Q&A: Bestselling Author Elizabeth Gilbert on Feminism and Creative Living

To talk to Elizabeth Gilbert is to talk to a friend.

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After confessing to her I was nervous for our interview, due to my love for her and her books, she laughed and said: “Oh sweetie! You’re very kind. Thank you. It would be so much worse if you were like ‘I’m a little nervous because I can’t stand you.’”

And with that, my nerves were (somewhat) assuaged, and we got on with it—diving into a discussion of feminism, the best advice she ever got, dedication to craft, Coronas and pushing boulders, and her newest book, Big Magic.

How would you describe Big Magic in one sentence?

It is a book about creative living, and how to pursue it in a way that does not turn your life into a pile of garbage.

What is one of the best pieces of advice you ever received?

I can tell you the VERY best piece of advice I ever received. It was from an older woman artist, who – when I was in my 20s – was listening to me bitching that I didn’t have any time to do my creative work because I had three jobs and life is hard, I’m living with a bunch of roommates, I had all these other obligations, and all I wanted to do was write and there was never any time. And she kind of came at me with the most trenchant question:

“What are you willing to give up in order to have the life you keep pretending you want?”

And the key word in that sentence was “pretending” because it was such an ego blow, because I was like, I’m not pretending! I was like, isn’t that so insulting? Because writing was so important to me, and she was like, “Why do you keep pretending writing is the most important thing in your life when you give so much time to other things and other pursuits?” And she was grilling me, and she said, “Okay, you have three jobs. Everybody has jobs. But, what’s your favorite TV show?”

And I said, “The Sopranos.” She said, “Not anymore it isn’t. You’re canceling your cable subscription. You no longer watch television. You have time to be in Tony Soprano’s journey, but you don’t have time to be in your own?”

“What’s your favorite bar that you go to with your friends? Don’t go there anymore. What’s your favorite magazine? Cancel the subscription.”

The other reason I love that advice is because it’s in direct opposite to the mythology of “having it all.” It’s about ultimate self-accountability and triage: this matters so much to me and the other things don’t matter a bit. And that’s the only way you can ever find the time and energy to become anything. To become yourself.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Yeah! I’m not dumb. There’s only two answers to that question. One is, “Yes, I’m not dumb,” and the other is, “No, I’m really dumb.”

I always think: just call yourself a feminist, just out politeness. Generations of women came before you and sacrificed and endangered their lives so that you could have the cushy-ass life that you have now. Just out of gratitude and basic human politeness you should call yourself a feminist. Use it as a way to say thank you to them. They would appreciate it. They made your life really easy for you.

How does your feminism influence your work?

I don’t think there’s anything I do that isn’t feminist. Because I am a feminist. So, I’m not going to write a book that isn’t a feminist book, even if it’s call The Last American Man [Gilbert’s 2002 book about Eustace Conway] and it’s about a mountain man and American masculinity, because it’s coming from me. So I’m going to see it the only way I can see it: through the bias of my own feminist standpoint. So yeah, it’s not an influence – it’s the groundwater that nourishes every idea I have. Because without feminism, I do not exist.

Like many of us, I’m the first woman in the history of my family who ever had a public voice. And who ever was raised to have total autonomy over her body, total autonomy over her money, total autonomy over her relationships, total autonomy over her education, and total autonomy over how she choses to use her voice in public. You could go back to Eve, and you’re not going to find another woman in my lineage who had that. And so, that’s not accidental that I have that. I have that because of feminism. It’s not part of me, it’s all of me.

You write about Sister Mary Scullion in Big Magic. Who are some other strong women you admire? Why? 

Well first of all, there’s my mother, who came out of a farm background in central Minnesota and went to school in a one room house, was constantly underestimated, and grew up in a culturally malnourished environment. And was one of those people who just manages to find whatever sprig of life-giving opportunity there might be, she finds it and allows it to grow. She managed to get herself off the farm, she managed to go to nursing school, then she moved to the east coast, then she started working for Planned Parenthood as a nurse and became an activist in the 70s, and all at the same time being a wife, and a mother, and a farmer herself. She fed us books, fed herself books, just had limitless imagination, limitless curiosity and it totally transformed her whole life and her limitations, and she’s really the toughest and most courageous woman I know, so mostly her.

