Choosing Curiosity Over Fear
Krista Tippett, host: Elizabeth Gilbert’s name is synonymous with her fantastically bestselling memoir, Eat Pray Love, but she started out writing for publications by men and for men. Eat Pray Love was borne of a moment of total collapse in her life. And you can call it “chick lit,” but it’s inspired millions to move forward with their lives, differently. Through the disorienting process of becoming a global celebrity, Elizabeth Gilbert has reflected deeply on the gift and challenge of creativity. She defines creativity, in life as in art, as choosing the path of curiosity over the path of fear. This has resonance for our common life too. And, she says, it’s not to be confused with the more familiar trope, to “follow your passion.”
Elizabeth Gilbert: I think curiosity is our friend that teaches us how to become ourselves. And it’s a very gentle friend and a very forgiving friend, and a very constant one. Passion is not so constant, not so gentle, not so forgiving, and sometimes. not so available. And so, when we live in a world that has come to fetishize passion above all, there’s a great deal of pressure around that.
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
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Ms. Tippett: Elizabeth Gilbert has written widely in her career, from The New York Times to O Magazine to GQ. She has published seven books, including, most recently, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. She grew up on a small, working, family Christmas tree farm in Litchfield, Connecticut. I spoke with her in 2016.
Ms. Tippett: So I kind of resisted interviewing you earlier, because there was a time when Eat Pray Love was everywhere. And what I’ve been so interested in is watching this evolution and development of you into, through, and beyond that, and so, watching how you’re processing that and how you’re articulating what you’re learning about life and inhabiting this role you have in people’s lives, whether you ask for it or not. And so much of that coalesces around this idea of what it means to be creative and, I think, demystifying that. And then, so on the one hand, demystifying creativity — what did you say? What’s your definition? “Creative living…”
Ms. Gilbert: “…is choosing the path of curiosity over the path of fear,” which is pretty straightforward. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: But also, using the language of “magic” in your latest book, Big Magic. So on the one hand, demystifying it, and on the one hand, revealing it as magic; but every-day, attainable magic.
Ms. Gilbert: Practical magic. [laughs] I think there’s even a thing such as that, isn’t there? I do think that just because something is mystical doesn’t mean it shouldn’t also be demystified. [laughs] And maybe it’s the mystical things that we need to demystify the most, in order to lay claim to them and to not keep thinking of them as something that only belongs to a very special class of people. The more mystical and precious, in a way, that we make creativity and spirituality both, the more people get left out of it. And I think that’s a pity and a loss, and sometimes, even a tragedy. So it should be that all are invited, or else what are we even doing here?
Ms. Tippett: Just starting to read you on this, it brought back — I grew up in a very small town in what feels like a faraway place. And I wonder, actually, if a lot of people have this experience, and I always thought it was so singular to me, but I was fascinated with the whole idea of creativity. But it was almost more like a longing than a fascination. And I wanted to understand it. And I wanted to be it. But I saw it as something that was somewhere out there in the world, in other people, and that you had to be, in some special way, gifted; in some special way, original — an artist. And that didn’t feel attainable to me, or to describe me. And it seems like people are coming — a lot of people come to you with precisely that longing and feeling of being left out of the experience of creativity.
Ms. Gilbert: Most people are left out of it, which is not even the right way to say it. Most people are cast out of it — because I think it’s innate, and I think the evidence that it’s innate is pretty airtight. [laughs] And that evidence is multifold, but here’s some pieces of it. One, all of your ancestors were creative — [laughs] all of them. You and I and everybody we know were descended from tens of thousands of years of makers. The entire world, for better or for worse, has been altered by the human hand, by human beings doing this weird and irrational thing that only we do, amongst all our peers in the animal world, which is to waste our time making things that nobody needs, making things a little more beautiful than they have to be, altering things, changing things, building things, composing things, shaping things. This is what we do. We’re the making ape. And no one is left out of the inheritance of that — that’s our shared human inheritance.
And another really strong piece of evidence is that every human child is born doing this stuff innately. It’s an instinct. There’s no child that you put crayons and paper in front of who doesn’t get it, what you’re supposed to do. No four-year-old boy was ever sat in front of a pile of Legos and said, “I don’t know, I’m just — I’m not feeling it.” [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right.
Ms. Gilbert: You know, “I’m not — I don’t know if can ever do…”
Ms. Tippett: Right. Or, “I’m not a Lego master, so I won’t even try.”
Ms. Gilbert: You know, “I’m not as good,” or, “Last week, I did one that’s so good. I don’t know if I can ever do another good one.”
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right, right.
