Help Yourself

Why Elizabeth Gilbert Had to Do More Than Eat, Pray, Love

After the blockbuster success of her 2006 memoir, author Elizabeth Gilbert has written a self-help book for tormented creative types everywhere.

Vallery Jean/FilmMagic

In 2009, three years after the release of Elizabeth Gilbert’s mega-selling memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, the author gave a TED Talk proposing a spiritual approach to creative living. This was her alternative to the tormented artist cliché.

At the time, Gilbert was laboring over a second memoir, Committed (2011), well aware it was unlikely to match Eat, Pray, Love’s “freakish success,” as she put it at the TED conference.

Knowing that her most successful work was possibly behind her could send her into a spiral of crippling self-doubt, Gilbert told the TED audience. Many creative people have suffered this precise fate, she noted, but she wasn’t about to let fear talk her out of doing what she loved.

So she sought a less egocentric approach to creative living from the mystical and the divine: from the ancient Romans who believed a genius was not a talented artist, but a disembodied spirit who assisted talented artists; and from the poet Ruth Stone, who quite literally chased inspiration as though it were a gust of wind.

When Stone was away from her desk, she said she could feel a poem coming, and would “run like hell” to get ahead of it and grab a pencil, so that it poured out lyrically onto the page when it passed through her.

Gilbert’s TED talk was so popular (a video of it has been viewed more than 15 million times) that Gilbert, now 46, decided to write a book on the same subject, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, which comes out September 22.

In the same way that Eat, Pray, Love resonated with any woman who has ever found herself crumpled on the bathroom floor in despair, Big Magic will resonate with writers and artists who find the process of producing work to be excruciating. Even those who have difficulty stomaching Gilbert’s brand of spirituality will come away with tricks to mitigate the painful process of creating something.

Through anecdotes about her and other artists' creative failures and resourcefulness, Gilbert encourages readers to pursue a creative life “that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.”

She urges them to reject the stereotype that suffering is required to produce good work in creative fields. “I believe that creativity grows like sidewalk weeds out the cracks between our pathologies—not from the pathologies themselves,” she writes.

Big Magic grew largely out of her TED talk: People sought advice from Gilbert about creativity. Engaging with them via Facebook, Gilbert saw patterns that were sabotaging their creative pursuits.

“That’s when I decided to write a straight-up, flat-out, self-help book,” Gilbert tells me. “Also, there’s no greater way to achieve respect in the literary community than to write a self-help book,” she deadpans, then breaks into laughter: “So I’m obviously deeply concerned about my life here!”

Gilbert laughs loudly and often, particularly at her own sarcastic and self-deprecating jokes. When we speak on the phone (she is vacationing in Miami before her upcoming three-month book tour), she is quick-witted and warm, soft-spoken and introspective at one moment, and hilarious the next.

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At one point in our conversation, she interrupts herself to tell me that she’s “looking out the window and there are motherfucking dolphins, hand to god, jumping around and flipping out of the water and being all dolphin-y. There’s a whole pod of them. A whole gang. A murder of dolphins? Is that the correct term?” (It isn’t: “pod” or “school” is correct; it’s a “murder” of crows.)

Gilbert’s literary career “committed suicide as soon as I wrote a memoir that was subtitled, ‘One woman’s search…’”, she tells me, laughing heartily again.

She’s keenly aware that her literary reputation will suffer more when Big Magic comes out and she inevitably becomes known as a memoirist and novelist turned self-help guru.

“I think it’s interesting to do something that someone who was angling for a certain legacy within the literary world would never do,” she says thoughtfully. “You would never write a self-help book. You would never be caught reading one! You can’t imagine Philip Roth going into that section of the bookstore, although he should because he could probably use some help.”

Nothing in Big Magic will surprise anyone who has read Eat, Pray, Love, or seen the Julia Roberts-starring Hollywood adaptation.

The latter is an account of Gilbert’s spiritual journey from depression to enlightenment with stops in exotic locales. She gorges on pasta in Italy; embraces asceticism and meditation at an ashram in India; meets a Yoda-like “healer” and a sexy Brazilian lover in Bali. She finds happiness somewhere between indulgence and introspection.

Gilbert didn’t anticipate its success.

She writes in Big Magic that she told her Brazilian lover, “Felipe” (now her husband, José Nunes, whom she lives with in New Jersey) that he needn’t worry about being exposed because “nobody reads my books.”

***

This wasn’t exactly true: While none of them were commercial hits, The New York Times praised the “subtle and wonderful unconventional form” of the stories in Gilbert’s 1997 collection, Pilgrims, and the “welcome brilliance” of her deft metaphors in her first novel, Stern Men (2000).

Her first nonfiction book, The Last American Man, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2002.

Then Eat, Pray, Love came along and was an instant Oprah-sanctified phenomenon, inspiring women around the world to embark on their own quests of self-discovery.

