Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Elizabeth Gilbert. Elizabeth is an author, essayist, short-story writer, and novelist. In 2006, she wrote her landmark memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, which spent 199 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and sold over 10 million copies worldwide. Her latest novel, The Signature of All Things, is a sprawling tale of 19th-century botanical exploration. O, The Oprah Magazine named it “the novel of a lifetime.”
Elizabeth Gilbert is a featured presenter at Sounds True’s 2014 Wake Up Festival. She’ll be speaking on the topic of “Big Magic: Thoughts on Creative Living.” The Wake Up Festival takes place August 20th–24th in Estes Park, Colorado. You can go to wakeupfestival.com for more information.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Elizabeth and I spoke about creativity as a joyful and pleasurable pursuit versus the myth of the tortured artist. We talked about how ideas can be like animated beings with whom we choose and are chosen to collaborate. We also talked about what Elizabeth has trust in. And yes, what is her current “edge?” Here’s my conversation with Liz Gilbert:
Liz, I wanted to begin by talking with you about fear, because I know this is a topic that you’ve spoken about and written about. I noticed in preparing to interview you, I noticed I felt my stomach turning over several times, and something that you could certainly call either fear or maybe excitement. And that was really where I wanted to start—which is, how in your experience, do you distinguish between fear and excitement?
Elizabeth Gilbert: Wow, that’s such a great question! And you don’t have to be afraid to talk to me. [Laughs.] But I’m so touched that you were excited.
They’re sometimes hard to distinguish, right? They have the same physical characteristics, at times. You get a little shaky, your stomach flips. I know in my own life that it tends to be [that] fear is a sort of propellant. So is excitement. [I think] the difference is that fear tends to make me want to run in the opposite direction, and excitement makes me want to run toward the thing. [Laughs.]
So, I think it’s more of a navigational question. Do you want to get away from this, or are you trying to get closer to it? That’s probably the way that I distinguish it.
I think—creatively speaking—I’ve learned to make friends with fear over the years in ways that I haven’t quite yet been able to in other emotional realms in my life. But I’ve been able to recognize that creativity and fear are sort of conjoined twins. I think that sometimes we murder our creativity because we really want to kill our fear. So, we don’t want to live a life that’s scary—so we don’t live a creative life. In order to get rid of that fear, we end up killing all the benefits that come with facing it.
So these days, when I’m embarking on a creative project and I feel really scared, I just speak to the fear and tell it that it’s very welcome to join me on this journey, because I know it’s going to anyway. And I know that’s what its job is—to be afraid, and it does that really well—and that I respect it and it has a right to be there, but it’s not going to be allowed to make any of the decisions.
TS: I think what’s so important about this is that from the outside, I could imagine someone seeing you as—oh, you know—”Liz Gilbert! She seems so fearless!” And what you’re saying is actually something quite different. It’s not that you’re without fear—it’s that you’ve made a relationship to it and you move forward anyway.
EG: True. It’s also the case, I think, that there’s no such thing as anybody who’s universally fearless. That’s not a quality that I think exists in anybody except maybe a full-blown sociopath.
There are things that I do that other people might think are brave that, for me, actually don’t require that much courage. It’s really easy for me to put myself forward in the world, in a certain way. I’m comfortable travelling alone. I’m comfortable putting my neck out creatively.
There are other aspects of my life where I’m often paralyzed by fear. Things that might be easier for other people—a certain kind of emotional confrontation with a loved one, for instance—that somebody else might just be able to sit down and do, can send me into a panic. That shuts me down for months.
So we all have aspects of our lives where it’s easy to be brave and aspects of our lives where it’s almost impossible to be brave. I know Navy SEALs who can’t do public speaking—who would just fall apart and start crying if they had to go up onstage—but have other kinds of courage that I could not imagine approaching.
I don’t even think it’s really fair to label this or that person as being “brave.” It sort of depends on the circumstances and the strange peculiarities of the self.
