The jobs of motivational speaker and self-help guru have probably topped very few “what I want to do when I grow up” lists. Author Elizabeth Gilbert didn’t set out to write books for that particular shelf — “When I was 30, it would have seemed like the most ludicrous thing in the world for anyone to pay me money to get up onstage and tell them how to live,” she says. “I’d made such a dog’s breakfast out of my life at that point.”
But, she adds, realizing your mistakes can be the start of getting your life together. Gilbert’s best-seller, Eat, Pray, Love, which evolved out of those confusing years, was not meant to be motivational. “It was a book I wrote as a travel story and a divorce story and a spiritual journey that people kind of ended up using as a self-help book,” she says. But her newest work, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, was written with the intention of sharing knowledge and advice. Gilbert will present the book at the Asheville High School auditorium Thursday, Oct. 22.
Gilbert appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s The Life You Want Tour and will be a featured speaker at Deepak Chopra’s center in May. Despite that kind of platform, “I’m careful that I’m not presenting myself as an authority on anything that I’m not an authority on,” she says. “But if you want to talk to me about creativity, that I can do.”
In Big Magic, Gilbert shares her early interest in writing. As a teenager, she held a ceremony in her bedroom where she dedicated herself to the craft and went on to spend years working at short stories, submitting to publications and collecting rejection letters. Where she differs from so many creatives is that she views her relationship to writing as a joyous one and, for decades, has bucked the notion that creativity is a self-destructive business or that artists must suffer for their craft. “I told the universe (and anyone who would listen) that I was committed to living a creative life not in order to save the world, not as an act of protest, not to become famous … but simply because I liked it,” she writes.
Gilbert did become famous, her success with Eat, Pray, Love making it hard to know if the writer’s relationship with creativity would have changed had she continued to work in relative obscurity. But accomplishment brought its own challenges as Gilbert discussed in the 2014 TED Talk on how to carry on, regardless of the outcome. Material from that presentation, as well as another TED Talk, “Your Elusive Creative Genius,” from 2009, made its way into Big Magic. There are also ideas from Gilbert’s author appearances. In Asheville last year, she touched on fear as a companion to creativity, a concept she expounds upon in the chapter, “The Road Trip.” Big Magic is a book she’d been thinking about writing for 12 years.
“Inspiration is contagious, and courage is contagious,” Gilbert says. She seeks out people who are not letting fear stop them, people who are revolutionizing their artistic genres. “It doubles down my commitment to the challenge of, ‘Are you really courageously doing the most interesting possible thing you could be doing right now?’ The more you can spend time around people who just continuously show up for the most curious possible path, the more you want to play, too.”
But the author isn’t advocating for everyone to take huge risks. Big magic, it turns out, can work in small ways, too. “Passion makes you get divorced and sell all your possessions and shave your head and move to Nepal. Curiosity doesn’t ask nearly so much of you,” Gilbert writes. “In fact, curiosity only ever asks one simple question: ‘Is there anything you’re interested in?’”
Following her own curiosity, Gilbert is in the early stages of a new historical novel. For now, that writing and research comes in short bursts as her current book tour ramps up. But the writer seems to delight in even her hectic schedule, seeing that, too, as a part of the magic of artistic work. “I don’t just want to be a hand-puppet with a job who walks around paying bills all the time,” she says. “I want to engage with creation, I want to dance with inspiration, and I want to put my fingerprint on the world in some weird way.”
WHO: Elizabeth Gilbert presents Big Magic
WHERE: Asheville High auditorium
WHEN: Thursday, Oct. 22, 7 p.m. $35 includes pre-signed copy of the book. malaprops.com