They quit their jobs, divorced their husbands, followed Gilbert’s spiritual path and, in some cases, mimicked her entire tour of Italy, India, and Indonesia.

The book sold more than 10 million copies and maintained a steady perch on The New York Times bestseller list for roughly four years.

People still had Eat, Pray, Love fever when the film came out in 2010, generating some $150 million in box office sales.

But the memoir destroyed Gilbert’s literary reputation. Critics sneered at its New Age-y elements and pigeonholed her as a privileged solipsist profiting on the yoga-meditation fad that had recently exploded in the West.

Surely it was a fad for some of Gilbert’s Zen-seeking devotees, but not for the author herself.

As a writer, she was looking for spiritual guidance with her creative struggles years before Eat, Pray, Love was published.

Even as a teenager Gilbert rejected the fetishization of the tortured artist. “I was basically looking for a way to live a creative life without cutting off my ear,” she tells me.

She's never been at her creative best while suffering.

“It doesn’t generate anything for me except dark, oppressive energy and I can’t see past my own nose when I’m in that state,” Gilbert says.

She wrote about being paralyzed by depression in Eat, Pray, Love, when her marriage fell apart after she decided she didn’t want to have children (“Everything about it filled me with dread instead of joy," she tells me).

Grappling with that decision at the age of 30 “essentially caused me to have a mental breakdown,” she says, adding that she wished she had trusted her younger self more.

If she wanted to continue to be a writer, she had to find a way to “stay out of that tar pit” of depression and narcissism, so she sought a spiritual path.

Gilbert gets all of her inspiration “from the external world, from watching people engage with their lives—from traveling, study, research—everything outside of me.”

She was a sensitive child, to put it mildly—the kind of kid who was afraid of her own shadow.

Gilbert’s father was a chemical engineer and her mother ran the house. She grew up on a farm in Connecticut, but if she’d had her way she “would have spent my entire childhood indoors, snuggled on my mother’s lap, in low light, preferably with a cool washcloth on my forehead,” she writes in Big Magic.

Instead of indulging her daughter’s acute sensitivities, her mother forced Gilbert to confront them at every turn. Eventually, she stopped being afraid of everything around her; she decided that fear was boring.

That’s not to say Gilbert isn’t afraid of failure, she simply will not let it paralyze her.

Most self-help books ask readers what they would do if they knew they couldn’t fail, but Gilbert asks the opposite.

“What would you do even if you knew that you might very well fail?” she writes. “What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success become irrelevant? What do you love even more than you love your own ego?”

***

Big Magic is a meditation on creativity spanning nearly 50 brief chapters with titles like “Entitlement,” “The Central Paradox,” and “Nobody’s Thinking About You,” which explain how lack of confidence, perfectionism, and fear of criticism inhibit creativity.

In “Entitlement,” Gilbert encourages readers to cultivate “the arrogance of belonging” which “is not about egotism or self-absorption”; rather, it “pulls you out of the darkest depths of self-hatred—not by saying ‘I am the greatest!’ but by merely saying ‘I am here!’”

She stresses that art is both meaningless and deeply meaningful in “The Central Paradox,” and warns readers not to be too precious about their work.

“As I write this book, for instance, I approach each sentence as if the future of humanity depends upon my getting that sentence just right,” she writes. “But as I edit my sentence—sometimes immediately after writing it—I have to be willing to throw it to the dogs and never look back.”

“Nobody’s Thinking About You” will remind readers that it’s pointless to agonize about their work being criticized or mocked, because most people are too self-absorbed to notice it in the first place.

None of this advice is particularly novel on its own, but Gilbert’s voice gives it a compelling new twist. These insights are more practical than spiritual, though there’s plenty of spirituality in Big Magic, including a longer version of the story about the inspiration-chasing poet she referenced in her TED talk.

“That, my friends, is some freaky, old-timey, voodoo-style Big Magic, right there,” she writes of Ruth Stone. “I believe in it though.”

That’s the thing about Liz Gilbert that both annoys people and endears them to her. She is so goddamn optimistic that you want to shake her until she shows some sign of defeat or doubt instead of persisting with “stubborn gladness,” as she puts it in Big Magic.

At the same time, you can’t help but be charmed and inspired by her attitude and eloquence.

During one period of writer’s block, Gilbert “felt sometimes like I was trying to carve scrimshaw while wearing oven mitts,” she writes in Big Magic. On revisiting an idea for a novel that she had set aside: “It was like poking a stick at a cast-off snakeskin: the more I messed with it, the faster it fell apart and turned to dust.”

When I ask Gilbert how creative people who aren’t spiritual can achieve equanimity about their work, she suggests that maybe we need to broaden what we consider “spiritual.” We don’t necessarily need to meditate or even believe in the divine, she says.

“Keep an eye out for whatever makes you interested,” she enthuses. “The breadcrumbs of curiosity and inquisitiveness are clues to what you’re supposed to be doing with yourself that will make you feel like more than a meat puppet.”