You'll Want to Be Best Friends With Elizabeth Gilbert After Reading This Interview

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and The Signature of All Things, spoke with us about the magical thinking behind her inspirational new read, Big Magic, out Sept. 22. The self-help book is chock-full of motivational quotes for the creatively constipated, and it even spawned her first podcast, called, aptly, Magic Lessons.

Find out what she had to say about the millennial generation, her go-to creativity hacks, why the Internet is like tofu, and her favorite Summer read below; and if you're looking for some firsthand magic lessons, check out her creativity retreat in Napa, CA, on Nov. 7.

POPSUGAR: First off, I have to say The Signature of All Things is one of my favorite books of all time. I read it for book club, and I wasn't sure I'd be into it by the subject matter, but I couldn't put it down.

Elizabeth Gilbert: Are you sincerely telling me that you didn't know right away that the topic of a spinster 19th century botanist who spends her life studying moss would capture your attention? [laughing] Well, thank you.

PS: I've been listening to your podcast, and I'm loving it. Have you learned anything about yourself through the experience and talking to all these different people?

EG: I am a really serious podcast connoisseur. So as soon as [my publisher, Riverhead] gave me the idea, I said, 'Oh this would be so exciting to be a part of this medium that I love, that I think is really fascinating.' Rather than have it just be me sitting and talking into an empty room about creativity, I thought it would be much more interesting to engage with people about their own creative obstacles and then bring in kind of expert witnesses to help people work through whatever was stopping them from living a more vital, creative life, and it's been gloriously fun. I've loved it. I'm going to have to put a hold on it for a while when I'm on tour, but my plan is to self produce it after that and keep it going starting next year to feed my own curiosity and my own sense of engagement with the world, because it's a real pleasure.

It does really prove this central thesis that I have about creativity that if you really start to take apart the obstacles of what are stopping people from living a more creative life it's almost always fear. It's very rarely not fear. And when you listen to those podcasts you can hear that. We start to scratch away at the surfaces of the problems and obstacles, and it's just people who are afraid for many different reasons to do their work. I love taking that on and trying to help people figure out how to get past that.

PS: It's also about inspiration and what inspires people to be creative. Who or what inspires you as a writer, as a woman?

EG: Oh my god. Everything and everybody. I tend to be interested in people who are doing some of the most varied things with their lives, who reject the cult of specialization and sometimes even reject the cult of professionalism and try lots of different stuff because they're not afraid to follow the scavenger hunt that their curiosity [takes them on]. Someone who I think is a great example of that is Dave Eggers, who got started with his memoir, then was a novelist, and then started a magazine, and then started a publishing company, and also is involved with children's charities, and created these tutoring centers all over the country. This is a person who obviously just has a sense of creative engagement with the world and isn't just putting himself into a very small box. And that's kind of how I want to be doing things, too.

PS: You admit to spending a lot of time on Facebook and Instagram. How do you think that social media has affected creativity?

EG: My general feeling about the Internet, in the broadest possible way, is we're constantly trying to put some sort of moral analysis on how the Internet has affected humanity, a sort of ethical or moral code that says the Internet is good or the Internet is bad. To me it's a lot more complicated than that. To me the Internet is a completely morally neutral, incredibly powerful energetic source; like the sun or money. It's not inherently good or bad. The Internet is basically just tofu. It's going to taste like whatever you do with it.

My feeling is you can either make this thing into your undoing or you can make it into part of your creative journey. So you can either say, ever since I've had the Internet on my computer I can't focus and it's a time suck and I fall down rabbit holes all the time, and it's just a big waste of energy and everybody on there is really negative and it's just people hiding behind fake names doing evil and it's lowering the IQ of humanity. That's one way you can see it.

Or you can say, this is the single greatest means of communication humans have ever had. Humans have spent their entire existence trying to communicate better with each other so this is making that possible. I would like to use this to create heightened conversation about our roles in the world as artists, our roles in the world as women, so we can share our mistakes and mutually learn from them, the ways that we can tie communities together and enhance our humanity. So that's also possible.

PS: In Big Magic you're writing a lot about following your passion and staying curious and not being afraid to live a creative life and being free to jump from interest to interest, and I feel like these are characteristics of the millennial generation that we are often criticized for. What are some of your thoughts on this generation?