Ms. Gilbert: And I think what we find often happens is that most people that I talk to can usually pinpoint, with quite specific accuracy, moments in their lives where certain artistic expressions were taken away from them; where, suddenly, they were informed that they were not a good singer or that they couldn’t dance or that they couldn’t draw. And there’s usually some shaming around it; often, some public shaming. Somebody decides along the way, “Well, no, Heather is the creative one.” “Joshua is the creative one.” “She’s good at music.” “He’s a good artist.” And you get pushed out of it, in a way. And the other weird side effect of that is that those “special” kids who get shunted into the category of being “artistic” or “creative” — they often become neurotic basket cases, [laughs] because it’s a great deal of pressure to put upon two kids out of 100, to say, “You’re the special one. Now go deliver unto us our artistic dreams that nobody else is allowed to do.” [laughs] It’s crazy.
Ms. Tippett: Well, right. And it also does have that — you’re right. Even when we cultivate and celebrate that, it has an effect of separating it out from everybody else, and it becomes something that only special people do.
Ms. Gilbert: And it becomes something that is not part of you and part of your daily life. It’s not embroidered within you. It’s not natural to you. It’s some artificial thing that you then have to get very expensive training in. And then, you have to immediately start worrying about whether you can make a career out of this and whether you can make money out of this and whether you’ll get acclaim from this and whether you can continue to be recognized for this.
And all of that is a very strange way to see creativity and, I would say, a very new way. And by “new,” I mean post-Enlightenment, the last couple hundred years, and very Western — and, I would also say, very macho, in a way, very male, [laughs] because it comes with this grandiosity that’s on the individual, and this pressure to be great and to be a genius. And it’s strange.
Ms. Tippett: And also, that it has to have some kind of quantifiable, demonstrable value that is defined in certain linear ways, what value is. So I think, one thing — and I think you, also — it took you a little while to come to this. One thing that you have started to say that is really helpful is that you’ve started to see the danger of this refrain that’s everywhere out there in our culture — to “follow your passion, follow your passion” — and that that, also, becomes a way that people feel themselves excluded, because they’re not sure what their artistic passion would be. Or again, if it’s their passion, can they really measure the value they’re creating?
And I love the language of “curiosity” you use, and I’d love for you to talk some more about that. One thing you’ve said is, the difference between passion and curiosity as something you’re following is that “curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming, and more democratic entity.” [laughs]
Ms. Gilbert: [laughs] Oh, I love curiosity — our friend. I think curiosity is our friend that teaches us how to become ourselves. And it’s a very gentle friend, and a very forgiving friend, and a very constant one. Passion is not so constant, not so gentle, not so forgiving, and sometimes, not so available. And so, when we live in a world that has come to fetishize passion above all, there’s a great deal of pressure around that. And I think if you don’t happen to have a passion that’s very clear, or if you have lost your passion, or if you’re in a change of life where your passions are shifting, or you’re not certain, and somebody says, “Well, it’s easy to solve your life. Just follow your passion,” [laughs] I do think that they have harmed you, because it just makes people feel more excluded and more exiled and, sometimes, like a failure.
Ms. Tippett: Yes, exactly.
Ms. Gilbert: And it’s a little bit like — gosh, I mean, even the word, “passion,” has this sort of sexual connotation that you’re — I’m much more interested in intimacy [laughs] and in growing a relationship, than everything has to be setting your head on fire. And curiosity is an impulse that just taps you on the shoulder very lightly, and invites you to turn your head a quarter of an inch and look a little closer at something that has intrigued you. And it may not set your head on fire; it may not change your life; it may not change the world; it may not even line up with previous things that you’ve done or been interested in. It may seem very random and make no sense. And I think the reason people end up not following their curiosity is because they’re waiting for a bigger sign, and your curiosities, sometimes, are so mild and so strange [laughs] and so, almost, nothing — it’s a little trail of breadcrumbs that you can overlook if you’re looking up at the mountaintop, waiting for Moses to come down and give you a sign from God.
Ms. Tippett: You said curiosity “gives you clues.” [laughs]
Ms. Gilbert: It’s clues and…
Ms. Tippett: Doesn’t necessarily give you a destination at all, right?
Ms. Gilbert: [laughs] It doesn’t. And here’s the thing. Sometimes, following your curiosity will lead you to your passion. Sometimes it won’t; and then, guess what? That’s still totally fine. You’ve lived a life following your curiosity. You’ve created a life that is a very interesting thing, different from anybody else’s. And your life itself then becomes the work of art — not so much contingent upon what you produced, but about a certain spirit of being that, I think, is a lot more interesting, and also, a lot more sustainable.
Ms. Tippett: You use the language, “the virtue of inquisitiveness.” That’s great.
