Here’s How Elizabeth Gilbert (Bestselling Author of Eat, Pray, Love) Writes

Image of The Writer Files Logo

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.

Throw in her radiant new novel, The Signature of All Things, that TIME recently named one of the “10 best books of 2013,” and you have a true marvel.

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 …

Define 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)?

Greece.

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.

♡LG

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!

Elizabeth's Gilbert's "Skybrary"

Elizabeth’s Gilbert’s “Sky-brary”

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.

If you’ve already subscribed to Copyblogger via email or RSS, the next installment will be delivered to you just like the rest of our daily content.

If not, go ahead and subscribe right now so you don’t miss a thing.

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.

About the author

Kelton Reid


Kelton Reid is Director of Multimedia Production for Copyblogger Media, and an independent screenwriter and novelist. Get more from Kelton on Twitter and .

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Comments

  1. As a writer, I completely agree with “done is better than good,” especially on the first draft. Nothing stops me faster than perfectionism. Thanks for sharing the insights of an amazing writer. I need to go create some jewelry for the inside of people’s minds.

    • Thanks for flipping through The Writer Files John! I love that Tom Waits quote too. As a recovering perfectionist myself, I often utter the mantra “perfect is the enemy of good.” Cheers.

  2. I guess that’s what I’m missing – a shrine. My muse comes whenever I am reading something – wherever there is a book or a screen, I will get an Aha! moment.

  3. Heh. and I thought I was the only one who actually wanted to hang out with Ben Franklin.

  4. I love these types of articles. Something I’ve found congruent with many other writers is the odd hours and the 2 hours of forced writing.

    Writing when the world is a asleep allows writers to focus undisturbed and without distraction.

    Writing for 2 hours (or for other writers 2,000 words) seems like the perfect amount of time.

  5. I have not been crying for a long, long time, and I was crying reading this. The honesty and gracefulness of this interview moved me. I do not know if that is by chance but I started making index cards just yesterday. They were left-overs from my son’s SAT prep (that he never used). I was amazed about how much more efficient it feels. I do not know why but this interview had an impact on me more than any other article. I had my share of delight (not pleasure). Thank you so very much!

    • Marina, I’m so happy that you found this interview. When I first re-read it, I’ll admit, I too was moved by many of the answers.

      Liz surprised me, but she’s a great writer, and this is more proof;)

    • I couldn’t agree more. I am moved by her candor and thoughtfulness and inspired by her respect for the work. I love the idea of keeping ‘farmer’s hours’, which I will practice more deliberately. Her disciplined approach seems simple, doable and not so self-important. Her Calvinist mother sounds…delightful.

  6. Brilliant piece, Kelton! Some great insights from Elizabeth, especially the Tom Waits quote!

    My shrine looks a bit like a found corner in the dusty cellar of a former artist’s home, which is to say it is actually a dusty corner in my cellar of a 100 year old brownstone in Harlem, which doubles as my recording studio. And since it is in Harlem there’s a distinct possibility that it could have belonged to an artist (down the street there’s a plaque on another brownstone where the famous ragtime pianist, Scott Joplin lived in 1917.

    And this dusty corner is my writing nook, where you would find a worn but comfortable blue rotating lounge chair, above which is a really large poster of B.B. King and an antique end table covered and piled high with all the books that have ever inspired me and some that have changed my life.

    By the way, for anyone reading these comments you REALLY owe it to yourself to click that link on Elizabeth’s TED talk. Truly inspiring.

    Great work, Kelton!

    • Thanks Mark! That Tom Waits story is priceless (I knew you would appreciate it).

      Seconded on the stacks of books that have inspired, in fact, when I was working on the novel, I had two walls of books that enclosed my small desk.

      The other two walls of my shrine were — a wall of quotes and inspiring passages that I copied by hand onto index cards and taped at eye level, and a wall of images that inspired the style of my writing, all pinned in a sprawling collage across a giant black bulletin board I rescued from a construction zone at a local university.

  7. This is inspiring, essential and relieving. Thank you!

  8. I like to write at the local Starbucks or book store. There’s something inspiring and thought-provoking about these locations.

    • There is scientific proof that working in a coffee shop makes us more productive. I think it’s the illusion that we need to look busy because we’re out in public.

      As far as book stores, I could never get any good writing done being surrounded by words written by authors much better than I :-)

  9. “…none of this is actually that big a deal.” That’s the most important thing she said in the interview. I hope everybody got that!

  10. Thank you so much for doing this interview. I recently picked up Eat, Pray, Love to reread it for the upteenth time in hopes of absorbing Gilbert’s voice and style by osmosis for my own work. Thanks again. Lori from AfricaInside.org

  11. If you’re ever in the Frenchtown,NJ area go visit Elizabeth Gilbert’s warehouse/store “Two Buttons”. It’s one of the coolest import stores you’ll experience. And if you’re lucky you might even see Elizabeth Gilbert bustling around.

  12. I love the sincerity that seems to shine through this interview! I also definitely agree – done is better than good, so it’s now time for me to DO.

  13. Sounds like your mom was a wise lady!

  14. My writer’s shrine is in my daughter’s bedroom . . . she is off at college . . . so I have a favorite glider facing out the window with a footstool there. I have a basket of my writing needs and my journal and Bible there. Morning is my time. Thanks for this great interview. Blessings, Amy

  15. Kelton,
    Thanks for the Writer Files. Great interview with an incredibly talented writer. My take aways? Successful people start their days early while most of the world is still fast asleep. Hard work really does pay off. Thanks for sharing this!