TS: Now, I notice—as we approach our conversation here and as we’ve entered it—that a lot of the questions I want to ask you are kind of the questions you would ask a wise counselor—not necessarily a novelist. Many writers I wouldn’t think of asking the kinds of questions I want to ask you.
I wonder how that feels to you. People like me—I run a teaching company, spiritual teaching company—those are the kinds of things I want to talk to you about. Not necessarily the craft of writing. How does that feel to be in that position?
EG: Oh, that’s the kind of stuff I like to talk about! [Laughs.] So, a part of me is like, “Let’s roll! Let’s go. That’s the stuff that I’ve been talking about forever.”
I mean, writing is my craft and my profession, but the real, central journey of my life—and I think this probably shows in the way that I live, which is probably why you bring it to my attention—has been trying to figure out how to live well. Trying to figure out how to not succumb to darkness. Trying to figure out how to be a better friend to people. Trying to figure out how to find destiny and live it in a way that feels bold and important.
That’s kind of what I’m about. Writing is—I don’t want to diminish writing by saying it’s “just what I do,” but writing is my vocation. But I think I have a higher vocation that I respond to, which is living.
And I’ve failed that so many times in so many ways and then tried to come back from it, that I think I’ve—like all of us after a certain age—acquired a little bit of information about that along the way. I think, unless you’re really not paying attention, probably all of us are getting wiser as we get older. You got to really wake up early in the morning and be committed to not looking around and noticing anything to get dumber as you get older. [Laughs.]
So, at this point, we’ve all just gathered what we can. But I’m honored and delighted that you would come to me with those questions. I would probably come to you with them as well, if we were to meet on a bus.
TS: In terms of that “higher vocation”—that vocation, if you will, that comes even before writing—the vocation of living. What would you say is your stated purpose, intent, or motivation as a human, if you will? Is there something like that that guides your life?
EG: Not to waste it. That’s what comes to mind right away. I think that’s something that I’ve always been keenly and sometimes uncomfortably aware of—is the short duration of time that we have here, and the preciousness of it. I knew that from a really early age. I knew it before I had any way of processing it that didn’t scare me.
Around the age of eight or nine, I just became crushingly aware of mortality. And it wasn’t because anybody in particular had died. There wasn’t a tragedy or devastation in my family. I just noticed it, you know? “I’m getting older. My sister’s getting older. Someday, my parents are going to die. This is all temporary. Oh my God!”
And it filled me with such a panic that I spent a year having panic attacks about it. I think that’s probably what prompted me to become a seeker—with trying to figure out how to quell that panic and how to turn that knowledge from something that was terrifying into something that was inspiring. What are we then to do? What are we to do with our time here?
With that sense of not wanting to waste time, part of that gets translated into wanting to be as creative and generative as I could possibly be. Part of it gets translated into—frankly—just wanting to get rid of pathologies that I’ve been carrying around my whole life that I don’t want to go to my grave with. I just think it would be really unfortunate to be on this whole journey and leave with the same stuff you came in with. [Laughs.]
I’d like to unload some of that. So if you want to look at it karmically, so that I don’t have to do it again next time. But even if you don’t believe in that particular philosophy, so that I don’t have to keep doing it again and again this time. I think that’s probably been my central focus.
TS: When you find yourself in some moments or some experience [thinking], “Gosh, I could be wasting my time right now.” What are those kinds of moments like, or those activities, or those pathologies? When you think, “Oh, I’m wasting my time right now. This is not what I want to be doing.”
EG: Well, mostly, I don’t really waste my time in terms of how I use my hours for productivity and work, because I sort of love my work. If anything, I’m always trying to make more and more and more time for it.