Ms. Gilbert: I think a definition of an interesting person is an interested person. I’ve never met an interesting person who’s not also an interested person.
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Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, exploring creativity and the virtue of curiosity with author Elizabeth Gilbert.
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Ms. Tippett: Another phrase that feels pivotal, for you, as you have thought about a life of creativity and all the manifestations that can take — this language of “stubborn gladness.” [laughs] And you’ve taken it from a poet who I had never heard of, with whom you share a name, Jack Gilbert. So here are these lines of the poet, Jack Gilbert. “We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, / but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of the world.”
Ms. Gilbert: I just got — I have the words, “stubborn gladness,” tattooed on my arm.
Ms. Tippett: Do you really?
Ms. Gilbert: I do, because I think it’s everything. [laughs] And the reason I love that poem so much is that, again, he doesn’t deny. He puts those words, “stubbornness” and “gladness,” right inside the phrase about the ruthless furnace of the world. He doesn’t pretend — I know the first line of that poem is, “Suffering everywhere.” It’s the first line, “Suffering everywhere.” Look. It’s everywhere. There’s no denial of that, and yet, something in us, something in the universe — there’s some sort of spirit that also wants to be glad, and also, wants to be amazed, and also, wants to be engaged.
And we can’t lose that, because then, we’ve lost everything. He has another line in there, which I don’t know if I know by heart, but it’s something about — “To only give your attention to darkness and suffering is to worship the devil,” or, “to give your power to the devil.” And you know, you have to be careful about this, especially when you have an impulse to be a good person — a “good person,” and your definition of a good person is somebody who gives everything to others. It’s a beautiful impulse, but if it’s done from a place of only giving darkness and suffering your attention, then you become somebody who’s very difficult to be around. [laughs] There’s a lovely line that this British columnist said, one time, that “You can always tell people who live for others by the anguished expressions on the faces of the others.” [laughs] There’s some heaviness in there that just spreads out of you and makes everyone feel heavy, and even makes the people that you’re serving feel heavy, because they feel like they’re a burden and a responsibility. And so, if you can find the gladness and the lightness, I think your service becomes better, and I think your art becomes better, and I think your worship becomes better and lighter.
Ms. Tippett: And I think there is that dynamic, that dialectic, in the way you approach your creative process; holding those things in a creative tension, the gladness and the furnace — our stubborn gladness against the world’s ruthless furnace. And that is a way to talk about, to get into, the very mysterious process of creation. When you talk about how you write, when you’re writing — I think you say you don’t write every day. Who was it, Graham Greene? — that always wrote 500 words a day? Was it 500 words? A thousand? I don’t know. For years, I thought, “Well if I’m not writing my 500 words…” because, of course, anybody should be able to do it; “If I can’t do that, then I’m not…”
But you said you don’t write every day. You write by season. You write, book by book. But when you’re writing, you’re kind of back on the Christmas tree farm; you are getting up early and going to work and taking care of really granular things about your well-being and the — talk a little bit about that.
Ms. Gilbert: The Christmas tree farm is a great metaphor. And I think one of the reasons that both my sister and I ended up being authors is because we were taught how to do boring things for a long time. [laughs] And I think that’s really important, because here is one of the grand misconceptions about creativity, and when people dream of quitting their boring job so that they can have a creative life, one of the risks of great disappointment is the realization that, “Oh, this is also a boring job a lot of the time.” [laughs] It’s certainly tedious. It’s a boring job I would rather do than any other boring job. It’s the most interesting boring job I’ve ever had, but…
Ms. Tippett: But every job has boring in it, right?
Ms. Gilbert: Yes, yes. I have a theory that I’m just growing, and I haven’t really put a roof on it, but I’ll throw it out there, which is that everything that is interesting is 90 percent boring.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, that’s right.
Ms. Gilbert: And we are in a culture that’s addicted to the good part, the exciting part, the fun part, the reward. But every single thing that I think is fascinating is mostly boring. So — marriage. I mean, good Lord, can there be anything more fascinating than joining two souls together in union and to spend a life entwined? 90 percent boring; then there’s the reason why there’s that thing that happens, even 10, 20 years in, where suddenly, you’re like, “We never would have done this had we not stayed through everything.”
Raising children — I’m not a mother, but I’m a stepmother, I’m a grandmother, I’m a godmother, I’m an aunt, and I know that 90 percent of — especially, being with very small children… [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: Well, it’s hard labor, right?
