Elizabeth Gilbert's argument for magical thinking
An interview with the author of Big Magic
Even as Elizabeth Gilbert was writing her 2006 mega-bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, there was another book stirring inside her. It took a total of 15 years, but that book — Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, a self-help guide to uncorking originality and innovation — is finally here.
In Big Magic, Gilbert shares her insights on the mysteries of inspiration, and how to overcome the creative person's greatest obstacle: fear. “Anything you fight ends up fighting back harder," she told The Week. "It's less about fighting fear and more about working with it and around it. How you manage determines how much interesting stuff you do in your life."
Big Magic encourages everyone, not just writers like Gilbert, to find an endeavor they love and run with it. Even if the essence of the book is that intangible quality called magic, you also get what you give. And Gilbert should know: Although the premise whirled around Gilbert's mind for more than a decade, she said it took a long time for her to finally string her thoughts together to create the final product.
"One thing I felt was perhaps a bit of insecurity, if I even had the authority to do this," she said. "Does the world need another book on creativity? If so, let's make sure it's someone who has really established herself, who will smoke what she's selling."
Gilbert didn't think that writing Eat, Pray, Love — which has more than 10 million copies in print and was turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts — gave her the license "to start spouting off." She also had to get over not being a confrontational person.
"I'm not argumentative," she said. "A lot of what I'm doing in this book is really questioning whether we need to continue the myth of the tortured artist. A lot of artists are distrustful of pleasure, and really trust only the darkest parts of being authentic. That leads to a lot of misery and self-destruction. I had to figure out a way to write about that from a positive place."
The book, Gilbert said, "ended up being an argument for magical thinking." Gilbert said it "is a reflection of where I'm coming from in this point of my life. If we're lucky, the older we get, the more authentic we become. Lately, the voice on the page, the voice I use to talk to myself, my voice with friends and strangers, it's all coming from the same voice. When you're young, you're a pixelated fragmentation of 10,000 molecules moving one million miles an hour in 80 different directions."
One of Gilbert's most intriguing beliefs is that ideas are constantly swirling around us, and they make contact only when they're certain they've found the person who will bring them to fruition. Sometimes people are open and willing to receive these ideas, and other times, they're busy with something else and the ideas will eventually move on to the right carrier.
It's not as off-the-wall as it sounds. "Even the most rational thinking empiricist talking about inspiration uses language like 'the idea came to me,'" Gilbert said. "In that language is this feeling — and it may be delusional, I'm perfectly willing to say that — it's a hallucination. I just know that the universal language of inspiration speaks of being struck by lightning, an idea coming to you while waking up in the middle of the night, and chills on the arms. Then comes the work, the labor, the hammering away. Without that inspiration, it's useless or wasted."
"I interview creative people all the time," she continued, "and they try to reconstruct it, but the implication is there's a little bit of magic in it. I'm post-enlightenment. I believe in evolution and the scientific method and vaccinations; I am not living totally in hairy fairy la-la land. I think in realms of creativity and space, which are interconnected, and I think it's okay to leave a little doorway open to the possibility of magic and mystery."
Big Magic also delves into perfectionism, and the struggle many women have with being assertive and feeling entitled to their own voice. It's important, Gilbert said, to remember that "it's on you to raise your hand and ask for a raise, and to ask to be given leadership over a project."
"Perfectionism is a great tragedy because it's not perfectionism that stops someone from the doing the work; it stops them from even beginning," she said. "Something in there says, 'You're not good enough, you'll never be good enough.' For tens of thousands of years of human history, to be told you're not worthy, that you're a second class citizen, it's understandable. We all had that in our drinking water. We have to forcibly reverse it, one individual at a time."
"I feel like for me, a lot of times when I'm in situations and I have the instinct to retreat, I think, 'You have an obligation to model this,'" she added. "At this point in my life, I don't get to say, 'I'm really uncomfortable speaking in front of 200,000 people during Oprah's stadium event.' They don't need you to say that, they have enough insecurities. They need you to say, 'Yeah, I'll do that. I'm ready.' If not me, who? Another dude? I like dudes, but another one? No, we're not doing that anymore."
One thing Gilbert wants people to keep in mind is this: The stakes are not often as high as we think they are, and it's okay to dive in head first, not knowing if you're going to sink or float.
"Magnificent things exist in this world that were made by humans who weren't ready to do it before they started," she said. "They weren't qualified, they didn't know how to do it. Human history is full of creative people who were 20 percent qualified for that job; they took a leap and some amazing alchemy happened."
It's a "lofty and grandiose ambition," but Gilbert said she'd be thrilled if Big Magic gives people "permission to take back what is their human heritage of experimentation and creativity."