On Being Badass—with Elizabeth Gilbert and Jen Pastiloff

The bestselling authors have joined forces to bring enchantment and serious self-care to the women who need it most. Here, they teach us what it means to embrace creativity for embodied living beyond fear.
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There’s a secret to making friends in adulthood, says author Elizabeth Gilbert—yes, of Eat Pray Love fame—and it doesn’t have to involve cocktails. The trick? Create something together. And bonus points if that something is also good for humanity or the planet. After all, it’s how her friendship with author Jennifer Pastiloff went from online to IRL. 

Elizabeth Gilbert and Jennifer Pastiloff

Gilbert and Pastiloff have plenty of practice in this realm: Gilbert’s creativity bible Big Magic (2015) has made her something of an authority in the sphere, spawning speaking engagements and workshops in which the curious flock to find a little magic of their own. Pastiloff, meanwhile, has long been leading retreats and workshops to get people to lighten up and love themselves—a theme that culminated with the release of her memoir, On Being Human, last year.

See also The Unexpected Ways Yoga Stimulates Creative Thinking

After Gilbert and Pastiloff met online, following each other and messaging over Instagram, the women bonded over their “passion to be of service and being really big dorks,” Pastiloff says. Out of those conversations, their workshop series On Being Magic was born. These one-day creativity and personal development sessions for women bring to life the wisdom inside each of their books—and are completely free of charge. With just one On Being Magic workshop under their belt (the second, scheduled for April, was canceled due to COVID-19 at press time), the project is still in its infancy, ever-evolving—and best put into words by the makers in chief themselves.

How did the idea to combine your superpowers come up?

Elizabeth Gilbert: It came from Jen and I becoming friends and wanting to make something together. When we started having the conversation about it, I said, “I want to do something, but I want it to be free. I want the people who come to this to be the kinds of people who don’t typically get to go to yoga or art retreats.” We really wanted to take care of women who are struggling, or take care of the women who take care of women who are struggling—people at organizations doing work for women’s issues. Our goal is to give people a day where they are pampered and loved and seen. We tell them at the beginning, “You don’t even have to do anything. If you don’t want to do any yoga or introspective work, you can just take one of these yoga mats and lie in the corner and sleep for the entire day. We’ll bring your lunch at noon. You’re tired. You’re tired, and we want to help you, and we want to love you up.”

See also 5 Poses to Boost Creativity

Jennifer Pastiloff: Yes. The idea was to get a group of women and non-gender-conforming humans and provide them with a safe space to write and explore and move their bodies and share and listen­—what I call “dorking it out.” We dance, and we sing, and we laugh, and we cry. It really is magic and vulnerable and intimate, even with 150 people. It inherently breeds creativity. And I think what really helps is that Liz and I are both so honest and open about ourselves that other people feel they can be that way too.

Elizabeth Gilbert and Jennifer Pastiloff

Elizabeth Gilbert and Jennifer Pastiloff

Creativity as a concept is so remarkably vast. How do you even start to define it?

JP: It’s hard for me to put it into words, because when you just asked, I wanted to get up and dance. I was like, “Wait, let me do it with my body!” Because to me, it’s about being awake and inspired. For a while, I was really getting in my own way. We all do that, right? I thought to myself: “Just make something. Make art. Write something. Make a cup of coffee.” This idea helps me feel alive. Because the truth is, it’s always within us. I think that’s what it means to be connected to Spirit. Now I’ll do my creative dance.

See also A 45-Minute Playlist to Revitalize Your Creative Spirit

EG: There’s an openness and a vulnerability to creativity as well. I recently posted on Instagram a picture of my stack of journals from last year. Then there were a million questions. Sometimes the questions people give me on Instagram make me want to weep. They were like, “How do you do it?” “What’s your system?” “Which kind of pens do you use?” I was like, “Oh my God, you guys, it’s a blank page! You get to do whatever you want with it!” But we cannot stop looking for the rules. We cannot stop wanting a tyrant to come around and tell us what we have to do in order to be OK. So instead of saying that, I opened up my journals and took some pictures of random pages. I put them on social media so that people could see what they look like because it's a mishmash: shopping lists, drawings, prayers, collage, other people's poetry. It’s a real creative gumbo on every page.

