We caught up with the brilliant, best-selling author — and sometime audiobook narrator — to discuss her impassioned manifesto on inspiration and creativity (aka, Big Magic), the unexpected and profound impact of Eat, Pray, Love, the secret to karaoke success, and a whole lot more.
Elizabeth Gilbert: “Big magic” is my term for what happens to you when you are making a thing. The essence of creativity is the relationship between a human being’s efforts and the mysteries of inspiration. You take your efforts and you enter into this very bizarre, often otherworldly, collaboration with the mysteries of inspiration. Some strange force that is calling you to try to make this thing.
For me, the most interesting part of that entire engagement is not necessarily the thing that you end up making. It’s what making that thing does to you internally. And what that is, is big magic, because it unfolds aspects of yourself that you never knew you had. It causes you to walk on the edge of the cliff of daring, at the edge of your capacities. It reveals things that can sometimes be very painful. It makes you feel a sort of communion with everyone who came before you. It does very interesting work on you while you’re making that work.
I feel like I want to give more and more people permission to engage with their creativity because they’ll have the possibility of bumping up against big magic in the process. Regardless of whether what they make is good, or, viable. Whether they make a living for it. That’s all secondary. The important thing is what the thing does to you.
A: You talked about what big magic does to you, and inspiration came up. What are your thoughts on what inspiration feels like?
EG: What inspiration feels like, the clue is a little bit in the word itself which comes to us from the Latin, “to inhale, or imbibe. To bring in.” To inspire, right? As opposed to expire. To stop breathing.
To inspire, is exactly what it feels like because anybody who’s ever had an idea, regardless of what that idea is — whether it’s an artistic idea, or a spiritual or emotional idea, or a political idea, or some sort of adventure that someone wants to take—it does feel like something has come into you from outside of you.
And even really empirical, rational, scientific thinkers will say, “And then this idea came to me.” They always say it that way, right? Ok, well, from where? Right? But they know, you know? We know this deeply in our human bones, right? This is how all of humans for all time have discussed the sensation of inspiration. And then it brings these common symptoms:
The chills up the back of your neck, the bumps on your arm. The upset stomach of nervousness and excitement. That same feeling you get when you’re standing over a cliff looking into a precipice where you sort of want to jump but you’re terrified. The distraction, that’s similar to falling in love. The obsession. The waking up at four o’clock in the morning and you’re still thinking about this thing and you can’t shake it.
It does feel like you’re being inhabited by some idea, and in fact, I would say that you are, and what that idea is doing as it’s sending you all these signals and clues is that it’s asking you a question and the question that it’s asking you is, “Do you want to do this with me? Are we going to do this? Like, do you want to do this? Do you want to do this? Do you want to do this?”
And most of our lives, we say no. “Eh, it’s a little too much trouble. I’m a little busy. I’ve got house guests.” But if you say yes, you then enter into a contract with this very mysterious force and that I think is one of the most interesting things a person can do with their life.
A: When you’re staring into that precipice, and, like you said, sometimes it’s scary, how do you accept that mission?
EG: Well, I would disagree. I don’t think it’s sometimes scary when you look over the precipice into the risk of inspiration and creativity. It is always scary. It is always scary, and I think you just have to be really honest and wise about recognizing that that’s not a bug. That’s a feature, right? It’s not a freakish accident that you’re feeling nervousness.
That is how it is. That is how it always is, and that is how it should be, because your creativity and your fear—I always define them as being like conjoined twins. They’re always going to be together because your creativity asks you again, and again, and again to enter into realms of uncertain outcome. And your fear is genetically programmed to forbid you from doing that.
Your fear never wants you to enter into a realm of uncertain outcome, because all it knows is that it has to go for the worst case scenario, which means any uncertain outcome ends in your death. And that’s literally what it feels like. The great artist and cartoonist, Linda Barry, has this fantastic way of describing this, because she teaches people who are not artists how to make art. She said, “That first moment in the room when you’re working with a bunch of adults who stopped drawing when they were children, [and you ask them about why they stopped], normally, they stopped drawing at a very particular, specific moment: When someone made fun of them, or they suddenly realized they weren’t good enough.”
A lot of us have art scars, right? So she deals with people like that. They’re professionals, and the last time they drew something was when they were nine, and she puts paper and crayons in front of them and she says something like, “Okay, we’re going to draw a race car now, or you’re going to draw Batman.” She always has them draw things that probably were the last thing they drew. A snowman.
