Say what you want about behemoth bookshops. Barnes & Noble has been quite good to me over the years, if only for the fact that they have provided me with opportunities to exchange a laugh or two with people who completely inspire me.
(Note to self: tell the story about meeting the graceful Susan Egan in a New York City BN and how she subsequently, divinely, and synchronistically sent you the elusive sheet music you had been seeking out for months. Well, actually, that’s pretty much the story.)
Last Monday, Barnes & Noble sent me Elizabeth Gilbert.
Yes, I’m a big Eat, Pray, Love fan. Who isn’t? Who didn’t read that book and all of a sudden treat themselves to luxurious artist dates consisting of solitary brunches and meditative labyrinth walks? Who didn’t follow her journey and repetitively conjure up friend after friend who would appreciate this section or that? “Oh, Suzanna would love this part about Italy,” I would think to myself while reading, and “I wonder what Stacia would think about this part in the ashram?” or “I can absolutely see Lisa and Tatiana and I having this conversation over dinner at French Roast.” And on it went. Book clubs happened. Copies were wrapped in Christmas paper and sent to the post. It was, and still is, at the top of my reading recommendation list.
But I think the appeal of that book is more than the fact that it’s a good read. I think the appeal comes from the fact that it’s so incredibly relatable. The voice is not an unfamiliar one. And as we watch the author “Frankenstein” her way through her experiences, as she might say, we get a sense of how to go about unpacking our own journeys, or at least perhaps how to summon the courage to try. (Please note: the word “Frankenstein” can only be used as a verb if it is accompanied with the proper Frankenstein’s monster-ish walk, a proper illustration of what it is like, sometimes, to do “new and scary things.”)
“Writing is the thread that has sewn my life together,” said Elizabeth Gilbert at the Barnes & Noble event space adjacent to the loudly colorful children’s section. At least, I think that’s what she said. In a moment of haste, regretting the absence of a notebook in my purse, I busted out a pencil and started scratching in the back of my copy of her latest offering, The Signature of All Things. Anyone who knows me has witnessed those moments when I am caught scrutinizing my own writing as if it were a secret message from Orphan Annie and I am sans a decoder ring. (Yes, my life revolves around Christmas references. Get over it.) So, bear with me.
I think anyone who calls herself a writer would recognize that notion of not being able to truly understand things until they’ve been… I was going to say “written down,” but actually I think “written through” is the more accurate preposition. To “write something down” has such finality. To “write through something” implies work, journey, understanding. Joan Didion said it so many times in her personal essays: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” Even now, I have a dear friend who is Frankensteining her way through unpacking her childhood abuse, writing through her experiences, bringing light to the dark corners.
I don’t know if Liz Gilbert feels exactly this way, but she contended that she even after the great success of EPL, she knew she couldn’t leave writing behind, get a big house, and “raise Corgis.” And so it is. Writing as necessity. In her own “Thoughts on Writing,” she says, “I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write.” Joan said, “We tell stories in order to live.” Indeed.
Of course, this blog is about the not writing, the question of what happens when that is true and yet the words/space/time/healthy psychological headspace don’t seem to come. Liz had some things to say about this, too.
Starting with something like “stop trying to find your passion.”
Instead, she said, seek out curiosity. “Passion” is a word so fraught with anxiety, she said, that it becomes yet another weight to bear sometimes. Follow curiosity, that “small tap on the shoulder that makes you turn your head just a quarter of an inch. It’s smaller, quieter, and less intimidating.”
Cue the cumulative sigh of everyone in the room abandoning their stressful adherence to “finding their passions.”
I love this about Liz. (I can call her “Liz,” because we are obviously BFFs now.) She completely dispels the idea of the tortured writing process. “Artistic torment is a really romantic idea,” she said in an interview with Globe and Mail last month, “but it’s not very conducive to output.” In other words, she admits that her artistic process “would not make a very good biopic.”
Since she was raised on a farm, she says, her writing process is seasonal: the season for inspiration, the season for research, the season for writing, editing, and finally, for rest. Sometimes these seasons can take days, and sometimes they can take months. Sometimes, like winter in Westeros, they can take years.
The Signature of All Things was written from a 70-page outline, which was constructed from the index-card fruit of three years in the research season. (Shout out to her West Civ teacher, Mr. Kisco, and his index card research methodologies.)
Three years of research. Three years of preparation. Three years of curiosity. After that, writing was like painting a room where the the furniture had already been moved and the windows pre-taped.
“I feel sorry for the girl I was in my 20s,” she laughed, who would often try to paint only to realize there was a couch in the way. She spoke of sitting and staring at the blank page wondering where the inspiration was going to come from. She would later discover the way of the creative warrior.
“Inspiration is like a one-night stand,” she said. “Creativity is a 40-year marriage.”
Of course, we’ve all seen her eloquent TED talk, where she outlines the potential parameters of genius, inspiration, and creativity.
But the counterweight to creativity? Compassion.
In a discussion about women and artistic pursuits, Liz pointed out that we are very likely a “new species.” We have no role models, no history, no mythology to reference as we go about our lives making decisions about family and career and balance. Never before have we had such freedom of self-determination. Here, she referenced Martha Beck, fans of her Facebook page, and also her sister as examples of the one thing that will enable us to truly embrace who we are and shine appropriately – compassion, for each other, but most importantly for ourselves.
“Martha Beck defines the mystic as the woman who chooses family, or career, or both, but has enough compassion for herself not to constantly berate herself for not choosing the other path,” said Liz, sort of. She then told a tale of her sister and a significant gesture of compassion she extended towards another mother who was spiraling into an oblivion of unworthiness after witnessing the gingerbread houses that her own kids had put together while being babysat by Liz’s sister. That conversation started with “You’re a better mother than I am” and ended with, simply, “Let’s not do this to each other.”
The Facebook has become an extension of this compassionate community, aka “Tribe Liz,” and visiting her page is like a run-in with someone offering free hugs. But, the cool part is that she is quick to return the embrace. She keeps track of her people, reaching out to them when necessary, tethering them to the font of support which that space has become. There is the story of the young woman on the other side of the world who has shared her hardships on the page, who was sent a copy of The Signature of All Things, who responded in broken English with “You care on me!”
“Yes,” said Elizabeth Gilbert. “I care on you.” And, the funny thing is, in this world where our heroes are constantly disappointing us, she really does.
Check her out on book tour now.