  16. Great interview! :) I really like the “Never rush, never rest” bit. That pretty much sums up my life as a blogger. I never rush to get content out there but I am always writing something, so I never really take a break from it either… it all just happens to work out.

  17. Great interview! An article very long. I love you Kelton Reid :)

  18. Super interview!

    I love the straightforward way Mrs. Gilbert answered those questions. This is gonna become a long-term reference for the future!

    Regards (and thanks!),
    JR John

  19. So enjoyed this interview and the comments to follow. Sort of like a taste of my first writer’s conference in Chicago in the early 90’s. Suddenly I found people who think like me and not only were they surviving it, they were flourishing. So thankful for one with Gilbert’s gifts and experience sharing her writer’s heart. Love the beautiful simplicity of index cards. It forces the heart and mind to slow down and settle into the moment instead of whipping it off, fingers on keys, and ending up with too much clutter to muddle through later.

  20. Thank you for an interesting interview (my writing lair is in my basement where I have my own disorganized corner). I saw Elizabeth Gilbert speak during a tour for her book “Committed.” I admit to not being an “Eat, Pray, Love” fan but she is charming, funny and insightful in person.

    And I love her analogy to writing as mental jewelry. So true. We can’t take ourselves too seriously.

  21. Thank you for this inspiring interview! I enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love tremendously as I was also going through a divorce at the time. What an amazing writing ‘lair’ she has! I carve out a space in my apartment. I need quiet to write so when the TV goes on I have to exit and use my laptop in the bedroom. I keep a scribbler with handwritten chapters and notes taped in from moments of inspiration. It’s kind of messy and I’m thinking the index cards might be better. :)

  22. Thanks so much for this – one of the most interesting and inspiring interviews I’ve come across. Just love her mother’s quote about perfectionism – I could have done with that when I was a kid – also what she has to say about overcoming writer’s block.

    Excellent questions and fascinating answers – thank you.

  23. The interview was great but I like the Skybrary most of all. Thanks Kelton for sharing this interview with us aspiring writers.

  24. Such a lovely piece on one of my favorite writers. Love, love, love seeing her skybrary. The space matters so much–at least for this writer. Before I begin to write I sweep my entire apartment. This ritual reminds me that it’s time to get into writer’s mind. My writing shrine sits on the granite desk that I write upon. I love it so much that it was the biggest selling point when I rented my apartment! On this little desk sits trinkets from my travels around the world (a bronze elephant from morocco, a ganesh from london, a piece of street art I made in Berlin and a seashell from the caribbean) which remind me of my experiences. I tend to write memoir and personal essays in addition to my branding work so these objects help stir my memories. On my desk you’ll also find Patti Smith’s Kids, a favorite photo of my dog and a candle for late night writing. Above the desk is a bulletin board with photos, a mask from my niece and quotes including two from fortune cookies:

    “Keep up the good work. You will be rewarded.”

    “Others appreciate your expressive qualities.”

    This is my sacred space and absolute favorite place to be in my apartment. I’m moving to New York City soon and am already plotting what my writing shrine will look like there.

  25. Really interesting interview. And I love “Done is better than good” and shall try and instill that one into my offspring (and perhaps even myself!)

  26. This was a very intriguing interview for aspiring writers, thank you! :)

  27. Very interesting and must read for all inspiring writers.
    Thanks.

  28. “Two hours every morning, committed to just sitting there, whether the words are coming or not. ”

    I think that’s something a lot of writers are afraid of. What happens if I sit here for 2 hours and nothing comes of it? What if two hours turns into two days? But if you watch Elizabeth’s talk she mentions how she has to be a workhorse about her writing and just keep plodding away. Sometimes that is the only way to make something happen.

  29. awesome.fabulous great..thanks for sharing wonderfull artuicle…!!

  30. Fabulous interview! So many nuggets of wisdom here. Thank you both!

  31. Love this piece and Gilbert’s work. Having four kids, the wisdom I have to share is this: muse shmuse, shrine shmrine. There simply isn’t time (for me at least) to waste getting futzed up about atmosphere and ambience. Of course I have favorite spots, but I’ve learned to work with what I’ve got in the moment. I will say, though, that the changing scenery helps keep it fresh for me.

    I was just discussing what to do next on one of my projects and am totally going to try Gilbert’s research strategy. How serendipitous!

    Thank you!!!

  32. I just finished reading the Signature last night and have been following the interviews Liz has given in the course of this book. I love her work.

    And I now like this blog too! Liz’s mind never ceases to surprise me with her wit, but asking the right questions is the trick here. A well done interview. Thank you for sharing.

  33. Post-holiday struggle with what to do next to get my memoir published. Great problem to have with an overwhelming universe of advice to wade through. The insight from this interview with such a genuine, easy-to-love writer, however, provides some steady ground. Especially resonating is:

    -“I guess my area of expertise is getting it done, whatever needs writing.” A lot of advice out there says we must know exactly what our expertise is and what we’re offering. I write all kinds of things. Relieved to know I’m not the only one unsure how to answer — and it’s okay.

    -“Enjoy the making. Let it go.” In the lens of my To-Do Lists I think I’m sucking the fun out of building a platform for my memoir. A good reminder to swap the lens.

    Thank you for this interview. I look forward to more!

  34. Thank you so much. I can now start my second thriller with a whole new mindset. The honesty and courage in this interview is gold dust to creatives.

    Scott

  35. Awesome Interview :D Just Loved it. Straight and to the point. We could learn discipline from her. Thanks Kelton for Sharing this.

  36. Very interesting interview, learned a lot of useful things from her :)