This episode’s guest is Elizabeth Gilbert. Liz is the beloved author of 2006’s runaway bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, which has sold more than ten million copies worldwide. Eat, Pray, Love is Gilbert’s memoir of soul-searching and international exploration in the wake of her devastating divorce.
Committed, the follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love, tells the story of Gilbert’s unexpected plunge into second marriage—this time to Felipe, the man with whom she falls in love at the end of Eat, Pray, Love. Her Ted talk on creativity has over 5 million views, and she recently finished a novel, The Signature of All Things, to be published in October, 2013.
In this episode, Elizabeth Gilbert and I speak about:
- The Signature of All Things
- Connection: how she uses it in her writing and how it plays in her life
- The wisdom of details and how they can help us see a bigger picture
- How perfectionism holds women back from living their truth.
- Curiosity and the Creative Process
- How passion can hold us back
Tune in to listen to my conversation “Creative Curiosity” with Elizabeth Gilbert.
Chantal Pierrat: Welcome Liz! I feel kind of funny calling you “Liz,” but I guess everybody around you calls you Liz. Is that OK?
Elizabeth Gilbert: If you call me “Elizabeth,” I’ll think that you’re my mother and you’re mad at me, so it’s probably best if you call me “Liz.” [Laughs] Everybody else does.
CP: OK! Well, I’m honored to be calling you “Liz,” and I’m honored to have you here on the Grace and Fire show, so welcome!
EG: Thank you so much, I’m delighted to be here!
CP: Great. Well, there’s a lot of places that we’ll probably end up going today, but I wanted to start with your book since it’s sitting here right in my hands. You were so kind to send me an unproofed copy. I’ve had a chance to dig in a little bit, and I have to say, it’s kind of a page-turner.
EG: Oh, I’m so glad it’s making you turn the pages. That’s what I want. I want you to sprain your wrist turning pages with this book. [Laughs]
CP: Yes! I didn’t realize it. Since I knew we were having this call, I thought, “I want to get into this a little bit,” and it’s one of those books that’s starting to take over, and I have to be careful because, you know, Emerging Women’s already taking over, so I’m like, “OK, hang on here!”
EG: You’re going to fall down the rabbit hole!
CP: Yes, I’m definitely falling down the rabbit hole. But it’s interesting—I’ve not read your fiction. I’ve read, obviously, Eat, Pray, Love, which completely had such a big effect on me. And so I’m curious to hear a little bit more about how this process was for you, not really writing about yourself. In the last two books, you’ve been writing memoir style. How did this feel?
EG: Well, it felt like a homecoming. That would be the word that I would use, that popped into my mind. It’s true, you’re not the only person who hasn’t read my fiction! [Laughs] I started out as a writer of fiction many years ago, and the only thing I ever wanted to be my whole life, my only dream as a writer, was to write short stories and novels.
So my first book was a collection of short stories and my second book was a novel. I was well on that path, and then my life fell apart, as anybody who’s got $10 to buy a paperback of Eat, Pray, Love knows. And I ended up veering very sharply into this world of confessional memoirs that, of course, I do not regret having done at all. It’s been an extraordinary encounter with myself and with readers. It’s just been an amazing phenomenon.
And then after that came Committed, the follow-up, but 12 years had passed and I hadn’t written a word of fiction. And I just had that feeling that we get sometimes in our lives where I felt like, “If I drift any further away from this essential part of myself, I will never uncover it again. It’s time.”
And also, the luxury appointed to me by the success of Eat, Pray, Love was I could do something as whimsical as take three, four years out of my life to do a passionate study of 19th-century botany and write a novel about 19th-century botanical exploration because I could afford to do that. So the book is also kind of a celebration of this place I am in my life right now where I have the time to pursue my creativity as I’ve always wanted to.
So I wanted to write the kind of book I’ve always wanted to read. I wanted to write a big, epic, multigenerational page-turner. And hopefully that’s what I’ve done. [Laughs]
CP: And are you anywhere in the book? For me, Alma—I’m obviously thinking of you and thinking of Alma, but I’m just curious to see if you’re in this anywhere.
EG: Well, my DNA is all over it because it came from me. I sort of see myself in all the characters. I think that’s the way it is when you’re writing a novel. Oh, by the way, I haven’t even mentioned the title. It’s called The Signature of All Things. [Laughs] I probably should do that.