EG: I love it when older generations criticize younger generations. I think it's just the coolest thing you can do as an older person [laughing]. There's nothing you could do that could make you look more open-minded and thoughtful and aware than to look at people 20 years younger than you and insult their path. I'm all for it. I haven't done enough of it.

Generally speaking, your generation is my favorite so far. I feel like you guys are the most open-minded, the least hateful, the least racist, the most compassionate generation that we have yet seen. People who have been raised to not bully each other. I mean there's the criticism that perhaps you've been coddled, but I think I would much prefer to live in a world with people who have been coddled than people who have been abused. I believe people who have been raised carefully turn out to be careful people.

So I'm all for it, and I'm all for the creative searching and the do-it-yourself mentality of the millennial generation. The only thing I would say, sitting in my wise middle years, I would caution any young person against is to make sure that you separate out from that any sense of entitlement that says I should be allowed to make a reliable living from doing [creative] things. So if you're willing to commit to living a creative life for the pure joy of it, and you're careful about providing for yourself in the material world in other ways, then you can have a really fantastic and interesting life. But if you've decided that you want to be an artist and you want to be rich, too? Sometimes it's a little bit too much to ask of art.

PS: The podcast is about helping people through their struggles with creativity. I'm wondering for yourself, do you have any creativity hacks?

EG: The first and most fundamental one is this phrase which I say in the book and which could maybe be the whole motto of the book: the work wants to be made and it wants to be made through you. That's something that I say to myself constantly because one of the most difficult things about creativity is that moment that you reach where you just think I can't do this, this is a stupid idea, I've invested too much time in this to waste, I'm going to fail, I never should've begun. But I find that I can use this magical thinking that says an idea came to you because it wanted to work with you. The idea that you had could've gone to anybody. The world is filled with people, and the world is filled with knowledge, and the world is filled with creators. If that idea for a book had wanted to be a novel and thought that you couldn't work with it, it would've gone to Barbara Kingsolver's house or Stephen King's house or Ann Patchett's house, but it wanted to work with you.

It's this very friendly idea that inspiration is not your slave and it's not your master, but it's a partner, a sort of invisible partner that comes to you and wants to collaborate with you. When I can turn my head towards thinking that way instead of feeling like this is so hard and I'm all alone with my failure, I end up thinking, I'm doing a really interesting dance with an idea, and that idea is trying to help me as much as it can, sitting here in my writing room with me, and it and me are trying to do something really weird which is to create a collaboration between a human being and a mystery. And I can't think of any better way to spend my time so I'm going to stay with this. And that seems to sort of get me through any obstacle that I'm in. It's a completely irrational thought, it's like a pre-enlightenment, pre-industrial revolution, pre-modern world thought, but that's how human beings engaged with creativity for tens of thousands of years. The notion that the idea comes to you from the beyond, chooses you, stays with you and tries to help you is something that makes creativity both exciting and strangely, mystically fun.

PS: Your book cover for Big Magic is gorgeous. I'm wondering, do you judge a book by its cover?

EG: I think we all do. I think it would be naive to pretend that we don't. [We're affected] by colors by shapes by designs, that's part of what it is to be human and to have taste and to have subjectivity. And certainly a lot of information can be conveyed by the cover. I don't read horror, and if I look at a cover and I can tell by the cover that that's what that book contains, I'm probably not going to pick it up. I don't think that we should be ashamed of ourselves for being attracted to something over another thing. It's the whole thing behind wanting to make art in the first place is to make a beautiful thing or something that you subjectively think is a beautiful thing.

This cover was really exciting for me because it was designed by Helen Yentus who is the same woman who designed the cover for Eat, Pray, Love, which is the only other time besides this time where they sent me the design and it was right on the first go. I just took a look at it and I was like I love this! This is perfect. It's happy and it's joyful and it speaks to a sense of bright possibility.

PS: Do you have a favorite book that you read this Summer?

EG: I do. My favorite book this Summer is a memoir by Elizabeth Alexander. It's called The Light of the World. It's a memoir about her husband's untimely death, and it is the most beautifully and sensitively told true love story. It's about a woman just making sense of a marriage that was not long enough, that was a really beautiful partnership and a really beautiful marriage that was taken from her quite suddenly. And it sounds like it would be depressing, but when you encounter somebody who can write beautifully and accurately about what real love is, in the end it can only be uplifting.