It’s— really, the place where I get stuck—it’s in relationships that have turned sour and my thinking about them, my shame about them, my inability to fix them—this feelings that I’ve had my entire life that I should be able to get along with everybody. [Laughs.] And if I can’t, it’s my fault and I’ve got to solve it. Then I try to solve it and it makes it worse. And then I spend six weeks not sleeping because I’m thinking about something that I said to someone that I shouldn’t have said, and wondering how I got myself into this.
All of this is—you know, I’m not talking about things in my deep past. I’m talking about things like last month. [Laughs.]
EG: And that’s where I really can put myself into quite a severe amount of trauma. And where I can really disappoint myself, because I feel like I’ve fallen short of the person I want to be, or haven’t behaved in a way that is honorable, or should’ve seen something coming that I didn’t see coming. I can beat myself up about that.
I had a really helpful conversation recently with a friend of mine, who I really admire [and] who I think is quite spiritually evolved. I just said to her, “What do you do with your shame? Where do you put it? What do you do with it?” And she said, “You know, Liz, you realize that the world doesn’t want your shame, right? That’s got nothing to offer the world. You’re here to offer yourself to the world and to make the world a better place. And your shame is of no use to anybody. It’s not of any use to you either, and if you want to be a creative and generative person, you kind of just have to let it go.”
That seems like Spirituality 101, but it struck me as a great and important revelation.
TS: How does prayer work into your life now, in this point in your life?
EG: It’s—oh, gosh. It’s so integrated into me that I don’t really have a formal praying practice. I just feel like I’m almost always in prayer. And I try sometimes to formalize it. I do have a formal—and formal isn’t even the right word; I should just say “regular”—meditation practice. I try to always close it with a prayer.
But I’m a little bit with Anne Lamott on this—that the only two prayers that have ever existed are, “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” [Laughs.] It does seem to come down to that. Whatever prayer I’m closing out my meditation with at the end of the day tends to be one of those.
TS: I was following your discussion on shame by asking about prayer because I was wondering in those difficult moments if there’s ever a sense of reaching out or some way of the prayer of surrender. Something like that that might be helpful in those moments of—
EG: Geez, it would be—if I could remember to do it.
I think what happens in those moments is I get so embroidered in my own story that I forget to look up and ask for assistance from wider presences.
I think what happens is that I’m burdened—for better or for worse, I’m burdened with this idea that I’m in charge of my destiny. So when I blow it—or think that I’ve blown it—I then think that I’m burdened with the responsibility of fixing it and remedying it. All of that is, of course, about rescinding the myth of control—which is probably one of the central faces of my particular journey and probably a lot of other people’s, as well.
But, yes. I think I could remember at those moments to accept my own humanity and ask for divine release, that would probably be better for me and those who are—as Rumi says—”Burdened with the responsibility of loving me.” [Laughs.]
TS: At the Wake Up Festival—and again, thank you for coming to Sounds True’s Wake Up Festival in August of this year—you’ll be talking on a subject called “Big Magic.” And I wanted to hear a little bit about your choice to use this word, “magic,” and what you mean by that.
EG: Well, I’ll be talking about my own creative path and my own creative philosophies, which I have essentially reduced down to those two words—to Big Magic.
I think there’s a lot of healing that needs to be done in Western civilization right now around the question of creativity and artistry. We have really toxically imbibed a lot of pretty bad thinking around this subject—mostly inherited from 19th-century German Romantics. We are still, as creative people, a society has pretty much defined by the model set by 19th-century German Romantics. Which is to say that if your art isn’t destroying you and everyone around you, then you are not doing it right.
It is incredible how deeply that’s ingrained in our thinking about creativity. It’s amazing for me to watch how hard people cling to that and almost sometimes even seek it as some sort of badge of validation—that they are serious artists, because they are willing to be martyrs for their art. What I preach—and it is kind of a preaching, because I do think it’s the true believing. What I preach is a commitment to art that has nothing to do with suffering and martyrdom and has everything to do with joy and magic and pleasure—which is, in our still very Calvinistic society, I think something that we have a lot of trouble believing we are entitled to.