She said, “The tension and the electricity in that room when a bunch of people—who have not made a little piece of art since they were nine years old—reengage, it feels like the room is going to catch on fire. There’s so much fear. There’s so much energy. There’s so much excitement,” because your fear’s like, “If I draw a picture of a snowman, I’m going to die. I might die. I might do it wrong and it might kill me.”
That’s truly what it feels like. It’s so bizarre. For me, my whole life of creativity has not been about becoming fearless. I’m not interested in being fearless. I’ve met fearless people. I think they’re sociopaths. I’m interested in becoming brave, and there’s a big difference there. And to be fearless means you don’t even know what fear is, which means you’re missing a huge part of what it is to be a human being. To be brave means that you keep going anyway.
With the gentle empathy and the recognition that probably no one will die from this, even though it feels like that. And you can say to yourself, “I know it feels like this is the end of your life, but we’re just trying to write a poem. It’s going to be all right. No one’s going to get hurt here. No animals were injured in the making of this poem.” It’s more about walking hand in hand with your fear and making space for it rather than trying to drive it out.
A: Perfect segue. So tell us, who is Pitiful Pearl?
EG: You know, I actually just found out that Pitiful Pearl was an actual character in 1920’s silent films, the one who’s always being tied to the railroad tracks. My dad used to call me Pitiful Pearl when I was a child. Sweet family nickname, because I was an incredibly fearful, and anxious, and nervous kid. Prone to very dramatic meltdowns at any new experience.
It was a family joke, for a really long time, and I defended my fear for a lot of years. I mean, I really tried to make everyone feel. I said in the book, I spent a lot of my life trying to convince my parents that I was absolutely helpless. They were like, “No, you’re not.” They just weren’t buying it for a minute. And something happened to me, in the middle of adolescence, where I just had this realization that this is a weird battle to be having. To spend your life defending your fears.
There’s that lovely line, “Make an argument for your limitations and you get to keep them.” I’d been arguing really hard for my limitations and there is a place in the world for recognizing your vulnerabilities and recognizing your weaknesses, and then there’s a place where you say to yourself, “Okay, but yeah, enough.” Enough, because what I realized was that my fears were keeping my life very boring, and I didn’t want to have a boring life.
And it’s not that they were evil or dark. It’s just that your fear always asks you to do the same thing, which is: nothing. Just nothing. That’s it. All choices. You’ve got this road, and there’s your curiosity, and everything that it leads to on this side, and you’ve got your fear, and your fear is like, “No.” Whenever I come to my fear, even now, I say, “I’m listening to you, and I know that you don’t want me to do this. Can you offer me a more interesting alternative to this thing that I want to do? I’d be happy to listen to your suggestions,” and it’s like, “No, I don’t have any. Just no. No, just don’t. Not that, but I can’t offer you anything else.”
That’s why a fear-based life becomes a very small life, and a very small life becomes a very bored and boring life, and I just feel like it’s too interesting a world, and it’s too interesting a situation to be a human being, and too interesting an opportunity to be a human being, to just let fear constantly do the driving.
A: In your book, you talk about how it’s almost like inviting fear to ride shotgun.
EG: Exactly. Your fear is allowed in the car. It’s going to be there anyway, so it’s not even a question of whether it’s allowed. You can’t get rid of it. It’s going to be there, but it doesn’t get to drive. It doesn’t get to hold the map. It doesn’t get to choose the snacks. It doesn’t get to ever suggest detours.
My friend, the great performance artist Sarah Jones, has a wonderful way of saying this. She said that when she’s on a creative project, she feels as if it’s this highway and the minute she starts asking herself questions at the beginning of the project, like, “Is this viable? Can I actually pull this off? What will people think of this? Can my agent sell this? Is this what the audiences are looking for right now?”
Any of those questions are exit ramps off the highway that she very dearly needs to stay on, and if she takes the exit ramps into any of those fear-based questions, she’s going to end up, as she puts it, “in a very bad neighborhood” where people are going to steal her hubcaps off her car, and beat her up, and leave her for dead, and that’ll be the end for her creative project.
The focus should be, “Okay, that exit ramp is scary, and yet we have this thing we need to do and so we’re just going to keep driving down that highway, and you’re going to have to hold it until we get there. Don’t make me turn this car around!”
A: Sticking with the theme of fear, I love the subtitle of the book, “Creative Living Beyond Fear.”