I love Sister Mary, I love Hilary Rodham Clinton, I love Dolly Parton. I love Glennon Doyle Melton, who is a young writer who I think of as a real sister of the spirit. I love Brené Brown, I love Cheryl Strayed. I haven’t met Hilary and Dolly, but the rest of the people that I just listed I know, and I know them intimately enough to say that they’re really smoking what they’re selling. Oh, another one is Maggie Doyne, a woman who founded and organization called Blink Now. She’s someone I admire. If you look her up, you’ll be blown away. So that’s my sisterhood—my primary sisterhood.

You write in Big Magic: “Defending yourself as a creative person begins by defining yourself. It begins when you declare your intent.” Sometimes I have trouble–as I know others do too–defining myself as a writer (or whatever a person’s chosen pursuit is), because of feelings of fraud and self-doubt. How do you suggest moving past those feelings of fraud?

I love what the poet Mark Nepo said on my podcast the other day, he said:“try to become a verb not a noun.” And I wish I had known that when I was writing Big Magic because I would’ve inserted it in there because I think it’s really valuable.

Now how I feel, having heard his idea, is that if defining yourself something means calling yourself by a noun, which is important, but I think it’s more important to become a verb, in that you pay attention not so much to what you call yourself but how you’re spending your time. Where does your limited, precious, sacred human energy go? So, don’t be a writer, be writing. Don’t be an artist, be making art. 

I’m going to contradict my own words from the book, but the question isn’t so much what you’re calling yourself, but what you’re doing. And then let the world call you whatever you’re going to call you. I was writing for forever, and then I started calling myself a writer. But I was calling myself a writer for a good fifteen years before anyone else did. So it wasn’t that I was waiting for anyone else to give me that title. I gave that title to myself, based on how I spent my time.

 

I love your book Eat Pray Love. Why do you think it connected with readers so much? 

I have to say I don’t know. I always say “I don’t know,” and then I throw out some half-assed theory. On a macro level, I don’t think we’ll ever know. The definition of a “phenomenon” is that it is unknowable and unrepeatable. I put in the same level of work and passion that I applied to all my other books, and they didn’t do that, so I really don’t know. I don’t know what the secret formula was, but I think it has something to do with the idea of: the only way you can liberate other people is to model what your own liberation looks like. I didn’t set out with Eat Pray Love to write a book that would help women, I set out to write a book that would help me know and free myself. And I accidentally wrote a book that a lot of women say helped them. So once again, that has to be the primary motive. The Buddhists said: “you can always tell salt water because it tastes like the ocean, and you can always tell enlightenment because it tastes like liberation.”

Never will you ever get close to enlightenment that you don’t feel free. Anything that you’re doing that makes you not feel free is not enlightenment, and it’s not getting you anywhere near it. And that’s a whole book about somebody looking for enlightenment by chasing her own sense of freedom.

I think you were brave in traveling the world fearlessly in Eat Pray Love and throughout your career as a journalist; what would you say to someone who is thinking of doing the same, but is afraid of the risks?

Well, I mean you always gotta measure the risks in your life. And there comes a point in time in life often, when the risks of not taking risks are bigger than the risks of taking risks. My friend Pastor Rob Bell, who I love, has a great idea about this. He says: “Look, there isn’t any security. We’re all adults here, let’s just break it down: tomorrow is promised to nobody – to nobody.” This is a really dangerous endeavor, being a human being; being flung through space on a piece of random debris, where literally anything can happen to literally anybody at literally any moment. That’s the contract. That’s the contract,period.

Ask anyone who has a story that begins: “I woke up and it was a day like any other, and in the next moment, the phone call came…or, the car accident happened…or, the earthquake hit…” At some point, once you realize that, I think you can make a lot more – I don’t want to say brave decisions, just honest decisions, about what you want to do while you’re here.

Of course, the terrible risk of not taking risks is stagnation, depression, anxiety, a sense of lost opportunity, and this feeling that you got this extraordinary privilege of a human life and you kind of stayed home; you didn’t get to see the stands, you didn’t get to jump tracks and meet people who weren’t like you, you didn’t get to feel different variations of how humans live, because you didn’t want to take risks in a life that is nothing but risks. So, I think every brave thing I’ve ever done, I did it because I just had to ask myself: what’s the alternative? And the alternative usually sucks more than the danger of doing the thing.

In your Facebook post on October 2, you wrote about the phrase: “”I’m tired of being good. Now all I want is to be free.” Why do you think women in particular often feel obligated to be “good”?