But we are entitled to it. And we are entitled to it in our personal lives and we’re entitled to it in our work lives as well. There are ways to access it. I think, for me, the most moving way to access it is to think of my creative life as a collaboration between one human’s efforts—and that would be me—and the divine Mystery of inspiration.
That would be the big question mark, which I have encountered many times in my life, and which I work with. I’ve spent my work days in collaboration with that Mystery. I can’t think of a more beautiful way to spend my life—sort of talking to it, asking questions of it, cooperating with it. [I sit] down to work every day with the commitment that I will not wrestle it or fight it or abuse myself against it. But I will ask it every day what it wants from me and try to work with it as respectfully and reverently as I can. It leads to a really joyful kind of creation.
TS: Now, a couple questions here. One about the Big Mystery—“the big question mark.” I’m curious to know a little bit more about what your worldview is—if you will—about this mystery or big question mark. Meaning some people could say when they sit down to write and they open and they hear a voice, that it’s a spirit guide. Or someone could say, “It’s the Muse!” Or they’re connecting with the Collective Unconscious. Here, you’re saying it’s “the Mystery” or “the question mark.”
But I’m curious to know more what you actually think is collaborating with you.
EG: If I knew, I wouldn’t call it “the Mystery.” [Laughs.] And I capitalize “Mystery” when I say that, even in my own head—out of reverence, because I feel like it’s a piece of divinity.
Look, we are the only—to our knowledge—species on this planet that communicates with the Mystery at that level—that gets artistic inspiration at that level. Why? I don’t know. I just know that it’s a really lucky incarnation to be able to have any communication with it at all. All those other names that you listed—the inspiration, the Muse, the Collective Unconscious—those are all signs as well. Those are human efforts to put words to something that’s kind of indescribable.
There’s a difference here—I should clarify—between mental illness and schizophrenia and hearing voices that don’t exist, and something that I think is a more common and sane human experience—which is inspiration. [That] is: being drawn to something for reasons that you can’t explain. Feeling the shivers on the back of your neck and the goose bumps on your arms when you hear an idea that makes you want to follow it. Feeling as though something is laying a path for you. That coincidences are happening. That information is being put in front of you. That if you follow that path—almost like a divine scavenger hunt—you will be brought to something really wonderful—something that comes from you, but also came to you at the same time.
The sense that I have is that we live in a world that’s constantly being swirled and encircled with ideas. Ideas are these non-embodied spirits that want nothing more than to be made manifest. And the only way they can be made manifest is in collaboration with a human being’s labor.
So, they come to us. They come to us all the time and ask us, “Are you my mother? Are you my mother? Are you my mother?” They’re looking for somebody to bring them into being.
It’s not just artistic ideas. It’s scientific ideas, political ideas—all the ideas of mankind begin as a sort of disembodied spirit. Then they find a person and sort of tap you on the shoulder—or knock you on the head, whatever they have to do to get your attention—and then you choose to or not to enter into collaboration with them, and to contract with them.
That’s a really honorable and really holy decision to make—to announce to an idea that you will work with it. I think that the wrong thinking that so many people have about creativity is that you then become the slave to the Muse. Or the other, even [more wrong]—and I think a very male and European idea—is that then you have to kill it. You have to conquer it.
So we have these weird ideas about dominance and submission around the questions of creativity—that either it’s dominating you or you’re dominating it. In reality, it’s neither. It’s a partnership. That seems very clear to me. Or it should be. And its healthiest manifestation is a partnership.
So when I get blocked and I get troubled—or I feel like I’ve lost my way in a book and I don’t know my way around it—I’ve learned that instead of getting enraged or self-pitying, instead of fighting against it, I remind myself that the idea has absolutely nothing to gain by tormenting me. It’s not trying to torment me. It won’t be made manifest if it’s tormenting me. All it’s trying is to come into being. It’s trying as hard as it can. It’s trying to get my attention. I’m not quite listening carefully enough. The answer is there if I’m patient [and] if I keep up my side of the bargain—which is to show up for work every day with an open heart—we’ll find our way through it together.