CP: No, we’re going to get to that, because I am going to ask you about that. So the main character is this brilliant young woman named Alma, and she’s developing for me still because I’m still in the early part. But I do think of you when I see her, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m looking for you. For me, I know so much about you since I’ve read a lot about you, and I’m like, “OK, is she here, too?”
EG: Of course I’m there, and I think my readers will find me all over the book. It’s definitely a continuation of my passion. It’s a book about passion and it’s a book about travel and about discovery of the self, the discovery of the world, and discovery of the self in the world. Those are my themes that I’ve been looking at for a long time in a lot of different ways.
Alma is—the thing I love most about her is that she’s driven by a huge, towering lust for knowledge and for learning. Certainly in that, we are familiar. I really wanted to write a book about a woman whose life is directed by a craving to learn. I feel like that’s a character who we just don’t see enough in literature. And it’s somebody who I feel like I know, and somebody I feel like I am, and somebody who I think a lot of us feel like we are.
So I wanted that to be the central love story of the book. There are other love stories in there to follow, but the central love of Alma’s life is her study, her pursuit of botany, her passion—her calling, really.
CP: So The Signature of All Things—I’m curious to see what that title entails and how you came upon to call it that.
EG: The “signature of all things” is actually a theory that was posited in the 16th century by a quite eccentric German mystic, who’s also a plant enthusiast, named Jakob Boehme, who came to believe that God had hidden in the design of every plant on earth a clue as to the meaning and use of that plant. So, for instance, the simple way to describe would be that walnuts, if you open them up, they look like a brain, and walnuts are very good for headaches. And then sage leaves are shaped exactly like the human liver, and sage is very good for liver aliments.
So it was this idea, this compassionate gardener—God—wanted people to find their way to the clues hidden in the plants that would benefit us. It’s a lovely, kind of medieval mystical theory and it was well, well out of date by the time my characters in my book come along. There’s a lot of holes. [Laughs] A lot of leaves look like livers, and if you ate many of them, you would die.
CP: [Laughs] Right!
EG: You know, it’s one of those theories where he came up with a theory and tried to make the science fit to it. And my book is sort of about the opposite. My character is a real scientist who studies the world and deducts her theories after her study. However, she does fall in love with a man who still believes in that theory who’s also a botanist.
And in a way, every single character in the book, all of them revolving around the world of plants, they’re all looking for the signature of all things in some different way, whether it’s scientifically or artistically or in the world of commerce. They’re trying to find the clues in the plant world to better their own life.
CP: Right. What I love—and this is the thing that I do see in this book so far and your other writing—is that you are a great connector of all things.
EG: Oh, thank you!
CP: I feel like it’s almost like you take us on a tangent, and yet it comes back around really beautifully to another piece. It’s not a hanging thread. It always ties back. I think that the way that you explain the “signature of all things”—now it sort of makes sense to me, and I think that we’re all connected.
EG: Yes. Without a doubt. Thank you for saying that because I feel like the novels that I love—and I do love 19th-century novels. I love Jane Austen and Dickens and Trollope and Elliot. That whole gang, they’re my favorite. And I think that the mastery that they had is that they knew exactly, from the first minute of the story, where they were going and where they were taking you. And you know when you’re in their hands that you’re not going to get abandoned on the side of the road, which sometimes happens in contemporary novels where you’re like, “How’d we get here? I’m stuck here now!” [Laughs] “And I don’t think either me or the author has any idea where we’re going.”
So I wanted to have that same sense of leading the reader on a journey and saying, “It’s OK, you can trust me. We’re going to go on this together and we’re going to come back on the other side and we’re going to have a really amazing experience in the middle.” I’m hoping that’s what the book will convey.
CP: Do you feel that, in your own life, you have that same sort of philosophy as you do in your writing style, where you trust everything actually does have a purpose and will cycle back?
EG: I do! [Laughs] I do. And it is magical thinking, right? Cynics and realists of all stripes would object to that idea, but it also does seem to be the case. It’s been shown now, even in scientific and sociological studies, that the people who are the most resilient and the people who seem to have lives of the richest quality are the ones who believe that there is some sort of a purpose to their life.
And I do think it’s kind of your job, if you’re lucky enough to have shown up in this world, to figure out what your purpose [is]. Otherwise, I don’t really know, what are we doing otherwise, right? We’re just waiting. We’re just killing time. And from earliest consciousness, I just didn’t want to live in a waiting room. And in that regard, I’m very much like Alma, my character, as well. She’s definitely a purposeful young woman who, you will see, becomes a very purposeful middle-aged woman and an extremely purposeful old woman.
