If you’ve watched either of Elizabeth Gilbert’s erudite and compelling TED talks on creativity (“Success, Failure and the Drive to Keep Creating” and “Your Elusive Creative Genius”), then you know that she is equally talented at speaking eloquently about the ups and downs of the artistic life while injecting warmth, humor, and fitting anecdotes into the conversation. The phenomenally successful author of Eat, Pray, Love and six other books (including The Last American Man, a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, as well as the novel The Signature of All Things) practices what she preaches. Her latest book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, is a thoughtful addition in the creative self-help genre. While the book comfortably takes its place on the shelf next to well-known works by Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird) and Stephen King (On Writing), Gilbert doesn’t aim narrowly at writers — she’s concerned with anyone who wants to embrace an inspired life.
I spoke to her via Skype on a day when I was feeling particularly down, and five minutes into our hour-long conversation, I immediately felt a sense of buoyancy and camaraderie. (Perhaps that had to do with realizing that instead of recording the interview, I was only recording my side of the conversation. I left my headphones in for the first couple of minutes. But Gilbert and I laughed and started over again. Mistakes, after all, are part of the process.) The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. —Michele Filgate
The Barnes & Noble Review: In Big Magic, you write: “The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.” Your TED talks and now this book are full of inspirational nuggets. How did you get to a point where you felt like you could live a positive, happy life as an artist instead of a suffering artist?
Elizabeth Gilbert: I’ve just never been attracted to the very macho German romantic icon of the suffering, tormented artist. I think I’ve always doubted how authentic that is, and I’ve also doubted and pondered how necessary it is to have that level of drama around the work that you naturally feel called to do. My sense is if this is the talent or the gift or even the curiosity that you have, then why is it our assumption that it came to torment you? And why can it not be your assumption that it came to embiggen your soul? That it came to offer you access and portals into parts of yourself that might make your life richer and better and might make you a more generous and interesting person rather than a more savagely unhappy one . . . And one of the lines I have in Big Magic is, “Maybe creativity is not fucking with us, but we’ve been fucking with it.” Like maybe all it wants to do is engage with us in a really delightful way and we’ve just been insisting this thing has to be a battle because of our dumb martyrdom scars. So yeah, it’s kind of been with me all along. I feel like it’s more interesting in a weird way, a more punk rock way to do it.
BNR: I think there’s a false assumption that you need to come from money in order to live a successful life as an artist. And as you point out in your book, people take on jobs that have nothing to do with their craft in order to support themselves. So how do we separate the arts from money when we live in a society where we so desperately need things like artist residencies and fellowships so people have time to create?
EG: First of all, if money was the only thing people needed in order to live actualized, creative lives, then the most creative and inspiring people in our society would be the mega-rich and their children . . . Some of the most interesting and engaging creative expressions of anything that have been made on Earth have been made by people who did not have a lot of excess resources; they didn’t have a lot of excess time . . . So I cannot get behind this idea that creativity is something that is only allowed for people who are highly privileged, because the entirety of human history does not support that idea. And I feel like if you’re a human being, you’re a creative person. And that is something that everybody — every single person — has entitlement to. I feel like I’m very frustrated by the fact that currently in our society we seem to have this idea that creativity only belongs to people who got the right MFA, live in the right city, have access to the right contacts. No. Or that if you don’t have an artist’s residency, you can’t make art, which is also a pile of fucking bullshit.
I was given an artist’s residency once in my life, which was an amazing thing, and it was on my third book, you know? I didn’t have it for the first two. And when I was writing the first two, I was a bartender and a waitress and an au pair and a flea marketer, and nobody was giving me space and time, and I didn’t have an art patron, and I became my own studio wife and I became my own patron. Which is what most human beings in history have had to do.
We don’t do this stuff because we have a lot of extra time and money for it. We do this stuff because we can’t not do it. And so if you’re talking yourself out of expressing your creativity because you feel like you lack everything that you think you need in order to do it, then I’m going to have a really big argument with you about that. To me, the definition of a creative life is very simple. It’s any life where you consistently make decisions based on curiosity rather than fear. And that is accessible to every single living and breathing human being . . .
BNR: Do you ever or did you ever doubt your own advice when writing this book? Because I’m curious about the pressure you place on yourself, now that so many millions of people look to you for guidance.
EG: This is a book I’ve been thinking about writing for twelve years, and when I ask myself why I didn’t write it sooner, it was because I didn’t believe in my own authority to say what I already knew, if that makes sense. Everything that I say in that book is like I’m totally smoking what I’m selling. That book is completely my code of what I live by and how I do my work and how I’ve always done my work.
