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.
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.”