Ms. Gilbert: Incredibly — it’s hard. And then there’s the moment where you realize, “Oh, my God, this is a spark of creation that I’m working with, and this is magic, and this is life seen through new eyes.” And creativity is the same, where 90 percent of the work is quite tedious. And if you can stick through those parts — not rush through the experiences of life that have the most possibility of transforming you, but to stay with it until the moment of transformation comes and then through that, to the other side — then, very interesting things will start to happen within very boring frameworks. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, but somehow — and for some of us, this just comes with practice; you just experience it so much. I think it’s hard to talk to younger people about this, for them to believe you, but how many of those moments along the way to that something that you’ll be able to say. “This was transformative” — they don’t feel transformative at all, right? They feel…
Ms. Gilbert: No.
Ms. Tippett: They can feel messy. They can feel awful. They can feel like failure. And so we have to trust that those can also be places on the way.
Ms. Gilbert: Right. Yeah, well, trust is a big piece of it, isn’t it? And I think motion is a big piece of it. I’ve learned to give myself all the credit in the world simply for being in motion. “Did you do something today toward this thing? Then you’re good.” [laughs] Was it great? No. Was it fun? No. But did you do it? Did you keep the ball rolling? Did you keep another step on that path going? Then you’re fine. That’s it.
Ms. Tippett: I love that, just the idea of motion itself being a virtue, and — because it’s real. It’s realistic. It’s — there’s nothing cerebral about that. But do you know that book by Annie Dillard, The Writing Life?
Ms. Gilbert: Yes, I do.
Ms. Tippett: There are these sentences that I read there years ago, and I put them in front of myself recently when I was writing this book, which was so painful. She said, “At its best, the sensation of writing is that of any unmerited grace. It is handed to you, but only if you look for it. You search, you break your heart, your back, your brain, and then — and only then — it is handed to you.” [laughs]
And I thought of that when I was reading how you go back and forth in Big Magic, especially between — yes, you work like a farmer, and then, sometimes, there’s this fairy dust thing that happens. And it’s both/and.
Ms. Gilbert: Both/and, yes. Thank you for saying that, because I feel like the choice, the false choice that people are given are these two ideas. One is that it’s all coming from me: Nothing funny is going on here; there is no spirit moving across the face of the earth. I’m just a pile of DNA, my cerebral cortex is firing off, and that is why my creativity exists, right? It’s all me; it’s only me — which is great, except then, how do you explain the mysterious part that you can’t explain, about why one day you were in flow, and it did feel like something was coming through you, not from you, and you brushed up against a sense of great mystery and communion. And then the next day, Wednesday morning, it was gone. [laughs]
That’s just too hard to explain in very empirical terms. And then the other choice you’re given is the very hippie-trippy idea of “I’m just a vessel. I’m just a vessel; channel — it just comes through me.” Then why am I so tired? [laughs] Because I’ve been working hard. So there’s some sort of a — there’s some third way. And I think the third way is, it’s a collaboration between a human being’s labors and the mysteries of inspiration. And that’s the most interesting dance that I think you can be involved in, but you are very much an agent in that story. You’re not just a passive receptacle. And also, it’s not entirely in your hands. And standing comfortably within that contradiction is, I think, where you find sanity in the creative process — if you can find it. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: You have this wonderful idea that — I think this is partly the way you said it and partly the way I wrote it down — that our planet is inhabited by ideas; that ideas are part of the ecosystem, part of the biosphere like other living beings — that ideas interact with other animate and inanimate matter. And actually, I think you talk about articulating that idea through an experience you had with Ann Patchett.
Ms. Gilbert: Yeah, this is the most magical thing that’s ever — and when I say “magical,” I mean it very much in the Hogwartsian sense of “magical.” I had an idea for a novel, and it was to be about a — I’ll just summarize it very quickly — a middle-aged spinster from Minnesota who had been working at the same company for 25 years and was quietly in love with her married boss, who sort of — she was invisible to him. He gets involved in a very ill-advised scheme down in the Amazon jungle and sends a bunch of money and a person down there, and the money and the person disappear. And then he sends her down there to figure out what happens, at which point her orderly life is flipped upside down into chaos. And it’s also a love story. And I wrote a proposal for this novel. I got a book advance for it. I started working on it. I was doing research for it. And then I got waylaid by some other things that were going on in my life and ended up writing a completely different book, and I left it aside. And when I came back a few years later, I found that the life force energy, for lack of a better term, the spirit of that book was no longer there.
And around that same time, I met and made friends with the novelist, Ann Patchett. And we had this very dynamic and exciting meeting where we admitted that we loved each other’s work, and she gave me a big kiss right on the lips. And we became pen pals, and we started writing letters to each other. And about a month later, she wrote me a letter saying she had just started working on a book about the Amazon jungle. And I told her, “Well, that’s so strange. I had been working on one too, but it’s gone.” And then a few months later, we met, and she said, “Tell me what your Amazon book was about.” And now she was 100 pages into hers. And her book, which of course became the extraordinary novel State of Wonder, was a book about a middle-aged spinster from Minnesota who’d been working for this company for 25 years and had been quietly in love with her married boss to whom she was invisible. And it was exactly the same story. And then we did that thing that pregnant women do, where they count backward to figure out when conception occurred, right?
