Elizabeth Gilbert on Big Magic, the Joy of Creativity, and the Power of Having a Voice
Talking to writer Liz Gilbert is exactly how you might expect it to be: she’s warm and kind, with an electric laugh and a penchant for no-nonsense wisdom based on her life experience, the stories of her millions of followers, and the advice of her friends. Gilbert rose to international fame in 2006 with Eat, Pray, Love, her epic tale of journeying across the globe to find peace, acceptance, and love. The book, an instant hit that sold more than 10 million copies, inspired men and women all over the world to follow their hearts.
She didn't stop there, nor did she begin with eating, praying, and loving. Gilbert has been writing for decades, first starting as a journalist with the likes of GQ, Spin, Esquire, and The New York Times Magazine and eventually producing numerous short stories as well as eight books total including, most recently, Big Magic, which serves as one giant permission slip to anyone who wants to live a creative life. Gilbert doesn’t mince words throughout the text, confidently exploring lofty concepts like courage and enchantment, persistence and trust. And since we know that you, our Everygirl readers, deal with these subjects on a daily basis as you strive to achieve your dreams, incorporate creativity into your life, and grow your career, we jumped at the chance to speak to Gilbert and share her thoughtful words with you.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The first chapter of “Big Magic” is all about courage. And you bravely shared some pretty big news [in September]—that you’re now in a relationship with your best friend, Rayya Elias. As I read your heartfelt story, the pieces you decided to tell your 1.6 million followers on Facebook, I couldn’t help but think about the first chapter of your book. Your post acknowledges how everything has changed, tells the truth about those changes, and shares a part of that with the world. That is courageous.
Oh! Thank you so, so much. You know, our friend Brené Brown always says that courage is contagious, and my feeling is that everything is contagious because humans are so susceptible to each other’s actions, fears, and moods. Fear is contagious too, as we’ve seen this election, and anger and love are both contagious. Glennon’s [Glennon Doyle Melton] courage inspires me. She’s brave as shit. And every time you see somebody do the right thing at the right time, when your moment comes, you start compiling a list, like, if she can do it, I can do it—and if she can do it, I can do it—and if she can do it, I can do it, and hopefully that continues and infiltrates everybody around you.
How do you strike a balance between staying authentic to your followers but also maintaining privacy and keeping some things close?
I rally against the word balance. You can’t open a women’s magazine without balance this or balance that, and I’m like, I don’t know anyone who has found balance. All of us are wobbly as fuck. But that’s the interesting part. It would be terribly boring to find balance all the time; you would have to be so heavily drugged. I don’t even know what that would look like. I’ve given up on finding that. Instead, I think, OK, what brings joy and the least amount of suffering? What would be the most interesting path for me to take here? Let’s go.
I rally against the word balance. You can’t open a women’s magazine without balance this or balance that. I don’t know anyone who has found balance. All of us are wobbly as fuck. But that’s the interesting part.
When I look back at all the times where my life seemed balanced on the outside, I realize that’s usually when I felt the most internally suppressed or oppressed or stuck in a prison of expectations.
Yes. Oh, yes. Think of the person in your life who always does the appropriate cultural thing—we all have that person in our lives: the one who always has the right Christmas card, got married at the right time, had kids at the right time, went to the right college, has the right dog, has the right car, says and does the right things—and ask yourself if that is the most inspiring person you know. I mean, do you envy that? Really? Does that look like what you’re longing for, really? And then when you think of the most inspiring people you know, their lives don’t look anything like that. They’re a hot mess of goo, but you want to follow them.
One thing I hear from a lot of women is this idea that creativity is a luxury. It is reserved for people who know what their passion is and who have the energy and time and money to devote to it, and you talk about this in Big Magic—this concept that “big magic” is not for people with “real” responsibilities or obligations, like motherhood or caretaking in general or paying the bills.
I will say this over and over again: creativity is not a privilege of the elite. This is one of the ways in which modern western culture has done this amazing job of creating industry and science and technology, where you compartmentalize everything, where days and lives and years are tidy. It’s incredibly efficient for capitalism. It’s a terrible way to run a human’s life.
One thing we’ve done is compartmentalize the creative class. Just like computer programmers and mechanics, creativity has become a profession only available to the elite, by which I mean those with leisure time, money, and obvious talent. This is staggeringly unlike how humans have done creativity for a hundred years. It’s such a departure, it’s heartbreaking.
I talk about this in Big Magic, but most of the most beautiful things that you’ve ever seen have been made by people who were illiterate, poor, and had no reason to make things, had no training, and didn't have a lot of leisure time. Most were made by people in their free hours using castaway materials nobody else wanted, making these things for mysterious reasons, usually for the sole purpose of having made a thing. You and I are descended from people who made things for no reason other than to make the world a little more beautiful. It was the unnecessary adornment of their lives that benefited nobody in a real way.
You grew up in a creative family, right?