But I don’t know whether I felt like it was okay yet to suggest to other people “Hey, you want to do it this way?” So I was living by that stuff, but I don’t feel like I felt at ease preaching it. And I think I couldn’t have written that book until I was 45, until I had written seven other books . . . But I think this is the first time in my life where I feel the confidence, you know — maybe it’s the confidence of middle age, but it’s the confidence to say, “This is how I’ve been engaging with this work forever, and I have a really pleasurable, generative relationship with creativity. And I know that because I can look back at it and say this is always how I felt about it, whether it was working or not working, whether I was successful or not successful.”
BNR: How did the success of Eat, Pray, Love change your relationship to creativity if it did at all?
EG: You know what it did? It forced me back into my oldest version of my relationship with it. That was the only way I could continue, because the question that arose of course after Eat, Pray, Love was, How can you top this? And the answer was, You can’t. You can’t, Gilbert. Like you are done. Like you have reached your peak, because this is not something that can be replicated.
But the good thing, in a weird way, about Eat, Pray, Love being an outlier phenomenon was that it was such an outlier phenomenon, you would have to be totally mentally ill or so self-hating to try to say, “I’m going to do better than that last time.” Because you can’t.
Now I mean I can’t do better than that commercially, right? As a creative person, I feel like I can look at that book and say, “I think I can do better than that creatively — I think I can improve as a writer.” But look, it’s the Thriller album. I can’t do that again. You know? That’s it. That’s my Thriller. That’s it. I know it is.
I’m not a very competitive person. I’m a very ambitious person, and it’s taken me a long time to recognize the difference between those two words. Competitive means I have to win against everybody and I also have to win against myself. Ambitious means I just want to do really good work. And those are really different ideas.
So, anyway, the notion — it wasn’t even a notion — the fact that I can never do better than that meant that I’d better find another reason to write besides wanting to break my own records. And so that reason to write turned out to be the very deepest, oldest reason, the same reason I was doing it when I was sixteen; the same reason I was doing it when I was nineteen; the same reason I was doing it when I was twenty-three, and no one cared. I still have yet to find a more effective way to animate my soul than by engaging with language at this level. So I’m just going to do that . . . I know that I can do it. I know that I can write regardless of the outcome, because I always did. I always had to.
BNR: Yes, and there’s a freedom in that in a lot of ways. I love that you write, “I believe that our creativity grows like sidewalk weeds out of the cracks between our pathologies — not from the pathologies themselves.” So people don’t create because they drink or take drugs. You quote Raymond Carver as saying “Any artist who is an alcoholist is an artist despite their alcoholism, not because of it.” How do we rewrite this romanticized image of the barely functioning creative person that’s so prevalent in our culture?
EG: I think it’s a hard one, and another reason I didn’t write this book for so long was because I didn’t want to get in that argument, because I’m not an argumentative person. And I thought, Oh man, this is going to be a fight because here comes Van Gogh. And everyone’s going to be like, Yeah, but what about Van Gogh? Then I just feel myself just getting very weary and saying, “Van Gogh was a severely mentally ill individual who happened to also be a creative genius.” The institutions and prisons and streets of our country are filled with severely mentally ill people who do not happen to be creative geniuses. To be mentally ill does not mean that you are also a creative genius. These things happened to overlap in his life . . . And all I can think is what degree of depression and despair would mentally ill artists have without their art? In fact, it might be the thing that’s keeping them safe and alive, not the thing that’s driving them mad.
The romanticizing of it is the thing I have a problem with . . . trying to live your life so it looks like you’re a deranged genius. Maybe it’s easier to do heroin than it is to do your work. There’s a young writer whom I really admire and have been encouraging a lot who just said to me in an email recently, “Yeah, I’ve been drinking too much and I’ve been doing too many drugs. But, you know, I hang around with a bunch of artists so what do you expect?” And I was like, “How much work are they fucking doing? How much work is your friend, the fucking artist sitting in the bar at 2:00 in the afternoon, actually doing?” The sooner you realize that this sort of Bukowski-esque glamour that you’re creating around yourself because you think that that’s the emblem of your creativity is actually just eating up enormous amounts of hours and days and months out of your short life, I think the sooner you might return to the work and put down the mollies.
BNR: I particularly like the part in the book where you talk about the fact that most people aren’t really thinking about you, the artist, and that we tend to get too hung up on impressing other people. I think social media amplifies this in a way. It’s a curated selection and often a highlights reel of others’ lives, and on a bad day an artist can take a look at all of the other things people are accomplishing and feel sort of worthless. But I adore your social media presence, and I feel like you try to remind people of their creative potential. So how can people who have a terrible habit of comparing themselves to friends and strangers stop doing that?