Because we are good! And the point I was trying to convey in that post was: what if you were to trust in your own inherent morality and your own inherent decency enough to realize and believe that you already are good,  you don’t have to try any harder to be good. Just as I’m incapable of making any work that is not feminist, I think I’m basically incapable of doing anything that is deliberately out there to harm people. I have no interest in harming anyone. It’s not how I’m wired. So, if you can believe that about yourself, truly, and stripping away all culture mores, and everything that we’ve been conditioned and taught, and you take it all away, is there any part of you that walks through the world and is like: How can I fuck people over today? What can I do today to hurt people? Unless you’re a sociopath, you’re just aren’t going to do that.

And once you realize that, what if it made you free to do whatever you wanted. Knowing that, whatever you did that made you feel free and excited and inspired, would be done from a foundation of: it is not my intention now or ever to cause harm to anybody. And, that doesn’t mean that you’re not going to accidentally collide with people or that things won’t go down, but basically, you’re probably basically a really nice person, Anne. Not because you were taught to be, but because you just are.

If you can believe that, then you can free yourself from the burden of thinking every decision I make I have to examine from 20 different angles to see whether I’m a good person, then you can tuck that away and instead think: what do I want to do that would be the most exciting, liberating, expansive, delicious, satisfying thing that I could possibly do with my life and my day and with the next hour. And who are the people that I really want to be around. And what makes me come alive. And that becomes your only decision.

Oprah talks about the important of filling yourself up, and how she takes it as a compliment if someone is like, “Oh she’s so full of herself.” I think women are sometimes worried about being perceived as selfish when they spend time for themselves. How do you personally get past that? 

I have a good little answer that I’ve come up with over the years. So, from what I understand–and I am not a scholar of Chinese, but I was once told–in Mandarin there are two different words for “selfish.” One of them is about doing something beneficial for yourself. And the other is being greedy and hoarding. And somehow, we’ve conflated those two things in the west. And a lot of it is about Calvinist, Puritanical suspicion of pleasure and western self-hatred, but it’s sort of part of the foundation of the whole culture, but somehow we’ve gotten this crazy ass idea that any time you do something that’s beneficial for yourself, you’re harming another.  And going back to this idea of try trying to be free instead of trying to be good and notice that you’re still really good. I think it’s the same sort of idea of try doing things that are good for yourself, and you’ll notice it doesn’t make you into a horrible, evil monster. It might just free up your energies such that when you are called to serve, you can. You’re not moth-eaten and weary and stressed and medicated, you can actually function enough to be able to respond when something calls for and deserves your response.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

I would say ask yourself if you would still do this if no one ever read your work, and if the answer is yes, then you’re in the right line of work. And if the answer is no, then you’re signing up for suffering, because it means that you have decided that the only value in your work is how it will be received.

I can’t remember who it was who said this – maybe Camus – but he said, “we must believe that Sisyphus loved his boulder.” The idea of being any kind of artist – and I would also say being an activist, or being in any kind or relationship – it takes energy to push that boulder up the hill. And then it rolls back down and the next day you’ve got to do it again, and again. And if that to you feels like torment – the question is not how to find a life where you’re not pushing a boulder up a hill, the questions is, can you find a boulder that you like? If you’re going to spend a whole day pushing it up a hill, you should be like, this is such an interesting boulder!

So, I’d rather be pushing this boulder up a hill than sitting on a boat drinking a Corona. That’s how much I like my boulder. And I’ve always said that for me, a bad day of writing is still better than a good day of anything else, because I find it so interesting. And my question would be, do you you feel that way about writing? And if the answer is yes, then you’re good. And if you don’t, then you don’t have to do this.

Pushing boulders up hills is hard. Find something to do that you do love doing.

a-mccarthyAnne McCarthy is a contributing writer to The Telegraph, Second City Network, Bonjour Paris, France Today, and more. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster in London, and is a graduate of the Writing Program at Second City and the Soho Theatre Writers Lab. She lives in New York City.

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    Comments

    1. Janice Stringer says:

      What an interesting article with well thought out questions Anne. Drilling down into the meaning of her words-especially where being good is concerned !
      I’m a couple of years older than Elizabeth Gilbert but my feminist views are very similar. Maybe a sign or our time. She talks common sense but with a spiritual twist. Such an inspirational writer.

    2. Thank you!

      I just finished Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic and I got it as an audio-book, so it felt like she was really there with me in my car in L.A., all the way from the East Coast 😉

      Thank you, Anne, for the thoughtful questions! This has been a lovely article and interview, and I look forward to more of these collaborations! I’ll look for your name 🙂 Thanks!

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