Liz Gilbert’s Deal with Herself
Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of Eat Pray Love and other bestsellers. She’s also a deep and honorable thinker on the subject of the artist and the artist’s soul. When Ms. Gilbert was starting out, she famously declared, she made a deal with her writing.
I will never ask you to support me. I will support you.
Let me set that before us again.
I will never ask you to support me. I will support you.
What Ms. Gilbert was declaring for herself and to herself was that if she had to toil as a barista, if she had to drive for Uber, if she had to take a job at Hooters, she would do it.
She would not compromise her writing. She would not sell out her work.
I salute Ms. Gilbert for this declaration 1) because it reflects the hard-core reality of life and the marketplace, and 2) because it preserves her soul and her integrity as a writer.
What was really going on for Ms. Gilbert, as for you and me as well, was that she was caught between two immutable and conflicting realities.
One, she wanted to write what she wanted to write and nothing else.
And two, Nobody wants to read your sh*t.
It was entirely possible, Ms. Gilbert realized (and even highly likely) that if she wrote only what she wanted to write, nobody would want to read it.
Rather than freak out at this possibility, however, Ms. Gilbert took a very brave, very honorable, very hard-core, and very long-range position.
She bet on herself. She bet on her talent, even, I’m sure, when she wasn’t certain that she had any talent. She said to herself:
I’m going to keep doing what I love, writing what I think is the truest work from my soul … betting that sooner or later either I’ll get good enough at it to make people want to read my sh*t … or people’s taste will catch up to mine. In the meantime, I will not tailor my work to the marketplace, I will not sell out to what I imagine will be hot at the box office or topping the New York Times bestseller list. I will find a way to keep body and soul together, whatever sacrifice that may entail, while I pursue my calling as an artist.
Elizabeth Gilbert said to her writing:
I will never ask you to support me. I will support you.
Thank you dear Steve,
It is a great awareness to know that we support, instead of being supported by our Dream.
We must remember this because when fear strikes, we tend to forget such heroic aspects of our selves. Other internal personas pop up, and they aggressively seek security and comfort, but not the true wealth of life. It’s that dna thing.
Every damn day there goes the battle. The supporter held back by the supported.
Last night I was tempted to have fun for 4 hours until 3am. The night before that, almost the same. Both nights I didn’t want that -I wanted to sleep early and wake up fresh, I had even made a plan this weekend for sleeping early from then on. Resistance smashed me. Now I pay for it with unbalanced effort and a disrupting sensation of calmness. The enemy is elusive and invisible.
Thank all people for being here with you too.
Same. You just described my last 3 nights. Thank you for sharing this here and may you find the strength tonight to choose the path you (really) want and tame The Resiatance (for tomorrow at least).
Thank you very much Bob, to know that I am not alone in this struggle gave me even more determination at once.
Fighting side by side with others of equal maturity and struggle is more dashing than feeling that someone faces the enemy all alone.
I wish we could all share our every week’s ups and downs. It would be a great incentive for us “fighters”.
“Fighting side by side with others of equal maturity and struggle is more dashing than feeling that someone faces the enemy all alone.” I like this sentiment, Tolis! Let’s imagine Steve is giving us Henry V’s St. Crispin’s Day speech right now. We may be outnumbered, but we have strong wills, good ideas, and we do the work! Resistance will be mud under our feet. We will work harder and smarter than the elusive enemy.
I’ve always loved her story (told in her book, Big Magic) of her friendship with fellow novelist Ann Patchett. Liz had been working on a novel, which she described, “It was about this middle-aged spinster from Minnesota who’s been quietly in love with her married boss for many years. He gets involved in a harebrained business scheme down in the Amazon. A bunch of money and a person go missing, and my character gets sent down there to solve things.”
This manuscript got put on the shelf when Liz turned her attention to caring for her dying partner, Rayya Elias. When she went back to it months later, she found that all the mojo was gone. No life left in the characters.
It was during this time that she also first developed her friendship with Ann Patchett. She said, “Neither of us is a big fan of talking on the phone. Nor was social media a place for this relationship to grow. Instead, we decided to get to know each other through the all but lost art of letter-writing. In a tradition that continues to this day, Ann and I began writing each other long, thoughtful letters every month. Real letters, on real paper, with envelopes and postage and everything.
After months of developing this friendship, a topic came up (as it does among writers): “What are you working on now?”
Liz took the moment to describe “the one that got away,” her Amazon jungle novel.
“Ann stared at me across the table for a long minute…” and said, “‘You have got to be fucking kidding me.”
“Why?” I asked. “What’s your novel about?”
“She replied, ‘It’s about a spinster from Minnesota who’s been quietly in love with her married boss…” Amazon jungle, business scheme gone wrong, people go missing.
Ann’s novel was eventually published as “State of Wonder.” Between the two of them, they determined that the idea came to Ann right around the time that Liz had abandoned it in her manuscript. Like the idea itself, the story, was alive, and seeking a midwife to bring it into this world as a novel on paper.
I suppose this story fits with what we talk about in this space: the muse looking for that person who willing and dedicated and shows up at their desk on schedule.
