert had to our questions. We want all of YOU to feel just as inspired, so we’re giving away three signed copies of BIG MAGIC! Here’s how to enter:
- Take a picture of what inspires you.
- Post your photo to Instagram.
- Tag us (@bncollege) and add the hashtag #bigmagicsweeps.
Find the Official Rules here.