It’s like any other relationship. You can’t dominate or be dominated in a healthy relationship. So, that’s what I believe and that’s what I live. That’s what I like to talk about, because I feel like I know it from such an intimate place.
TS: As you talk about ideas, it’s almost as if they’re animated beings. They’re beings with life. I don’t think most people think about ideas like that.
EG: But what else are they? [Laughs.] Because they come to us. Even the most rational, pragmatic kind of quotidian thinker who had an idea would say, “An idea came to me.” We all know that feeling of something coming to us externally. It’s like a visitation of some sort. It seems to have a consciousness. It seems to have a desire.
I’ve also seen that it has a will, where an idea will come to you and if you don’t enter into contract with it—and if you don’t do your part of it, which is to work really, really, really hard—because I certainly don’t believe in people sitting around and waiting for the Muse. I think the Muse rewards people who are at their desk at six o’clock every morning. That’s certainly what I’ve found. That’s your job—is to honor it by putting the full intent of your labor behind it.
But if you don’t, I’ve seen the idea bounce—move from you to another person. We’ve all had that experience, where we had an idea and we didn’t take it up on it—and a few years later, we see that somebody else made it manifest. You can’t blame the idea. It only has one impulse—and that is to be born. And it will be born through whoever it can find who will birth it.
When ideas come to me, I try to keep them with me by talking with them and letting them know, “You came to the right place. We’re going to do this together. Stay with me. We’re going to get through this.” It’s a really beautiful and very holy encounter.
TS: Has an inspiration or an idea ever come to you and you thought, “You know, this one is asking too much. Too much change. Too much risk. This one . . . no.”
EG: It’s not that it feels like too much risk. It’s that sometimes I feel like it knocked on the wrong door.
EG: And I’ll just say to it, “I’m really, super-honored that you knocked on my door. But actually, you should go talk to Malcolm Gladwell.” [Laughs.] Or, “You should go talk to Barbara Kingsolver. I would love to read this book that you’ve come to me with, but I know that I’m not the person to write it.”
I think that’s a knowledge that you can only get from experience. I think in your youth, you sort of cast about trying everything. Ideas probably attack young people more, because we’re susceptible and more open. I think as you get older, you get more discriminating about knowing what your capacity is.
Sometimes, what does happen to me is that I’ll have two rival ideas vying for my attention. Then I just speak to them very firmly and say, “You know, I’m only going to be able to do one of you at a time, so the two of you are going to have to work out which one it’s going to be. The other one is going to have to back off.” And I’ll just wait until one of them just demands more—makes itself more insistent and steps forward.
Then I’ll work on it and say to the other one, “I’m with your sibling now.” There’s a sort of parental thing to it, too. “One at a time!” Otherwise, you can get bogged down and try to do 27 things at once.
TS: Let’s say someone who’s listening says, “Well, lucky Liz. She gets lots of good ideas. She gets to choose which ones to keep and which ones to send on. But I’m not getting knocked on my door with tons of great ideas. How do I open to receive more of these possible, flying-around possibilities?”
EG: I would have to ask how hard you’re looking for them. Are you letting them know that you’re really available? You have to be very careful not to—I mean, this is true of all good things in life. There’s a passivity that we can fall into, where we’re just sort of, “Well, nothing good is happening to me.” [Laughs.] “Lucky you. All this great stuff is happening to you. Nothing good is happening to me.” What are you seeking? What are you looking for? What are you asking for?
I think sometimes people get confused [too], because they’re looking for passion—because we keep being told that we should be living passionate lives. And I’m guilty of this as well, because I get excited by passion. But I think sometimes that can be daunting to people—where they just feel like—to have somebody keep telling them, “Follow your passion,” when they don’t really know if they have one. [It’s] sort of like having someone brag about being multi-orgasmic and you’re like, “Oh, great, but that’s never happened to me.”