CP: OK. And that whole faith that everything, the tangents that life takes us on—it’s a dance between creating your own purpose and letting it unfold and believing in the seemingly randomness of it. You want both.
EG: Yes. When people have asked me if I believe in destiny, I absolutely do, but I think that destiny is a kind of contract between human beings and the Mystery—whatever you want to call “the Mystery” with a capital “M.” I just call it “the Mystery” because it’s easier. And the Mystery entails everything that happens in our lives. And I feel like destiny is sort of an open questions. Things are put before you, offers are made, situations occur, and then you sort of decide what’s going to be made of it.
Somebody asked me the other day if I felt like my husband and I, if our love story was destined. And I said, “No, I don’t think our love story was destined. I think our meeting was destined. We certainly could have blown it.” [Laughs] The invitation was presented, and then it was turned over to our care, and what came next was up to us. But we could have easily walked away from it.
And I’ve been in situations before, in love and in work and in relationships, where an offering is there, and for whatever reason, the participants are unable or unwilling to see through it and it goes away. I don’t think destiny can force you to do something that you’re not going to do.
CP: Right. The other thing that’s coming up right now is, you have an incredible attention to detail. Robert Penn Warren is one of my favorite writers in this regard, and it just kind of reminds me a little bit of that here in this book.
EG: That’s a great honor to be put in that company.
CP: He’s just so amazing. But it has that same sort of—it’s like time stops and it’s like the micro focus. It’s almost like you’re in the grass and you’re looking at all the worlds in between the blades. You could spend a lifetime doing that.
And yet, you—I always think, “Wow, Elizabeth Gilbert, she’s got such big vision.” Do you know what I mean? There is an interplay here, and it’s sort of like the destiny and the push/pull of destiny is the same in the big thinking and yet the attention to the details. It seems like you have a pretty good balance of those two things going on. I’m wondering if that’s ever a struggle for you.
EG: You know, I love that idea, thank you for pointing it out. I think that the big picture is in the details. And it’s not an accident that my character, Alma Whittaker, who’s a botanist, finds her way in the world through studying mosses, which are incredibly tiny and incredibly intricate and which have been largely overlooked.
And as a woman trying to make a name for herself in the botanical world, she discovers that there’s this huge universe right underfoot that everybody is literally stomping on. And that all the bigger botanists have made their name [with] bigger plants and flowers—you know, the orchidists and the people who study the great redwoods. But she can’t travel to those places. She doesn’t have that luxury to be able to take on those mega-floras.
[But] right in her backyard, there are probably 45 different varieties of moss growing on one boulder cropping, and she’s able to find an entire universe in that moss. And she’s actually able to ask the same giant questions about the origins of life itself through the study of these few boulders as the great men of her day are asking through the study of the cosmos and through evolution and through fossil records that they’re finding.
So all the answers are everywhere. It’s just that they’re in miniature for her because that sort of suits her life. And I also thought that was a big metaphor for women’s lives in general. I think for most of history, women have lived very rich, miniaturized lives. When you look at the artwork that women have done in Western civilization, it tends to be tiny. It’s needlework or it’s painting tea cups, it’s textiles, it’s tiny knots. Because women’s lives had been kind of compressed, unfortunately, into a smaller scale, and yet women bring their creativity to that small scale and make magnificent things on that scale.
So I thought it would be interesting to have a female character who does the same thing in the scientific world, and who reaches the same conclusions as the great men by doing that. So I do think in her life, and in our own lives, there’s tremendous greatness to be found in the very small and the very everyday.
CP: Right. There is this question within the women’s movement—there was a Harvard Business Review study called “The Vision Thing,” where they looked at women, and whether it’s true or perceived, women scored lower in visioning. Everything else was equal or higher than men, CEOs. I mean, I could talk more about the study, but just to sum it up, the women CEOs and high-level executives, the only score that they didn’t meet and were actually below men [was] the ability to vision—
EG: The big, big picture.
CP: Right, the big picture. And there was a lot of reaction to that where women were like, “Look, vision, vision, vision—there’s so much happening right here in front of our nose that’s very, very important.” So to hear you articulate that—I just think it’s very relevant right now.
