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Elizabeth Gilbert on being an aunt, rock star fans and creativity

January 26, 2010 | 10:43 am
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In the second part of our interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, she tells Carolyn Kellogg more about working on her book "Committed," whether or not motherhood is in her future, and her speech at the TED conference last year -- "the single most intimidating thing I have ever done in my life," she laughs. She'll be speaking -- with a bit less pressure -- on Friday and Saturday in Southern California. Get the details of those appearances and Part 1 of our interview here.

You said before that it's a youthful impulse to think of oneself as exceptional. You've traveled a lot -- is that also an American trait?

Very. Very very very very. That's something I'm seeing more and more, being married to somebody who is South American versus North American. He marvels at it. And he thinks, as many people do, it's the best, and most shocking, thing about Americans. That sense of exceptionalism, and the honest and earnest belief that so many of us seem to share that we are in charge of what happens in our lives, that we can take agency and arrange it however we like. I think that people who live in cultures without quite so much privilege, opportunity or grandiosity have a little bit more respect for the workings of destiny, and the limitations that people can find themselves in through no fault of their own.

I've felt that sense of exceptionalism too! I've always been somebody who thought that I could write my own ticket however I wanted to, and this incident with Homeland Security was not the first time that it was brought to my attention that I am not entirely in charge of everything that happens in my life! (laughs) I don't get to choose, and orchestrate it all the time. Part of maturity is learning how to handle that as gracefully as possible.

You've now written two memoirs, one of heartbreak, self-discovery and romance; the next on commitment and marriage. Although you say clearly that you and Felipe don't want to have kids, do you feel any pressure to write a baby book?

It's funny, because a reporter told me that the next logical thing is for you to change your mind, and then write a book about changing your mind and having children. I think that would be a really smooth marketing move, but it wouldn't be a wise thing to do, considering the fact that I don't want to be a mom.

The older I get the more certain I am of that. At this point I'm 40, and I have to imagine if there was going to be some giant ticking biological clock, it's going to have to happen pretty fast, and it's going to have to be a pretty enormous sea-change. I don't have any reason to anticipate that coming, because the trend in me over the last 10 years has been to become increasingly comfortable, and increasingly grateful, not to have kids. That's answered in the whole section of "Committed on auntiehood, and the role of the responsible, loving auntie.

I feel like there are women who are genuinely born to be mothers, and women who are born to be aunties, and women who really probably not should be allowed near children. The tragedy that happens is when any one of those women ends up in the wrong category. And the comfort that you find in your life is knowing that you were lucky enough, or had enough foresight, to put yourself where you're supposed to be. I'm firmly ensconced in the world of auntiehood. I consider myself sort of roving auntie to the world, not just to my sister's kids or even my husband's older kids -- my childlessness makes me available to spread my care across the community in more far-reaching ways because my resources don't belong to my children, they belong to whoever needs them. It's a nice position to be in; I like it.

 Your TED talk was really interesting. What guidelines did they give you? Did you choose the subject?

I chose the subject. The guidelines that they give you are you can't go above 20 minutes; you can't have any notes; it's the most important speech you're ever going to give and don't screw it up. (laughs). It's the single most intimidating thing I have ever done in my entire life. The thing I am most looking forward to in 2010 is that I do not have to give a TED speech this year! It sucked the life out of me for a couple of months beforehand because it's so frightening. I spoke right after a whole bunch of robotics engineers and geneticists and my heart was sinking as I was going onstage. I was like, “I'm going to talk about fairies and genies to these people, and they're talking about limb regeneration and discovering water on Mars. What am I doing here?” But that's what I had to bring.

After the jump: which rock stars watched Elizabeth Gilbert's TED talk?

I thought you provided a really candid window into the process of creativity. What kind of responses have you gotten to it?

The TED community is a very high-tech, very cool, very slick group of people, generally. To put it mildly, they're not the sort of people who probably would be passing “Eat Pray Love” back and forth at their book club meetings. A lot of times now, very bright young people with extremely nice eyewear will stand up at one of my talks and say, “I never heard of you, but I saw your TED speech, and that led me to read your books.” So it seems to have branched me out in different directions.

Did you know that Rivers Cuomo from Weezer had seen it? He tweeted to Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit, “Here's the Elizabeth Gilbert talk that reminded me of what you were saying!”

Are you kidding me? (laughs) That is so weird, because Fred Durst is a huge “Eat Pray Love” fan! [pause] I'm just kidding. That's what I mean about that not being my normal audience.

I think these two musicians were engaging with the idea of continuing to be creative after you've had a big hit.

I think the reason that speech ended up working in that crowd, even though it took them a while to warm to it, is that every single person in that audience is an overachiever in their field. Every single one of those people has probably produced something quite remarkable -- and then instantly had the experience of people saying, 'How are you going to beat that? What are you going to do next?' It can be really crippling. We live in a society where you're expected to outperform yourself every quarter as though you're a corporation, reporting to a board of directors. We're supposed to do that on a personal level.

It's kind of a crazy thing to apply to the creative world and creative works; if you really do intend to spend decades making things, then you have to factor into that the expectation that you'll do things that are experimental and the experiment won't necessarily be a success, and you'll do things that people will love. Part of the elasticity that you need, in order to continue to try to create, is the foregone conclusion that not all of it is going to be fabulously successful. But it's all going to be part of a long lifetime body of experimentation.

I think we don't teach that. I think, especially with people who are young who have an enormous success right away, it's got to be terrifying. It was hard enough for me to think how I was going to write a book after “Eat Pray Love,” and it wasn't my first book. In my mind, at least, I knew that I had written different sorts of things, and it's OK to write books that sell dozens of copies. I can't imagine what it would have been like -- for example, Junot Díaz of the 12 years between the success of "Drown" and “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” as being really painful. He had never experienced what it felt like to be loved and to be admired; like most of us feel at some point in our lives, perhaps that it was a fraud or a fluke. The important thing is that you have to push through it.

The huge sense of relief and joy that I feel right now is that I never, ever again have to write the book that comes after “Eat Pray Love.” It's done, the spell is broken, and I feel really free. Some poor book had to be the book that came after “Eat Pray Love.” It had to get done; I felt this stubbornness to push it out, push it through so I could continue to work for the rest of my life and not let that be the end of the story.

I've heard that some writers hate writing but love having written.

I see the point of that; having written is wonderful. I think I take a different tack: the Amish say, "Let the work be its own reward." You know those bumper stickers, “A bad day of fishing is better than a good day of work”? I kind of feel like a bad day of writing is still better than a good day of just about anything else. It's so interesting to me; it's such a curious puzzle. It stimulates parts of my brain that don't get stimulated in any other way. There are times when the only access I have to the truest person that I am is when I'm alone and trying to solve a sentence. It's exciting, even when it's frustrating, even when I can't do it right. It's still a pretty cool way to spend your time.

You slip a nugget into “Committed” that said you were at work on a novel. Are you still?

I do want to go back to fiction; I miss it. The last three books that I've written have all been nonfiction; it's been a long time since I wrote fiction, and I'm longing for it. I am working on a novel now, but not that one. Ideas do have an expiration date, and they get stale. There's an excitement that comes when you start working on it, and when you don't act on it fast enough, you end up chopping it up and using it for bait to catch another idea. (laughs) Or use it for parts, like a car.

What can people expect when they come to see you on this tour? Do you read from “Committed”?

I do a little reading and then I open it up for questions. People have a lot of questions, and I have answers, and I want it to be a conversation.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Elizabeth Gilbert at TED. Credit: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr

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