I think I got the details on this right, but you can read it yourself here (from page 49):
And that’s a wonderful novel, Joe. When I read it I was surprised that the author was not the same person who wrote ‘The Signature of All Things’, ‘City of Girls’ and ‘Stern Men’. The flavour was so similar to Liz Gilbert’s novels. I’m not sure about the supernatural explanation, but I’m certain that, like mathematical theorems, stories exist ‘out there’ in the platonic realm. So, given that Ann and Liz are similar (and wonderful) writer story tellers, it’s unsurprising that they both mine similar tales from the ether.
How apt, I am reading the book now, I read this pages yesterday.
Just like Liz, said the process is truly magical.
Peter… I wonder about the word “supernatural,” and what we mean when we use that word to describe an observation in the world. Do people use it to mean “unnatural”? Or delusional? Spooky (and its near cousin, fear)? Or simply something they consider unexplainable? What if it means “more than natural,” or by extension, something that hints at the wider, broader, deeper nature of true reality — that level where there is only energy and vibration, and objects are simply manifestations of it? Fun to think about.
I attended your book signing for 36 Righteous Men here in L.A. and during the Q&A I remember asking you about this very topic, how it seems you write what you want to write without “staying in your lane,” so to speak. You replied that was true, and there was a price you paid for it.
There’s a great passage in John Lurie’s autobiography that recently came out where he writes about why he committed himself to making his particular brand of jazz in the 80’s and 90’s. To produce his albums he had to pay for the musicians he wanted and the studio time himself, using money he was getting from acting in movies. He writes that he can’t imagine spending his life trying to do something someone else has already done, but better. That he had to forge his own path, whatever the (very real) cost.
I suppose it comes down to why we do what we do. Is it to mimic what’s already successful in the hopes our copy of a copy finds an audience/agent/payday? Or is it to maybe, hopefully, possibly create something truly unique in our own voice? A voice that can take years of anonymous toil to find in the first place.
Hi Sam. As a jazz saxophonist who always has paid for musicians/studio time/albums myself, I’d like to see this documentary. What’s it called and is it streaming?
Edit: how 2022 of me to presume it was a documentary. I just realized you said it’s a book
Hey Bob….it’s called The History of Bones: A Memoir by John Lurie. He also has a show on HBO called “Painting with John.” He came down with Lyme disease many years ago and can’t play the sax anymore.
There are magical principles in this post. Fortune favors the brave. Fortune not being money, but integrity. I could make a living from well-meaning friends’ comments if the comments had monetary value. “You should write this or paint that.” They speak. So, I try a suggestion. I always returned to my vision (Thank the muses). Now I politely offer, “Thanks, I’ll think about that.” And don’t. I appreciate all those who go before and light our way through the long dark nights. Thanks, Steve. Thanks, Ms. Gilbert. Thanks all.
I think it is pretty generally true that nobody can write for an audience to which he himself does not belong, and the best work, I firmly believe, has always been done by people who were concerned with pleasing themselves. Given a reasonable degree of competence in the mechanics of the craft, there is an audience, large or small, for anything that any of us writes to please himself, since none of use is unique, however much our egoism tries to persuade us that we are.
– Hugh McNair Kahler (1883-1969) Novelist and short story writer who contributed 98 stories to The Saturday Evening Post.
This was incredibly inspiring today, Steve and Liz. Thank you!!
I laughed out loud:
“And two, Nobody wants to read your sh*t.”
My fear is and has always been that my writing will reveal who I am, and that it is me they (any random reader) will reject. Finding and reading The War of Art has helped me immensely — I just wrote my first non-blog 800 words in years — as has this post. Although I don’t have to support myself and have no illusions that my writing would ever support me, still I understand this author’s commitment to bringing out what is inside, and it resonates.
Your comment made me think of Pat Tillman for some reason. Marie Tillman wrote about her journey with and after Pat’s death. The book is terrific, and Marie has gone on to create a scholarship program for Veterans.
Apparently, Pat Tillman would turn all of his shirts inside out as a kid in high school. He didn’t want to be branded by companies.
Then I thought of my own junior high and high school days when I would BEG MY MOM for ‘Ocean Pacific’ shorts, Levi jeans instead of Toughskins, Puma cleats for soccer…Pat Tillman demanded for people to see him for who he was. He was also the only professional athlete to turn away wealth to ENLIST in the Army to fight. He died as a Specialist, a rank most Soldiers achieve within 12-18 months. That is humility and integrity most of us will never know.
Bless you for your efforts. The last thing we need is another Ralph Lauren clad parrot aping the status quo.
I didn’t know what I was fighting, until i’ve read Nobody wants to read your sh*t. Finally all those forces within, all those stupid, subversive patterns (and I didn’t even recognize them as patterns because they always took a different form) got their right names… suddenly they were out in the light of day. I didn’t even know we are all going through this, the moment we decide to create.
I am currently reading Big Magic where similar forces and concepts are discussed, and I love it, but “Nobody wants to read your sh*t” and “The War of Art” are so value-dense, packed and actionable, I finally got moving. Pure gold! With this tone and style I finally got a well-deserved kick in the ass!