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Who got pregnant first. Right.
Ms. Gilbert: And so we did the math, and it was really at the same time that I had lost mine that she had gotten hers. And we like to think that the idea jumped from my mind to hers during our little kiss that we had when we met. That’s our magical thinking around it. But it’s — there is no explanation for that other than the one that I’ve always abided by, which is that ideas are conscious and living, and they have will, and they have great desire to be made, and they spin through the cosmos, looking for human collaborators.
Ms. Tippett: I was thinking — I had a conversation with Rosanne Cash once, and she started talking about the process of songwriting. And she was using this language, like, you have to have your catcher’s mitt on, right? Similar thing.
Ms. Gilbert: Oh, isn’t that nice?
Ms. Tippett: And then she said — actually, I went back and looked at the transcript. And she said, “You have to have your catcher’s mitt on. And sometimes I’m afraid that if I don’t get it down, then somebody else will.” And she said something like, “It might be Lucinda.” [laughs] Like, “Lucinda Williams might get this one if I don’t,” which is exactly the same thing you’re saying.
Ms. Gilbert: [laughs] Yes, exactly. And there’s — look, this exists in the scientific world, as well. Right?
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Ms. Gilbert: There are these stories of simultaneous discovery. It’s Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin figuring out the theory of evolution at the same moment. It’s — this is something that we hear happening again and again, and it’s nothing to be afraid of. I think it’s something to just marvel in and be delighted in.
[music: “Sprouts in the Cracks in the Concrete” by Lullatone]
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[music: “Sprouts in the Cracks in the Concrete” by Lullatone]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m talking with the author Elizabeth Gilbert about the nature of creativity. In life as in art, she says, it has less to do with passion than with choosing curiosity over fear.
Ms. Tippett: There’s also kind of a “noble guilt” that one can have in this culture, and those of us who are fortunate to be able to buy and read books like yours, talking about bringing forth the treasures within us. And I was just talking a minute ago about how we also tend to be very focused, and the messaging that’s coming towards us is very focused on the ruthless furnace of the world. How do you respond to the question of — this creativity you’re talking about, is this a luxury for privileged people?
Ms. Gilbert: No. This is a shared human inheritance, because the evidence of that is — again, let us look to our ancestors. And I ask you and me right now to think back to our great-grandparents. And they were farmers and workers, and yet, they made beauty. They made it because it brought them joy. They made it as a currency in the communities in which they lived. They made it because of the pleasure of doing something that’s better than it has to be.
So my grandmother, who made beautiful rag rugs and quilts — they’re more beautiful than they need to be. And your history is filled with those people, as well. And I would argue that most of the most beautiful and interesting things in the world that have ever been made were made by people who didn’t have enough time, didn’t have enough resources, didn’t have, probably, any education. This is something that belongs to human beings who are behaving in the way that human beings are designed to behave — using your senses and your curiosity and your materials and whatever’s at hand to alter your environment and make something more beautiful than it needs to be. That’s who we are.
Ms. Tippett: That’s really interesting to think about, how the way we have dismissed art and creativity as a luxury is a way we’ve diminished ourselves.
Ms. Gilbert: Oh, good Lord, in huge ways, yeah — without a doubt.
Ms. Tippett: I also feel like — you don’t make this connection overtly a lot, but I think that the notion of creative living and amplified existence, of creativity as a virtue for our public life, as well as for private life, is very resonant right now — especially when you define it as a life driven more by courage than by fear, and what grows out of that. And you say, “I want to live in a society filled with people who are curious and concerned about each other rather than afraid of each other.” So taking this virtue of investigation, of that gentle friend of curiosity, as something that we can live by would be good for us collectively, right?
Ms. Gilbert: Sure. It’s a public service. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: It’s a public — yeah.
Ms. Gilbert: Well, I do think this is a very clear thing: Terrified people make terrible decisions. Terror and fear make you irresponsible. They make you not think very clearly, and they make you willing to do almost anything to get rid of that awful feeling. And we’ve seen people do that on the individual level, and we’ve seen cultures do that. And we’ve seen politicians who find ways to exploit terror and fear in order to get short-term power — or, sometimes, long-term power, because if you can figure out how to hold the reins of other people’s fear, then you can control them for a while.