EG: Originally, I had called it “Big Magic: Creative Living Without Fear,” but that’s not at all what I’m getting at in the book. “Without fear” denies fear, right? But “beyond fear” includes fear. So it becomes a situation where we say, “We’re afraid, but we’re going to do this anyway.” I don’t like perpetuating the myth that you can get rid of your fear, rather than learning how to make reluctant friends with it.
And what do I mean by “creative living?” A creative life is any life where you consistently, and habitually, make your decisions based on curiosity rather than fear. That’s it. And that can end up looking like anything. For me, it’s not so much about what you end up making, or what you end up doing, that defines whether a person is living a creative life. It’s about a way of being in the world.
If you choose curiosity over fear again and again—not just once, not just twice, not just at some particular key moment, but habitually—you’ll end up creating a life that is different than anybody else’s life.
This process of constantly being in the state of becoming. Constantly being in the state of unfolding. Constantly saying yes. Constantly bothering to turn your head a quarter of an inch to look a little bit closer at something that caught your attention, and using that as a scavenger hunt to negotiate the weird experiment that is your life.
A: You’ve certainly followed your curiosity and caught that tiger by the tail in the process.
EG: It’s more like a mouse, really, because curiosity is so small so much of the time. The problem is, people don’t live a curiosity-driven life because they don’t trust such tiny clues. They’re waiting for lighting in the bottle. They’re waiting for the sign from God. They’re waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain and hand them a tablet and say, “You know, this is your moment.”
They’re waiting for something very grandiose, when in fact, it’s this almost invisible trail of breadcrumbs. That’s what a curiosity-driven life is, and to say, “Even though this clue doesn’t add up to anything I’ve ever experienced before, and it doesn’t make sense, and it may never turn into anything, and almost doesn’t even have a pulse—in the face of all that, I’m going to follow this clue, and the next, and the next, and the next.
It’s a tap on the shoulder. It’s not a double rainbow with a unicorn running through it. It’s just a little tap on the shoulder that’s like, “Hey.”
A: Can you talk about the importance of that central paradox where what you’re doing is important, but yet it doesn’t really matter?
EG: This is the contradiction that we have to figure out how to make enough space to hold in our lives, if we want to have creative lives, and if we want to have sane creative lives, which I think is important to strive for. The wisest people I’ve ever met are the people who are capable of holding two completely contradictory ideas to be true at the same time.
And their heads don’t explode from that. They’re able to, for instance, look at their families and say, “These people mean everything in the world to me. This is my tribe. These are the people I come from. I would give them all a kidney if I needed to,” and “These are the most ridiculous, obnoxious, horrible people in the world who keep me trapped and are to blame for all my psychoses.” Both of those things are true at the same time, and holding that contradiction between those truths is what allows you to remain at peace in a world where we’re constantly being asked to hold those contradictions.
In the artistic or the creative worlds, the contradiction that I think you have to be able to imbibe if you want to be sane is, “What I’m creating right now is the most important thing in the entire world and it doesn’t matter at all.”
You have to constantly be standing in the middle of the tension between those two contradictory ideas. If you don’t think that what you’re trying to make is the most important thing in the world, then there’s no reason to bother trying to make it because it’s so hard to do. It needs to matter, you know?
When you’re working on editing that sentence or trying to master that dance step, or trying to learn how to sing that song, or trying to make whatever the thing is that you’re making, you have to believe that there’s a point, otherwise you will very quickly quit and be like, “Uh, it doesn’t matter.” But then once you’ve made it, you have to release it into this other realm of, “It’s not that big a deal. It’s just a thing that I made. It’s not the Christ child.”
What also often happens is that when you care so much about something when you’re making it, you carry that care onward into how much you care about what people think of it. How much money it makes. How many units it sells. What the critics say. And when you shift that care into there, you’re signing up for a world of hurt because you’re not in control of what’s going to happen to it next. So it’s like, “Love it, release it. Love it, release it.”
Sometimes you have to go back and forth between those two states in the span of five minutes. When I’m writing, I have to address every sentence as if the future of nations depends on getting this thing right. And then I have to be ready to delete that, throw it into the garbage, and never look at it again, five minutes later if it didn’t work. And then go back to, “This matters, it doesn’t matter.” It feels like that should make you crazy, but actually it makes you sane because, you know how batteries work?
