Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED Talk

I was in the middle of writing Eat, Pray, Love, and I fell into one of those sort of pits of despair … [and] I started to think I should just dump this project. But then I remembered Tom [Waits] talking to the open air [when inspiration for a song hit him while he was driving on the freeway and had no way to record it] and I tried it. So I just lifted my face up from the manuscript and I directed my comments to an empty corner of the room. And I said aloud, “Listen you, thing, you and I both know that if this book isn’t brilliant that is not entirely my fault, right? Because you can see that I am putting everything I have into this. If you want it to be better, you’ve got to show up and do your part of the deal. But if you don’t do that, you know what, the hell with it. I’m going to keep writing anyway because that’s my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.” 

Elizabeth Gilbert from her TED talk,”Your Elusive Creative Genius”

We spoke in last week’s post of the Material Plane and the Plane of Potentiality. What Elizabeth Gilbert did in line 7 above was to reach out (“cry out” might be closer) from the first level to the second.

If it’s true that

Most of us have two lives. The life we live and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance …

then what Ms. Gilbert did (and what every writer and artist does every day in their work) is to strive to ascend from the former to the latter.

The “unlived life” was her unwritten book.

The unlived self was the person she was struggling to become, the person who could write that book and get it out there into the real world.

Elizabeth Gilbert was entering the Plane of Potentiality, where Eat, Pray, Love resided in as yet unrealized form … and bringing it forth onto the Material Plane, where you and I could buy it and read it.

That’s the writer’s life.

That’s the war of art.

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21 Comments

  1. Peter Brockwell on October 14, 2020 at 3:54 am

    Steve, thank you. Just what I needed to hear right now, steeling myself to put in some time on the manuscript, while wondering WTF is this piece of s**t before me and why bother. And that’s a seminal talk by Liz Gilbert. Just turn up and do the work. Be Arjuna and do what you are supposed to do, irrespective of the (ephemeral) emotion in the moment. Just do it, and trust in emergence. Anything worth doing is also worth doing badly. I think you said something like ‘I never said it would be good, just that I’ll finish it.’
    Peter

  2. Mary Doyle on October 14, 2020 at 5:16 am

    “I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.” I think I’m going to post this above my computer. Thanks for reminding us that showing up is the one thing we can always control, even when it feels like the work is going nowhere.

  3. Joe Jansen on October 14, 2020 at 7:07 am

    An all-time great TED Talk. Liz of course references the ancient Greeks and the “daemon.”

    Right before the Tom Waits segment, she tells a great story about the American poet Ruth Stone (copied here from the TED Talk transcript):

    ***
    I had this encounter recently where I met the extraordinary American poet Ruth Stone, who’s now in her 90s, but she’s been a poet her entire life and she told me that when she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape.

    And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.”

    And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.”

    And then there were these times — this is the piece I never forgot — she said that there were moments where she would almost miss it, right? So, she’s running to the house and she’s looking for the paper and the poem passes through her, and she grabs a pencil just as it’s going through her, and then she said, it was like she would reach out with her other hand and she would catch it. She would catch the poem by its tail, and she would pull it backwards into her body as she was transcribing on the page.

    And in these instances, the poem would come up on the page perfect and intact but backwards, from the last word to the first.

    • Peter Brockwell on October 14, 2020 at 9:01 am

      Yes Joe, that’s extraordinary, especially about her capturing the poem perfectly but in reverse word order. Just shows – we need to trust the Muse/emergence/ the unconscious/ourselves.
      Peter

    • Brian Nelson on October 14, 2020 at 12:09 pm

      Joe,
      Another example of why I continue to return to the blog throughout the week to see the wisdom of the tribe. Great reflection.
      bsn

  4. Sionnach on October 14, 2020 at 9:20 am

    This is so perfect! The War of Art made me realize half the battle is showing up. I show up every day now. Sometimes I write crap, but I write something. I’ve noticed that a lot of times, what feels like drudgery and garbage isn’t half bad when I read it later. I’ve also realized readers can’t tell the difference between what I wrote when the muse was singing in my ear and what I wrote alone in utter despair. They aren’t in my skin or in my head. All they have are the words on the page. Sometimes they actually think the scenes I struggled to get on the page are excellent. Readers have no concept of the writer’s struggle. They react to the finished product. That’s it. Chances are if you’re showing up, someone will connect with what you’re writing, even when the muse is being coy.

    • Kenneth N Proudfoot on October 14, 2020 at 11:13 am

      Sionnach- Thanks for sharing your experience.
      I felt exactly as you early this morning doing my work, writing a play, and couldn’t even imagine there was anything of value as I was writing as I was not inspired or even felt I knew the story I was writing, and then two hours later I noticed something wedged in there between the sentences that I thought were crap. The muse was being so coy, I didn’t recognize it, but it was there all along, waiting for me to show up and stay there at the desk writing. There was some magic on the page. Yes: show up. Do the work. Repeat.

  5. Gerry Lantz on October 14, 2020 at 9:48 am

    Joe, great story. Wow. Inspiring! I need to honor the ideas, titles, lines, plots, phrases, whatever that come to me and WRITE THE DAMN THINGS DOWN. I keep letting professional work get in the way (my resistance!). Commitment: keep carrying my notebook and a pen and write down anything and everything–there’s something workable in it I know.