How do you tap into your own muse?

EG: I think that a good trick is to go back and figure out what you liked to do when you were eight and nine years old. Before we discovered sex and substances in our teens, most of us, we had other ways of feeling good, and they tended to be instinctively creative. If you’re like most humans, you were already anxious, because most of us grew up in imperfect families in an imperfect culture. Children create things to settle their nerves. My sister and I spent our entire childhood drawing and writing and putting on plays and making up stories. That’s what I do now to calm myself down. So let’s say that your dream is to be a great novelist, but when you were eight, the thing that settled you was coloring. Start coloring. It’ll lead you to your novel. Trust me. It’s like as soon as your neural pathways just go into that ease, the ideas will have an opportunity to come up. So do a different creative thing than the big dream if the big dream seems to be out of reach.

See also “How Yoga Helped Me Write a Novel—& Land My First Book Deal”

JP: When I feel like I’m the most uncreative human in the world, I stop and I look around for the five most beautiful things I can see in that moment. I call it Beauty Hunting. No matter where I am, I stop and look. I try to do it every hour. The more you begin to look around and pay attention—I mean, that’s all being creative is, right? We all have that divine creative spirit. We have to pay attention to notice it.

Why do so many people have a hard time believing they’re creative?

EG: I don’t have a tormented relationship with creativity, and I never have—and that makes me a unicorn. I’ve had a tormented relationship with everything else. Every single other thing that you can have a relationship with is complicated for me, except this. And I don’t know why I was given this clarity that says that this does not have to be a path of suffering. It’s a gift. Creativity itself is a gift of love for you. It loves you, and it wants to play with you, and it wants to communicate with you, and it wants you to be happy, and it will make you happy. We live in a culture that fetishizes the dark aspect of creativity and loves the story of the artist dying for their work. I never experienced it that way in my bones, and [with Big Magic] I wanted to show people what I know, what I just know in my sternum to be true, which is that torment is not the intended purpose of this relationship between humans and inspiration.

See also 12 Yoga Poses to Spark Creativity

JP: It comes back to what I call the Just-A-Box in On Being Human. We think we have to fit inside a box, all the corners neatly tucked in. Just a mom. Just a waitress. Just a yoga teacher. Just an accountant. We think we can’t spill out into the miraculous and often unknown Something Else, because who are we to be different? To bust out of the Just-A-Box?

We are what we repeat, and so many of us stop being playful once we are adults. We struggle with believing it’s inside of us because we forget. So we must do whatever we need to in order to remember who we really are. We stop repeating what brings us joy because someone, somewhere, told us we weren’t very good at that thing. As someone who has struggled with depression since early childhood, I used to think I had to be in the throes of heartbreak or depression to create something meaningful. Now that I’m on antidepressants—although I do have rare days where I think I have zero creative bones in my body and I should just watch Netflix all day (and sometimes I do)—I also realize that all we need to be creative is to create. Being creative does not mean being the best or even good. It means doing it. Make things and art and love and hugs and coffee. Small things. Big things. Things that can’t be called things or don’t fit inside the box. Create magic. Create it all.

Both books, Big Magic and On Being Human, talk about living beyond fear. How does one take the first step?

JP: I realize the more honest statement for me is that I’m fearless-ish. I don't think I’ve ever been fearless. Instead, I’m afraid and I do it anyway. I was scared to come here, and here I am. So for me, when I wake up, I really work on my mantra or prayer—“Today may I not let fear be the boss of me.” A big part of it is acknowledging it and just not letting it be so loud. Just letting it coexist without letting it ruin my life.

See also This Month’s Home Practice: 16 Poses to Spark Inspiration

EG: Here’s the great paradox. You leave it behind by bringing it closer. The closer I bring my fear into the warmth of the center of myself and into the embrace of my love, the quieter it gets. The farther that I push it away, the louder it screams, the more that I want to orphan it, disown it, hate it, punch it, kick it in the ass, show it who’s boss. I mean, that’s all really violent language about something that’s an aspect of myself and that actually belongs to me, was born into me, and is part of my internal family. Right? So I’m really gentle with myself about fear. If I were going to coach somebody on how to get over their fear, the first step is to drop the idea that you’re ever going to get over it. Instead, pull up a chair for it. My fear sits right next to me with every book that I write. I don’t like to keep it far from me. I once heard someone say, “Your trauma is not the wound. Your trauma is the distance between you and the wound.” So when you bring it in, where it can be loved and taken care of, it’s much better than pushing it away, where it’s going to cause you problems. The farther away fear gets, the more trouble it’s going to bring to you.