I think passion is the big, burning tower of flame in the desert. You’ll know it when you feel it—if that should happens to you. It’s sort of like a big love story.
But what I try to encourage people to do is forget about passion and focus instead on leading a life that’s based in curiosity. Curiosity is so much easier to access than passion. You may not know if you have a burning life passion, but you’re probably curious about some stuff. If you’re awake at all, right? There’s something in the world that kind of interests you—that little bit makes you want to turn your head a quarter of an inch. That sort of catches your ear. That sort of catches your eye. That’s where the inspiration and the ideas are hiding like fairies off in the corner.
So I what I tell people is, “Don’t worry about finding your passion. Just look around today and ask yourself if there’s absolutely anything that you can find in the world that you feel even one percent curious about.” And then follow it. Make the effort to turn your head more than a quarter of an inch. See what it is. Examine it and then find the next thing. And the next thing. And that trail of pursuing your curiosity very loyally—with a kind of discipline—[and] knowing that your curiosity will eventually take you to your destiny. I think that’s where you find your passion. Eventually, it will lead you there.
TS: Now, when we started talking about “Big Magic,” you said that you were on a campaign, if you will—I think you used the word “preaching”—about how artistry doesn’t have to be connected with suffering and pain, et cetera. And yet, Eat, Pray, Love was a book—your most popular book—that did come out of a painful struggle that you were going through post-divorce, et cetera. So, what do you make of that—that your most popular work to date did come out of pain?
EG: It wasn’t written in pain. I think what I’m talking about when I talk about the creative process is more about the process itself and less about the subject. I don’t mean that every subject that we write about should be on butterflies and flowers. Life is difficult, and we struggle. Processing that struggle hurts, and articulating that struggle is important.
So I’m not really concerned so much about the subject matter of what people choose to create in their art. I’m concerned about the way they engage with the actual creative process.
So, I went through a lot of pain during my divorce [and] during my depression. Through that pain, I got the inspiration to go on this journey and write this book. When it came time to write the book, I wasn’t fighting with the book. Does that make sense? I was writing about things that had happened to me that were painful, but I wasn’t in war against my creative self.
The best example I can give of this is I recently finished writing my new novel, and I really, really, really enjoyed working on it—even though there’s some really dark stuff in that book. I enjoyed the process of writing the book. I said to a friend of mine—who’s also a novelist—”I’ve never had more pleasure in my life than I had crafting this book for four years of my life.” And he said, “I would never publish a book that I enjoyed writing.” And I said, “Why?” And he said, “I wouldn’t trust that it was any good.”
That’s what I’m fighting against, right? This idea that there’s this distrust of pleasure, distrust of love. I just found that so heartbreaking. I thought, “So, the only thing you trust is your suffering process?” This is somebody who really bangs his head against his writing. And I just thought, “My God, you’re so addicted to this,”—this idea of being the furious, struggling artist that it wouldn’t even occur to you to write something that you loved writing—which means that you’re denying us the product of love when you write your books. And what you’re giving us is just the product of pain.
EG: That clarification is helpful. It leads me to this question I wanted to ask you about your own threshold for fabulosity, if you will—or goodness. I was thinking, here Eat, Pray, Love is such a successful book. You’re in what appears to be in a deep and meaningful marriage relationship. Your threshold for success. You’re going on an eight-city tour with Oprah this fall. I’m wondering if you’ve hit—at any point in time—some type of nourishment barrier, if you will. Like, “Can I really experience this much fabulosity?” How do you do it? Does it challenge you in some way?
EG: I like the idea. No—I completely understand what you mean and I think there’s two things that come to mind to answer that. One is that there was a period around 2008 [to] 2009. Eat, Pray, Love came out in 2006 and it went “sterile” in 2007, 2008. By 2009, I had reached a point where I physically and emotionally could no longer go out in public and be that person for everybody, because I couldn’t replenish my spirit as much as I was giving out.
