In the literary world, everyone is fond of the frame—publishers package authors; journalists prep angles and approach; readers repackage authors’ work via word of mouth … and the circle of life goes on.
In the game of framing, Elizabeth Gilbert has been many things: kickass, brazen writer of men’s magazine articles. Pensive, literary short story writer. All-encompassing “chick-lit” guru. Philosophical memoirist. Intensely researched, vibrant novelist.
Yet she does not play to any of it. She never has. Rather, she just writes, definitions be damned.
And with that, I too am following in the footsteps of the frame. So here, in 26 quotes to accompany the latest episode of Design Matters With Debbie Millman, Elizabeth Gilbert speaks in her own voice.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief
“I was born on a Christmas tree farm and my parents were a nurse and a Christmas tree farmer. I wasn’t born in the Penguin Random House building. As a child, I never met anyone who was a writer, but despite that fact, this was a path that I etched for myself and started on when I was 15 years old and chose and sacrificed for. It was my decision not to ever have a profession beyond writing; I didn’t have a backup choice. I said to myself … ‘I’m willing to not have very nice, fancy things. I’m willing to give up going on vacation with my friends to stay home and write. I’m willing to give up everything for this because this is my source of light.’”
“Twenty-five years ago, I was a struggling, unpublished writer living in a stinky apartment in New York. Which means I was a waitress.”
“I failed at getting published for almost six years. So for almost six years, every single day, I had nothing but rejection letters waiting for me in my mailbox. And it was devastating every single time, and every single time, I had to ask myself if I should just quit while I was behind and give up and spare myself this pain. But then I would find my resolve, and always in the same way—by saying, ‘I'm not going to quit, I'm going home.’ For me, going home meant returning to the work of writing because writing was my home, because I loved writing more than I hated failing at writing, which is to say that I loved writing more than I loved my own ego, which is ultimately to say that I loved writing more than I loved myself.”
“I don’t mind talking about my struggles because I don’t think there’s anything to be embarrassed about. I feel very connected to the common difficulty of being a human. It’s a strange thing to be a person, and nobody knows how to do it. I don’t think there’s anything more interesting than talking about that.”
“This woman asked me the single most important question I’ve ever been asked in my life. It forever changed the direction of my life. She looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘What are you willing to give up to have the life you keep pretending you want?’”
The first thing I do is open the blinds to bring in the light. I always say hello to the morning. I’d be willing to bet that the first prayer that the first conscious human ever spoke was to say hello to the morning—the miracle that the light went away, and now it’s back! It’s a clean slate.”
“Ideas are living entities. They have consciousness. They don't have matter. They can't be seen. They can't be felt. They can't be proven. But they have will.”
“The universe is looking for collaborators, because creation’s not finished. It’s not something that happened in seven days and ended. It’s an ongoing story that we’re part of.”
“No experience in this world has ever been cathartic without the willing participation of the individual. Life does not automatically bestow wisdom or growth upon anyone just for showing up. You have to work ceaselessly on your end to digest and imbibe your opportunities or, I have come to believe, they will gradually slip away and knock on someone else’s more receptive door.”
“The thing is, there’s not one creative thing I have ever done that doesn’t begin with my doing something I have no business doing.”
“In the artistic or the creative worlds, the contradiction that I think you have to be able to imbibe if you want to be sane is, ‘What I’m creating right now is the most important thing in the entire world—and it doesn’t matter at all.’”
“Don't be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts, then ‘Olé!’ And if not, do your dance anyhow. And ‘Olé!’ to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. ‘Olé!’ to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”
“After the weird, disorienting success that I went through with Eat, Pray, Love, I realized that all I had to do was exactly the same thing that I used to have to do all the time when I was an equally disoriented failure: I had to get my ass back to work. And that's what I did, and that's how, in 2010, I was able to publish the dreaded follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love. And you know what happened with that book? It bombed, and I was fine. Actually, I kind of felt bulletproof, because I knew that I had broken the spell and I had found my way back home to writing for the sheer devotion of it.”
“Perfection murders joy. You cut yourself out of the game before you even start. You cut yourself out of the game because you’ve decided it’s never going to be as good as your ideal.”
“You’re never going to please everyone. I mean, there are people who think the Sistine Chapel is gaudy.”
“When fear makes you go to war against it, that’s fear taking the wheel. But when you just let it be there, sharing a space with you, it becomes less of a battle. Fear is a really good sign that you’ve got skin in the game, that what you’re doing matters to you and it has an impact on your psyche. That’s often a very good indication that you’re on the right track, that you’re doing something that’s really scary.”
“I mean, look, life is a very risky affair, and what could be more fascinating and terrifying than this reality about a human existence, which is that literally anything can happen to literally anybody at literally any moment? And to live in the awareness of that without needing to drown it out or dull it out or suffocate it or deny it is quite an exhilarating way to live. And then you can start to participate as much as possible in how that story unfolds.”
“I’m not interested in being fearless. I’m interested in becoming brave, and there’s a big difference there. To be fearless means you don’t even know what fear is, which means you’re missing a huge part of what it is to be a human being. To be brave means that you keep going anyway.”
“I rail a lot against passion, because I feel like passion can be very exclusionary and very elitist, and it can leave a lot of people feeling like they don't belong in creative journeys, and they don't belong in creative explorations. I'm much more interested in allowing people to follow curiosity, which is a far more gentle impulse that doesn't require that you sacrifice your entire life for something.”
“Whenever people challenge me on this idea that everyone is naturally creative, my rebuttal is that you and I and every single person we know are descended from people who made things for tens of thousands of years. My grandmother made these beautiful hooked and crocheted rugs and she made quilts; they had no money, she had no training, and no education but the things that she made were beautiful. Actually—and this is my favorite definition of art—they were unnecessarily beautiful.”
“The entire world, for better or for worse, has been altered by the human hand, by human beings doing this weird and irrational thing that only we do, amongst all our peers in the animal world, which is to waste our time making things that nobody needs, making things a little more beautiful than they have to be, altering things, changing things, building things, composing things, shaping things. This is what we do. We’re the making ape. And no one is left out of the inheritance of that—that’s our shared human inheritance.”
“My concern is not that the world is filled with crappy art. My concern is that the world is filled with millions and millions of people who are not making anything.”
“I’m just joining a history of people who do this work. I’ll do it for as long as I’m permitted. I’ll do it to the best of my ability. It may not be successful, it may not be lucrative, it may not be well-received, but I’m gonna give it everything that I have, and then I’m gonna die, and then other people will do this. And so it will go. And what a wonderful way to live your life! What a great company of saints to join. And a wonderful team to play on: the makers. It’s worth a lot of trouble to get to do that.”
“Joy has been my teacher and my deity for a really long time. Without joy, everything that you’ve accomplished and everything you have means nothing.”
“The rule of karaoke is the same as the rule of life, which is: The only way to embarrass yourself is to not throw yourself into it one hundred percent. That’s it. Otherwise you look dumb. But if you’re one hundred percent committed, you always look kind of cool, no matter how bad it turns out.”
“I wish you luck, and stubbornness, and the absence of the need for a permission slip from anybody. Just go fucking do it.”
Debbie Millman: 45 minutes okay.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Sure.
Debbie: Okay, great.
Elizabeth: I think a half an hour was what I was told, but-
Debbie: It's 30 to 40 but I-
Elizabeth: What time is right now?
Debbie: It's 11:00.
Elizabeth: It's 11:00.
Debbie: Is that okay?
Elizabeth: Let's do 30 because I have to be…
Debbie: Okay. All right. So then I might have to do a little bit less.
Debbie: We'll do what we can.
Curtis Fox: This is Design Matters with Debbie Millman from designobserver.com. This episode Debbie talks with Elizabeth Gilbert. Eat, Pray, Love about the love of her life and her latest book, City of Girls.
Elizabeth: You know, when I think about the joy that writing has brought me, what I think about are those hours of communion engaged with mystery trying to make something out of nothing.
Debbie: Elizabeth, after your 2015 book, Big Magic came out. You told Vogue Magazine that you have the soul of a very serious writer and the personality of a flight attendant or an aerobics instructor. So tell us about the range of your personalities.
Elizabeth: I know because I really, oh God, I really should be just teaching a Zumba class or something. I'm such an enthusiast and I think I'm such an extrovert, and I think those two things are not necessarily typical of people who become writers. I think one of the reasons people become writers is so that they don't have to engage with other humans or that they can engage from a really safe distance. Which would be me and my studio, you on the other side of the country reading my book two years later.
Elizabeth: But that's just not how I am. I like to roll around in the world and that's partially why I wrote Big Magic is sort of as that aerobics instructor and me wanting to cheer everybody on and make sure that they get their creativity squats in or whatever.
Debbie: It’s so funny, I was talking to my therapist recently, I'm dating a writer and she's so prolific on the page and I was talking to my therapist about how sometimes it can be hard to talk about feelings with her. And she said to me, "Debbie, that's why she's a writer."
Elizabeth: Yeah. She's much more typical, the normal characteristics for a writer than me. I don't know how I got this strange Combo of being an introvert trapped in an extrovert's body, but that's kind of how it works. But I do love, the best part of my life is every couple of years when I just disconnect from everybody and I go off always alone and spend my time for a couple of months with the book and only talk to my book and that's kind of the happiest that I can ever be actually.
Debbie: You were born and raised in Connecticut and I've said this about your childhood. "I know every inch of fear from head to toe. I've been a frightened person my entire life. I was born terrified. My earliest memories are a fear as are pretty much all the memories that come after my earliest memories." Elizabeth, where did all this fear come from?
Elizabeth: I don't know where anything that is us comes from. I mean, I've certainly sat in therapist's office, spent a lot of money on that question as I'm hearing you read it and saying I was born afraid. I'm like, is that true? I thought so, but maybe I don't know. I'm hypersensitive. And I think part of it was that I grew up in a family of super high achievers where everybody appeared to me, this may not have been what was actually true, but they appeared to me to be terrifyingly competent. Competence was something that was really valued in my family.
Elizabeth: My mom grew up on a farm in Minnesota and was from a very early age expected to run the farm, raise her younger brothers and sisters know how to... you are expected to know how to do everything almost before you knew how to do it. You were given a very short window of time in which to master something. So I think I grew up with an anxiety around that. Like I'm only four. I don't know how to shingle a barn yet. Well, you should we knew how to do it when we're your age. So I think there was a little bit of that, just this expectation that you were supposed to have competency already.
Debbie: In a recent interview with Chris Anderson of TED, you state that fear is a part of our makeup. It's something that's inherent in a separate techtive device, and that your experience with fear is permitted to exist and then how to figure out how to work with it. And that working with fear is what courage is.
Elizabeth: Yeah. I think we live in a culture where we're constantly being told not to be afraid and that the ultimate champions of the culture advertise the sort of fearlessness as the aspiration. But I don't... it's not anything I would ever want to be. I've known a couple of fearless people and they were sociopaths and there's something, you look in their eyes and there's something off, there's something missing and they're a danger to themselves and to others. And so for me, it's not about kicking [inaudible 00:07:28] in the ass or showing who's boss or dominating it. Anytime I've ever gone head to head against fear where I try to fight it and win, it wins because it will then show you who's really boss, you go up against it and it will double down.
Elizabeth: And so the way that I've learned to kind of game it is through, I don't think that the opposite of fear is bravery. I think the opposite of fear is empathy. And so approaching myself and fear with a sense of tremendous empathy saying, "Look, I understand that you're afraid and I know that, I cannot tell you what the outcome of this is going to be." You know, that's why creativity and fear are always so linked is that creativity demands that you step into a field where you cannot know what the outcome is going to be. And fear is genetically programmed to forbid you from ever doing that because fear believes that if it doesn't know what the outcome is, it will surely end in your own death. And it's like, so that's why it feels so scary to create-
Debbie: That's just part of our instinct.
Elizabeth: Yeah. It's like, I don't know what this is. I don't know how this ends. Stop, shut it down. And that's why even doing something as simple as sitting down and trying to write a poem can feel like terrifying cause your fears like this will end in death. And so I have to have these very loving conversations with fear where I say, "Yet I have yet to kill anyone or myself with my poetry. It's not great, but it probably won't end in death. I know you're frightened, but we're doing this thing anyway." And it's a gentle kind of mothering way to approach it rather than this very bullying way that I feel like we're constantly being modeled in this culture.
Debbie: Yeah. I had a student once when I asked him what was the worst thing he thought could possibly happen if he tried this thing and failed was that he would die of heartbreak.
Elizabeth: Yeah. It feels like that. And instead of saying, that's stupid, that's ridiculous. Why aren't you better? Why aren't you braver? Or trying to throw it away, start there, you know, start there and meet with a sense of the only word I can use. It's not even self love because I think that's a tall order for most of us. I would say a sense of great friendliness towards yourself of like, okay pal, I see, I know it's okay, we're going to do it. No one's dying, but let's go.
Debbie: You've wanted to be a writer your whole life. I read that you took vows to be a writer as a writer and simply vowed to the universe that you would write forever, regardless of the result you promised that you would try to be brave about it and grateful and as uncomplaining as you could possibly be. And you didn't ask for external rewards for your devotion. You just wanted to spend the rest of your life as near to writing as possible. And so you were willing to make whatever arrangements needed to be made in order to get by.
Debbie: How old were you when you took these vows and what arrangements were you referring to?
Elizabeth: I was 16 and I remember it very clearly and I had been told recently by an English teacher, you're a good writer, but unfortunately you'll never be able to have any success because you didn't have an unhappy enough childhood. One of my early introductions to the stereotype of this idea that that creativity can only be born of woe and misery. Also, he didn't know a thing about my job. I'm like, what are you [crosstalk 00:10:38]
Debbie: I would have done a lot of research it wasn't perfect.
Elizabeth: It was like good, take it easy pal. May look away. But more to the point it was that I could feel a kind of tension of a disapproval of people saying it's time to put away your childish things. Which is often how creativity dies is that there's something that you love doing and because you cannot instantly and convincingly answer the question of how you're gonna monetize it, how you're going to be successful at it, how is this going to provide for you? There's an anxiety that other people have about your creativity that then you take in and then you let that exit anxiety, which you learned it's not innate. You learned it. You saw the scared looks on everyone's faces when you said that you wanted it to be a singer.
Debbie: Yeah. And Then we wrote a whole list of-
Elizabeth: How are you going to... that sounds blah, blah, blah. And so I felt that there was something I needed to do to combat that and to just establish instantly like, no this is my priority, this is what I'm doing, and the arrangements that I meant were I will take care of myself. What I meant by that was I will not ask my creativity to provide for me in the world. I will provide for it. I will provide for it. And that meant I'm willing to be a waitress, I'm willing to be a bartender. I'm willing to be a babysitter. I'm willing to not have a lot of money. I'm willing to live in crummy apartments. I'm willing to be the one laboring on behalf of this thing rather than the expectation that this thing must bring in the money for me.
Elizabeth: Because I think that's another way creativity dies is that people, once it's not monetized, they stop doing it. You know? And so I was like, "Well look, I'll be my own sugar daddy." I mean I won't be an extravagant sugar daddy because I'm a bartender, but I will be my own studio wife. I think especially for women, there's always this resentment that the history of art is filled with men who had women who took care of them. And so they were able to produce work because they had women who cooked and cleaned and did everything and handled the world so that the men could live in a womb of creativity and we can be resentful about that or we can become our own studio wives. And I decided I'll do that, I'll do all that stuff so that the artist can exist as free as possible from worrying about that.
Elizabeth: So it's almost like a bifurcation of the self, the one whose going to be out there being the mule, working hard for the one who's gets to be the artist.
Debbie: And it's interesting that you say that this teacher of yours felt that you hadn't suffered quite enough because you had written a whole list of questions that people had challenged you with when you told them that you wanted to be a writer. Aren't you afraid you're never going to have any success? Aren't you afraid the humiliation of rejection will kill you? Aren't you afraid that you're going to work your whole life at this craft and nothing's ever going to come of it and you're going to die on a scrap heap of broken dreams with your mouth filled with the bitter ash of failure?
Elizabeth: Yeah, no pressure.
Debbie: Because you'd be like, whatever.
Elizabeth: I mean, look, those are not insignificant concerns and I don't want to throw them away too lightly because people can be really hurt and you know, blocked by that stuff. But there's a prayer that I love that it's called the Celtic Prayer of Approach. And it's an ancient Celtic prayer that was meant to be used when you are approaching a new colony, a new civilization, new village, somebody who you don't know. This is the spirit. But I think that it's actually the most beautiful prayer of approach when you're approaching your work, or whatever it is that you're creating, and it can also work in relationships. And I'll see if I can get it right. I think I've got it, but it says, "I will drink from your well, I will honor your gods. I bring an undefended heart to our meeting place. I will not negotiate by withholding. I have no cherished outcome. I am not subject to disappointment."
Elizabeth: So begin your work with that prayer. I have no cherished outcome. I am not subject to disappointment. And then it doesn't matter. The work itself becomes its own reward. What you're doing is something so much more important than what the result of it is. And I can say that, and I know it might be that people might say easy for you to say you're really successful writer, [crosstalk 00:14:47] but I wasn't one, I wasn't one when I was 16 it wasn't easy to, but it was easy to say. I would say yes. It's always been easy for me to say that because that is truly what I believe. And, and let me tell you, it had better be that the work itself has its own reward because the outcome, even if it's great, is very short.
Elizabeth: Even a brilliant outcome. You know, if I got all the satisfaction that I get from my books based on a great review in the New York Times by the next day, that's gone.
Debbie: Why is that?
Elizabeth: Well, because the reviews gone and it was on a Tuesday morning and now it's Wednesday, it's over. You know, everyone who's ever won an Oscar almost, will say like it was so exciting. And then I walked off stage, it was like, oh, that's over.
Debbie: So we metabolize that success super fast.
Elizabeth: Oh yeah. I mean it's gone but when I think about the joy that writing has brought me, what I think about are those hours of communion where I've gotten to spend engaged with a mystery, trying to make something out of nothing. That's wonderful that the outcomes, I mean I'm delighted and so grateful for the outcomes, but they pass so quickly, and people will say, "God, I spent three, four, five years working on this book and then it came out and it was only up for a week and then it was in the remainder pile." Two months later and I'm like, you had three years where you got to be with this project. That was what you got.
Elizabeth: That's the salad days. The salad days isn't where it's sitting on the Barnes Noble shelf. It can't be, it's never going to satisfy you. You got to not had to spend five years working on this book. You got to, there's no higher thing you can do with your time than that.
Debbie: Speaking of time, you just spoke at the How conference. I was in the audience listening and trying to hold myself back from crying, not because I didn't want to cry, but because I thought I might make too much noise while doing it and didn't want to be disruptive.
Elizabeth: I got you. I got you.
Debbie: I've spent a lot of time in the back of rooms for that very [crosstalk 00:16:41] because we don't have a lot of time together, I'd really like to talk to you a little bit about what it means to show up to be creative.
Debbie: And you shared a story of socking your mentor back when you were quite young and her asking you a question that really changed the course of your life and I believe probably changed the course of quite a lot of lives in today's audience. So can you share that question with us?
Elizabeth: The question she asked me, and this was back when I was in my 20s living in the East village, working three jobs, trying to be a writer, getting nothing but rejection letters and not actually producing very much writing. Although I was living the life of a young writer, what I was actually really doing was a lot of other stuff beyond that. And she was an older woman and she said... and she was an artist and she said to me one day when I was complaining about not having any time to work, "What are you willing to give up to have the life you keep pretending you want?"
Elizabeth: And as I said on stage today was that word pretending that was so lacerating because I didn't want to be told that I was pretending at being a writer. I wanted to be told that I was noble and that I was writing, but I wasn't writing. And what she said was, "I see your time going into everything except this thing that you claim is the most important thing in your life." And as you sit in that question yourself remembered, like what is the most important thing in your life is actually entirely up to you. So it doesn't have to be a creative project. It can be a human being. It can be somebody in your life who you get to decide this is what matters to me. This is who matters to me. And what are you willing to give up to be able to give more of your time to that thing.
Debbie: You talked about three ingredients to help fuel being the most creative person you could possibly be. Can you talk a little bit about what those are?
Elizabeth: Yeah, I define them not just the most creative person, but to be relaxed within your creativity-
Elizabeth: Because I think that when we start thinking like I want to produce more, I want to create more, get that striving face and the neck tendon [crosstalk 00:18:45] And I always want to say to people, you know, you don't need those neck tendons to actually create, might be a little better. I had a yoga teacher once who said to me when I was stretching my hamstrings, you don't need your jaw to stretch your hamstrings, but there is this sort of tense feeling that you can get of like, "Okay, I got to go in there." And for me the best creativity comes when you're at your most relaxed.
Elizabeth: And so the three things that I think you need in order to create a field of relaxation or a piece around you in order to create our priorities, boundaries, and mysticism. So priorities is identifying what matters to you. And it cannot be everything. It can only be a couple of things, a couple of people and everything else. It's like, nope, not my priority. I don't care. And the second thing is boundaries. Which is can only be established once you know what your priorities are. And a boundary is a circle that you draw around something to say that it is sacred and that boundary can even be around you, yourself, your very own life. You, your trust, circle around yourself and say this is sacred. The thing that's in here.
Debbie: How do you protect your own boundaries given how honest and transparent and clear you are with your fans and the public?
Elizabeth: Well, you just saw me do it. You said we're doing a 40 minute interview. And I said, no, we're doing a 30 minute interview. And you said, well 40. And I said, no, 30. And I don't think you felt like I was attacking you. I don't feel like you felt like it was violent. It was just me knowing, no, this is what I have today to offer you and you might want more, but I don't have more for you. And that's something that I think it's taken a certain amount of age for me to realize that people don't get what they want from you just because they want it. They get what they get from you because you have it. And beyond that you can't. and I don't even apologize for it anymore. It's just that I know that I have this one life that's got a limited amount of energy.
Elizabeth: I know what my day looks like and this is what I've got for you. And when in the course of these 30 minutes, I'm going to give you everything I have. And then after that I'm going to be like, bye. And that's how it's going to go. So you actually got to see it in practice.
Debbie: And tell us about the third ingredient.
Elizabeth: Mysticism is the notion that creativity... my definition of creativity is that it's a human beings labor meeting, the mysterious. So it's a human being encountering the mysterious and adding their labor to it. I believe that ideas want to be born. I believe that ideas have consciousness, that they circle the earth, formlessly looking for human beings to collaborate with, to bring them into being. There's no other species in the world that can collaborate with ideas the way we do.
Elizabeth: They like playing with us. And to be able to hear them and respond to them means that you have to have a certain amount of ease in your life, which means that you have to have your priorities straight, and you got to have your boundaries and then you'll have enough time and energy to be able to hear the whisper of the idea when it comes to you. But that idea I believe is magic. I believe you approach it as you would approach the supernatural, the mysterious and the divine. You just, you become a servant to that mothership, whatever it might be, and you devote your life to service to it rather than thinking that it's coming from you and that it's all about your ego. It's not your servant to the mystery.
Debbie: How are you doing after the very mystical and extraordinary 24 months you've just had?
Elizabeth: It depends on the moment. I think you're referring to my partner who is dead. The most important, the biggest priority person in my life was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. God, it was three years ago this month, that she was diagnosed in-
Elizabeth: Yeah. And I walked through that journey with her at her side.
Debbie: And you blew up your whole life.
Elizabeth: I did. I did it in a heartbeat and I would do it again. It was very clear in that moment that that's what had to happen. I went to be with her as her partner and as a caregiver. We had 18 months together which were beautiful and magical and harrowing and horrible. And so she died about a year and a half ago. I'm doing a lot better than I would've been doing had I not blown up my life to go be with her.
Elizabeth: That I can tell you without a doubt would have been a much bigger tragedy. I feel tremendously proud that we did that, that we loved each other, that we spent that time together. And there's that pride and that sense of having something I came here to do. One of the things I came here on earth to do was to love Raya and to walk her to the edge of that river, and it was harrowing and we did it. And I'm proud of her and I'm proud of our love that doesn't go anywhere despite the fact that she's not here.
Debbie: It was an instant realization when you heard her diagnosis that she was the love of your life.
Elizabeth: Not instant, but nearly. Again, I've spent so much of my life just following orders. It wasn't a decision. It was me agreeing to the command that I was given, which was this is what has to happen now.
Debbie: What is the biggest thing she taught you?
Elizabeth: Mercy. She was badass and she was tough as nails. She was a former junkie in a former heroin speedball junkie who had survived the lower east side in New York City as a drug addict for years and had finally gotten clean and was clean for 19 years. Part of her sobriety was the recognition of two things. One is the mercy that she had received from people who should have never forgiven her for the truly horrible things that she did when she was a drug addict. And she had to go to those people and ask for their forgiveness. And many, not all, but many of them forgave her and she... her heart was so broken open by that.
Elizabeth: And she said, these are people who should cross the street when they see me coming, and they took me back into their lives and back into their homes, and having experienced that, I can never withhold that from anyone. I saw her forgive people for the most outrageous offenses, and I'm a bit of a perfectionist, so I'm can be very unforgiving, and I watched her walk through things in relationships where I would like, oh I would shut the door on that person so hard and where I was like, how can I and she also knew what it was like to be a bad person who had a good person trapped inside them that couldn't get out. And so she saw that in people, no matter how awful they were behaving, she could see that it wasn't their true nature. And it's not that she let anyone run over her.
Elizabeth: She had impeccable boundaries but judged nobody, judged nobody. Kept her heart open to everyone. And I remember saying to her one time, "Is there anyone in this world who you would not be willing to sit alone in a room at a table across from and talk to?" And she was like, "No, why would I be unwilling to talk to anybody?" And I was like, "Good Lord, I have a list as long as my arm of people who I never would want to have to be face to face with." And, she was like, "I'll sit and in conversation with anyone." So I learned that sort of, that openness it's not, mercy is not weak. It's not soft. It requires a titanium spine. And she had one, but she also had a heart that was always willing to go back into the arena with somebody and see if it could work it out. It was beautiful to see.
Debbie: Elizabeth, you have a brand new book that is about to come out, and it's called City of Girls and it's been described as a very fun, lighthearted book. I actually think it's a Trojan lighthearted book.
Elizabeth: You got it.
Debbie: And it's interesting that one of my favorite passages in the book is about mercy.
Elizabeth: Can I just say how much I love the expression Trojan lighthearted book? With your permission that's, I've been calling it a brain muffin disguised as a cupcake. Yeah, its a Trojan lighthearted book.
Debbie: There's more substance in there than you might think. There's so much love and shame and sadness and mercy. And this is one of my favorite paragraphs:
Debbie: "In that moment I felt overcome by a sense of mercy, not only for Frank but also for that younger version of myself. I even felt mercy for Walter with all his pride in condemnation, how humiliated Walter must have felt by me and how dreadful it must've been for him to feel exposed like that in front of someone he considered a subordinate and Walter considered everyone a subordinate. How angry he must've been to, I have to clean up my mess in the middle of the night. Then my mercy swelled. And for just a moment I felt mercy for everyone who has ever gotten involved in an impossibly messy story. All those predicaments that we humans find ourselves in predicaments that we never see coming, do not know how to handle and then cannot fix."
Debbie: It's a beautiful book.
Elizabeth: Thank you sweetheart.
Debbie: It is so much more than a lighthearted one, these people are saying. This is a book that I find interesting because you've talked about how this is a book that came from an idea that you had of wanting to write a book about women who are not traumatized by sex. Especially since it is very difficult to find that kind of story anywhere in literature.
Elizabeth: Not traumatized isn't quite, I may have said that in the quote, but that's not what I meant. I meant not ruined.
Elizabeth: We can survive our trauma. And the story of women in sex is often a story of rumination and even now as much as I love and as much as we need and as far overdue is the me too movement, is there still a story line under there that I sense which is that, women will be destroyed and it's not necessarily been my experience. We can make catastrophic mistakes, terrible things can happen to us. We can not only endure them but survive them and allow them to shape us into something very interesting. The alchemy of our growth.
Elizabeth: I wanted to tell that story because I think that's a more powerful story.
Debbie: And it is a powerful story. Your main character, Vivian in a letters states, the following, "Sex is so often a cheat, a shortcut of intimacy. A way to skip over knowing somebody's heart by knowing instead their mere body."
Elizabeth: And she spends a lot of her life doing that shit.
Debbie: She does. I find it so interesting that Vivian is so interested in sex and yet ultimately found love and sex to be very different things.
Elizabeth: Yeah, exactly. And also found the story, as I'm talking, but I'm saying it's a straight about sex about women and about men truly by the end of the last pages of the book, I would hope that everybody would see what it really is, which is even more as a story about female friendship.
Elizabeth: Because the relationships that end up sustaining her and the way that we are romantically told that our romantic partner must, the relationships that sustain her for entire life are her friendships and the friendship that she offers, at the end of the book is the greatest gift I think that a woman can give to another woman. So yeah, there's the primary relationship in her life are those friends.
Debbie: I want to be respectful of your time. I would love for you to read one passage that I've chosen, because in many ways I feel like it really talks about what the soul of the book is about.
Debbie: And if you would read that, I would appreciate it.
Elizabeth: Yeah. I would be happy to.
"And if you're wondering whether I ever had crises of conscience about my promiscuity, I can honestly tell you no. I did believe that my behavior may be unusual because it didn't seem to match the behavior of other women, but I didn't believe that it made me bad. I used to think that I was bad mind you, during the dry years of the war, I still carried such a burden of shame about the incident with Edna Parker Watson and the words dirty little whore never fully left my consciousness. But by the time the war ended, I was finished with all that. I think it has something to do with my brother being killed and the painful belief that Walter had died without ever having enjoyed his life.
The war had invested in me with an understanding that life is both dangerous and fleeting. And thus there is no point in denying yourself pleasure or adventure while you are here. I could've spent the rest of my life trying to prove that I was a good girl, but that would've been unfaithful to who I really was. I believed that I was a good person if not a good girl, but my appetites were what they were, so I gave up on the idea of denying myself what I truly wanted.
Then I sought ways to delight myself. As long as I stayed away from married men, I felt that I was doing no harm anyway, at some point in a woman's life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time. After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is."
Debbie: Elizabeth Gilbert, thank you so much for bringing so much joy and clarity to the world with your work and thank you for joining me today at the Health Conference for this very special live episode of Design Matters.
Elizabeth: Thank you so much.
Debbie: Okay. Elizabeth Gilbert's new book is titled City of Girls, and you could read much more about her on her website, Elizabethgilbert.com. This is the 15th year I've been doing Design Matters and I'd like to thank you for listening and remember we can talk about making a difference. We could make a difference or we can do. I'm Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you, again soon.