Catching Magic by the Tail
An Interview with Elizabeth Gilbert
Photo Credit: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Inspiration is trying to get your attention. According to Elizabeth Gilbert, you have an obligation not to ignore the signals. In her new book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Gilbert issues a clarion call to be curious, follow the breadcrumbs, and start the conversation with your most creative self.
Your book was almost asking to be written after your TED talk on creativity in 2009. There was such a massive response to it.
I spent years hearing conversations and questions from people especially after I gave my TED talk. It really was like I had hung a shingle that read, “Please come to me with your questions and worries and doubts and fears about creativity.” I was touched by that and also excited about those conversations because there is nothing I’d rather talk about. Whether they were in person or on social media, I kept running into the same obstacles—especially when I was talking to women. There were all these things that kept coming up again and again, and I felt like I had things to say about this.
Pedaling back to when you were just starting as a writer, did you feel like “being published”—something many writers strive for—was the end game?
I felt like it was one of the games. I had a conversation with a young woman who was studying theater and she had written me a note saying, “I don’t think I should be made to feel ashamed that I want to be successful at this.”
And I wrote her back and said of course you should not feel ashamed. How could I shame you for something I wanted too? If I hadn’t wanted those things, I wouldn’t have bothered to buy the manila envelopes and postage. Clearly, there was a part of me that wanted much more than my own satisfaction.
But, even then, in those years, I knew that that better not be the only reason. It’s allowed to be a reason. And it’s totally human and understandable that it is a reason and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. I love people who strive and I’ve always been ambitious myself, so I get it.
But if that’s all you’ve got, in terms of your motivation, then you are setting yourself up for a lot suffering and disappointment. Even if you do get everything that you think you want—what happens then?
The process continues. It doesn’t end.
What you kind of have to realize is that it’s probably the best part of it. It’s like when you get great news and something terrific comes your way, and that’s fantastic. You get a spike of endorphins on that and you should enjoy them. But over time, you’ll see that actually the very best part is making the thing. You’re going to have trouble finding anything that’s more fun than that. And by fun I mean, not necessarily easy. But that place where you’re feeling like you’re working at the peak of your abilities and you’re being asked to reach in places to those things you don’t know. You’re trying to puzzle out solutions to problems you’ve never had before in your work. All of that stuff is the complete engagement of your whole self, and that brings a level of vitality. It surpasses getting the great news.
How does ritual play a part in your creative life?
My biggest ritual is my whole composite of magical thinking. The ritual of it is that I converse with every single part of the creative process. I have animated, and personified, every single part of my emotional state around creativity and also every single part of the mystery around creativity. And I am in a never-ending literal conversation with it. I don’t mean metaphorically. When I sit at my desk. I am talking out loud all day. Talking to the idea. My characters. I would ask, “Show me. Tell me what happens next.” It is my way to call my own attention to what I am doing. It makes me feel less lonely. The creative process can be lonely. When I populate my studio with invisible, animated people who are with me, it’s just nicer.
It takes the pressure off, right? Thinking of ideas as separate.
Yeah, it’s not all coming out of me. And I don’t think it’s all coming out of me. I don’t know where it all comes from, but I talk to the idea.
Like right now, I’m working on a new novel and I don’t have time for it right now. So I talk to it every single day. After I walk by my shoebox of index cards with notes, I put my hand on it and I say, “ Thank you for being patient and understanding. So please wait and be comfortable. And I’ll be back to you when I can.”
Your story about the poet Ruth Stone, who would suddenly be hit by inspiration and would need to quickly “catch her poems.” That floored me. It’s interesting that you are now talking about your ideas waiting for you. Hopefully they do.
I think they do for me. I talk to inspiration too. One of the most deadly habits creative people have is the incessant complaining. I really feel like you’re scaring this thing away. You claim you love this thing. You claim you want this thing. And all you do is bitch about it. And what do you think it’s going to do? If I were in a relationship with you and all you did was complain about me, I would leave! I would leave you and I would go someplace where I was appreciated. I always try to make inspiration feel really appreciated. I don’t want word to get around in the universe that I’m hard to work with or that I’m ungrateful.
You also talk about creating community for your inspired life—for motivation, holding each other accountable.
One thing that is not hard is finding people with secret creative projects. They are everywhere. They are lonely. If you don’t have a tribe or if you can’t afford to get your MFA, you can start your own. You don’t need a permission slip, certification, or a huge investment to make anything artistic. Once you start looking, once you start asking, you can find those people. They don’t even have to be in your field. Start a collective of creators. You can start with pizza at somebody’s house on Thursday. And just say, “What are you making? What’s holding you back? What’s next? What can we encourage you in?” And before you know it, you got your Bloomsbury.
And it can happen anytime. Winifred from your book who at 80, this curiosity overcame her.
Yes, she became a master. Because, guess what, a decade of focused study on one subject makes you the expert on that subject. That’s an amazing thing to me. When people in their 40s say, “Oh, I wish I had…” Look, I do this too. I catch myself all the time.
There’s a story that my Uncle told me recently. Two economists are walking down the street and they pass a really nice Ferrari on the side of the road and one says to the other, “You know, I always wanted that car.” And the other says, “Well, evidently not.” What is the thing you keep saying you’ve always wanted? And I can turn to you and say, well, evidently not. What is the thing in my life that I keep harping on?
I suddenly feel a wave of guilt coming over me.
The thing is, make a plan to do it! Well, maybe now is not the moment. There are ways to begin this conversation. To constantly engage with that, and ask yourself. Here’s the biggest question that excites me: What would happen if you just take full agency of your life? What would happen? What if you agreed to believe that you have more power than you think you do?
One of the major motivations that I have in my life to do stuff is when I get sick of hearing myself talk about it. I get bored of myself saying, “I would love to…” I get sick of myself saying it and I go and figure out how to do it.
Podcast Extra! Listen to Rabbi Rami's lively discussion with Elizabeth Gilbert here.