If you write a book that sells 13m copies, it puts you in a unique position to consider fame and success from a global point of view.
Elizabeth Gilbert is such as person, as her 2006 book Eat Pray Love was a publishing juggernaut, topping the best-seller list for three years.
In person, she is much like her writing, there’s light and kindness and self-effacement. But also buckets of wisdom and she laughs easily at her own jokes.
Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear is her latest book. It’s a continuation of some of the themes outlined in her popular 2009 TED talk which was about the difficulty of following a best-seller.
When I ask about the weight of living with such success, Elizabeth says “both success and failure are extremes, like 10 or minus 10 in relation to absolute zero, they’re the same distance away, but both are destabilising because you’re far from home.
I do distinguish between problems of abundance and problems of scarcity, having known both I still prefer a problem of abundance.
It’s not a problem, it’s a puzzle.”
Big Magic seems to be the result of that puzzle. The good news is that there are lessons here for all of us.
The book is a grounded and very useful exploration of the illusive creative process. Practicality reigns throughout.
When we talk about the necessity of writing in the stolen time between the day job, and well, night time, Elizabeth says “it’s okay to want success, but you better have another thing too.
If success is your only reason for doing this, you are setting yourself up for suffering because satisfaction will never be yours.
Even if you win the Irish literary prize, what if you don’t win it next year? There’s always going to be somebody else doing better.”
Throughout the book, myths about creativity are disarmed and new ways of thinking around the process are introduced.
For example, she invokes the ancient Roman notion of the muse as being responsible for genius, thereby outsourcing the source of inspiration.
We all know that writers, and poets and painters feel anguish, and suffer, because they tell us so. Elizabeth sees it in a different way.
“I haven’t totally articulated this very well yet, but let me try it. I think having worked with creativity for so long, that a lot of what people diagnose as torment, is actually boredom.
"A tremendous amount of creative life is tedium, and I think tedium is not very glamorous...
"The beginning is really exciting and the completion is really exciting, and the middle is just a lot of showing up every day and not really feeling like it, and the work doesn’t excite you and you’re wondering what you’re doing in the first place.
"At some point, I realised oh this isn’t anguish, I’m just bored.”
I ask if persistence is the hardest part of a creative project.
Elizabeth says that it’s not just creativity but everything in life, even that which initially conjures excitement, such as travel, marriage, or mediation.
But she says: “I think what happens to a lot of people is they quit when they get to the boring part.
I’ve a friend, Pastor Rob Bell, who says ‘don’t rush or stop through the experiences of life that have the most potential to transform you’.
“On the other side of the boredom is amazing stuff, endurance, transcendence, and realising parts of yourself that you didn’t know were there, like self-acceptance, and even completion.”
In the book, Elizabeth advises against banishment of fear, but to instead make friends with it.
She says she acknowledges it and invites it along for the ride.
This perhaps echoes lessons learned from four months at an Indian ashram, where, she says, “I finally made a peace pact with myself after I was just alone in this terrible neighbourhood that happens to be my head.
And we’re not a self, we’re selves, all these rival selves and...we found a peace treaty with each other.”
This particular interview is happening towards the end of a four-month book tour, but the hectic scheduling has not stopped Elizabeth showing up for work every day.
At first she didn’t think it would be possible. “Then I thought: ‘Gilbert, you’re on Facebook every day telling people to show up and work a little bit every day.’
"So I take my phone out and set it for 30 minutes and work on that novel everyday... sometimes that’s at an airport, some days in a taxi, some days a crowded place.”
Ultimately you have to show up for it, there’s no magic without the work.
So with persistence through boredom, the accommodation of fear, but also engagement with curiosity, and pleasure, that’s when Big Magic can happen. And what’s big magic?
“It’s like the sacred Sufi dancers who do the spinning.
"There’s a huge muscular effort in setting that thing in motion and they are just dancers spinning, and suddenly they aren’t any more. Suddenly they are grace. And most of us have to work pretty hard at this transcendence.”