Her runaway bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love thrust Elizabeth Gilbert into the international spotlight, but this intrepid artist had been writing long before that—and will continue to do so whether anyone ever reads another of her books. In this upbeat and inspired conversation with Claire Zammit, learn the secret to Gilbert’s unflappable spirit, the reason she works alone, and why she believes that curiosity is far more reliable than passion.
Claire Zammit: Among women especially, there’s an impulse to be living a more creative life and also to express our creativity in a way that really impacts and contributes to others. How did you do it?
Elizabeth Gilbert: I spend a lot of time talking to people about the creative projects that they want to do, and the first question that I ask them is, “Why do you want to do it?” [Oftentimes] their answer, not surprisingly, is, “I want to help people.” And I think they’re generally very surprised by my response, which is always to beg them not to.
Art that is made with the intention of trying to help and save and rescue and transform people generally is not often the most beautiful, transformative, big-hearted, honest, and sometimes even savage art.
What I always try to tell people is, “I want you to do the work that sets your head on fire—your own head on fire. I want you to do the work that changes your imagination. I want you to do the work that ignites you and brings you to life; that makes you feel like just on fire and alive and delighted. And I want you to liberate yourself from the idea that it has to save the world. And I want you to trust that if you are creating something that comes from an authentic, excited, original, and passionate place, it will change people’s lives accidentally and in strange and curious and unusual and unexpected ways.”
CZ: In Big Magic you say that you wrote Eat, Pray, Love to save yourself, essentially.
EG: If I had sat down to write Eat, Pray, Love with the intention of trying to change the lives of 10 million women, it would’ve been an entirely different book, and it might’ve been a completely unreadable book. But instead, I wrote that book with the same impulse that I’ve written every single one of my books, which is, “I have something within me that I need to figure out. I have something within me I need to rescue myself from. I have something within me I need to express. I have something within me that’s brimming with curiosity. And I just have to make this thing or else I’m going to go insane.”
And you can like it or you can not like it. You can buy or you can not buy it. It can shape you or it can not shape you. But the original impulse is that me, as an individual in this world, wants to put a mark of myself out into the universe. And then whatever happens to it next is kind of none of my business.
CZ: How did you know to value the contribution that you had, to trust that knowing?
EG: My kneejerk reaction is that my mother taught me that it was OK for me to take up space in the world. I know that not everybody grows up in a household where those things are encouraged, especially as girls—being allowed to have a voice, being allowed to have expression.
But from the very beginning my mom, who had not been given that message as a child … just thought, “No way. I’m not going to raise young women who are taught to be invisible.”
So she sort of allowed me to take up all the space I could, and I’m afraid I’ve been doing it ever since.
CZ: Someone gave you that permission. And there’s a valuing that we have to have of our voice and a kind of courage to come forward with it.
EG: It’s also the case that permission is the opposite of perfection, and perfection is what girls and women are constantly being coached to strive for. And it’s miserable, that goal, because it’s a trap and it’s a trick and it doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as a perfect thing. There’s no such thing as a perfect contribution.
My mother used to always say, “Done is better than good.” That whatever you’re doing doesn’t have to be perfect. It actually doesn’t even have to be good. It just has to be done. It has to be done because the activity and the adventure itself is its own reward. And the curiosity you feed by going in this direction of exploration is its own reward.
I’m always saying to women, “Please don’t hold yourself to a standard of perfection. Putting forth work into the world that is short of perfect never stopped men from participating in the cultural conversation. Look around!”
So if you can release yourself from the tyranny of the idea that you’re not allowed to exist unless you completely answer some impossible, evil cultural idea about what a perfect woman is, then you’re never going to be able to make anything at all.
CZ: How do we release that and give ourselves permission?
EG: It’s a dialogue that you have to have with yourself. One of the things that I do when I find myself getting overwhelmed by fear and anxiety and a sense that I’m not good enough, is to try to talk myself as if I were a dear friend instead of talking to myself as if I were a failure. Because a lot of the ways that we talk to ourselves is constantly promoting this idea that we’re failures. There’s that deep radio inside of us that is forever transmitting the message you aren’t good enough, you aren’t good enough, you aren’t good enough, you aren’t good enough. And I would never let a dear friend of mine get away with talking about herself that way.
We’re so good at sitting down with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and taking the hand of the women in our lives and just telling them how beautiful they are and how talented they are and how strong they are.
And yet we somehow hold ourselves outside of that circle. So every woman in the world is entitled to feel empowered and to feel beautiful and to feel talented except me?
Somewhere along the line I realized that’s a very narcissistic worldview. And I just thought, well, what would happen if I stepped into the same circle of power that I’m always trying to encourage my friends and my sister and my cousins and my nieces to step into? Why should I not also be allowed to take in that nourishment and to believe it? And, also, if I do it, then might that also be encouraging for them? And might that give them more permission to do the same thing?
