UPDATE 12/23: Congrats to Emily B., Leslie I., and Megan L. You won copies of Liz’s new book! Happy Holidays!
I started this interview series because I wanted to know more about the people who share their work with the world and inspire me to show up, be seen, and live brave.
Elizabeth Gilbert is one of those people. Meet Elizabeth!
Liz is the acclaimed author of six books of fiction and nonfiction. Her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, was a #1 New York Times bestseller; it has been published in more than thirty languages and has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, and in 2010 was made into a major motion picture starring Julia Roberts.
Gilbert’s debut novel Stern Men was a New York Times Notable Book; her short story collection, Pilgrims, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and her memoir Committed was a # 1 New York Times bestseller. In 2008, Time magazine named Gilbert one of the most influential people in the world.
Her latest novel The Signature of All Things is a sprawling tale of 19th century botanical exploration. O Magazine named it “the novel of a lifetime” and one of their favorite reads of 2013, and the Wall Street Journal called it “the most ambitious and purely-imagined work of (Gilbert’s) twenty-year career.”
Liz and I met for the first time this year and, as you can see by this goofy Instagram photo, it didn’t take long before we were dancing, laughing, and storytelling. I’m not sure exactly what we’re doing here but it started off as yoga moves and turned into a Popeye/hoedown thing. I was a little nervous to meet her but it only took twenty minutes before we took off our shoes to compare our “clog socks.”
Shortly after we met, I read The Signature of All Things. Whew. I’ve never used the word sweeping to describe anything except that terrible thing that you do with a broom, but let me tell you that it’s the only word that comes close to describing this incredible story.
It’s funny because The Signature of All Things is not a small book. It’s a big, beautiful, heavy-ish book with wonderful paper. So, you can only imagine the looks and comments that I received from strangers sitting next to me on the plane when I pulled this thing out of my tote. “Have you heard of eBooks?” “It’s a sixty minute flight. Is that thing worth lugging around?” The answers are Yes, I’ve heard of eBooks and Yes! It’s worth lugging around.
I dabble in eBooks but with this book it didn’t feel like an option. I’m pretty sure that Alma, the main character, prefers to be read on paper. I know it sounds crazy, but there’s a strong Jane Austen feel to this read for me and I needed to hold the book. On an old ship. While sailing to far away places.
To celebrate the interview with Liz, we’re giving away three copies of The Signature of All Things. Just leave your name in the comments section and we’ll draw winners next week. Books will ship on January 6, 2014. I can’t deliver on the old ship but I guarantee you that Liz’s wisdom will take your breath away! Her perspective on the relationship between fear and creativity has been transformative for me!
Grab a cup of tea and settle in . . .
1. Vulnerability is . . . KEEPING THE CONVERSATION OPEN. This is the single hardest thing in the world for me. Compared to that, everything else is simple. Writing books? Easy-peazy. Traveling to distant places all alone? A breeze. Putting my life out there in the open for everyone to read about and judge? Nothing to it. But keeping the conversation open when strife or resentment has built up between me and a friend, or a loved one, or a neighbor? This is where the rubber meets the road for me and this whole vulnerability question.
I was raised by tough, stoic people who kept a tight lid on all their emotions, and who never, ever talked it out. I was taught that there are only two possible responses to all interpersonal troubles: 1) you silently get over it on your own, or 2) if you can’t silently get over it on your own, you vanish from that person’s life forever without another word. So I either bury my discomfort, or I run for the hills.
It has been the excruciating work of a lifetime for me to try to learn how to change this pattern — how to stay in the conversation longer, how to sit through the fear and discomfort of interpersonal emotional openness (especially when it comes to expressing my own anger, which is the emotion that I least comprehend and most fear.)
I’ve had some successes of late with being more open to this process, but OH MY GOD IT IS SO SCARY FOR ME, and sometimes I still totally fail — still run for the hills. But at least I pause first. In other words, I am still far from the person I wish to be with this particular manifestation of vulnerability…but God knows, I am working on it. Harder than anything, harder than ever.
2. What role does vulnerability play in your work?
I live a creative life, and you can’t be creative without being vulnerable. I believe that Creativity and Fear are basically conjoined twins; they share all the same major organs, and cannot be separated, one from the other, without killing them both. And you don’t want to murder Creativity just to destroy Fear! You must accept that Creativity cannot walk even one step forward except by marching side-by-side with its attached sibling of Fear.
So here’s my magical thinking — I decide every day that I love Creativity enough to accept that Fear will always come with it. And I talk to Fear all the time, speaking to it with love and respect, saying to it: “I know that you are Fear, and that your job is to be afraid. And you do your job really well! I will never ask you to leave me alone or to be silent, because you have a right to speak your own voice, and I know that you will never leave me alone or be silent, anyhow. But I need you to understand that I will always choose Creativity over you.
You may join us on this journey — and I know that you will — but you will not stop me and Creativity from choosing the direction in which we will all walk together.” And then…onward we march: Me and Creativity and Fear, enmeshed forever, limping along and definitely a little weird-looking, but forever advancing.
What value inspires you to show up even when you’re fearful and/or uncertain?
When I am experiencing emotional/interpersonal vulnerability, the best I can do sometimes ask myself what the alternative is to my entering the scary arena — to live a hard-hearted, locked-down, resentful and unforgiving life? Is that really who I want to be? Have I ever met a hard-hearted, locked-down, resentful and unforgiving person whom I truly admired?
So I guess it is maybe “aspiration” which keeps me going? The aspiration to be the sort of person I want to be. And I’m old enough and experienced enough by now to know that the only way to achieve that goal is not to run for the hills whenever I am afraid, but to walk through the valley of fear, as the truly brave and big-hearted people in this world have always done. I want to walk with them. Sometimes I am even able to, even if it’s only for a few tremulous baby steps. I’m working on it, though, literarily every day.