So I took a break. I stayed home for almost a year and I didn’t even write. I just gardened. I think I needed to get back into the soil in a very—I had to get my hands dirty. I had to be growing things that had nothing to do with books and words. It was really restorative, and at the end of that I was able to write a new book and sort of go back into the world again in a different way.
I’m more careful now in just managing how much of myself I put out there and making sure that I’m refilling that well in the ways that do restore me. So, I haven’t had an experience like that again. That was a pretty—I don’t think I ever will, because that was like Ground Zero of the whole thing.
But I’ll tell you how I ended up processing the whole Eat, Pray, Love fabulosity thing. I realized pretty early on that I wasn’t going to be able to. It was too big. It was just too off-the-charts. Nobody would ever have expected that. I would have never expected it. A movie with Julia Roberts, and all this stuff is—it just got so huge. So, I just got, “You know what, I’m not even going to try to process it. I think I’ll just watch it like it’s a kind of amazing parade that’s going on just outside my house—all day long and all night long. But I’m not going to try to join that parade, because I think I’ll just get swallowed up by it.”
The sense that I had during the whole thing was I was in my house, doing laundry, washing dishes, and looking out the window every once and awhile at this parade that was still going by. And I was like, “Oh my God, that parade is still going by. That is amazing.” Then I would go back to my tasks.
That’s still how I feel about it. I spend most of my life in my own tasks and in my own pace, and every once and a while I look up and I’m like, “Whoa! That carnival is still there.” And then I go back to myself. If that makes sense.
TS: It does. It does seem, though, that you must have a large capacity for pleasure, for success, for financial success—for all of that. That something in your being can be that expansive to allow that.
EG: That’s a good point. I heard that the writer Junot Díaz—who wrote Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, [and] is a tremendous writer—he had an almost ten-year dry spell after his first book that was so beautifully received and so beloved. He said later in an interview, “There was nothing in my life that had prepared me for being loved as much as I was loved after I wrote this book. And it just made me shut down.”
It broke my heart to hear that. I thought it was really honest and searching and sad commentary. He had to do some probably pretty serious spiritual and psychological work to be restored from the love overload—which seems like something that wouldn’t harm somebody. But, of course, we see instances of that happening in people’s lives all the time.
I think I’m blessed enough to sort of feel the opposite—that everything in my life prepared me for that. I’ve had a very nice life. I mean, not everything has worked out—but I’ve known love my whole life. I felt—whatever problems or issues that I’ve had with my family members—I’ve generally just felt like I had been welcomed to this world by my parents. They were not perfect, but they certainly really liked me. They liked having me around. I was not an intruder into their life. That sort of fundamental sense in childhood that I was allowed to be here and I was supposed to be here, and they were happy that I was here. [This is] where you find your footing—I think—in the world.
I think that made it easier for me to accept good fortune. I know it seems so strange to say that you have to learn how to prepare to accept good fortune, there is a sort of absolute value on the scale of human emotion. We live our lives sort of in the middle: huge failures cast our selves into the disappointing darkness of shame, but huge success can blind us too by throwing us too far in the other direction.
I was lucky enough to have enough love in my life that it didn’t poison me. I also think that I was lucky enough that it happened at the right time. Eat, Pray, Love became a giant hit when I was almost 40, not when I was 22. So I didn’t have Miley Cyrus Syndrome. I had already been through enough of life to know by that point who I was and—more importantly—who I wasn’t. It happened when I was in my good, solid, supportive marriage [and] not when I was in my youthful, irresponsible marriage. It happened when I’d already been through years of therapy [and] when I’d already been on my spiritual journey.