And so one of the very most powerful ways to not end up being controlled by that is to remain more curious than you are afraid. I think, any time in the community that there’s anybody who’s keeping their head, I think it’s a benefit to everyone around them. I think everything is contagious. Our fear is contagious, but our courage also is. And our courage makes other people be able to be more brave and come out of their houses and come out of their shells and out of their fear.
Ms. Tippett: I think, in this piece I’m looking at, you were telling a story about being in Indonesia in 2002. And — so when did you publish Eat Pray Love? Was that 2006?
Ms. Gilbert: Yeah. So, that trip I was talking about in that article was actually not my Eat Pray Love trip. That was a…
Ms. Tippett: So that was another time when your life looked like a dropped pie? Everything was on the floor in pieces?
Ms. Gilbert: [laughs] Yes.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] You’ve had more than one of those?
Ms. Gilbert: Well, actually, I would say that that was the middle of the period of my life that looked like a dropped pie, and Eat Pray Love was the end of that life.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Got it.
Ms. Gilbert: So this period that I was talking about was very much — I was still in the worst of what I ended up discussing in Eat Pray Love. That was dropped pie central right then. I would say, that was the worst part of my life.
Ms. Tippett: Right. Bad divorce, losing your house, losing your husband, losing your money, losing your friends, losing sleep, losing yourself. And then this stranger, this woman, just kind of gives you solace and nurses you back to life. And you said — and I feel like you’ve had a lot of those experiences, partly because you put yourself out there to be needy, to be alone in strange places. But I just love this. I want to read it. You said, “I want to live in a world full of explorers and generous souls, rather than people who have voluntarily become prisoners of their own fortresses. I want to live in a world full of people who look into each other’s faces along the path of life and ask, ‘Who are you, my friend, and how can we serve each other?’”
Ms. Gilbert: Yeah, that woman was so extraordinary. I had gone to — I had a very dumb idea, it turned out, that what I really needed was to just be alone and as far away from everyone in the world as I could get. And I went to this island off the coast of Lombok in Indonesia and rented a thatched cottage on the beach for ten dollars a day. And I decided, for ten days, I wasn’t going to speak. I don’t advise that if you’re in the state that I was in. [laughs] What I probably really needed was to be around community and, maybe, some therapists. Putting a magnifying lens on yourself when you’re in distress like that can be very hard. And I ended up getting sick.
And I used to take a walk around this island every day, because it was such a small island, you could walk it every day. And it was a little Muslim fishing village. And there was this woman who used to be standing outside her house every time I walked by, and she would see me and smile at me. And she was the only human-to-human point of contact that I had during that time.
And when I got sick, and I was stuck in my little shack, very, very ill — I was afraid I had malaria, I was so sick — she came and found me. She had been keeping an eye on me, and I didn’t keep my schedule. I usually walked around the island at dawn and at dusk, and when she didn’t see me, she came and found me. And when she saw how sick I was, she brought me food. And I think — I’ve never forgotten this woman.
And what I think I learned from her was: Pay attention to what’s happening in your community. That’s what it means to be deeply engaged with the place where you live, such that you will see when someone is in trouble. And there’s ways that you can reach toward people, rather than away from them. And you can do that. I know we talk often, in this society, about how terrible social media and the Internet is. But used properly, that too can become a tool of outreach, a way of knocking on someone’s door.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, we get to make it what we want it to be. It’s us.
Ms. Gilbert: We get to make — it’s just us. And she set a real tone, for me, of how to be not so buried in your own problems or in your own distractions that you are incapable of seeing what’s right in front of you and who’s right in front of you.
Ms. Tippett: It’s also, actually, a wonderful example of how, when we step outside ourselves — that was a creative act, right? It was an act of curiosity.
Ms. Gilbert: Well, it’s because the universe is looking for collaborators, because creation’s not finished. It’s not something that happened in seven days and ended. It’s an ongoing story that we’re part of. And it’s a much more interesting way to be part of that story, to work in collaboration and in partnership and in friendly curiosity with it, than to be terrified of it. I mean, look, life is a very risky affair, and what could be more fascinating and terrifying than this reality about a human existence, which is that literally anything can happen to literally anybody at literally any moment? [laughs] And to live in the awareness of that without needing to drown it out or dull it out or suffocate it or deny it is quite an exhilarating way to live. And then you can start to participate as much as possible in how that story unfolds.
Ms. Tippett: I don’t want to finish talking to you without noting the irony of the trajectory of your career and your persona and success as a writer: It was interesting to me; I didn’t really understand how much you had really written a lot about men and for men, and been a journalist and been — I don’t know, what is it? You once said you were the only girl in the room a lot. [laughs]
And so that’s not really the trajectory of, I think, what people would expect of this person who eventually writes Eat Pray Love. And, ironically — that is such a phenomenally successful project, but you said once, it had not escaped your attention that when you wrote about a man’s emotional journey, they gave you the National Book Award nomination, but when you wrote about a woman’s emotional journey, they “shunted” you “into the ‘chick-lit’ dungeon.” And I sense that you’ve — this has been part of your growth and reflection out of this, is — and I wrestle with this too, with my work — pushing back against the idea that there’s something unserious about talking about these things. So I just would love to draw you out a little bit on that.
