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After Eat, Pray, Love: Elizabeth Gilbert confronts fear

We spoke with Gilbert, whose new book, Big Magic, will be released this month, about finding a muse, the myth of the suffering artist and the power of being scared silly.

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Photo, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

Photo, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.

In her breakout bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love,  Elizabeth Gilbert found life’s truths in plates of pasta, meditation sprees and the eyes of her Brazilian soulmate. Her latest effort, Big Magic, is similarly large in scope, focusing on capital-C creativity and how fear can  fuel the best work of your life.

You did a TED Talk in 2009 about nurturing creativity. Did that spark the idea for this book?
I’ve been thinking about this, for my own purposes, my entire life: How can I engage creativity in the most productive, least tormented way? I’m offering an alternative to the stereotypical “suffering artist.” I’m anti that.

People might not know the extent of your childhood anxiety. You wouldn’t expect that of a bestselling author.
You mean [going from] a quaking pansy to productive adult? [laughs] Fearlessness is not something I consider to be a virtue. People without fear are dangerous people to be around, because they’re missing some fundamental human warmth and caution. It’s about trying to create enough internal space so you can live with your fear.


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The creative life you write about is not for the faint of heart.
A lot of people try to organize their lives so they do not have to cope with fear on a daily basis. If you work in a standard day job, your outcomes are usually pretty predictable. But when you work in artistic creation, every time you do something, you’re sort of doing it for the first time. The reason we often seem so hypersensitive — and maybe even annoying — is because we spend our lives in a dance with fear.

How do you define “big magic”?
It’s the delightful, completely unpredictable side effect of engaging with creativity. Your project could be anything — something you’re not sure you can do and that makes you a bit scared — but you sort of feel like you might spontaneously combust if you don’t try it. You may not get what you thought you wanted out of it. But, as a human, you will have the most interesting encounters — funny, strange, enlightening — that you could possibly ever have. Those moments are the big magic.

Is there anything you tell yourself in order to overcome inner fear?
Before starting a project, I have a conversation, mostly with Fear, and say, “Your conjoined sister and I, Creativity, are about to go on a road trip together. You’ll be joining us — because you always do. But the terms have to be clear: Creativity and I are the only ones who get to make decisions about where we’re going. You don’t get to drive, you don’t get to hold the map, but you get to come.”

So it’s like one big dysfunctionally functional Brady Bunch?
Exactly.

Big Magic

Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert (Riverhead Books), $30.

Related:
Camilla Gibb on heartbreak, hope and the family we choose
Judy Blume on confessions, catharsis and coming of age
Meghan Daum: I don’t want kids and it’s not because I’m selfish

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