My grandmother graduated from high school. My grandfather dropped out to work on a farm. They both made beautiful things—rugs, jewelry—and they decorated and adorned everything that their hands touched in their lives. They did it because that’s what they saw around them; it’s how they made their lives different from everyone else. Everyone dealt with the same crushing grind, but they beautified their world. That’s what they did before television.
And nobody needs that beauty more than mothers. Mothers are the members of society who are most told this horrible message that your life no longer belongs to you. That anything you do that is uplifting or pleasurable for you, is a violation of the great martyrdom of disappearing into the lives of your children without caring for yourself. And that’s bullshit.
I’m at the Olympic level of people-pleasing. All I’ve ever tried to do is make everyone else happy because I want to be safe, and it’s such an epic fail.
It is bullshit. But that negative message is so powerful; it’s hard to ignore it.
You know, my mother would throw us out of the room when she was doing something creative. My sister and I got to bear witness to a mother who did things just for joy, which set an example. And when she was needlepointing or taking a cooking class or doing whatever else was bringing her useless joy in the other room, we were forced to be bored and get creative about our own lives and become creators ourselves.
My sister and I both ended up becoming novelists, not because our mom took us to writing class when we were little, but because we had all this time where we made up stories. We grew up with a mother who was always pursuing her curiosity at the same time as being a good mom. And so I always say to mothers: it’s about how what you model to your kids.
There’s an element of mothering, and just being a woman, I think, that makes you feel as though you have to always consider what everyone else wants and thinks and feels first, before your own needs and desires.
Um, I’m at like the Olympic level of people-pleasing. All I’ve ever tried to do is make everyone else happy because I want to be safe, and it’s such an epic fail. It doesn’t make them happy and it doesn’t make me safe and it doesn’t please anyone. The times when the world has been the most pleased with me is when I’ve done whatever the hell I wanted to do, and then, weirdly, I earned praise. Even the other day, when I made our announcement [about being in a relationship with Rayya Elias], I didn’t care what the world thought. I’m in this relationship because I want it. I’m in love. I want to be free in the world, and I don’t give a shit. And after that is when the wave of love from thousands and thousands of people came. Women have been going at this people-pleasing thing backwards. Go, do what brings you joy, and the people who are the most excited about it are the ones you want to be around.
Go, do what brings you joy, and the people who are the most excited about it are the ones you want to be around.
Speaking of joy, there’s a chapter in Big Magic called “Enchantment,” where you discuss hard labor versus fairy dust in the creative process. Most creative work is not magical at all. You have to show up and do the work and put your butt in the chair, and I usually wish that I could just peer around the corner to see if a hit of genius is coming or not.
If only wishes could come true. A lot of it is about what kind of environment you’re creating, if it is where something might be nourished and flourished into life. Your biggest job is to create the most nutrient-rich environment for the possibility of something growing in your life. There is so much pain and violence and injustice in this country, but we have to create the environment that we want. We have to do this always in our hearts and heads and homes. It’s all we can do.
How do you create your creative environment?
For me, it’s about creating a little space. It doesn’t have to be grand. It’s a place where you can shut the door and there ideally isn’t laundry in front of you or unpaid bills on the table. It’s deciding the night before you write that you’re not going to drink and stay up until midnight watching 10 episodes of Ray Donovan. It’s, can you get rid of the shame, the resentment, the jealousy, the competition? Can you set the kitchen timer for an hour? It might work, it might not, but you’ve got the best possible odds for it.
Can you get rid of the shame, the resentment, the jealousy, the competition?
What about the people who say they can’t make space to create?
I’m interviewing Glennon [Doyle Melton] for my podcast, Magic Lessons, and we talked about this. She has 3 kids. She wakes up at 4 a.m. every day to write. And she had babies, little kids for a while. Every day, she would wake up that early before the whole parenting thing started, and she would go sit in her closet. She said she didn’t have a room of her own, but she had a closet, so that’s where she would sit and write for an hour every morning. I asked her, where do you get the discipline? And she said, “I wish I could tell you it was complicated, but I just decided to go to bed every night at 9 p.m. and all of a sudden it was possible. I love staying up and watching TV and eating popcorn and checking email and cleaning the house, but I decided that I wanted that hour of time to myself even more.” She made an environment for her writing to work.
Many Everygirl readers, and the women we’ve featured, are entrepreneurs who have quit their day jobs to start a business or follow their dreams. They are hustlers who burn the midnight oil and stay extremely busy. But what you’ve described is a little different. It seems like I’m either running around like a chicken with my head cut off, or I have to be incredibly disciplined to slow down and try to create better work.
Our culture fetishizes chickens running around with their heads cut off. It holds it up as a model for behavior. You have to know what you want more than anything else. It’s a question of triage, really, recognizing that there is only one of you with a limited amount of energy, and that differs from person to person. I need a lot of sleep, but I know people who thrive with their backs to the wall, for whom Glennon’s approach would never work or fit their nature.
I have friends who are creative geniuses who only get it done if they are two weeks past deadline and getting calls from their agent, and then they freak out with caffeine and turn out an amazing novel in two weeks that should’ve been done three years ago. That looks like hell to me, but I don’t judge it if that’s the only way they can do it. In the end, if the book is on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, then that’s what it took.
