Very few writers, regardless of their specialty, can claim the honors of a National Book Award nomination, a hat-trick of National Magazine Award nods, and a #1 New York Times Bestseller, all to their credit.
Elizabeth Gilbert can.
From her early days in the cutthroat journalism trade, writing copy for the likes of GQ and the New York Times Magazine, to her wildly successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Ms. Gilbert has punched her way to becoming a heavyweight wordsmith.
And if her intimidating record in the ring isn’t enough, set aside 19 minutes of your life to absorb the TED talk she did on finding your “creative genius.”
Let’s face it, few bestselling authors can also say they’ve been portrayed in a Hollywood film by an Academy Award winner (it was Julia Roberts if you were sleeping that year).
Thankfully, Ms. Gilbert took a breather from her latest book tour to stop by The Writer Files and share her secret to “getting it done,” explain why perfect is the enemy of good, and drop her unique definition of creativity on us.
It’s inspiring, to say the least.
Join me as we examine the file of Elizabeth Gilbert, writer …
About the writer …
Who are you and what do you do?
I’m a writer and I write.
What is your area of expertise as a writer or online publisher?
Not really sure how to answer that one. After “Eat, Pray, Love” I became best known as a memoirist, but I also write fiction and biography and short stories, and for years I worked as a journalist. I guess my area of expertise is getting it done, whatever needs writing. I used to have a business card that said, “Words-R-Us.”
Where can we find your writing?
In bookstores. And on bed stands, beach chairs, and train seats all over the world, I dearly hope.
The writer’s productivity …
How much time, per day, do you spend reading or doing research?
It depends. I don’t write by the day; I write by the season. Months and years can pass between bouts of writing —- time that is spent researching, or promoting an earlier book. But when it comes time to write, I keep farmer’s hours. Up before dawn, and I work until about 11:00 or noon every day.
By the end of a project, when I have barn fever, it may become six or even eight hours a day … but that’s only at the end, when I feel like I’m riding a bicycle fast down a hill, with no hands. Such episodes are real.
Before you begin to write, do you have any pre-game rituals or practices?
Spend several years in research and preparation. Then, when it comes time to work, clean everything in the house. (Alternatively, move to a new house that is already clean.) Inform everyone that they may not be hearing from me for a while. (Apologize in advance for that.)
Clear off my schedule until I have a nice long block of empty time. Bow down. Ask for grace. Commit to the idea of collaborating with the book, not going to war against it. Cross fingers. Make a cup of tea. Begin.
Do you prefer any particular music (or silence) while you write?
Complete and total silence.
How many hours a day do you spend writing (excluding email, social media, etc.)?
Everything that needs to be done in my life has to be done before 11:00 am, or it won’t be done well, or may not even be done at all. I love the early hours because the world hasn’t tracked me down yet. My best mind is my mind at dawn, after a good night of sleep.
I usually wake up with the solution on the tip of my brain to the creative problem of yesterday, and then I go running to my desk to try to catch my intelligence before it drains out of my ears. By 2pm, I am useless for anything except simple manual labor.
Do you write every day or adhere to any particular system?
At the beginning of a book, I establish a rule that I must not stand up for two hours. Two hours every morning, committed to just sitting there, whether the words are coming or not. Two hours is a long time, by the way, when you aren’t yet in the swing of it.
Toward the end of project, I discipline myself in the opposite direction: I make myself stop, call it a day. There comes a point of diminishing returns, after too many hours of writing, when it’s no longer helping you to keep writing. You get squishy-headed and full of bad ideas. You’ll have to delete it all the next day. Better to walk away, go to sleep, come back fresh.
Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how do you avoid it?
I believe that it happens (and I have experienced it) but I don’t believe that it is a stand-alone psychological disorder. I believe that Writer’s Block is a symptom, usually, of some other actual psychological disorder (depression, anxiety, narcissism, alcoholism, extreme competitiveness, fear, etc).
I combat it through gentleness toward the self. Anything you fight, after all, fights you back. So I don’t fight Writer’s Block. I just try to coerce, persuade, encourage, bribe, and trick myself into returning to work.
And I diminish the stakes by reminding myself that none of this is actually that big a deal. Writers are some of the most dramatic people who ever lived, but in fact, what is at stake in the work of writing is kind of … nothing.
Nobody’s child ever died because someone got a bad review in The New York Times. It’s just art. And as beautiful as art is, and as much as we love it, there is no such thing as an actual real-life Arts Emergency.
Tom Waits told me once that all he does, as a songwriter, is make ‘jewelry for the inside of people’s minds.’ I find that incredibly calming as an idea.
So that’s all we do, those of us in creative fields: mental jewelry-making. You aren’t a heart surgeon. You aren’t in charge of the lives of twenty men on an oil rig. You aren’t performing roadside amputations in a war zone. You aren’t even driving a school bus. You’re just making art.