EG: I think it is. And I think another thing that is the danger of that is, of course, a little myopia and also perfectionism. I think that it was really important to me to write a novel about a women [with] a towering intellect, and I really didn’t want it to be a story about a woman who was brilliant but nobody would listen to her because she was a women. I just felt like that was an oversimplification and also didn’t honor the real lives of the real, incredibly respected 19th-century female botanists who I studied as I was working on the book.
But what I do find—and this is a huge generalization but I think it’s a point worth making—that a lot of times what holds women back in the world is this idea that they can’t put something forward until it is perfect. And we all know that has never stopped men. [Laughs]
That’s the thing that I’m always trying to convey to younger women, to young artists, to young executives, to any woman I meet who’s entering the world at all. Don’t hold back your voice. Don’t hold back your ideas until they’re perfect because first of all, perfect doesn’t exist, and secondly, you’ll be overrun by people who are throwing out all sorts of stuff that’s half formed, and yours is 95 percent formed. You know, 95 percent’s good enough! Push it forward, put it out there.
Alma suffers from that level of perfectionism. And I think it’s probably one of the terrific saving graces in my own life that I actually don’t have a problem. [Laughs] I grew up with a mother who taught me from me a really early age that done is better than good. That was one of her mottos I grew up with. “Just finish it, just put it out there. It doesn’t have to be immaculate, it just has to be done.”
And I feel like that’s gotten me so far. That’s probably the reason I have six books instead of one. Otherwise I would still be editing that first one. I’m willing to throw stuff out there in the world. And I’m always trying to empower women to do the same.
CP: Yes. Let’s take it to the concept of emerging. Our organization is Emerging Women, and the conference, which you will be speaking and representing at in October, is Emerging Women Live. It’s interesting—you’ve got this book [and] it almost feels like a second or a third emergence in your life. And I’m just curious to see how that feels to you, coming back out. This is a big body of work and it’s in an area—fiction—that you are coming back to. What’s that energy like for you?
EG: You know, that’s such a great question because it is a reemergence—returning to something that I did last a long time ago. And it’s also a new emergence because I’ve never done anything on this scale. I’ve never taken on a book [as huge] as this.
And I’m turning away a bit from how people know me. And that can be a scary thing in people’s lives because it’s easy to be put in boxes, right? Once somebody gets used to you being good at one thing, they really don’t want you to move out of that. And it can be comforting to stay in that box, but on the other hand, you can bore yourself after a while.
I feel like I’ve had a number of iterations in my career that I think, at the time, could have been seen as career suicide again and again and again. When I started off, I had just started getting a name for myself in the fiction world when I started to be a journalist, which is considered kind of the ghetto of writing.
EG: And I dedicated a lot of my years to journalism and loved it, and then just when I was getting a name for myself as a journalist who wrote exclusive for and about men—I wrote for GQ for many years and I had this really broad male audience—I wrote the most feminine book you could possibly imagine: Eat, Pray, Love, a book that I was certain was going to lose me the readers that I’d already built up.
And then once I wrote Eat, Pray, Love and I become kind of [a] spokesmodel for women’s consciousness and memoirs and that sort of thing, now I’m going to write 19th-century literary fiction, which is yet another step in what could be said to be the wrong direction—except for that I know it isn’t. [Laughs] Because I know that I just have this one life, and I want to be doing at all times the things that inspire and excite me.
And I have to trust and follow those instincts and believe that I have instincts for a reason, and that if I have a voice telling me, “It’s time to take a shift and do this work,” then I have to trust that that’s the case and let the outcome be whatever the outcome will be.
CP: Was it more of a fire, or was it just a natural unfolding?
EG: Nothing funny. There are few very big projects for me that start with fire, because I think—[and] this is something that’s I’ve spoken to people about [too]—we’re all told to follow our passions, and nobody believes that more than me, but passion is a tall order. Passion is a rock star emotion. It’s rare and it’s towering. It’s a burning bush and a flame. Signs from God and a heart racing—all these big, giant, oversized feelings that we don’t general walk through in our daily life holding onto, because they’re almost too big to hold.
So I’m a bigger advocate of the more modest, quiet—and again we go down to miniature—miniaturized version of passion, which is curiosity. Because curiosity is present all the time. Where passion is like getting knocked over by a wave, curiosity is a tap on the shoulder that very gently says to you, “Do you want to know more about this? What do you think?” It sort of quietly invites you to turn your head an inch and look more closely.