Ms. Gilbert: Well, I spent my 20s writing about men for men. And I wanted to, and it was very much a reflection of where I was in my life at that time. I was really interested in masculinity, and I think the reason that I was is because I wanted to be a guy. And the reason I wanted to be a guy — and I don’t mean literally, and certainly, that’s a very serious situation when somebody’s born in a woman’s body and wants to be a man. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is, I wanted to live the way men live.
And the reason for that was because it was better. And I grew up watching what many of us grew up watching, which was men who had a great deal of freedom, and women who followed them around and took care of them and took care of their every need. And when I looked at those two models, one of them seemed a lot better than the other one — [laughs] very clearly. And so I just threw myself into men’s worlds. I worked in bars. I worked on a ranch in Wyoming for a long time. I became a writer for GQ and Esquire and Spin; very much men’s worlds.
Ms. Tippett: That’s right.
Ms. Gilbert: I threw myself not only into men’s worlds, but into men’s worlds where they were spending their life studying “What is masculinity?” too, and examining that question again and again — what it means to be a man. I was just as interested in that as they were. And I felt comfortable in those worlds. And I even did a story for GQ once, where I dressed up as a man for a week and lived as a man in New York and felt what that felt like — which, interestingly, I didn’t enjoy, because I felt very constrained in that gender once I was in it. [laughs] I much preferred being a woman among men than being a fake man among men.
But what happened, I think, with Eat Pray Love is that it was a time in my life where I sort of came out of the closet as a woman. And I needed to, because the questions that I was grappling with were very much women’s questions. And there are certainly universal spiritual questions that I was grappling with, but the main one that I was grappling with, and what ended my marriage, was the question of whether or not to become a mother. And certainly, that is the ultimate woman’s question. What does it mean if I’m a woman who doesn’t have children? What does it mean if I take a different path? Am I still a woman? These are all, in a way, gendered questions.
And that led me to write Eat Pray Love. And although now we can say, “God, that just was such a commercial success, it just seems so obvious now,” [laughs] at the time, I was taking a very big risk, because I quit my excellent job at GQ, and I took a very different voice on. And whatever acclaim I had in the world, or however I was known, I was not known as a woman who would write a book like that. So it felt very risky to do it, but I also didn’t really have a choice. And I think, in the end, it comes down to that.
And then, of course, I did get typecast as a chick-lit writer, and I — that was year zero: All of a sudden, my whole history disappeared, and I just showed up as that person. And I’ve sort of remained that person. No matter what I do from this point forward, I will still always be the woman who wrote Eat Pray Love, which is fine with me, but I’m going to continue to write the books that I’m called to write. I’m going to continue to speak about the questions that ignite and illuminate my existence within myself and in the world. I’m going to continue to serve the community who has gathered around me.
[music: “Spring Rain” by Auditory Canvas]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, exploring creativity and curiosity with author Elizabeth Gilbert.
[music: “Spring Rain” by Auditory Canvas]
Ms. Tippett: I feel, one of the paradoxes in your life and in the spirit and presence you bring into the world is, you are an explorer; you’re a traveler — you’re a famous traveler and a famous explorer, I think, both literally, and also, in terms of your life as a writer. I also experience you — from afar, but experience you as someone who is so completely at home in yourself, very exuberantly at home. And you’ve talked about, in those wild years that followed the success of Eat Pray Love, that finding your way home — that finding your way back home — that that was something you understood to be something you had to do.
I don’t know. I just want to name that, and I guess I’m curious if that is a way — or how else you would want to talk about, through all of this that you’ve lived and created and, also, all the things you’re hearing and picking up in the world now, as you move through it as this person in conversation with our culture — what are you learning that you didn’t know before about what it means to be human?
Ms. Gilbert: I think — here’s what I’m learning, and here’s what I’m seeing, and here’s what I’m lately focusing on and maybe even thinking about writing about. I feel like everything we want is on the other side of this dark river of self-hatred that is so prevalent in ourselves and in our culture. There’s a story about the Dalai Lama that — when he first came to the West. And somebody in the audience raised their hand and said, “What do you think about self-hatred?”