CZ: You had a real clarity at an early age that you had a calling to be a writer. And I love the stories that you tell about receiving rejection letter after rejection letter. How do you find that grit, that determination, that unstoppability?
EG: I signed [a contract] in my heart with this work when I was very young, and I just made a commitment to it the way that a woman of an entirely different sort of personality than mine might make a commitment to become a nun; to just say, “I’m marrying this.” That’s sort of the definition of what a vocation is. It’s that voice. It’s that calling. And you can ignore it or you can talk yourself out of it or you can just say, “I’m in. I’m in 100 percent.”
And because I was raised by people who taught me how to take care of myself, how to save money, and how to always have a day job and how to not need a lot of material things, there [were] no stakes.
If I didn’t get a short story published that year, it wasn’t like I wasn’t going to eat, because I was working as a waitress and as a bartender and as an au pair and as a journalist and, you know, I was making money to live on in other ways. And that liberated my creativity to take its own pace.
But I [felt] like, “I have something here, and it pleases me. I enjoy it. So, why should I stop doing it just because the first time I sent out a manila envelope somebody sent it back? That’s their business.”
The other commitment that I made to writing is that I said to it, “I will never ask you to support me financially. I will always support you. I will work hard so that you can play lightly.”
And so I think one of the really tricky traps that people fall into when it comes to wanting to live a creative life is that they get the message that you have to make a big commitment. You’ve got to give it 100 percent of your life. And they mistake that for a notion that they have to quit their job, take huge financial risks, put everything in their life on the line, and if they’re not doing that then it means that they’re not making a full commitment.
I think actually part of what you have to do if you’re a responsible and sane and mature creative person is to say, “I’m putting all of my heart into this, but I’m not going to trust that it’s going to pay the oil bill.”
You know there’s that old adage that people are always being told to jump and the net will catch you. Well, if you jump with no plan and no sense of self-preservation into a creative field, the net may or not catch you.
CZ: I can just feel how much angst we can release in stepping into relationship with it in the way that you’re inviting us to, and how much power is there.
EG: The strength that will come from looking after yourself is huge. And, you know, there’s no shame in having a job. It’s an incredibly honorable thing to have a job. I wrote three books before Eat, Pray, Love, all of which were published by major publishing houses, all of which got very nice reviews in the The New York Times, some of which won or were nominated for some really big awards. In other words, from the outside perspective it might’ve looked like I had already made it, and I still had my day jobs. I mean, when Eat, Pray, Love came out, when it was a number one New York Times bestseller, I was still selling bracelets at the flea market because I just felt like, “Not yet.”
CZ: What about fear or obstacles? You’ve had so much clarity and confidence and commitment, where did you feel afraid or uncertain on the journey you’ve been on?
EG: I feel afraid and uncertain right now! As I’m talking to you there’s another voice in my head saying, “You’re not doing it right.” It never, ever, ever goes away. But I’m always against the advocacy of fearlessness or the presentation of fear as something that you have to fight, kick, punch, knock down. “I’m going to kick fear’s ass!”
There’s this kind of language that we use around getting rid of fear that’s really violent and aggressive. And any time I’ve ever tried those strategies … like anything else in the world, anything you fight tends to fight you back harder.
I’ve just embodied fear and I give it a personality and I gave it a body and I gave it face and I made friends with it. And I realized that it’s one of the parts of myself that I need to tend to with great love and great maternal kindness and great generosity of spirit.
For one thing, it’s such a valuable emotion. All of us should just a take a moment right now and think about a moment when fear saved your life, and be grateful because it did. We’re here because there was a moment when our fear rescued us.
So it’s our friend and it’s trying to help us. So whenever it speaks up and raises its head and freaks out, it’s only because it’s trying to protect you, and it’s afraid that something really terrible is going to happen to you and it just wants you to stop so that you can be safe.
And so the tone that I take with fear is that I start by thanking it. I just say, “Thank you so much for caring about me so much that you rise up in this level to protect me. It’s really beautiful of you, and I thank you for all the times when you’ve saved my life. And I just want to let you know, though, that this is not an instance where my life is in danger. I’m just trying to write an essay.”
CZ: How do we stay in our center in the midst of all of that [fear], and actually birth what it is that’s seeking to come through us?
EG: I have a conversation with fear before I begin any project. And it’s a literal conversation that I have out loud, which is why I have to work in a room alone.
I sit down and I say, “Listen, I want to tell you what’s going on because I can see that you’re all fired up, and I just want to say that your twin sister, creativity… and I are about to go on a road trip together. And you can come with us because I know you will whether I invite you or not. But you’re invited. You can come with us. There’s plenty of room in the minivan for all of us to be in there together. And I want you to know that I’ll never try to kick you out of this family; that you’re part of us and we appreciate you, and we all have a role to play on this road trip. So, creativity’s role is to be excited and inspiring, and my role is to be disciplined and faithful and rational about doing that work, and your role apparently is to scream every five minutes about how we’re all going to die. And, may I say, you do it beautifully. Thank you.