Nothing real is at stake here. So just go make a pretty thing. Or make a clunky thing, or a tiny thing, or a big thing, or an ugly thing, or an experimental and wild thing. Doesn’t matter. Enjoy the making. Let it go. It’s merely art. This line of thinking brings me great peace. Gets me out of my own way.
The writer’s creativity …
The strange partnership between a human being’s labor and the mystery of inspiration.
Who are your favorite authors, online or off?
Dickens, James, Eliot, Trollope, Amis, Munro, Saunders, Whitman, Mantel.
Can you share a best-loved quote?
By the poet Jack Gilbert (no relation):
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 this world.
How would you like to grow creatively as a writer?
Bigger, faster, stronger.
Who or what is your Muse at the moment (i.e. specific creative inspirations)?
Women. Specifically, their amazing powers of resilience.
What makes a writer great?
Big brain, bigger heart.
The writer’s workflow …
What hardware or typewriter model do you presently use?
I work on a MacBook Pro.
What software do you use most for writing and general workflow?
I use index cards (handwritten) for keeping my notes and research in order, and crummy old Microsoft Word for actual composition.
Do you have any tricks for beating procrastination? Do you adhere to deadlines?
I abide by Goethe’s rule: “Never hurry, never rest.” I never go into crazy fugue states, but I don’t ever stop, either. I’m a plow mule. I’m very disciplined, and I have a great regard for deadlines — usually my own.
I was lucky enough to have had discipline instilled in me by my very organized and Calvinist mother, who taught us to work first and play later (and maybe not even play so much, actually).
She also taught us not to become perfectionists, which is where a lot of procrastination and time-wasting occurs. Nothing is less efficient than perfectionism. Her great adage, which I still adhere to, was:
Done is better than good.
I can tell you all kinds of specific things that are wrong with each of my books, but I’m not going to try fixing them, because then you fall down the wormhole, and the books are good enough already, and I want to move on to other things.
90% is truly good enough. There is not enough time in life to quest for perfection. Better to move forward. All this I learned from my mom. I was a lazy kid by nature, but my mother refused to allow me to become a lazy adult.
I was REALLY difficult to train out of my laziness, by the way. (My nickname in middle school sports was “Little Miss Half-Ass.”) It would’ve been so much easier for my mother to quit nagging me and just let me grow into a sloppy layabout, but she simply wasn’t having it.
It was as if she’d been handed a little coach potato at birth, but then took it upon herself to form me into a Navy SEAL. As a result of all that training, I am not afraid of work. I have even come to love work.
I think that loving one’s work is a marvelous trick for enjoying life. When people ask me if writing is hard or easy for me, I don’t even know how to answer that. Hard and easy don’t matter.
I don’t need writing to be easy; I just need it to be interesting.
How do you stay organized (methods, systems, or “mad science”)?
Index cards, index cards, index cards.
By the time I was ready to write The Signature of All Things I had five shoe boxes of index cards — ordered by subject, character, chapter and theme — at the ready. After that much preparation, it kind of becomes a paint-by-numbers operation.
How do you relax at the end of a hard day?
I sit in the kitchen and watch my husband cook dinner, and we talk about dumb little things.
A few questions just for the fun of it …
Who (or what) has been your greatest teacher?
My mother, first of all. My own legions of terrible mistakes, secondly.
What do you see as your greatest success in life?
Learning more and more, every year, how to stay out of my own way and other people’s ways. In other words, learning more and more how not to be a professional pain in the ass.
What’s your biggest aggravation at the moment (writing related or otherwise)?
Those moments of tough emotional conflict or tension with other people, when I simply cannot figure out how to put compassion into play.
Choose one author, living or dead, that you would like to have dinner with.
Ben Franklin. He would be a blast. And he would be so into modernity. He’d have a million questions. (Also, he was a terrific author.)
If you could take a vacation tomorrow to anywhere in the world, where would you go (cost or responsibilities are no object)?
Can you offer any advice to fellow writers that you might offer yourself, if you could go back in time and “do it all over?”
If I had it to do over again, I would’ve stayed away from romantic entanglements and focused more on my work. And mastered a second language when I was young enough that it would still have been easy. (Or, rather, easier.)
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Tell them to be nice to each other. None of the rest of it really matters.
Please tell our readers where they can connect with you online.
And finally, the writer’s desk …
Every serious writer builds a shrine of some sort, whether it be picking the perfect table at a coffee shop, or carving out a quiet nook in your home, with which you hope to entertain the Muse.
Rumor has it, Ms. Gilbert had a specially designed library built in her attic that she calls her “Sky-brary,” where she wrote the entirety of The Signature of All Things.
Right there in the center, anchoring the space quite adequately for her prose, sits a 15-foot plank of polished Acacia wood.
Thank you for sharing a snapshot of your amazing writer’s lair, Liz!
And thank you for sharing The Writer Files …
More Q&As are on the calendar from writers who inspire us, and if you care to flip through the archives, you can find more accumulated wisdom here.
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Now stop being so dramatic and get back to work! See you out there.
Bonus Question: Where (or what) is your writer’s shrine? Drop them into the comments and we’ll compare.