They’re a polarity between positive and negative. They just flip like this. That’s how a battery works, and then that’s how an engine runs, so that’s the battery flippage that you need to be doing in your creativity. If you stay too much on one side, the battery’s dead. If you’re like, “Uh, it doesn’t matter. Who cares?” If you’re just apathetic, you’ll never make anything.
A: You’ve said, “If you’re alive, you’re a creative person.” Could you explain that a little more?
EG: I always say, “If you’re alive, then you’re a creative person.” I know there are people who will buck against that. But the thing is, here’s the proof: You are participating in an ongoing story of creation that is happening, right? You are something that is happening.
There’s a lovely line from Alan Watts that goes: “You are what the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is what the whole ocean is doing.” You know? Life is something that the universe is doing. So you’re this thing that’s happening. That’s in creation. Evidence of creation is around us at all times. Things are being born, things are dying, things are being made, things are falling apart. Stars are exploding, new galaxies are forming.
It’s a happening story, the action’s here. It’s happening right now, and you’re a part of it, and I think we get stuck. My friend, Rob Bell, says we get stuck in a static-state universe where we think, “Nothing is happening here. Tomorrow’s going to look exactly like today. I’m a fixed entity.” All evidence points to that not being true. Creativity is just about acting in co-creation with something that’s going on anyway. Like signing up to participate in a life that has meaning.
What could be more interesting than being a person where history has shown us that literally anything can happen to literally anybody at literally any moment? That is the state that we’re in. That is some pretty fascinating stuff. If you’re alive, you’re a creative person because you’re part of this whole story of creation. And you come from tens of thousands of years of generations of human beings who are makers. Your ancestors and mine. Your grandparents and mine, were people who made things with their hands. Who took the world and altered it.
For better or for worse, every inch of this earth has been altered by human making. We are the making ape. That is what we do. We take something, we look at it, we don’t like the way it is, we change it. That’s creativity. Our ancestors had that, and then, if you look at children, they’re born doing this stuff instinctively. They draw, they sing, they dance, they play. It’s all in us, and then somewhere along the line, there comes this moment where, usually in school, you get the message that, “Actually, Jennifer is creative, and Joshua. They’re the creative ones in the class. She’s a good draw-er and he can sing.”
They shunt them out into some special program for special kids, and then the rest are told, “You’re just here to be producers, and consumers, and to pay bills, and die.” That’s the message that you get, and meanwhile, Jennifer and Joshua turn into neurotic freaks because the entire weight of all of society’s dreams and goals for creativity have been put on their tiny, little, insecure shoulders, and so they’re crazy.
A: There are those who would say, particularly when it comes to writing, either you have it or you don’t. Some would say there are those who are born with talent, or natural gifts.
EG: That comes into play. We’re all creative people, but I certainly think that there are some people who are particularly gifted at one outlet of expression. I absolutely believe in talent and I think it’s naïve not to say that that’s a thing. The word “talent” comes to us from Latin. Your talent — when you were in the army, which, in the Roman Empire, everyone was — was your salary. Your payment. It’s your segment. It’s your piece of the pie. It’s your split of the loot, basically. It’s something that would have been weighed, so that everyone is given a certain allotment.
I love this idea, thinking of talent as something where it’s part of your consciousness that’s weighted? The weight seems to be in music. The weight seems to be in science. The weight seems to be in communication. Like you could have an extra couple coins that you were thrown. That’s really cool.
And it’s also only known to God, or whatever, how much you got paid. So I don’t know to this day what the exact allotment of my talent for writing is. I do know that in my youth I met a lot of people who I thought were a great deal more naturally talented than me. But I know that I cared about writing more than they did, and I worked harder than they did, and I think that’s extremely important.
So, I invested my payment in the energy that was put into cultivating something. There’s a lot you can do with your little sack of silver. I mean it’s yours to spend however you like, so you can waste it on hookers and eight balls, which it seems like a lot of really talented people in Hollywood do.
You can squander it. You can bury it because you’re so afraid that someone will steal it. You can not trust that you even have it, so you won’t even dare to spend a dime of it. You can invest it in making it grow, you can share it, you can give it away. There is so much stuff you can do with this thing. So it’s not enough to just say, “You have it or you don’t have it,” and I also love this idea some people have it, some people don’t.
I don’t know what you have within you, but I think the most interesting possible way to walk through the world is to assume that you have some pretty interesting stuff within you. It reminds me of the great poet, Jack Gilbert, who I quote often in Big Magic. My favorite line of his was something that he told a young woman who said that she wanted to be a writer. He said, “Do you have the courage?” And it’s such a beautiful moment. He said, “Do you have the courage to bring forth the work that you’ve got within you.” He said, “The treasure that is buried within you is hoping you’ll say yes.”