And I recognize that’s what you’re going to be doing, but I want you to understand you can do that but we’re going to continue on this journey, and you can have a voice and you can have a seat in the van, but you cannot have a vote and you don’t get to make any of the decisions about this particular project because Mommy’s driving and I’ve got this.”
And if you speak to your fear that way, it’s amazing. It’s like putting a [kid going through a] temper tantrum in a car seat.
CZ: How do we discover the unique gifts and hidden jewels that lay inside of us?
EG: The most beautiful of all human emotions is curiosity. There’s a lot of talk, especially in contemporary Western society, about encouraging people to follow their passions. How many times have you been told to, “Just follow your passion. Trust your passion.” And I always feel like it’s a bit of useless advice because, for one thing, if you already have one single burning, driving passion and you’ve had it your whole life, then odds are you’re already doing that thing.
But that’s not the case for most people. Most people don’t have this sort of tower of flame that they’re born with that’s very clear, that says, “This is who you are and this is what you’re supposed to do.” The world is confusing. Our minds are confusing. We have a billion options. We have all kinds of demons and insecurities. It’s hard to figure out.
So I always tell people, just forget about passion and follow your curiosity, because curiosity is such a more democratic entity than passion, and it’s so much more consistent and reliable. Passions burn out. Curiosity never does.
Unless you have descended into the deepest, blackest, most disconnected depression, there’s always some molecule of you that is capable of being a tiny, little bit curious about something.
Passion asks you to shave your head and get divorced and move to Nepal. Curiosity would never ask you to do that. Curiosity just says, like, “I’d like to learn a little bit more about Nepalese history. I’ll go to the library today and get a book.” Curiosity doesn’t make you do these radical things. It just asks you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look 10 percent closer at this tiny, little tap on your shoulder that said, ‘That’s kind of neat” or “That’s kind of cool” or “That’s kind of screwed up. Somebody should fix that.” Those tiny, little signals. And we ignore them because we’re looking for the passion.
And curiosity isn’t fired by passion; it’s not hot like that. So we think it’s nothing. But it’s not nothing. It’s everything. Follow it. Pick it up, go wherever it leads you.
It might be you go to the library and you get that book on Nepal and then you’re like, Eh. And then there’s another clue. So you follow that.
Then sometimes those clues start to be like lily pads that you’re walking on over this pond, and there’s another one and there’s another one and there’s another one, and suddenly you’re on a path. Suddenly things are getting interesting.
That’s how you find the jewels that are inside of you. And that’s how you find your purpose.
And, it may be the case that you do that for your whole life and it never delivers. You never “get” anything out of it except that you will have lived a life that was completely devoted to the beautiful human instinct of inquisitiveness and curiosity. And that should be enough for anybody to feel like they had a wonderful existence [and] got as much out of this world as was available to them.
CZ: A Power Practice we teach in Feminine Power is that it’s actually curiosity that unlocks intuition and our deeper knowing. You can’t be curious and disconnected from the larger or deeper intelligence within us or in life. Curiosity unlocks that more expansive knowing. It’s actually the gateway to intuition.
When you’re curious, you’re in this empowered not knowing. And that’s the ultimate place of power in Feminine Power—being in receptivity.
EG: My great-aunt, Lolly, is one of my wonderful role models in life, who is 95 years old and the single most cheerful and optimistic human being I’ve ever met despite not having had an easy life and having had a lot of terrible things happen to her. And when she was 86, I said, “Lolly, how are you doing?” and she said, “Liz, you’ll never guess what I have!” And I said, “What?” and she said, “Cancer. Isn’t that interesting?”
She was like, “Well, I’ve never had that before. That’s interesting. What are we going to do now?”
And so my husband and I say all the time whenever something really bad happens, we go, “Guess what I got?” Like, “Guess what? I had a car accident. Isn’t that interesting?” You know, we try to kind of stay in that idea that, you know, the difference between interesting and terrible is just a question of how much you dial down the drama. So “terrible” is like very high drama. And then if you can dial that down just a couple of notches, suddenly it’s like, “Well, this is interesting. I didn’t expect to be fired. Huh. Like, now what? Oh, this is interesting. I didn’t expect, you know, to have that guy walk out on me. Wow.” And then all sorts of possibilities are there. Maybe they’re horrible possibilities, but they’re probably interesting ones.
CZ: Are there any rituals, habits, practices that help you to access your creativity on a daily basis? Is it something you do consciously? Are there any ways that we can just begin to orient that will help to ground this for us?
