Books

Elizabeth Gilbert works her magic

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of ‘Eat Pray Love,’ urges readers to unleash their creative sides in her bestselling ‘Big Magic.’
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of ‘Eat Pray Love,’ urges readers to unleash their creative sides in her bestselling ‘Big Magic.’

Elizabeth Gilbert isn’t praying much at the moment, but she is doing quite a bit of eating and loving. Seated at a small table in the back of La Perrada de Edgar, a Colombian hot dog joint on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, she is hunkered over a slab of meat and a bun overloaded with condiments and mysterious sauces and topped with crushed potato chips.

“This is a messy business,” says Gilbert, and laughs, trying to wipe away the carnage after the first bite and subsequent explosion. One napkin, two napkins, three napkins aren’t enough; she grabs a wad and goes to work mopping up the goo. “You replace the body weight of the hot dog with the body weight of napkins. That’s more grease and mayonnaise you’re not putting in your body. You can weigh the napkins later and subtract that from your shame.”

Visiting La Perrada is a yearly ritual for Gilbert, 46, who was in town over Labor Day weekend. Oddly, she loves Miami in August and September: “I love the silkiness of it. I love the storms that come this time of year, the skies. This time of year this is my favorite place in the world to be. There’s no one here. Go to Fire Island this weekend and see if you can find parking

She returns Monday, this time to talk about her latest book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (Riverhead, $24.95) at the Adrienne Arsht Center.

The minute everyone in the world has made up their minds about you, you are absolutely free to do whatever you want.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert

Big Magic, which has landed atop The New York Times bestseller list, is a new venture for Gilbert, a former journalist famous for her memoir Eat Pray Love about her travels in Italy, India and Bali. She’s also the author of the biography The Last American Man; Committed, a follow-up to Eat Pray Love, and three works of fiction, including the historical — and hefty — novel The Signature of All Things. Her publisher, she notes, was “more psyched to hear about Big Magic than when I said, ‘I’m going to write a 500-page novel about a spinster virgin who spends her life in the 19th century studying moss!’ 

Big Magic falls into a brand new category for her, self help (“which is going to make me super legit in the literary world,” Gilbert says wryly). In it, she describes how creativity works for her — it’s a strange and intriguing process — and offers suggestions as to how everyone can incorporate it into their lives.

“The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them,” she writes. “The hunt to uncover those jewels — that’s creative living. . . . The often surprising results of that hunt — that’s what I call Big Magic.”

The book is full of chatty advice, pep talks, amusing and inspiring stories — like one about a friend who started ice skating several days a week, improving her life in the process — and Gilbert’s passion and self-deprecating charm.

“This book is such a gift to Liz’s readers and the people who have loved her way before Eat Pray Love,” says novelist Ann Patchett, a friend of Gilbert’s who is mentioned in one of the book’s funnier anecdotes. “It’s permission. Big Magic is like a hall pass that says you are entitled to do what you want to do and live a creative life and how you choose to do it will be valid. And who doesn’t want to have creativity be a part of their lives?”

Gilbert first spoke about her “weird magical thinking” publicly in a TED talk in 2009, which she says required the sort of courage she urges readers to find within themselves.

“The scariest thing I did was give that TED talk,” she says. “The people who spoke before me were in robotics or bioengineers or guys who are doing satellite imagery in space. It was a room full of people who were science oriented or venture fund capitalists coming to find the next great scientific idea that they can pour all their money into. It is not a warm room in which to stand on stage and talk about f------ creativity!”

Gradually, though, the crowd warmed up — and Gilbert relaxed.

“Perhaps even those of us who must politically define ourselves as being 100 percent fully empirical and rational and scientific, maybe even those people have room enough for a bigger and more magical way of imagining the world,” she says.

Gilbert’s idea of living creatively may incorporate touches of magic, but she’s practical in the extreme. She doesn’t advocate quitting your day job to follow your probably-poorly-paying dreams: “It’s recklessly irresponsible to encourage people to put their futures in danger by doing something that by its very nature is subjective and unpredictable.” She isn’t a fan of pricey MFA programs: “There’s a part of me that says, ‘Please, MFA programs, bring me evidence to support why it’s worth it for this young person to take out $100,000 in debt to become a poet. . . . I think any system that tells you that you need to spend an enormous amount of money to be legitimized as a creative human being is a racket.”

Instead, she counsels finding ways to remember what you used to love to do — and then do it.

“If you want to do something because you love it and want to engage with it, and you want to dance and play with it, go do it! You don’t need a permission slip. You don’t need an MFA. You don’t need contacts,” she says. “It’s a cliché, but every child is creative. All of us drew, we danced, we sang, we made up stories, we built things with Legos, and we did it all without any hesitation. As a friend of mine says, no 3-year-old boy ever looked at a pile of Legos and said, ‘I just don’t know what to do with this — I’m blocked.’

“I don’t care if the work you do is great. I don’t care if you’re talented. I don’t care if you’re original or groundbreaking. I just want to see motion rather than paralysis. It’s more interesting.”

This sort of talk tends to raise eyebrows in the literary world, but Gilbert — true to what she preaches — doesn’t spend much time worrying about what other people think.

“It would be hard for the literary world to summon more disdain than they did after Eat Pray Love,” she says, and laughs again. “Someone asked me, ‘Don’t you feel limited by being put in the chick lit box, or dismissed, or underestimated?’ But the minute everyone in the world has made up their minds about you, you are absolutely free to do whatever you want. Because it doesn’t matter what you do — their minds are made up! So you’re free.”

If You Go

Who: Elizabeth Gilbert

When: 8 p.m. Monday

Where: John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall, Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

Cost: $30; includes a signed copy of “Big Magic”

Info: Tickets and more information at www.booksandbooks.com

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