That is the most interesting thing. And I’ve had people say to me, “Aren’t you afraid that your book is going to encourage a bunch of talentless people to make a bunch of crappy art?” I had this moment of looking at the person that asked me that like, “You and I come from such different planets. I don’t even know where to begin answering this.” The short answer is, “No, I’m not concerned about my fear and anxiety.”
But I’m interested in your fear and anxiety. That you’re concerned about people making crappy art. What that has to do with your life, I don’t even know why that’s even something that’s keeping you up at night.
My concern is not that the world is filled with crappy art. My concern is that the world is filled with millions and millions of people who are not making anything, and it is in our nature to be makers. People who are just being told that they’re here to produce and consume and be a cog in the machine. That’s not enough for human beings. So, go make your art even if it might not be “good,” whatever that even means, whoever gets to determine that. Because something will happen to you in the making of that that will be very worth doing.
A: In one of your TED talks, you spoke about that idea of inspiration coming from without, that it’s more of a psychological construct than any kind of metaphysical “magic.”
EG: I can talk about inspiration in two ways.
On one hand, I can talk about inspiration in a way that will make empirical people not get hives, and the way that I talk about it then is to say, “It feels like …” We lean on metaphor. Inspiration feels like it’s coming from some external force. It feels like a sort of haunting or an imbibing from some spirit from another world. It makes you feel like your hand is being guided by the divine. Whenever you can use metaphoric language around people who are really uncomfortable with mystery, they relax. So of course, when I gave my TED talk, I spoke that way.
On the other hand, I totally fucking believe this shit is real. And I have to operate from this place that it’s real. I had a conversation recently on NPR where this woman who’s so lovely, who so truly obviously wants to take me seriously, was trying to give me an out and say, “It’s almost like you believe in magic the way that you talk about it,” and I’m like, “No, I totally believe in magic.”
And not only that, so did everyone until about two hundred years ago. Until the world kind of got boring with scientific reason, and rational thought, and empiricism. Look, we’re all beneficiaries of science, and rationalism, and empiricism. It caused the end of kings. It started the end of racism. It allowed women to have a voice in society. It gave us an iPhone.
We love it, but it’s not enough. It’s not enough, and you have to keep some part of your spirit, or your soul, or whatever you want to call it. You can even just call it your mind, open to the fact that there is a great deal going on here that is very weird, and the creative part of your mind must be preserved from a life of pure rational thought or it will never be able to make anything interesting at all.
Hyper-empiricism isn’t enough for us. My friend Rob Bell has a wonderful thought about this, where he says, it’s all well and good to say, “Ah, nothing going on here. We’re all just DNA. It’s all very explained,” and then you hold your first child on the day that they’re born, or you stand over the grave of somebody. Empiricism is not enough.
Why do I feel like this? Why are we so different from every other species on earth? We don’t need to be able to write operas. Why do we do this? Creativity itself is, at its essence, a terribly irrational behavior. You know, if you look at it just from a biological standpoint, what you’re doing when you’re engaging in pure creativity is you’re saying to the universe, to the world, to yourself, “I’m going to take the most precious resource I have, which is my time, my life, my energy that could be used doing very reasonable things. Finding food, finding shelter, finding a mate, and enhancing my wealth, creating a position in the world, and I’m going to use that time to make something that nobody needs and maybe nobody wants, and maybe won’t be any good, and maybe I won’t even like. And that’s what I’m going to do now for a few years,” and that is weird.
No other animal would do that. There’s so much other stuff you could be doing besides that, so why? And the answer is, “I don’t know.” I just know that there’s a thing that wants us to work with it in co-creating the world and I’m happy to sign up and say yes, and be part of that story.
A: Well, to your point, it’s almost like we’re disrespecting everyone that came before us. They created all that stuff so that we could dedicate ourselves to pursuits other than securing food, water, shelter, and warmth.
EG: It should give you more time to be creative. Instead, it gives you more time for Netflix. No offense, I watch Netflix like every single night. I do all that stuff. We all do that stuff. It’s fantastic. It’s interesting, but is there something else, right? Is there something else that’s going to help you have an expanded life?
A: At Audible, we’re fascinated by the power of the human voice. In your book, you talked about stating your intent out loud. What is it about saying something out loud that makes it different?
