I love love love the new Beauty and the Beast movie. One of the best parts, of course, is the Beast’s library, so I wrote “Belle Would Be Enchanted by These 10 Lovely Libraries in Hotels” for USA Today 10Best.Read All Entries
my interview with elizabeth gilbert and a “big magic” giveaway
Could there be a better way to start the new year than with Big Magic?
I’ve been a huge fan of Elizabeth Gilbert since I discovered Eat Pray Love — long before it became EAT PRAY LOVE — and audibly gasped when I saw the three words that pretty much guide my life. Her novel, The Signature of All Things, is the book that made me passionate about reading again during a disturbing dry spell, and I’ve seen her speak at two Oprah events and, most recently, in San Diego at a sold-out event I wrote about for the Del Mar Times.
Her latest book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, is another must-read but for different reasons. Her self-proclaimed “manifesto” is a guide to getting rid of all the excuses that are holding you back from being the creative person you want to be.
I finished it in a day and have recommended it to so many friends who have also gobbled it up and thanked me for this life-changing book. It’s the kind of book where you nod your head, and end up highlighting almost every sentence. It’s profound and practical and written as though your best friend is talking to you.
In my head, Elizabeth Gilbert is my best friend so doing a phone interview with her was absolutely one of the highlights of last year for me. Although the book came out in September, I wanted this interview to be my first post of 2016 so her words would inspire you to read Big Magic, stop making excuses and get out there and do the thing that makes you happy. Because inspiring is one of Gilbert’s great gifts.
Speaking of gifts, I’m also giving away a copy of Big Magic to one lucky subscriber so be sure to read the rules to enter after you read what Liz (yes, we are BFFs now) has to say:
I adored this book. It’s so much better than every self-help book I’ve read about creativity.
Oh, that’s so nice of you to say!
Well, it’s true. It’s so practical, and what I really love is that you get rid of everyone’s bullshit excuses. You acknowledge them and address them, and then tell them why they should get over them.
(Laughing) First of all, thank you for saying such nice words about my book. That is really lovely to hear. Not a lot of people have read it yet so it’s delightful for my ears. And did I hear you right that you said I take away people’s bullshit?
Yes! You cover every excuse writers use for not writing!
(Phone starts making weird noises)
Oh no! I think that’s the truth fairy coming through and saying, “You’d better answer that question truthfully right now.” And that question’s answer is that this book is the result of years of me calling myself out on my own bullshit. Any sort of bullshit you come to me with about your work? I know it already because I’ve worked through it to live a more productive life as a creative.
I think so many people will relate to that. I once read that you write every book “to” someone. Was that true for this book?
Yes. After I gave my TED talk in 2009, which was about creativity, all of a sudden it was like I’d hung a sign around my neck that said, “Please come talk to me about your creative problems.” I didn’t mind because I love talking about this and I found that I really loved the engagement. About a year and a half ago, I went out for lunch with a young woman who is an aspiring writer and whose work is terrific, and something happened during that lunch. I sort of grabbed her by both hands and I just started spewing all this stuff that I wanted her to hear. There was something about that energetic exchange between us that made me say the next day, “I want to write this down almost like a ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ sort of thing. I really want to tell other people the same thing I told her.” I kept imagining her in the room as I wrote it.
Can you tell readers what “Big Magic” means to you, and how you came up with that term?
Most of this book is grounded in a tremendous pragmatism. We have to find that magical middle ground between being totally flaky and totally Puritan. For me, the big magic of creativity is about the relationship between a human being’s effort and the mystery of inspiration. Inspiration is a mystery and remains one. Why are we called to make things that nobody needs? Frankly, it’s one of the weirdest things we can do! And humans have been doing it for, arguably, 60,000 years. They do it because an idea came to them from some mysterious force and asked them to collaborate with the idea. That contract between a human being’s time and effort and energy and the source of weird-ass information is, to me, the most interesting relationship going on in the world, and participating in that relationship is the most delightful way to spend your life. That’s big magic!
What a great description! This book does a real service for people – and you will hear that more and more as more people read it.
I had a really good time writing it. It’s fun to write a manifesto. Everyone should do it! When you have reached a point in your life where you’re standing two feet solid in what you believe, it’s really fun to just lay it out.
You’ve written in so many different forms – fiction, non-fiction, short stories, essays – which seems to fit right in with your whole philosophy of being curious. Have there been different challenges with each?
You know, I don’t see them as different as everyone else seems to. To me, it’s all the same thing. It’s all storytelling and writing. What would be weird would be if I were a novelist and a dentist.
Yes, I guess that’s true!
The only question I have to ask myself is what’s the most interesting way to tell that story? The first person I have to keep interested in this project is myself! I have to keep myself engaged because you may have to be alone with it for a few days, but I have to be alone with it for three years! I have to make sure that I’m keeping myself engaged, and that’s the thing that answers how best to engage with this idea. But it’s all just writing. I’m not even a writer and a visual artist. I’m a writer and a writer and a writer!