So when people say to me, “It must be so crazy. Everything that happened after Eat, Pray, Love,” I always think, “No! All the crazy was before Eat, Pray, Love!” [Laughs.] The good part was after.
TS: OK, Liz, I just have two final questions for you. The first one is: To live in this Big Magic way, with the collaboration with the Mystery, it seems like you have to have a lot of trust—or someone could even say faith. I’m curious to know what you have trust in.
EG: I have trust in the fact that I do not believe we would have been formed or evolved with this capacity for creativity if it’s not something we’re supposed to be doing and [are] allowed to be doing.
I’ve travelled a lot and I’ve been to other cultures where artists are not isolated in the way that they are in the West. Where creativity did not become this strange, twisted, bent, broken house that you live in far away from the rest of society. Instead, it’s something that is really integrated into everybody’s lives. Everybody sings. Everybody dances. Everybody paints. Some people do it better, but it’s not like you’re so singled out at an early age and shunted away.
Which is what I think what happens—a lot of time—in the West. If you have a talent, you’re plucked out or your remove yourself, and you become a kind of capital-S “Special Person.”
There’s a level at which—as much as I love and revere creativity—I can be playful with it, because I sometimes think that we’ve come to think that it’s much more important than it is. I’m sorry to say that. I don’t want to mean it in a diminishing way. The best line I ever heard about this was when I was a journalist and I did an interview with the singer Tom Waits. He said, “You know, artists—we take it so seriously. And we get so freaked out about it, and we think that what we’re doing is so deadly important. But really, as a songwriter, the only thing I do is make jewelry for the inside of people’s minds. That’s it.”
When you reduce it to that, and think that as an artist and a creator all you’re really doing is making pretty jewelry for the inside of people’s brains—somehow it just takes the grandiosity out of it. You just think, “This is what humans do. We make beautiful things.”
We’ve made them forever, and I’m lucky that I get to be part of that long, beautiful tradition. And I don’t want to soil that long, beautiful tradition by going into some sort of narcissistic tailspin where I think that I or my work or my suffering is the most important thing in the world—when really, we’re just jewelry-makers. And we’re allowed to do this. You have every right in the world to make a beautiful thing. Or to try.
Nothing has ever brought me more satisfaction than that. So, I sort of trust that we’re allowed to—that we’re entitled to, and we don’t need to get permission from anybody to do it. It’s engrained in our humanity to be makers, so go make.
TS: And my final question: This interview program is called Insights at the Edge. I’m always curious to know what people’s current “edge” is in terms of their own inner evolution—sort of your own sense, when you look at your life and your path. The edge that you’re on right now.
EG: Oh, wow. For me, it’s interpersonal. It’s always interpersonal. I think I’m sort of moving—hopefully—moving into this new period of my life where I’ll be better at not setting up scenarios in relationships that are inevitably going to turn into resentment, disappointment, and a severing of the friendship.
I’m a really intense person, and I’ve generally created really intense relationships my whole life. Sometimes, those are really satisfying. Sometimes, they can become a little bit crushing over time.
So, I think that—in a weird way—my edge right now is sort of backing off from that edge and learning how to be a little less codependent, a little less enabling, a little less over-involved in the lives of the people that I love—and trusting.
Going back to the question of trust, trusting to sort of sometimes just let the story play itself out without me feeling like I have to be in charge of the story at all times. I think that that will be a great source of peace in times to come for both me and people in my life. I hope. [Laughs.]
TS: I’ve been speaking with Elizabeth Gilbert. Liz, thank you so much for the conversation and for coming to Sounds True’s 2014 Wake Up Festival.
EG: Thank you. I’m really happy. It was fun talking to you and I’m really looking forward to the event.
TS: Liz will be speaking about “Big Magic: Thoughts on Creative Living.” The Wake Up Festival takes place from August 20th–24th in Estes Park, Colorado. Wakeupfestival.com for more information.
Thanks again, Liz, and thanks for being with us on Insights at the Edge. SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.