EG: Your soul has to hear you say it. It’s not real until it’s been given a voice. I really do feel like it’s not enough to write it down. That still is a whisper, right? Writing is a kind of whispered voice. Even though it can be a very strong whisper. You have to overhear yourself say these words. And I think we’ve all had experiences in our lives where something comes out of our mouth before we had even thought it through.
Sometimes it’s a disaster. Sometimes it’s an epiphany. Where you didn’t even know you wanted that, until you heard your voice say it. You didn’t even know that that marriage was done until you suddenly, out of nowhere, said the words, “This isn’t working anymore.” You didn’t even know how much you hated that job until one night you hear yourself saying, “I literally cannot go another day at this place.”
There are things that just have to be spoken, and then, once they’re spoken, there’s a great deal of power. “The beginning was the word,” right? That’s where creation begins. There’s a great deal of power in that statement because it echoes, and reverberates, and exists in a world now that challenges you.
Then there’s also the case of whether you want to say it so the other people hear it. I know there’s this big school of thought that says that you should never talk about a creative project when you’re working on it because you’re less likely to do the work if you speak about it. I think there’s even a TED talk about this that has some very good sociological data to back it up; that there’s a part of your brain that can’t tell the difference between you talking about doing a thing and doing a thing.
“If you’re talking about doing it, you’re not doing it.” I get that and, and I’m certain that whoever did that research is accurate. It doesn’t happen to apply to my life. For me, there is a sort of throwing the flag down on the field. You’ve thrown it, and then you’ve got to go catch up with it. When you say you’re going to do something.
It’s important to me that I constantly tell people, “I’m working on a novel right now. It’s due next year. It’s about this.” And once you say it, you’re like, “I guess I’m doing that.” Because now I’ve said it. That’s why saying it out loud matters.
It’s also about having a voice, which a lot of women, and minorities, and oppressed people in the world’s history have never had before. You’ve got a voice now, so what are you going to do? Who are you going to be? Say it. Say it and then be it.
A: Big Magic wasn’t your first trip down audiobook narration lane. You also narrated Eat, Pray, Love. When you narrated Big Magic, did you discover things by reading them out loud that you hadn’t really been aware of or did certain things just really spark for you? Did you discover nuances there?
EG: The really interesting thing about reading for your own audiobook is that the ear hears better than the eye sees. Which is also why as I’m writing, I’m usually often speaking. I’m reading aloud what I’m writing because I can hear the musicality of whether the sentence is working better than I can see whether it’s working. My ear needs to hear that I used the word “very” six times on that page. My eye will skip over it, but my ear will hear it.
While you’re in the studio reading this manuscript that you think has been edited, and polished, the amazing thing is the mistakes that you find. The mistakes in tone, and pacing and, “God, this sentence would be better,” or “This is a long and awkward statement. I’m even boring myself now. I wish I had taken this page and chopped it down to a paragraph.” There were moments when I was reading it where I would just start laughing and be like, “Who wrote this garbage? We have to do this differently.”
I wanted to edit and change things, because telling something is very different from writing something, and being in that audio booth, my sense was this awareness of an audience of people who I was speaking to rather than an audience of readers who I’m writing to, and that’s a really different thing. I want that story to be more clear, and more precise, and… even better.
I almost feel like you should get a second pass at editing the book after you’ve read it for the audiobook, because you’re going to hear mistakes and imperfections that you can later fix. Then again, how many times do I say, “We’re not here to be perfect?” We’re in process. It’s all good.
A: Some authors describe how when they read their work out loud, or perform what they’ve written, it can be very emotional. Was it an emotional experience for you?
EG:Eat, Pray, Love was more of an emotional experience to read aloud than Big Magic was, because I was walking through the years of the most painful part of my life, and talking about the most intimate revelations of my life, and remembering and reliving, and re-feeling, and re-seeing these epiphanic, transformational moments that happened during that travel. I really felt, reading for Eat, Pray, Love the audiobook, that I was back on that journey again.
Big Magic is different. Big Magic is a manifesto.
I’ve never written something that comes from such a strong place of, “This is how it is.” There’s almost this real firmness of it, so the emotion that I was feeling was more an urgency, like, “Come on, you guys. Stop. Stop getting in your own way. Stop not doing the thing that you know that you’re being invited to do. Come on.” I just felt this great passion while I was reading it. Which is of course an emotion, but a different one from the sort of tearfulness and the vulnerability that I felt when I was reading Eat, Pray, Love.