EG: We’re all [animals] carrying around a human mind, right? So we all have this animal body that has all these animal needs. And then up there, in the brain case, there’s this sort of super computer, which is one of the greatest forces in the universe—the human mind and imagination, consciousness and desire and dreams and fears and all that kind of stuff. But it’s all housed in this hardware that’s just made out of a mammal.
And I’ve learned over the years that if I can be really kind and sympathetic to that poor, warm-blooded animal that is burdened with the responsibility of carrying around my insane mind, start there. If that little animal is well fed and rested and has stretched out and gotten a little exercise and isn’t stressed and exhausted, then somehow this amazing, weird super computer can function.
And when that weird super computer can function, then all kinds of magical things can happen. But if I do harm to that poor, innocent mammal, then nothing works.
So when things aren’t working for me creatively, it’s usually because things aren’t working for that mammal. It’s usually because I’ve driven myself so hard that I’m sick, that I’m stressed, that I can’t sleep without taking sleeping pills, that I’m not eating right, that I haven’t had exercise in months, you know. And then the whole network shuts down.
There are times when I just sort of have this idea, I’m shutting down the email and I’m turning off the phone. I’ve got to take care of my animal for a day. I’ve been asking so much of it. I’ve been treating it like a rented mule.
And then all the creativity comes back and everything seems possible again, and there’s excitement again.
CZ: So that’s a good thing to do, if you feel blocked: self-care of some kind; actually step back, take care of your body.
EG: Yeah. Once you get your animal healthy, the next thing is ritual. And ritual doesn’t have to be lighting incense and bowing to the rising sun in the east, although it can be.
Ritual is anything . . . we like ritual. We like regularity. We like rhythm. And one of the greatest creative tools that I have is a very simple kitchen timer. When I start to get sort of overwhelmed and thinking that I can’t do this work and I don’t know how I’m going to tackle this novel and I’ve gone over my head and I’ve asked too much of my mind, I’ll come to the kitchen timer and I set it for half an hour, and say, “You’re going to work on this book until that number turns from 30 to 0. And that’s it. And that’s all you’re going to do today. And tomorrow you’re going to do the same thing. And the next day you’re going to do the same thing.” It’s not glamorous, but you can do anything for 30 minutes.
CZ: You can.
EG: Some of the best novels you’ve ever read were written in one hour a day. I think sometimes we think, “If I’m going to be a writer I’m going to have to clear out all this space, and I’m going to have to go to an artist retreat, and I’m going to have to get a grant from a patron, and I’m going to have to move to Paris, and I’m going to have to . . .”
You might just need to get up a half an hour earlier and set that kitchen timer for 30 minutes and start.
The circumstances are never going to be perfect. We all dream of some world where those slow, green-grass summer days where we’re going to have all the time in the world to do all the works that we ever wanted to do, and very few people ever get that. [Some] of the most amazing things that you’ve ever seen or read or listened to or delighted in in the creative world were made by people who didn’t really have time to do it.
CZ: Big Magic is full of so many inspiring stories and wisdom and reflections from your life. I love this book. I want every woman I meet or know to read a copy of it. What do you want to tell us about it?
EG: This book is everything I’ve ever lived by that has worked for me. [It’s] about making from a place of joy and pleasure. And it’s based in this deep, magical thinking that I have, which is that inspiration does not come from us, it comes to us.
And it comes to us from some unknowable mystery, from some deep and ancient and eternal source that wants to interact with us. And it wants to collaborate with us.
And most of the time we don’t notice because we’re too busy being anxious and angry. We’re not feeling those ideas coming to us and wanting to work with us.
But someday in a very quiet moment you might get one. And at that point you have two choices. You can say, “Nah,” and it’ll go away, and it’ll look for someone else. And someday that idea will be born through somebody else. Or you can say, “Yes, let’s do this.”
And from that point you enter into the most mystical, honorable, strange, funny, bizarre relationship that a human being can have, which is the relationship between a person and an idea. And it’s weird … it’s spooky and it requires both magical thinking and pragmatic thinking in equal measure. And the book is all about kind of how you live in both those realms— one foot in the freaky, weird, inexplicable, mysterious universe of pure creativity and the other foot in the real world—because we do live in both of those worlds.
There’s this old Kabbalistic [saying that] the universe is in creation as we speak and it’s happening now. It’s unfolding. It’s a story that’s being told, and we are not witnesses to it; we are participants in it. And there’s nothing higher and more wonderful you can do with your life than to really actively participate in that strange unfolding of creation that’s occurring in us and around us and for us and with us. God’s looking for partners. Let’s go.
What is your soul on fire to create? Post a comment below for us!
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Women’s Workshop with Deepak Chopra and Elizabeth Gilbert
May 26 – May 29, 2016
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