  6. Seiko141 on October 14, 2020 at 10:06 am

    This is almost uplifting…I feel like suicide is always an option. I understand it’s “painless”. When I cannot write, even when I show up it’s a dark day. The thoughts just don’t flow and I get depressed. Thanks for the piece.

  7. Pamela Sue Johnson on October 14, 2020 at 10:12 am

    As an artist, I show up e everyday and am more than willing to f*ck it all up. I live in playful tension like a creative brat who is going to build the Lego castle with or without you. Having said that, I never count on brilliant art appearing just because I’m present. No muse in the universe owes me a favor. For me, the brilliance is that I get on with it and let the Fates and the Muse discuss amongst themselves the direction and progress of my work. And while they have their meeting, I just keep f*cking it up with all the abandonment of a woman gone rogue.

    • Karen on October 14, 2020 at 11:20 am

      This resonates …. Thank you for the lovely visual of the meeting of the muses – and the inspiration of women gone rogue 🙂

    • Kat on October 14, 2020 at 8:32 pm

      Thanks, this is just what I needed to see.

  8. Kimberly Best on October 14, 2020 at 10:23 am

    This is me! This is now! Over my head, out of my comfort zone because of a calling. And now, feeling like I’ve lost my mojo, my purpose; I can’t see what once seemed so obvious. The “why”. Belief and doubt woven together too tightly to breath. Maybe if I don’t move, I will find my way back. https://www.amazon.com/How-Live-Forever-Writing-Chapter/dp/197367534X/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1602678406&sr=8-1

  9. Brian Nelson on October 14, 2020 at 12:07 pm

    Steve,
    Years ago I had the chance to speak at a TEDx Tacoma. TEDx is bush league, but I was Bantam Rooster proud anyway.

    You had responded to an email I had sent earlier asking for permission to use the quote Leonidas says to Arete explaining his ‘screening criteria’ for the 300. Your email was so kind. I acted like an amateur, and sent you the link to my talk…this must have been in 2012ish.

    Your response was pretty funny, especially in hindsight, “…not bad–(essentially meh) but check out this TED talk” –and it was Elizabeth’s TED Talk.

    I have watched a few times since then. A lot is packed into her 18 min. I like Joe’s reminder of ‘catching the poem by the tail’, and her point of ‘doing her part by showing up’. This is a lesson I need to be reminded of almost daily.

    I was talking with Joe about it this morning. There are so many ways to show up, not everyone shows up behind a keyboard. My showing up is very obvious when I think about simply solving the problem in front of me. I can get caught up in the BIGNESS of a problem which will paralyze me, or simply solve the next burning issue.

    When we deployed, I was moved from a company commander (a job I’d held for 18 months or so) to the battalion operations officer. I had never worked at BN, much less worked operations. It is a pretty big job actually. I was, frankly, terrified. Not terrified of direct or indirect fire, but afraid that I’d do my job poorly–and get my own people killed. The job was so big that the only thing I could do was to begin solving problems. It worked. The pressure of combat, in many ways, simplifies life in a way that is calming. Extraneous worries disappear. Big worries, real worries, legit worries present themselves, and you just begin knocking down those targets.

    It is just ‘doing my part by showing up’. I think the Muse touches all of us, whether we are working in the Humanities or delivering newspapers (maybe Ubering food deliveries is more accurate these days.)
    bsn

  10. Renita on October 14, 2020 at 12:27 pm

    I’m reading “Writing Science” by Josh Schimel, a friend and science professor at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB). He is a cool guy. Josh has also “authored over 100 papers and has served on panels for the National Science Foundation, NASA, and others” (from the just jacket). He acknowledged that he has learned to write good papers by incorporating the methods learned from writing workshops led by Gwen Dandridge his wife who is also really cool, a great baker, and is a published author of young adult novels. Josh is saying how the data is like the characters and the characters move the plot. Not the other way around. Let the characters speak and you have an interesting paper to write. He uses quotes from Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird a lot. Since I am interested in fiction and in learning to publish science-type journal papers, I find him very helpful.
    If anyone else out there is in a similar quandary, stuck between fiction and non-fiction, get Josh’s book. It’s a gem.
    Renita

  11. Adam Abramowitz on October 14, 2020 at 1:23 pm

    Beautiful

  12. Julie on October 14, 2020 at 3:05 pm

    Hell yeah!

  13. Mike Esser on October 15, 2020 at 8:10 am

    That’s a really good piece thank you.

    What it doesn’t take into account though is how much writing is a vey selfish act. You want your story to be read ideally by millions of people because you think that you and your thoughts are worth it and that other people will find that, too. So, in my book a little suffering is absolutely in order,

    Secondly, I would recommend that Mrs Gilbert read one of the very few things brought to us by antiquity that is worth mentioning, the philosophy of the Stoics. Basically what they say is that suffering is the norm not the exception and that it is best done in silence.

  14. Michelle Rodenborn on October 21, 2020 at 9:27 am

    Thanks, Steven. I love your blog series, and the jabs books. I especially like the concept of resistance as I find it such a useful concept to get me through and around a number of different problems, including writing. Thanks for sharing your insight and expertise with us.

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