Elizabeth Gilbert has been a household name ever since her memoir Eat, Pray, Love — about her globetrotting quest to heal herself after a difficult divorce — rocketed to best-seller status in 2006. It was also adapted into a 2010 film starring Julia Roberts as Gilbert and Javier Bardem as “Felipe”, the man who she falls for on her soul-searching journey and eventually marries.
So when Gilbert announced in July that her second marriage was ending, and that she was in love with her female best friend Rayya Elias, the literary world was surprised to say the least. But the revelation was part of Gilbert’s drive to tell the truth about her life, even if it’s uncomfortable. “If I can’t be my true self (whether at home in privacy, or out there in the world in public) then things will very quickly get messy and weird and stupid in my life,” Gilbert said on Facebook when she announced the news to her fans.
Her most recent work, Big Magic, focuses on how creativity works and how readers can tap into their own creative potential. It’s Gilbert’s first foray into self-help material, although she told Motto that creativity was a topic she’d wanted to explore for a while. Initially, the acclaimed author was planning to do a deep dive into the science behind creativity, but she soon realized that after two decades as a writer, she was already an expert. And that realization, she said, was empowering.
“It’s really cool as a woman to decide to stand in my abilities and say, ‘Actually I have something to contribute to this conversation, and I’m not going to couch it in a bunch of self-deprecating hesitancy,'” she told Motto in an interview. “It felt really good to stand on my own bones like that.”
Gilbert spoke with Motto recently about her creative process, her legacy and what she wants to tell her 20-year-old self:
Motto: Big Magic emphasizes the importance of living “beyond fear.” What kinds of fear have held you back in your life, and how have you gotten past that?
Elizabeth Gilbert: I got a book deal based on my short stories where I was asked to write a novel. And that was terrifying because I really didn’t know if I could. I had never [written a novel] before, and I had more fear on that project than I’ve ever had on anything before or since. It was almost debilitating fear. There were months where I couldn’t work at all, and then I would start to work and it would absolutely be so bad.
The only thing that got me through it was this really generous sense of empathy towards myself. Instead of hammering myself for doing poorly at something I had never done before, I reminded myself that it was something I had never done before. We have this idea somehow that we’re meant to be good at things we’ve never done, that we’re meant to begin poised. That we’re meant to instantly have mastery. I remember saying out loud, “Of course it’s not good! I’ve never even written a novel before so why would it be good?”
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How do you get over creative blocks? Do you have a routine or method that helps you come up with new ideas or get past times where you feel stuck?
The kitchen timer is one of my greatest tools. You fall into this despair where you feel like you’re stuck in a trap. You’re stuck because you can’t do the work, and you’re trapped because you feel like you’re not allowed to go on with your life until you do can the work. I usually just make a deal with myself. I’ll set [the timer] for 45 mins and I’ll say, no matter what happens at the end of this 45 mins, you are free. You no longer have to work, you can go do something else. But you do have to work for another 45 minutes. And there’s something about knowing that you get to leave that takes away a gigantic portion of the anxiety.
Usually what happens is that we spend about 37 minutes pretty unhappy and watching the clock. But somehow, almost always right towards the end when you know you don’t have to do it anymore, you find something. Then, when you come back the next day, you’re actually excited to start working because you’ve left yourself in the middle of a river that was full flow and you’re rested and you’re good.
You have such a large body of work, and yet people mostly associate you with your bestseller Eat, Pray, Love. Do you ever feel frustrated or defined by that association? Has it made it difficult at all for you to try new things in your career?
Oh god I don’t give a sh-t! I really don’t. All I can see when I see Eat, Pray, Love is how lucky I got. That book is still supporting me. It’s just been this giving tree, and it was a really nice thing that people cared about. If for the rest of my life people define me as the person who wrote Eat, Pray, Love, I don’t see how that’s a horrible curse.
The only problem would be if there was any part of me that decided I have to keep having success at that level. Then I would almost certainly become resentful of it. Because that’s not possible to recreate that. The book was a total one-off, it was a black swan, it was a phenomenon. I’m never going to write another book that sells 10 million copies. Or that affects people in that way. I’m not saying that in a self-deprecating way, it’s just a fact.
What is something that you would want to tell your 20-year-old self about where and what you are today?
The primary thing I would want to tell her is: Look at how happy this childless woman is. Because the one future that I never imagined when I was 20 was a childless future. I didn’t know any women who didn’t have kids unless they had been struck by huge tragedy, were barren or never found love. It was always presented as the worst thing that could possibly happen to a woman. It was beyond my comprehension that there was such a thing as making that choice [to not have children] and having an amazing life. To be let off the hook from that would have brought freedom a lot earlier.
There’s certainly still this idea that you’re meant to look on these women [without children] with pity and horror. And if they should dare to be like, “I’m good” then you look at them with contempt because there’s obviously something dreadfully wrong with them morally…What if somebody instead is free to joyfully pursue one really interesting path after another, and to be calm and happy enough to celebrate everyone else’s choices while totally digging her own? That’s the model I didn’t see growing up. And I wish I could have shown myself that. I think it would have made her jaw drop.
This interview has been edited and condensed.