What’s something that gets in the way of your creativity and how do you move through it?
Fear of criticism, fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear that I am washed up, fear that I am and have always been a fraud, fear that I will get a nasty review in The New York Times…do you want me to keep going with this list?
When I am experiencing such creative vulnerability, though, I have learned how to move through it with a few cunning tricks. One trick is to just drown out the fear with love —with my pure love of the creative work itself. I absolutely love my work as a writer, and I feel honored that I get to live a life of the mind, and writing books is the only thing I ever wanted to do. That’s all really lucky for me: That’s a lot of love! If I focus on the love and the gratitude that I feel toward the work itself, then I get slightly less freaky and worried about the results.
Also, I try to keep the stakes in perspective. The stakes in a writer’s life are actually incredibly low (though we over-dramatic creative types tend to forget that.) Let me put it this way: Is there really ever such a thing, in this world of real human suffering, as a “writing emergency”? Seriously. Think about it. Did anybody’s child ever die because a novel didn’t get written on deadline? Was anybody’s beloved brother or sister or spouse or mother ever lost because someone got a bad review in The New York Times? I think sometimes our fears get the best of us when we lose sight of the actual stakes, the actual perspective. We blow it all up to be much more dangerous than it really is. All of which is to say: I try to save my full-out panic attacks these days for full-out actual human disasters. Which are RARE, thank god. And which never, ever, ever involve the writing of a book.
It’s often difficult to share ourselves and our work with the world given the reflexive criticism and mean-spiritedness that we see in our culture – especially online. What strategies to you use to dare greatly – to show up, let yourself be seen, share your work with the world, and deal with criticism?
For heaven’s sake, the first rule is to never Google yourself or look up online comments about yourself! And you must never read your bad reviews; only the nice ones. (Have a friend screen them for you. Enjoy the good ones; ignore the bad. Weed it all out in your favor.)
I have said it before and I will say it again: Googling yourself is like reading your roommate’s dairy; It may be tempting to open the thing up and examine it because it’s sitting RIGHT THERE, and it may even be kind of exciting to read at first, but rest assured that very soon you will find out something about yourself that you wish you’d never known, and that will linger darkly in your mind forever.
Protecting yourself from that kind of temptation requires a fierce, self- loving discipline. It is not in any way “courageous” or an exercise in “facing the truth” to read mean-spirited comments about yourself; it is just self-destructive — just an excuse to feed yourself a bunch of empty calories of pure evil. You have absolutely nothing to learn from the comments of mean, unhappy, critical people who know and care nothing about your soul or your life.
And anyhow, as the great Boswell said: “A fly, sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince. But one is an insect, and the other is a horse still.” SO DO YOUR WORK WITH A NOBLE HEART, and then put it forth. Because who are the stately horses in this world? Anyone who dares to show up and do her work, despite her fear. Bottom line: I would much rather be a slightly stung (but still stately) horse than a tiny, anonymous, stinging insect any day. So that’s my pep talk. I give it to myself frequently. I go all Vince Lombardi on myself! It works for me.
Describe a snapshot of a joyful moment in your life.
There are so many, but they always tend to be moments passed in motion. Walking, running, swimming, bicycling. Traveling — in flight, by boat, in a car across the open plains, in a train speeding toward a new and unexplored city. Moving to a new house. Moving to a new town. Moving to a new country. Moving to a new truth. Embarking on a new project. Trying on a new dream. Shedding stuff I don’t need. Traveling light. Carrying nothing with me but a change of underwear, a good book, my excitement, and my dear companion.
Do you have a mantra, manifesto, or favorite quote for living and loving with your whole heart?
My favorite line of poetry, written by the great Jack Gilbert (no relation to me): “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.”
Now, for some fun!
From James Lipton, host of Inside the Actor’s Studio
1. What is your favorite word? WONDERFUL!
2. What is your least favorite word? Brutal.
3. What sound or noise do you love? A transatlantic airplane’s gentle hum.
4. What sound or noise do you hate? Loud music in loud restaurants filled with loud people. This is my seventh circle of hell.
5. What is your favorite curse word? Can’t beat a good F-bomb.
From JL’s Uncle Jessie Meme
1. A song/band/type of music you’d risk wreck & injury to turn off when it comes on the radio? Contemporary R&B of the super-whiney crooning variety.
2. Favorite show on television? I am in deep mourning for the end of “Breaking Bad.”
3. Favorite movie? Raiders of the Lost Ark.
4. What are you grateful for today? My peace of mind. I am grateful for it any day it shows up. Without it, all is suckage.
5. If you could have anything put on a t-shirt what would it be? “What Would Dolly Do?” Confession: I actually already own this t-shirt — with a cartoon of Dolly Parton’s fabulous face emblazoned right across my left boob.
6. Favorite meal? My husband’s slow-cooked curries and stews. (And the sweet, slow-cooked kitchen conversations that go with them.)
7. A talent you wish you had? Singer-songwriter. I want to be that pretty, folksy, soulful girl with the beat-up guitar, singing the heartbreaking love song in the corner of that classic smokey bar.
8. Favorite song/band? Right at this minute it happens to be the theme to Fast and Furious 6 – the totally thumping: We Own It. More eternally, I will always love Johnny Cash.
9. What’s on your nightstand? Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh.
10. What’s something about you that would surprise us? I’m terrible at Scrabble and crossword puzzles.
Your six-word memoir: Always had passion; learned patience slowly.
Thanks to Liz for this powerful interview and thank you to our wholehearted community! Liz’s book is available here. It will be so fun to give it as a Christmas gift along with a beautiful plant! I’ll update this post on Friday with the winners’ names.