I feel like I’ve really followed my curiosity more than anything. It’s like a little scavenger hunt—you follow your curiosity one little step and then you look for the next clue, and that keeps your curiosity going. You follow it and you follow it, and it’s a more methodical, quiet path than a grand, passionate path, but the general overarching motive is always the passion of having an interesting life.
CP: It’s such an interesting point because passion does feel like the extrovert. It always gets more attention, and yet there’s a lot of power in curiosity. [And] just to relate it back to the feminine space, passion is great and it’s fire and it’s great to associate that and to recognize that femininity is not just soft. There is fire and there is passion. And yet, curiosity is so much more receiving, whereas passion feels more outward. There’s a receiving where you’re really—and that’s so feminine to curate something of this magnitude. And just for [knocks on book] people listening, I think this is almost 500 pages.
EG: [Laughs] It’s a big book!
CP: It’s 499! [Laughs]
EG: It’s big in its scale. It takes place all over the world and it takes on the really big questions of the 19th century: evolution and mysticism and transcendentalism, the Civil War and evolutionism and the emergence of women—everything that was going on in the 19th century, which was a big century that ended up a lot different than it started off. And Alma’s sort of witness to all of that and [a] participant in a lot of it.
So it does have this big, thrusting, masculine energy, like the big 19th century books have, those big trains of books. Every single independent car of that train was just a small piece of curiosity that built and built and built until you’ve got this big thing. I think that I do best when I keep my focus on that level. [Like] they say about the way ants work, they never hurry but never stop. [Laughs] Just this steadfast, stubborn pursuit of the things that are intriguing me with the trust that if I just keep looking at that, working on that, and expanding that, it will go on to something magnificent, hopefully.
CP: Beautiful. So you have three generations—and we’re kind of using this book as a nice platform to dig into all these other issues—but I’m curious, and again I’ve not gotten that far, but you were saying that Alma becomes a very strong women in her later years, and I’m curious to see if, for you yourself, here you are in probably that mid-range, do you have a conversation with your inner crone or your inner wise woman, the woman that lives in the same era where the seasoned Alma lives?
EG: That’s such a cool question! I actually have, on my bulletin board next to my desk, probably five pictures hanging up of old ladies, pictures that I clipped out because I just think they’re fantastic. They’re just fabulous and wild.
There’s one that I found in a National Geographic from the 1970s that I found in a hotel room in Stockholm. I was paging through it and I have a little caption under it that says, “My retirement plan.” [Laughs] And it’s just this really cool old woman who looks really strong with these gnarly hands that have obviously done a lot of physical labor, and she’s sitting in her wheelbarrow taking a break from gardening and reading a book. And her hair’s in mats and her clothes don’t match, and she just looks so completely content in herself. And I’m like, “That’s who I’m aiming to become.” Because there’s so much power in that.
I have those kinds of women in my family. Fortunately, I come from a line on both sides of women who just live forever. My book is dedicated to my grandmother, who just turned 100 this year. Aging at that level is just something that I never feared, because all I ever saw was people getting more and more mighty as they got older. I don’t know if this is true in every family, but in my family I certainly see the case that the men seem to diminish and they seem to get sort of beaten down and they get quieter and they get more humble, and the women get stronger and stronger and stronger [laughs] and more and more volatile.
I put a question up on Facebook the other day, and I said, “If somebody would wake you up in the middle of the night and ask you how you were, how old do you feel? Without even thinking about it, what do you think your internal age is?” And all the women who were in their teens and twenties said they felt old and tired. And all the women who were old said that they felt young and strong. I just thought, “This is an amazing piece of information in a culture that really sees youth as an accomplishment and teaches women to be terrified of getting older.”
The reality seems to be that those are the best years. You’ll never feel more beautiful, you’ll never feel more powerful, you’ll never feel more important than when you come into yourself in that way. So that’s another reason why I really wanted to write a birth-to-death novel. I really wanted to take Alma from the first moments of her life to her last and just see the evolution of a women in her completeness.
CP: Yes! It’s so deep. I personally have had such a fear of—I’m not saying growing old, 60s, 70s, but definitely 80s, 90s, and the death. It’s something primal in me that I’m working with. And yet I know that that’s such a sweet spot. Once again, it’s a primal thing inside me that, because my mom passed away and my grandmother was in France, so I haven’t really seen a woman go through this. Yet I know that there is a very sweet future ahead in those years. I’m just not quite sure why—why is it, do you think, that it becomes easier and more harmonious for women in their later years?
EG: There’s a poem somewhere, and I can’t remember anything about it except for the line about—I almost feel like it’s Stevenson, where he talks about the old women in Japan who have seen so many earthquakes that when the earth starts to tremble they don’t even look up from their sewing, or if they’re gardening, they don’t even look up anymore.
I feel like I can feel that already happening in my own life on a smaller scale, where even at the age of 44 that I am now, stuff that would have just rocked me off my foundation 20 years ago, I can let it pass in a matter of a few hours. Just because I’ve been through it and I’ve seen how certain dramas end. I’ve seen how certain stories end. And I’ve seen that if you just wait it out, eventually it will play itself out, it will be all right. It’s probably going to be fine.
All this stuff you start to learn over time, and I think that’s the essence of wisdom. Wisdom is sort of the opposite of panic. I think that youth is an era of great excitement but also of great panic. Everything is new. It’s the first time their heart’s ever been broken. It’s the first time something didn’t work out. It’s the first time you’ve been terrified. And in one sense, you kind of get turned into one of those river stones.
CP: Yes. There aren’t that many firsts.
EG: Right! It’s like, this is not my first, second, third, or fourth rodeo. [Laughs] It’s really probably going to be fine. And when you talked about that fear of death, I find it really interesting when you see studies of women who live in nursing homes. Their biggest fear isn’t dying at all. Most old people, by a certain age, are not afraid of death. They’re afraid of poverty. They’re afraid of poverty and dependence. They’re afraid of losing. They’re watching their bank accounts because they know it’s expensive to be old, and that’s their main fear.
But death itself doesn’t seem to be something that gets the [most attention] by that age. It’s a neighbor that you’ve been living next to for a while. You’ve gotten used to the idea of sharing a room with them or sharing a fence line with them. It seems to be that way. We’ll see, I suppose, huh? [Laughs]
CP: I know! It’s just so comforting having this. That’s why I love the conversation of the inner crone, and finding a way that we can actually tap in, whether it’s through reading or speaking inward, not just to who we are presently—and I know, through therapy, we can regress and talk to ourselves as a little girl. I don’t know very [many] therapy or any kind of practices that really reach out into the future and tap into the wisdom of the inner crone, which is really who we are minus the experience.
EG: That’s really cool. I did ask on Facebook one day—you know, you always see in magazines, there’s always a question where they say, “What advice would you give to your younger self?” But as you were just saying, I said, “I’m more interested in the question of what advice your older self would give to you.”
CP: Exactly! Yes!
EG: Mine is always telling me, “Are you kidding? You’re really going to lose sleep over this?” [Laughs] “Do you have any idea what I’ve been through by this age, [and] you’re going to stay away at 2:00 in the morning and worry about this? Really? Come on!”
CP: Just hearing this, it’s a nice reminder to give ourselves a bit of a break and maybe tap into that perspective a little bit more. It would help, also, with the perfectionism and all of that. But just to slow it down, so that we are breathing in and taking in the detail.
EG: Yes. I have to say, thank you for the term “inner crone,” by the way. “Inner child” has been used to the point that it doesn’t seem to have a meaning anymore, but when you said “inner crone,” that went right through me, like, “Yes! I love that!”
CP: I know! I know she’s in there. In fact, I just came up with that when you were talking, so we did that together.
EG: Awesome. It’s yours! Put a patent on it. Write a book.
CP: Can I put your name on there? Can I put, “With Elizabeth Gilbert”? [Laughs]
EG: You know what, I’ll take the assist, like in a hockey game. But I think you definitely put that one in the goal.
CP: OK, all right. That is so great, and this whole conversation is just so relevant. And I so appreciate you bringing that curiosity in the receiving and taking the limelight away from the passion a little bit. Not that it doesn’t deserve it, but you are someone who spends time in the detail, in the small things, and you’re giving a voice to this quiet existence that, especially as entrepreneurs and women who are emerging, we can—and I’ll say this for myself—sweep that under rug. “Is that going to get me the investor or the sponsor? I know I’ve got to speak from this place of bigness,” and yet the real power does come, over time, from this deeper place.