What are you willing to give up to have the life you keep pretending you want?
There’s a sense that creativity and suffering go hand-in-hand, which you dismiss in Big Magic. You say that being a martyr serves exactly no one, so it’s weird that we all still behave that way, like, the constant refrain of, “I’m so busy, I just don’t have time.”
One of the most important conversations I’ve ever had occurred in my twenties when I was in a new relationship, living with someone that I was about to marry, working three jobs, desperate to be a writer and to be published. And I felt like there wasn’t enough time. I had no privacy, space, or energy. I was talking to a woman who was a working artist, bitching to her, and she asked me a question I’ll never forget. She said, “What are you willing to give up to have the life you keep pretending you want?” It was such an assault. My ego flared like, “EXCUSE me, pretending? This is what I’m committed to, I love writing.” I started making all these arguments and she said, "Well, all I ever hear you talking about this life you wanna have, and all I see you doing is everything else." I got defensive and she started grilling me, and it was so uncomfortable.
What did she say?
She asked me, “What’s your favorite TV show?” I said, “'Sopranos.'” And she said, “Not anymore it isn’t. You have time to follow Tony’s journey but not your own? You have time for that, but not to write?” She asked, “What’s your favorite magazine?” I said, “The New Yorker.” She said, "Cancel the subscription. You have time to read other people’s writing, but not to do your own?” She said, “I heard you talking about vacationing to that house for 10 days in the mountains with your friends. Guess what? They’re going. You’re not.” She wouldn’t stop.
Her point was that everything else goes. Don’t use all your hours to do all this other stuff. I mean, I’ve had people get on Facebook and tell me that they don’t have time to write or be creative, and I’m like, you’re on fucking Facebook. Don’t tell me you don’t have time. Don’t make me go to your Facebook page and scroll through everything you’ve been posting and see every cat video and every picture of you out with your friends. Because I will. I think sometimes people create a lot of stress around having enough time and it is unnecessary.
When I can’t get off the ball with my own courage, all I have to do is look back at the generations of voiceless women—and be like, 'Do not squander the possibility of having a voice. Do not be silent in your life by choice.'
Yeah, and you have to say "no" more often.
That was another thing: I told her [the woman mentioned above], “I guess I’m going to have to learn how to say 'no' to things I don’t want to do.” And she said, “No, you’re going to have to say 'no' to things you do want to do.” As much as you want to do those other things, you have to allow yourself to be entitled to pursue your real work. You are allowed to blow off social events. You are allowed to blow off a culture that says you have to work out every day. There is so much I would love to do, but there’s only one of me and one life and only a certain number of hours in the day. You have to get really tough. You have to know what you care about and what you don’t.
Something you do care about is your podcast, Magic Lessons—and season 2 just started! You’ve said you created it to continue the conversation from Big Magic, and in season 1, you talk to all sorts of people about their creative journeys and offer encouragement. What’s different this time around?
It’s so fun. I’m producing it longer this time—each episode is more than an hour long, so I can really get into the story arc of that person’s life. I do it in three parts: I talk to the person, I call in an expert friend to give encouragement, and then I follow up some time later. I see people get out of their own way and start to stand in their own permission. There’s only ever one reason why people don’t do creative work they’re called to do. It’s always fear. But fear has so many disguises: it can look like perfectionism, the anxiety of scarcity, and competition. And apathy, the contemptuous kind, the people who say, oh, God, it’s all been done before, who cares, who needs another person taking another watercolor class? That right there is fear.
In every single episode, all I’m trying to get to is the very bottom kernel of fear in that person. I want to figure out what disguise their fear is wearing, peel off the masks, call it what it is and then talk about how we’re going to work around it and get back to their life-affirming creative project.
Are there any episodes this season that are particularly inspiring or exciting to you?
This year, my favorite episode is a young, African-American spoken word poet, a young woman who received a love of poetry from her mother, who read and wrote poetry on her bus rides to work every day. She was so honest and candid. She said, “I have very carefully arranged my life so that I will never be rejected.” She had found a safe space with a small group, but she wouldn’t send her poetry to publications, and she wouldn’t go to poetry slams because she was afraid of losing. She never wanted to feel that sting of failure.
And what I ended up giving her was an assignment. I wanted her to write herself a letter from one of her female ancestors saying what they want her to do. Given the fact that she now lives in a culture where she’s allowed to have agency, take risks, and be literate, I wanted her to write a letter from the perspective of someone saying, “My God, if I were you, if I could have your freedom...”
She went back and found the oldest name of a woman in her family, who was a child of slaves and illiterate. She read her letter on the air, and it is so beautiful and so amazing. I hope it will inspire women to take risks, because when I can’t get off the ball with my own courage, all I have to do is look back at the generations and generations and generations of voiceless women—and be like, “Do not squander the possibility of having a voice. Do not be silent in your life by choice, because then you’ve done a disservice to those who had no choice.” That somehow always makes me get out in the arena and speak up.