I admit it: “Eat, Pray, Love” is not one of my favorite books. It’s not even in the top 1000. Actually, it annoyed me so much in parts that I skipped long sections of it.
But I adore Elizabeth Gilbert and couldn’t wait to read a profile of her by Steve Almond, another one of my favorite writers, in this week’s New York Times Magazine.
Many of you are probably wondering: How can you be an admirer of Elizabeth Gilbert and not a fan of “Eat, Pray, Love”? I mean, really, what else has she done? It’s simple: Elizabeth Gilbert is a writer’s writer. She is a master craftswoman. She is a daring, entertaining, and outrageously flexible writer.
I loved Elizabeth’s essays. As a journalist, a biographer, short story writer, or an essayist, she could write vividly and movingly about anything from cowboys and pioneer life to Hank Williams III. (My personal favorite? Her piece about being a waitress at the Coyote Ugly bar that later inspired a movie…) I particularly loved one of her novels, Stern Men, about a young woman working and falling in love on lobster boats.
So at the time in 2006 I was excited to read her memoir about searching for meaning, identity, and joy across the world. Like the rest of female America, a friend passed the book onto me. I had recently gone through my own period of sadness, loss, and confusion after a horrific breakup and the death of my father. I could relate to sitting and sobbing on the bathroom floor, devoid of hope and desperate for answers and meaning (for me, one of the most powerful scenes in the book).
Yet after enjoying the section of Eat, Pray, Love about her stay in Italy, somewhere in India, she lost me as a reader. I started to find her story self-indulgent and sort of boring. First of all, I’m not a New Age-type of person. When faced with crisis, I do not meditate or do yoga. But I’ll leave my complaints about Eat, Pray, Love (and the movie, her Oprah stuff, etc.) for now. (One critic perfectly states my ambivalence about the book: “['Eat, Pray, Love'] is the worst in Western fetishization of Eastern thought and culture, assured in its answers to existential dilemmas that have confounded intellects greater than hers. You may be a well-off white woman, but if you are depressed, the answer can be found in the East, where the poor brown people are sages.”)
But we all get through losing our way in life and find a path toward resilience in different ways. I didn’t fault Elizabeth herself for the media creation of her as a self-help guru that was created over the next years. And I loved her follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love, Committed: A Love Story. I had recently married too (at age 35) and had been struggling with my own thoughts about independence, compatibility, and the daily negotiations of marriage.
Yet even if you find no connection to Elizabeth’s writings about her journeys of self-discovery, as writers of all types (bloggers, journalists, scholars, fiction writers), we can find important lessons from Elizabeth’s career. After reading the New York Times profile, I realized how much there is to learn from Elizabeth herself.
1. Write like you have nothing to lose. Be bold, be unexpected, and challenge your readers and yourself.
2. Don’t confine yourself to one genre when you’re passionate about many. Elizabeth has written and spoken about her dislike for the term “chick-lit.” As a respected and award-winning journalist and literary novelist, she was baffled when she wrote about her own search for meaning and love but was suddenly relegated to the category of soft, light, and fluffy “women’s writing.” In her soon-to-be-published book The Signature of All Things: A Novel, she is going back to her literary fiction roots with a “serious” epic of historical fiction. Elizabeth refuses to be defined by literary categories or by readers’ and critics’ expectations of her work.
3. Don’t be afraid of being happy and content in your personal life. Strive for it in any way you can. Artists of all types make the mistake, according to Elizabeth, of believing that true creative genius only arises from suffering and misery. Gilbert believes that the balance and satisfaction that she found in her own personal life actually allows her to be a better writer. She does not romanticize the pain and sorrow that she has experienced and has no desire to return to it for the sake of art.
4. Find a community who loves you and respects you for who you are as a person and a writer. Gilbert surrounds herself with like-minded and loyal friends. She has long friendships and finds self-imposed seclusion to be harmful to her own creative processes. Her friends are her coaches, her critics, her family, and her greatest admirers.
5. Don’t use an “artistic tempermanent” as a crutch. Yes, writers and artists can be sensitive, passionate, imaginative, emotional, and turn inward. But passion and creativity will only get you so far. Hard work is the key to success on your own terms. You need to learn discipline and develop a strong work ethic. Art of all kinds is ultimately most about work — hard, difficult work.
Her next book, coming out in October, is called “The Signature of All Things: A Novel.” It’s an epic story set in cities across the globe of the Whittaker family during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. First, there is Henry Whittaker, who becomes the richest man in Philadelphia from the South American quinine trade. The book’s heroine is his daughter, Alma, who becomes a botanist and researcher. It’s about evolution and the tension between reason, science, and the spiritual and divine, and it’s about love and passion.
Do you plan on reading her new novel? What did you think of Eat, Pray, Love? Are you a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert?