Firstly, let me confess:
Confession #1: I hated ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. It irritated me from the outset, but I persevered until chapter eight (of the 128 chapters in the book) when I closed the covers once and for all, and I have not looked back.
At the time I read it, I had four young children and was still in the workforce. I was exhausted, snowed under, and had barely a moment to myself. I dreamt of being able to go to bed and sleep until I woke, free of fatigue.
So, as I read Ms Gilbert’s book about a childless woman around the same age as me, who quit her marriage and embarked on a year-long international journey of self-discovery, I uttered phrases like, ‘Yeah, ‘cos we can all do that’ and ‘self-obsessed rubbish’. Her book didn’t speak to me at all and I didn’t open another book of hers. (I wonder if I picked it up now, if I’d still think the same …)
Confession #2: I only bought the tickets to see Liz Gilbert at the Perth Concert Hall because I was already going to hear Dame Hilary Mantel, and I thought, Well, I’ll already be there, I might as well see both …
Dame Hilary Mantel
I probably don’t need to tell you how articulate, thoughtful, insightful, and intelligent Dame Hilary was. Michael Cathcart, the interviewer, posed his questions as if they were in casual conversation in a lounge room, not in the Perth Concert Hall via video link from London and with an annoying two-second delay. If you’re interested, you can listen to the interview on podcast here.
After the interval, it was Liz Gilbert’s turn. I was preparing for something akin to religious evangelism—a jump-on-my-bandwagon-and-you-too-can-find-happiness speech.
Liz was introduced, rather gushingly, by her friend, Rayya, and I thought, Here we go … However, within about sixty seconds I’d done a complete about-face.
Liz came on stage alone, no interviewer, no prompts, no script, and spoke for an hour. And I was not bored once.
Here are the key messages I took home from her talk—others may have taken home different points, but here are the ones that have stayed with me:
1. On Fear
Fear and creativity go hand in hand. Acknowledge it and accept it, but don’t let fear dictate what you do or where you’re going.
Liz told us that she says to her fear, ‘Dear Fear, Creativity and I are going for a drive. We know you’re going to want to come, and that’s okay. You can come for the ride, but you’re in the passenger seat. We’re not giving you the map, and you’re certainly not getting behind the steering wheel.’
She said the only people she’d ever met who were fearless were three-year-olds and psychopaths. In other words, fear is normal. Fear is even good—it stops us doing really stupid things, but it is also boring. We think we’re the only one with our fear, but we’re not. Everyone else has it too. Don’t let it stop us from being ourselves, and don’t let it stop our creativity.
2. On Perfectionism and ‘Getting the Job Done’
Liz’s next point was that fear and perfectionism also go together. Don’t worry about doing something well, she said, just get the job done. It’s better to have something, than nothing.
She told us that there was a character in her novel, ‘The Signature of All Things’, who wasn’t as fully realised as he/she might have been. In the end, she left the character as he/she was, and went ahead and published the novel anyway. She did this because if she’d tried to perfect that character, it would have taken something else away from the book.
At the time she said this, I wondered if I could have sent out my manuscript knowing that I might have been able to make it better. However, it got me thinking about flaws and how sometimes it’s the imperfections in art that make it beautiful. Some flawed things are better than their perfect counterparts—like something hand-made compared to machine-made; a live plant compared to a plastic one; live music compared to a pre-recording; a technically perfect singer, compared to someone whose voice wavers with emotion.
Perhaps that’s the key to it: that emotion is carried in the imperfection, and it’s emotion that gives art its energy, makes it unique, and speaks to people. And all of this can be lost if you try to make it technically perfect.
There are scenes in my novel that could be better written and which I’ve tried to improve. I’ve revised them countless times, but after a certain point, the scene gains nothing and starts losing something—its natural energy, its heart.
A couple of years ago, I did a writing course during which we had to write ten pages each day and hand them in. We weren’t allowed to edit, and I didn’t—writing ten pages each day doesn’t leave a lot of time for editing, and besides, I was so concerned about getting my ten pages done that I didn’t worry about what I was writing or how it would read.
The next day, the facilitator read our writing aloud to the group. I was rather anxious, and I wished I’d cheated and edited it. The thing was, we were all feeling the same—exposed and vulnerable. For all of us, it was a first draft and unedited. However, the writing was gripping and intense because it was coming from a place close to our core. Somehow, by just getting the work done, we’d given our unfiltered, uncensored, non-judgemental selves. What’s more, it was better than the writing our perfectionist self could have made.
I’m not sure this was Liz Gilbert’s message, and I think I’ve extrapolated a little, but this is what I took away from this part of her talk.
3. On Owning Your Own Shit
The last message I took home was a point Liz made in response to a question by an audience member:
‘What are you most proud of?’ she was asked.
‘Owning my own shit,’ she responded.
She said she used to go through life thinking, ‘Who is lighting all these spot fires around me? Everywhere I go, someone lights a fire …’ and ‘Who keeps crashing this car … that I’m driving?’.
In the end, she had to finally admit it was her. She was the one causing all the fires, all the car crashes, all the problems in her life, and she was the only one who could fix them. It was hard work, she said, and required a lot of counselling, but she did it. She ‘owned her own shit’, and once she’d done that, she could do something about it.
These words resonated with me. About 25 years’ ago now, I reached a point in my life where I knew I had a choice: to continue making stupid decisions and end up with a shitty life, or start making good decisions and have a good life.
Part of me wanted to keep making the same bad decisions—it would have been easier to wallow in self-pity, and blame my childhood and my sister’s death for how badly my life was turning out.
But another part of me wanted a good life, and I knew the choice was up to me.
I decided to ‘own my own shit’ and stop making bad decisions. It didn’t just happen—it was hard work, especially at first, and I could only make small changes at a time. Little-by-little they added up, until a few years later, my life was unrecognisable—I was healthy, I had a lifetime partner, and I had a career. I had a good life and a beckoning future.
So, Liz’s answer resonated—I’d ‘owned my own shit’ and by doing that I’d been able to forge a good life.
I walked out of this session with a completely different perspective on Liz Gilbert—her words had finally spoken to me and she’d won me over. I came away more determined than ever to not let fear stop me, to trust myself enough to get the job done, and to continue ‘owning my own shit’.
I too was incredibly irritated by Eat, Pray and Love and the very title and idea of the book put me off. Like you, I went to the Concert Hall to hear Dame Hilary, who was marvellous, but then I left. It sounds as though I missed something that would have spoken to me and enlightened my life. Thanks for the post.
‘Eat, Pray, Love’ really got under my skin, Pat—I wasn’t just ambivalent; I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t understand the hype, and at the time, I felt as if I was the only person on the planet who felt like that. I haven’t read any of her subsequent books, but lots of good things have been said about, The Signature of All Things, so I want to read that one day.
Yes, her talk was great—I found it inspiring and identified with so much that she said. I think you would have liked it, too.
Nicely done, Louise.
Thanks, Frances! 🙂
I enjoyed your post, as always, Louise. Like you, I was irritated by ‘Eat Pray Love’. I don’t think I lasted eight chapters! Thanks for your reflections on the points Elizabeth Gilbert made during the Writers Festival. You are a brave woman.
Thanks, Maureen! 🙂 I wanted to call it quits earlier in the book but I kept giving it until the end of the next chapter to improve. When I finally quit, a friend who’d read the whole thing told me I’d made the right decision, that it didn’t get any better!
It’s great to see someone really come into their own, and I think that’s what Liz Gilbert is doing. Maybe ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ was the just the start of her journey, and now she’s further along. Like I say, I haven’t read any more of her books, but I’ve listened to a few of her talks on podcast and she’s a very interesting and enlightening speaker.
Haha, I was not the only one won over by Liz Gilbert. I had no interest in Eat, Pray , Love, I dismissed it as cheesy chick lit, of no interest to me. When i heard Liz Gilbert was the headline speaker for Perth Writers Fest I was actually pretty disgusted! However, my mum bought two tickets and I went along with her. And I was blown away. Gilbert was such an incredible speaker and such a smart, articulate, warm, generous, funny and inspirational person. I was rivetted, and so much of what she said resonated with me (including ‘own my own shit’). Now I actually plan to read eat, Pray, Love – and everything else she has written!
I’m glad I wasn’t the only convert! She was all that you said, and very inspiring. I don’t think I could stomach ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ again—I look forward to hearing what you think after you’ve read it, so please let me know.
Nice summary, Louise. I’m glad you got the messages you did. As I am much, much older than you, I learned that it was all up to me, to change, to be creative, to own my own stuff, (shit included). I thought her book was a piece of crap and still do. But apparently, from the comments, she’s a great inspirational speaker. I finnished Eat, Pray, Love and never plan to read it again.
She is a very inspiring speaker, and I’ve listened to a few of her talks on podcast, too. Her novel, ‘The Signature of All Things’ has been well-received by critics, so I’d love to read it. To be honest with you, I don’t think something like ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ would ever speak to me, and I doubt I’d enjoy it even now. Well done for finishing it!
I didn’t have the allergic response to Eat, Pray, Love. For me, it was just an ephemeral light read of no special consequence. Much more recently I read The Signature of All Things and was deeply impressed. A book of depth and complexity, as sprawling as a nineteenth century novel. I loved it. And it completely reconfigured my estimation of Gilbert.
I had quite a visceral reaction to ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, in that I found it maddening. I think my feelings were so strong because she was the antithesis of me—I was a wife and mother, responsible for four little people and committed up to my eyeballs, and there was she, the same age as me, swearing off children, and going on a round-the-world journey to discover herself. If I was to ‘own my own shit’, I’d say that I hated the book because she was doing what I could only dream about, and I hated her for reminding me of that!
I’m definitely going to read ‘The Signature of All Things’. It sounds intriguing!
I wonder if anyone actually really liked Eat Pray etc? She certainly made a lot of money with it and the movie. Yep, I too couldn’t bear the darn thing, and I guess I’m particularly irritated when India suddenly becomes the focus of navel gazing pyscho spiritual babble. And I had no interest in listening to Gilbert at all, however, your opinion and Liana’s is one I trust, so I shall embark on The Signature of All Things and put aside my prejudice 🙂
Yes, I want to read Signature, too, and the reviews are very good. And, if you’re interested, here’s a link to the ABC RN podcast of her interview with Michael Cathcart at the PWF:
I knew I could never read a book titled Eat Pray Love. It just sounded like absolute slop. And the author was obviously, some complete and utter self-indulgent twerp. Then by chance, earlier this year I was listening to Richard Fidler interviewing some wonderful sounding woman on the radio. And you could have blown me away with a feather when I heard it was Elizabeth Gilbert. I couldn’t believe it. She was just fantastic. Thanks for this post, Louise, it’s a beauty!
She is a great speaker, that’s for sure. Intelligent, humorous, inspirational. I’ve just found the link to a podcast of the Richard Fidler interview: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/conversations/elizabeth-gilbert/6245394
Thanks for letting me know—I’m off to listen to it now!
I think the thing about perfection is that it’s an ideal to be striven for, but never attained. Life would become horribly pointless if we ever actually achieved perfection in anything. After that, we have to judge whether what we’ve done or what we are is good enough. Same with being a person, parent, partner, friend etc. We mustn’t make do with our limitations too easily, but equally, we mustn’t allow perfectionism to run rampant and stifle all that we might be or do.
I think she was meaning that striving for perfection can be a block to actually getting the job done. I’ve seen people do this—I’ve done it. Not attempted something in case I got it wrong, or in case I failed, or in case someone else did it better than me. In the end, I just had to dive in and do it, and not worry how good or not it was—I could always improve on it later, and I improved with practice anyway. We need to stop judging ourselves and not worry if something we do isn’t perfect.
I had a similar reaction to Eat, Pray, Love, although I wonder how much I was influenced by both the hype and then the negative reactions I heard. And I hadn’t planned to go to hear Elizabeth Gilbert at the Perth Writers Festival – but like others have commented, I thought she was a thoroughly engaging and inspiring speaker. Thank you for summarising what you took away from her talk, Louise, and I now want to read The Signature of All Things.
Yes, you were there, too—that’s when I first met you! Funnily enough, I hadn’t heard much negativity about EPL before I attempted to read it, and I felt as if there was something wrong with me when I didn’t like it! I really want to read her novel, too. Apparently, there’s a cameo appearance by Captain Cook and Joseph Banks in it!