And remember that everybody’s fear is exactly the same. But everybody’s curiosity is different. That’s what makes you unique. Your fear is the least interesting thing about you, because it’s exactly like mine. Guaranteed. In my workshops, I have people write letters from their fear to themselves, where their fear says what it’s afraid of. People weep as they’re writing it. It’s so vulnerable. And yet, every single one of those letters is exactly the f—ing same. Literally, I could write everybody’s fear letter for them, because there’s just one fear. But then when I have people write letters to themselves from their sense of enchantment, where their sense of enchantment gets to say what it loves, who turns it on, what’s exciting? Those letters just make me weep because every single one of them is completely different. So once you’ve started to follow your enchantment, which is sort of the same thing as your curiosity, you’re going to start to lead a life that doesn’t look like other people’s lives. If you follow your fear, your life will look like a lot of other people’s lives, because it’s just going to be a big no. 

Do you ever get imposter syndrome when you are trying to create?

JP: Hi, I’m having it right now. I’m sitting next to someone who sold 13 million books.

EG: I’m having it. I sold 13 million books.

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JP: I was leading a workshop in South Dakota with 60 people in 2013. I was talking about what we are afraid of. This woman closed her book and stood up, and she said, “I could do what you do.” And she started making fun of me around the room. “I could speak in your cadence.” It was awful. And you know what? I didn’t die. Here I am sitting here. The interesting thing is right after that happened, someone said, “So fear looks many ways.” Her fear was mean. Of course that triggered every ounce of my imposter syndrome until I realized that was just that person’s fear. Then I got up, and I was afraid, and I did it anyway—the next time and the next time and the next time.

EG: I think that you nailed it, Jen. With imposter syndrome, a voice in your head says, “Who do you think you are?” It’s amazing how powerful that voice is, because for many of us, all it has to do is ask that and you will crawl backward into your hole. You pull that filthy piece of moldy canvas over your head again and you hide in your dirty hole where you think you belong. And you always hear that question in a certain tone. It’s the sinister, demonic, “Who do you think you are?” It’s amazing how questions lose their fangs if you take away tone. Remove the sinister sound of that voice and just write it down on a piece of paper in a neutral, curious way: “Who do you think you are?”

So then I say to it, “Thank you. That is a great question. Who do I think I am? I think I’m a child of God. Not sure, but I’m pretty sure. What do you think you’re doing? I think I'm trying to write a book.”

See also Elizabeth Gilbert's Magic Journal Prompt

Answer it. We never answer it. We just wither. They ask the question, and we collapse. Take the question seriously. Who do you think you are? There’s a story my friend Rob Bell loves to tell from the Talmud. There was some great, wise, ancient rabbi who was wandering around the desert one night, just in contemplation. He came upon a fortress. A soldier at the top of the fortress saw him below and said, “Who are you, and what are you doing here?” The rabbi called up to the soldier and said, “How much money do they pay you to ask those two questions of people?” The soldier said what his salary was, and the rabbi said, “I will pay you double that to follow me around for the rest of my life and ask me those two questions every day.” Who are you, and what are you doing here? Those are really good questions. You should be asking yourself those questions all the time. So when the imposter syndrome demon comes to you and says, “Who do you think you are, and what do you think you’re doing?” be like, “Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to contemplate that. Who do I think I am? What do I think I’m doing?” And answer.

See also 11 Poses to Ignite Your Second Chakra and Spark Creativity

Join the conversation

Listen to Elizabeth and Jennifer talk about accessing the muse, healing from grief, and more, with Executive Editor Lindsay Tucker on YJ’s new podcast, The Yoga Show: yogajournal.com/podcasts.

In the moment

Support Jennifer Pastiloff's Go Fund Me to help families who are hit financially by COVID-19 by providing digital grocery cards: onbeignhuman2020.com.