A: Do you have any favorite audiobook narrators?
EG: My favorite audiobook narrator is Juliet Stevenson, who reads all of the Jane Austen books. Those are a great comfort to me, and I love, love, love her voice. She did a beautiful reading of Middlemarch by George Elliot, which is one of my favorite books.
I don’t narrate my novels in audiobook because I’m not an actor, and I feel like you really need an actor to perform a novel because there’re so many different voices and so many different tones.
I can read my own memoir, because it’s basically just my journal. A novel is a very different thing. For audiobook version of The Signature of All Things, I remember making a really strong petition saying, “There’s only one person who I want doing this, and it’s got to be Juliet Stevenson. I know she’s British, and I’m an American author, but we’re writing in the 19th century.”
We don’t know how 19th-century Americans spoke. It was probably much more like a British. I made some bullshit case about it, but really I just wanted to hear her magnificent voice take command of that story. And she did. Beautifully.
A: Let’s jump to Eat, Pray, Love just for a little bit. How has your life changed in the ten years since it was published? But also, how has it stayed exactly the same?
EG: Let’s start with exactly the same. You know, I really do feel like I can divide my life between, “Before Eat, Pray, Love” and “After,” and I don’t mean before the phenomenon of Eat, Pray, Love and after. I mean before the journey of Eat, Pray, Love and after. The most important thing I ever did in my life was that year, and that time spent alone in reflection and contemplation, and really getting as firm as think it’s possible to get when we’re such shifting, weird beings.
I think making peace with what you’re not is a really important part of, of life, and maturity, and so the person who came out at the end of that journey is somebody who I made very good friends with on that trip. We hadn’t been before. I’d been a rival against myself. I think we often are in this battle against our multiple voices. Please don’t make me explain that. I know you all know what I’m talking about.
There’s this auditorium full of selves, all sort of screaming at each other at the same time, and often in conflict with each other. What I did on that journey was just one by one make a peace accord with every single one of those different parts of myself. Shake hands, make friends. “We’re stuck with each other forever. Let’s have this be as peaceful a neighborhood as it can be. I’m never going to go after you anymore. You’re welcome to stay in the family. It’s all good.”
A very generous spirit of, “We’re all welcome here,” and that has not changed. I think that is why I don’t walk around in fear of diving into another deep, despairing depression again. I know that depression is anger turned inwards, and it’s usually anger turned against yourself. I have a very strong commitment to non-violence against myself, that extends, I hope, into a sense of non-violence against anybody else as well.
A: You mentioned despairing depression. Could you talk a little bit more about that concept? You touched on it in the intro to Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It, as well. Would you talk a little bit more about that, and also the common thread that seems to tie together all the contributors in the book?
EG: Reading those essays was really revelatory for me, because it helped me to be able to formulate in my own mind an answer to a question I have never been able to answer, which is, “Why did Eat, Pray, Love do what it did?” Why? Why this book? Why this moment? Why did this phenomenon occur?
What I saw in reading essay, after essay, after essay, after essay, was that it seemed as though each reader who contributed to this anthology — which is obviously a self-selecting group of people who were moved by the book — found some moment in the book that ignited a comprehension that they’d never really grasped before about their own lives which is, “Your life does not have to keep looking like this.” And whatever “this” is depends on the person and their circumstances. “This” could be a toxic marriage, or “this” could be addiction. “This” could be a terrible, life defeating job. “This” could be substance abuse. Self-hatred. Some sort of violence against the self.
When you’ve accepted, “Well, that’s just how it is and it’s how it’s always going to be, I made my bed and now I’ve got to sleep in it,” or, “I’m the one who went to college and studied this career and now I’m in this job.” A trailing off of your life where you’re like, “Well, I guess …” You know that helpless tone that people fall into. “Oh, this is the city where my family lives, so I’m staying here.”
Somewhere in the pages of Eat, Pray, Love, at different various moments, all of those people saw me questioning that, and saying, “But what if your life actually does not have to look the same tomorrow as it looks today? What if it doesn’t have to be the same next year as it was ten years ago? What if you can say, ‘I made a grave error here, because a younger version of myself, who didn’t know what was coming, made this choice,’ and now the older version of herself or himself, who’s standing in this position, can see this is not working?”