EG: I find it helps if I just remind myself that we’re all a big, messy clown show inside. I love the Buddhist meditation teacher Pema Chodron. I was listening once to a recording of a conference that she was running. She had led everybody into meditation. You know, I’m listening to it in bed with my earbuds and thinking how amazing it would be to be there. I’m sure it’s a really beautiful room and I’m sure they have incense, and to be with this great meditation teacher. So she has the silence and the meditation. Then she just started laughing. She looks out. You can just hear her cracking up. And she said, “I look out at all of you out there, and you all look like such perfect little Buddhas with your lovely posture and your closed eyes and your hands on your knees and the pontific glow that’s coming off you. But I know the reality: it’s a madhouse in there.” And everybody just started laughing. She’s like, “I know how crazy you all are and what you’re struggling and suffering with in your mind. And no matter how peaceful your face looks right now . . . ” And you can just hear people cracking up, because that is of course what meditation is. It’s just you looking at what a monkey show you are.
And I feel like I know that about everyone. It’s not to say that I want to call bullshit on what they’re putting on social media, because I think when they do put the picture of themselves on the beach with their friend having a great day, they put that picture on because it was a great moment. I think it’s wonderful, and I want them to have all the great moments in the world. I also know that they probably, like me, suffer from terrible, debilitating insecurity. That they have shame attacks every couple of days; that they wonder if they’re wasting their life; you know, that they know that their parents loved their brother more than they loved them. Whatever the thing is, I know that that is also true. And it’s all true. It’s all true. And that really what you’re doing when you’re engaging with creativity is not trying to prove that you’re the greatest and the best and the most perfect. If that is what you’re doing, then you’re signing up for a lot of suffering. What you’re really doing is you’re saying, “I’m part of this monkey show. I’m another member of this circus, with all my frailties and vulnerabilities and imperfections. I am a constituent of creation too, and therefore I am exerting my natural-born human right to impose myself a little bit on the world and say that I also want to have a voice and here it is. Here’s me. Here’s me on a bad day. Here’s me on a good day. Here’s me as a hot mess. Here’s me deciding that I don’t just want to be a consumer and I don’t just want to be a bystander and I don’t just want to be a witness. I also want to be a participant in the world that I for some reason live in. And that’s all it is. That’s fine. That’s good enough. More than good enough; it’s awesome.
BNR: Is there such a thing as typical writing day for you? If so, what does that look like?
EG: I don’t write every day. I write project-by-project, so sometimes I go months or even years without writing because I’ll be doing research or I’ll be on tour for another book. I mean it usually takes me a couple years to get prepared to write a book, because I can’t just sit down and write cold. I have to gather everything that I need.
So with that said, when those days do come, usually at this point in my life it means clearing off the calendar way in advance . . . And then the next layer of decision making is you decide the night before whether you’re doing to write the next day, and that determines are you going to have another bottle of wine? Are you going to watch Breaking Bad until 2:00 in the morning? Are you going to stay on Instagram all night or not? Because if you do all of those things the night before, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to have a good writing day the next day. So a lot of it is just about laying the best possible environment for yourself way in advance so that you don’t just sit down hung over and rushed with like ten other things on the calendar and be like, Why isn’t this working? You really have to lay the foundation for yourself as generously as you possibly can.
And I think the biggest problem I had when I was a younger writer is I didn’t know how to help myself do that. I didn’t know how to help Liz — I didn’t know how to help future Liz. So a lot of what I’m doing now, like for instance I’m on book tour now but I have a novel that I’m beginning to work on but it needs a lot of research, but I don’t really have time, but I have twenty minutes a day. You always have twenty minutes a day. So I’m setting aside twenty minutes a day to read some books from the 1940s and take some notes on stuff. And that’s it.
And it doesn’t produce very much, but I have this lovely feeling while I’m doing it that I’m helping future Liz with her book so that when future Liz sits down to work she actually has stuff to work with. And when I’m working, sometimes I’ll find index cards that I had written with notes and I’ll be like, Oh, thanks past Liz, it’s so nice of you to do that for me. You just made this part of my writing this chapter so much easier. So it’s about being helpful to yourself.
And then I get up really early, and I can never really write for more than — I mean unless I’m at the end of the book and it’s really barreling — I can never write for more than three hours at the most.
BNR: That’s such a relief to hear, because I’m the same way.
EG: Well, it’s another reason why I get hives when people say they’re going to quit their job to write their novel. You don’t need forty hours a week for this. First of all, if I write three hours a day, that is a banging day for me. At the beginning of the book it’s probably going to be more like forty-five minutes, because that’s all I can sustain. When people say, “I can’t have a day job. I’m a painter.” I’m like, “Do you honestly paint nine hours a day? I don’t know any human being who does that.”
John Updike said the best novels he’d ever read were written in less than an hour a day, and I think that’s absolutely true. Most of what we do in our day is a whole lot of nothing.
BNR: But that helps.
EG: It doesn’t take much. It doesn’t take much. If you give half an hour of your day to just following your creative curiosity in some direction or other you’ll be amazed at how much it adds up.