The whole conference ended for a while, while he had to have a couple of translators sit there and try to explain to him how a human being could be taught to hate himself. And he was so — he just said — there’s this transcript of this conversation and that moment of him saying, “This is very concerning.” [laughs] And I see self-loathing everywhere I look, in so many different forms, and it’s so — it breaks my heart. And I also know self-loathing, because I have been in it. Anybody who’s been in depression knows what self-hatred is. In many ways, depression is — the best definition of it is anger turned inward, so there’s this battle that’s going on within you where you become a rival of yourself and an enemy of yourself.
And what transformed my life about that journey that I took with Eat Pray Love were those four months that I spent in India where I had to be alone with myself, and we really made a peace accord. And when I say “myself,” I should say “my selves,” because we’re not a self, we’re selves. And one by one, I really went around to all my selves, and we shook hands and made peace with each other and said, “We’re not going to operate against each other anymore. This has got to be a better neighborhood to live in. [laughs] We have to put down the weapons. We have to put down the old complaints. We have to put down the perfectionism. We have to put down the judgement. We have to put this stuff away, because we’re doing such tremendous harm to this poor being, Liz, who has to carry this war around within her.” And so I really came away from that trip having befriended — and the word, “friendly,” I keep using it in this conversation, and I use it a lot.
Ms. Tippett: It’s lovely. It’s lovely.
Ms. Gilbert: It’s a wonderful word, right?
Ms. Tippett: It’s another gentle word, like “curiosity.”
Ms. Gilbert: People talk about “self-love,” and I think that’s a very intimidating concept. I think “friendliness” is a nicer way to think about it. Can you be a little bit of a better friend to yourself? Would you ever allow a friend to speak of themselves the way you do in your interior moments? And so that’s what changed everything. And even in the craziness after Eat Pray Love happened, I think part of the reason that I didn’t get lost in that was because of the friendship that I’d cultivated with this person who I am. And carrying that person around in a friendly way made those years easier than they might have been.
And so, sometimes, people will say to me, “God, your life must be so crazy. Your life must have been so crazy after Eat Pray Love.” And honestly, my thought is, “No, the craziness was before.” The craziness was what you didn’t see, what was going on in between my ears. That was the insanity. And when that’s gone, then everything else that happens can be sort of ridden, and sometimes, as Jack Gilbert would say, enjoyed. Sometimes you can even risk delighting in it.
But it’s that spirit of stubborn gladness and friendly curiosity that I think is at the basis of “ahimsa,” also — that you’re a friend not only to the world, but to yourself. And there, you can find your way home, I think, in almost all circumstances. I hope, [laughs] because I don’t know any other way. And that’s the best I’ve got.
Ms. Tippett: I’ve lived a while at this point too, and I don’t think I have self-hatred; I’m not sure — it’s hard to identify with that, even though I would absolutely define some of my younger self in that way. But I — at the same time, you have this line — and this is, again, about emboldening creativity, creative living; this way we can move through the world. And you say, as coming to the point where you can decide that “The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you.” And I’ll just say, even as somebody who feels like I’ve done a lot of work on befriending myself, but that’s still a hard statement to claim, for me, and, I think, for a lot of people. It’s an aspiration, to be able to feel that way, to trust that.
Ms. Gilbert: What gets me through those “90 percent of it being boring” parts of creativity without turning it into angst anymore — and I say “anymore” because I used to do it — is that faith that the work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through me. And so, when it’s not coming, and it’s not working, and it’s not being good, and I’m stuck in a problem around the creativity, it’s a very important shift in my life over the years to not think that I’m being punished or that I’m failing, but to think that this thing, this mystery that wants communion with me is trying to help me. And it hasn’t abandoned me. It’s nearby. And it wants — it came to me for a reason.
That’s what I always think when I’m working on a project and it’s not working. I think — I will speak to the idea and say, “You came to me for a reason.” But in the meantime, I’ll come to my desk every day with the faith that you are also at my desk every day and that the two of us — this human being who is laboring and this mystery who is presenting itself toward me in whatever language it’s able to, whatever signals and clues and hints and inspirations and the sense of obsession and all the ways that inspiration comes to us — that it wants me to be with it. And somehow, if I’m patient and it’s constant, the two of us, the idea and me, will figure out how to make something in the world. And through that process, I will become a deeper and truer version of myself; and so, regardless of how the outcome turns, it will have been worth doing just for the communion with the mystery and the idea. And I can’t think of a better way to live than to just keep doing that.
[music: “The Stars In Spring” by Epic45]
Ms. Tippett: Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of seven books, including Eat Pray Love, the novel The Signature of All Things, and, most recently, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.
[music: “The Stars In Spring” by Epic45]
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Casper ter Kuile, Sue Phillips, and Jeffrey Bissoy.
Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice you hear, singing our final credits in each show, is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
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