The “Big Magic” of let­ter writ­ing

How a cor­re­spon­dence inspired Eat, Pray, Love au­thor El­iz­a­beth Gil­bert’s new book—and that of a fel­low writer.

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In her new memoir/philo­soph­i­cal ru­mi­na­tion on cre­ativ­ity, El­iz­a­beth Gil­bert pro­pounds an in­trigu­ing phi­los­o­phy: Ideas are liv­ing, dy­namic things that travel around the uni­verse and visit spe­cific peo­ple at spe­cific times; they can be ei­ther ac­cepted, re­jected or ig­nored and move on un­til they find the right per­son to take them on.

As one of her proofs, Gil­bert points to her re­la­tion­ship with Ann Patch­ett, the award-win­ning writer be­hind Bel Canto. Af­ter meet­ing just once, the two be­came epic pen pals, “writ­ing long, thought­ful letters ev­ery month. Real letters, on real pa­per, with en­velopes and postage and ev­ery­thing. It is a rather an­ti­quated way to be friends with some­one, but we are both rather an­ti­quated peo­ple,” writes Gil­bert in Big Magic: Cre­ative Liv­ing Be­yond Fear.

A year later, Gil­bert and Patch­ett met for only the sec­ond time and fell to talk­ing about their latest pro­jects, which they’d never dis­cussed be­fore. Patch­ett was work­ing on a book about a mid­dle-aged woman who finds love in the Ama­zon, which made Gil­bert freak out, mostly be­cause she’d had that ex­act same, very spe­cific idea a few years back but cir­cum­stances had in­ter­vened to pre­vent her from writ­ing the novel. When they com­pared time­lines, it seemed that Patch­ett be­gan to have the idea around the same time Gil­bert felt the time had passed when that was the kind of book she should write. To be pre­cise, they think the idea “passed be­tween them” at the mo­ment they met and be­gan writ­ing letters.

“I choose to re­gard this event as a ter­rific lit­tle mir­acle,” Gil­bert writes in the book. “I al­lowed my­self to feel grate­ful and as­ton­ished to have played any part what­so­ever in its un­fold­ing. This was the clos­est I’d ever felt to sor­cery.” Patch­ett’s book about the Ama­zon, State of Won­der, was pub­lished in 2011.

“No­body else could have writ­ten that novel as she wrote it,” Gil­bert goes on. “If any­thing, I had been the foster mother who’d kept the idea warm for a cou­ple years while it searched for its true and right­ful col­lab­o­ra­tor.”

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