“If you shape your life according to nature, you will never be poor,
if according to people’s opinions, you will never be rich.”
Thank you, Jurgen for the quote. This will be stuck on the wall in front of the writing desk.
Liz’s advice is right up there with “live beneath your means” (read: as solid as it gets). I think she can personally take credit for much of the art that’s in the world now, because she inspired more people to remember the reward is IN the work.
I used to feel guilty I wasn’t writing promotional brochures or operations manuals since I apparently had the chops. But that would turn writing into drudgery. I’d rather work on an assembly line.
This post and the comments are worth coming back to again and again!
Does it not stand to reason that IF the Art is Good Enough, it HAS TO succeed in the market place?
And if the Art succeeds in the marketplace but it is BAD — of what benefit is that really? In the long long run.
The humility and courage it takes.
Reminded me of a short story that preface’s “Illusions” by Richard Bach. Has to do with rock-clinging creatures who dwell at the bottom of a river. One wild creature decides to let go…he’s ridiculed and ostracized. He lets go, it bounced around by the current a bit, but eventually pops up into the light. Jonathan Livingstone Seagull-ish.
If the artists do not stay true to themselves, then the world dies.
Those of us who are not the artists are mostly dependent upon the artists for our world view. When these views become subsumed by the culture, we get to places like today. Free thought is dangerous. Free expression of views is canceled and not tolerated. Truckers in Canada go from heroes to racists in a matter of weeks. Nurses are heralded until they question a shot, then they are tossed aside like trash.
Confirmation bias and numerous other cognitive restraints as well as our own capacity for evil makes it impossible for us to change our minds through rational thought–the ‘Back Fire Effect’ (look it up, it is fascinating) makes us harden our own positions in the face of evidence proving our position is false.
It is only via the Humanities, in which we willfully and momentarily open ourselves to fantasy, suspend our clingy nature to belief, that the truth of the human condition can be delivered–snuck in under the veil of fiction. The movie ‘Crash’ was the first time I actually considered my own biases. Lord of the Flies made me look at my own base instincts. A Man At Arms reminded me that Love conquers all. Music softens even the coldest of hearts.
I beg of you artists to humbly and courageously hold the line. Don’t give in. Our very survival is dependent upon it.
Illusions. Loved that book.
I needed to read this today. Steven and Elizabeth, ” … and nobody wants to read your shit” is my worn out mantra.
It has prevented me from finishing writing on a topic which I know deep in my heart means a lot to me. But what if nobody wants to read my shit?! Stops me right in my tracks. I feel inspired again now and let’s see how far it takes me. Thank you for making us aware and refocusing our energies.
Great stuff…I am a better reader than I am a writer. Can’t wait for the next edition.
It hit me today that perhaps our approach to Resistance can shift. Instead of having an adversarial relationship with it, better to give it some space of its own in our lives. Acknowledge its right to exist. Respect its desires. It is no less a part of “us” than the Muse. Wouldn’t it be a beautiful image to see the Muse and Resistance dancing with each other rather than fighting?
I actually got choked up reading this blog.
Last July, I started rewriting the 3rd version of my screenplay. I committed to 15-minutes per day because it was a number I could achieve daily even when my day/night jobs were intense.
A few years ago, I would have thought: That’s bullshit. Fifteen minutes a day is lame.
However, I have achieved a daily writing habit for the first time in my life. And then there’s the math: 7 months of writing 15 minutes per day. Still, under 40 hours of writing but wait there’s more.
Writing every day, thinking about my screenplay every day has changed my approach; somehow it has opened my mind. I have been reading other successful scripts for inspiration. Watching famous movies. Taking classes on story-telling. I am excited about what I am doing.
I am no longer that frustrated writer who wasn’t writing—I am writing every damn day. That is a first for me. And some days are half an hour or an hour or more. But I do that 15 minutes no matter what because I know that I can.
Someone called this minimum viable progress, Mitch. I used it to finally start catching up with my life, dealing with — for example — all those digital junk drawers. I started with fifteen minutes a day and built up to three hours a week. I’m devoted to the practice.
To spend fifteen minutes a day, every day, writing? As our family likes to say, “That’s not nothing.” 🙂
Your comments struck another chord with me. When I felt stalled in a corporate job I took a freelance writing class for fun. And it was SO much fun. From then on, everything revolved around that one evening a week. I sang in the car all the way to and from class.
And the boring day job? What day job? I sailed through another few years in a cubicle, daydreaming about the next assignment, the book I was helping my professor with, and the big plans I had for myself. Suddenly I wasn’t stuck in a cube, I had chosen to be there — while I saved money, plotted my escape from corporate life, and inched closer toward the life I felt born to live.
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Thankyou So Much Broo Steven.
Today I realized we can change how we face Resistance. Instead of becoming adversaries, give it room in our life. Recognize its existence. Respect it. No less “us” than the Muse. Imagine the Muse and Resistance dancing together instead of fighting.
Ms. Gilbert knew it was perfectly possible (and even highly likely) that if she simply wrote what she wanted to write, no one would want to read it.
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