Okay, I quite enjoyed Eat Pray Love, though I thought the movie was terrible. I’ve also read her book on marriage, Commitment, which again had some points that resonated with me (I particularly liked the idea of marriage as some sort of revolutionary gesture). At the same time, I totally get how people could see EPL as self-indulgent because on a lot of levels, it was. It’s not given to many of us to take time out of our lives to ‘discover ourselves.’ But maybe we should be able to. Not a year, not even a week, for some of us, but it is good to step back sometimes and re-assess. And I think that’s where the ‘owning your shit’ comes in. I also really enjoyed the idea of perfectionism and fear – I remember reading that the Navajo always made a deliberate mistake in their blankets and artwork, because they believed humans were not meant to be perfect. I’m now wrestling with Kindle formatting and it has made me realise that I need to be a little more Navajo about it, that it’s not going to be perfect. I’ll work hard to make it the best it can be, but in the end, as Liz says, it’s better to do something rather than nothing. Thanks for sharing Louise – sounds like it was a great day out!
You were possibly able to see the themes of the book more than I could at the time, Helen. As I say, I read it with blinkered vision because I was a mother of four very young children and on a fast-running treadmill. If I could have taken her words not quite so literally, I might have seen that she was actually speaking to someone like me, too. In fact, a few years after I’d discarded her book, I did something not dissimilar to her—quit my job and totally changed the direction of my life. I made huge changes that involved a lot of self-discovery and my life is all the better for that.
Good luck with the formatting of your novel and keep us updated so I know when it’s ready to buy! Can’t wait to see it!
Oh, I can completely understand that – at the time I read it I was newly married and not yet had kids, plus had just changed my life (moving from Melbourne to the coast), so I guess I enjoyed it more – I think if I had been in your position I would have found it an irritating read as well! In fact, a friend I worked with who had two small children did find it totally annoying 🙂
As for the formatting, what a nightmare! Createspace was super easy, but Kindle is a real pain-in-the-you-know-what! However, I will keep pressing on 🙂
Do you have anyone to help you with it? (The Kindle formatting, I mean.)
No- I’ve just downloaded a book from Amazon but it’s fairly useless, unfortunately. When I set up in CreateSpace there was a button that was supposed to convert my document across to Kindle, but it didn’t work at all. I am pretty close, but I’m also pretty close to tearing my hair out! And my paperback is actually out for sale now, but I didn’t want to publicise it without the e-book as well – however I’m now considering a paperback launch today 🙂
Sounds hair-pulling material, Helen! Keep us posted …
Rashida’s right, of course. It is a farrago of white privilege and naive chicklit. I imagine the Balinese felt somewhat similar. In a very popular roadside warung up in Ubud, I spotted a large sign in the same typeface as the book, advising their customers to Eat, Pay, Leave.
Not that I read much of the book, obviously, but there was an arrogance and a disrespect for these ancient cultures and religions that I didn’t like—that it was acceptable to waltz in, spend a brief time ‘sampling’ it, then go home when you’d had enough. I can understand why the Balinese, and probably the Indians and Italians, too, felt aggrieved.
Great post, Louise. I’ve seen Elizabeth Gilbert on a Ted Talk and on The Book Show, and thought her quite ok. I did read EPL when it first came out – I didn’t mind it (all that narcissistic exploration and expression was no biggie given the Freo scene of some years ago), and, after reading some of the comments on here, I shall also read Signature Of All Things. It’s interesting how our perceptions shift isn’t it – I remember buying a book, reading it, swearing black, blue and blind I’d never read it before until my companion pulled it off my shelf and said ‘what’s this then?’ Yup, same book, my memory of which had NO connection to my ‘new’ book!
‘Quite ok’ sounds as if you weren’t enamoured! Our perceptions do shift as we move through the years—thank goodness! I’m not sure I’d like EPL even if I could be bothered reading it now, but maybe it wouldn’t get under my skin as much as it did back then. I love that you ‘forgot’ you’d read a book—I’ve done that once or twice, too. Doesn’t say much for the book!