Well, I think that’s a really liberating point for other writers to hear. Many writers can’t imagine writing in a different form than they’re used to. But you’re right. It’s all words!
Yeah, it’s all words! We’re just dealing with the same clay, the same materials. There couldn’t be anything more similar to me than writing a novel and writing a non-fiction book.
I’m going to have to internalize that one. I think your anecdote about the magazine editor who made you cut your short story is also very freeing. It’s the opposite of the “Kill my darlings” mentality.
I’ve always hated that term. It goes right along with that line, “To write, all you have to do is open up a vein and bleed.” I’m like, why do you guys keep talking about murder and suicide? We’re just writing stories! I know you want to take yourself seriously, Hemingway and Capote, but, dude, this is not a battlefield. No one has to get in a bar fight. Why do we have to use violent metaphors?
Why is that? It’s horrible.
Sometimes I feel like it’s more than horrible. It’s embarrassing. I mean, guys, your insecurities are really showing. It’s just a book!
Do you have a daily writing routine you follow now?
I have a seasonal routine. When I say I work like a farmer, I mean it in two different ways. One is that I work with the discipline of a farmer and the other is that I keep farmer’s hours. I grew up on a farm so I’m just used to that. When I’m in the throes of writing, I’m at my desk at 6 in the morning, and I go to bed early. You have to make a decision the night before that you’re going to write the next day. And that means not going out to do karaoke until 4:00 in the morning – even though I love doing that.
Have you always written seasonally?
At this point in my life, because writing is now my profession, it’s more efficient for me to write seasonally. There are different seasons for different parts of the process. Right now, because I have a book coming out, it’s the season to publicize it. I can’t write while I’m doing that. Then there’s a season for researching and a season for editing. At this point, the season for writing only comes once every two or three years because I have so much preparation to do before I actually write. This is not how I would suggest you do it if you don’t have someone waiting for your work! The way I used to do it is the way I think you have to do it when you’re beginning your creative career. You really do have to write every day. Otherwise, it just isn’t going to get done.
This reminds me of a word I heard you use one that I had never heard before: sitzfleisch!
It’s a wonderful word! It’s a Yiddish word that literally means your ass flesh. In the old school, if you were meant to be a scholar or a Rabbi or an academic, it meant you had to have the ability to sit on your butt for a long time. I have a very padded butt so I’m good!
I’ll join you in that!
I’ve got everything I need, physically, for this job!
It’s been 10 years since Eat Pray Love and you’ve obviously learned so much that you’re generously sharing with all of us now. Is there anything in the book you wish you had known back then that would have made life way easier for you?
Wow. That question applies much more to my personal, emotional and romantic life. And my answer to that question would be very long! I would say, though, that my grandmother recently died at the age of 102. She was a remarkable, amazing woman. When we were cleaning her apartment, we found she had saved all the letters I had ever written to her. My mom just mailed them to me. In one of the letters – it was from 1994 when Esquire bought my first short story – I said, “I hope I can live up to this.” I remembered suddenly that feeling, that anxiety I had back then that this is the best I’ll ever do. I could visualize my younger self thinking, “Maybe I’ll be 60 years old and I’ll have this one shredded magazine. Maybe this is the only idea I’ll ever have, that I’ll be able to manifest.” And I wish I could have tapped that woman on the shoulder and said, “This is not something you have to worry about because you, young lady, just spent the last seven years diligently working on your craft despite the fact that nobody had offered you any reward for it. Everything you need to know about how committed you are to this work, you already proved.” I still have to have this conversation with myself. Until you say you’re done, you’re not done.
That is so empowering.
We’re here for such a short time. Oh my goodness, it is such a short visit that we’re allotted. So, while we’re here, do a thing! Do a thing! Do a thing!
That’s why I love your whole philosophy about the tormented artist. It should be joyful. It shouldn’t be a horrible chore.
Right. And even when it’s hard, there’s still nowhere else I’d rather be. A hard day of writing is still better than a good day of anything else.
I know I need to wrap up but you feel like you’re such a friend – and I know there are millions of women who feel that same way about you!
Aw! Well, I have women who come up to me and say, “I know it’s crazy but I feel like I know you.” And I’m like, “Dude, that’ s not crazy. It’s because I fucking told you so much about myself.” It definitely feels unbalanced!
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I guess I should end with an “ole.”
Oh, thank you, you’re so sweet!
I will skip the next few minutes of my fangirling her and cut to the giveaway. For a chance to win a copy of Big Magic, you must be a subscriber to my weekly newsletter. If you’re not a subscriber, first sign up in the right sidebar of this page. Then, simply leave a comment below. For a second chance, Tweet this:
Contest ends on January 9 (my birthday!) at midnight Pacific time. Winner will be notified by return email. Prize can only be sent to a U.S. mailing address.
Here’s to a year of BIG MAGIC all around!