Then what? What I think is so moving is that so often, the really important statement is, “This is not working for me,” and you do not need to have the next answer to be able to say that. I think a lot of the reason that people won’t say that, is because the next immediate follow up question is, “Well then now what are you going to do?” And you can say, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” You don’t have to know, but it begins with, “Not this.” Start there.
That’s another thing that needs to be spoken aloud, before you can move on to the next point. Person, after person, after person, in those essays had this realization, “Not this. Not this anymore. We’re done.” And then they crawl their way through, or fly through, or dance through, or cry through the process of, “Now what?” It’s one of the most interesting things I’ve ever watched. It’s beautiful, and I’m super honored to have been a part of it.
A: It’s interesting that there’s this parallel between these two books, Big Magic and Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It. Big Magic is about inspiration, how an idea comes from without. And then all of a sudden, these people who contributed to Eat, Pray, Love Made Me Do It were inspired by something that’s coming from without, as well. In this case, it happens to be your memoir. Any thoughts about why we need that external impetus? That we can’t just find it in ourselves?
EG: I don’t know anyone who’s ever lived their whole life autonomously. We’re connected. We’re connected, no matter how Ayn Rand-ish you want to get about how, “It all comes from me. I am the agent of my own destiny.” Yeah. To a certain extent, of course. A great deal of it is coming from you, but there were moments in your life, before you even remember, where you were totally helpless, and other people had to take care of you.
There will be moments in your life again, where you’re totally helpless and other people will have to take care of you. In the meantime, we’re all connected by this interweb, and this network of emotions, and inspiration, and assault, and violence, and hate, and love. We’re stuck with each other and we have these outrageously adept senses. We have sight, we have hearing, we have sound, we have emotion.
We’re the vehicles for this. We’re antennas. We’re just sort of walking antennas to collect data and information from the outside world, so of course it’s coming from the outside. And then comes the weird part of the alchemy, of turning it into whatever it’s going to turn into, but what you have to figure out how to be is the most-sober — and I mean that in all the definitions of the word — the cleanest, antenna.
If you’re spending your life so afraid of your senses, and so afraid of your feelings, and so afraid of the world, that you’ve muffled that antenna with whatever you can muffle it with — with alcohol, with drugs, with food, with self-hatred, with television, with blame, with rage. Whatever you’ve put around that thing is preventing you from being able to pick up these signals that are supposed to come to you. I’m supposed to stay awake, and alert, and receptive, and engaged, and present to as much of what’s going on as I can possibly take.
A: What are your five favorite books of all time?
EG: My favorite books of all time today, acknowledging that the list might be different tomorrow and I’m just spit-balling this off the top of my head, are: David Copperfield by Mr. Charles Dickens, Middlemarch by George Elliot, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, The Collected Poems of Jack Gilbert. And the final fifth one, Wolf Hall by Hillary Mandel. A bunch of 19th-century books and one 16th-century book.
A: Tell us one thing about yourself we can’t find on Wikipedia.
EG: Well, my storied karaoke career, I feel, has not gotten the coverage that it deserves. I recently discovered karaoke. I live in a small town, which has this tiny little bar at the basement of this old hotel, where every Wednesday night is Karaoke Night.
Some friends and I, we started going as a joke, but it very quickly stopped being a joke, and it very quickly became the most important part of our lives. To the point that we will call each other on Monday and start planning what we’d be singing on Wednesday.
There’s something I’ve realized. That public singing, public collective singing, is a very important part of the human being.
There’s no traditional culture in the world that does not engage in public collective singing. You breathe together, you feel together, you exalt together, you get tension out of your lives together. It’s really vital and we don’t do it anymore. I mean, unless you belong to a church and you’re in the choir, which is something that people have in their lives less and less, you don’t have a venue for raising public voices in the world. So, karaoke has become, I believe, the new church choir.
It is a sacred and holy thing and, I’m happy to be a part of it every Wednesday night.
A: So what’s your go-to karaoke song?
EG: ”Total Eclipse of the Heart.” If you’re going to sing, here’s the thing. Let me help you out with this. If you’re going to sing karaoke, you’ve got to sing an anthem. So you’ve got to do that one, or you’ve got to do “Living On A Prayer,” or another really good one is “Faithfully.” Any Journey song, basically, is very good. We can’t all be Steve Perry, but we can try.
The rule of karaoke is the same as the rule of life, which is: “The only way to embarrass yourself is to not throw yourself into it one hundred percent.” That’s it. Otherwise you look dumb. But if you’re one hundred percent committed, you always look kind of cool, no matter how bad it turns out.