EG: Scavenger hunt. That’s the [term] that I use all the time. I think everyone is trying to play the grand, final scene of the big opera, but really, it’s the scavenger hunt that’s the most interesting. Eyes on the ground, looking for that four-leaf clover, looking for that little scrap of paper hidden under the next rock, trying to find the clue. Because it is just a series of very small, almost invisible clues. And there’s a level of trust that develops where you just believe.
Right now, it’s so dim, but I just have this idea in my mind about writing a novel about girls behaving recklessly in the last year of prohibition in New York City. I have no idea why, but it’s just a tiny little glimmer of something. So I’m starting to check books out from the library about prohibition. But what is that? Why am I interested in this? [I’m trying] to find why that clue was put in front of me, because that’s my part of it. Curiosity is given to you, but your response is your job, and whether you take responsibility for that curiosity is your job.
CP: And what’s coming to mind is you don’t have a desire to write a futurist type of novel or science fiction.
EG: Oh! That has literally never come to me! [Laughs]
CP: It’s interesting, you’ve got the past!
EG: Now that you’ve said it, I’m like, “Am I supposed to be writing some dystopic/utopic [book]?” That’s interesting, it’s never come to me. I think it’s because I’m such a researcher. I love history, and I feel like the past is almost a foreign language. Each era has its own language and if you can go back and learn that language, it’s a really interesting thing to do. I don’t know if I have the vision—here we go, the vision thing!—to imagine a world without history in it yet. I want to try all kind of things, so maybe I should set myself that challenge.
CP: You know, it’s really great what you’re doing, and if you do the prohibition [book], fabulous. I think it’s giving voice to the lives of women during a time where they actually weren’t captured. To go back and to bring that alive is great. And to know that women were strong just as they are now and to be able to have the freedom to develop their characters—I just think it’s rich. Whether it’s past or future—
EG: I think it’s also a response [to] the novel I just wrote [which] is so buttoned up in terms of Victorian sexuality. I think by the end of it I was like, “I want to make some girls just go nuts.” I’m also very interested, as a very staid and happily married and quietly plotting along middle aged woman, I’m so far from that impulse in my own life to misbehave, to be wild, to take risks at that level. I just think it’d be fun to go back and try to remember what that even felt like. [Laughs] I’m very happy not to be doing it because the consequences of it were always so dire. But on the other hand, I thought it would be thrilling to go back and play with it.
CP: Cool. Well, one last question for our listeners. You’re basically—I don’t know if the word “master” is [right]—you’re very familiar with the creative process as a writer. And a lot of women that write now that are in our audience that are emerging, they’re very well-steeped in the creative process. I know from my own experience that it comes and it goes, and when it’s not there, you just feel completely paralyzed.
And I’m wondering if you have any words of wisdom, especially for women who are emerging into something, and there is that fire and curiosity and unknown and fear. How can you help women who are struggling with staying on top of that process and staying in their most creative space?
EG: It’s funny—I would liberate them from the idea of passion. Again, this goes back to what we were talking about earlier, but when people come to me and say they’re blocked and it’s not happening, I feel like they’ve gotten into a very traditionally male artistic wrestling match with their muses. That’s how Norman Mailer writes. It’s a punch-out fest, right? That takes a huge toll on the artist, it takes a huge toll on the creative person’s family, it takes a toll on creativity itself.
My feeling is, back off and try to lower the stakes and look again for the curiosity. Curiosity, curiosity, curiosity. You can almost always access curiosity. Always. I could go access it today just walking down the street. I’m sure there’s going to be something that’s a teeny tiny little bit interesting.
So begin back there. Go back to that spot. And also, try to—this is something Martha Beck writes about a lot, the idea of “hot trails.” When you’re on the search for something—say you’re a hunter and you’re hunting a wild animal and you lose the trail, the term that they would use in hunting is that you double back and you try to find the last spot where the trail was hot.
Instead of forging forward into the vast forest with no idea where you’re going, go back a mile. When was the last time something felt inspiring to you? When was the last time something was exciting to you? Return to that and then be gentle with it. Don’t take it by the neck and try to interrogate answers from it about what you’re supposed to do. Go back to that spot and sniff around. Put your hand on the ground, feel where it was warm, and see if there’s a little small overlooked clue near there that you somehow missed.
And also be faithful that you live in a world of abundance, not a world of scarcity. I think that’s probably the biggest thing that’s defined my career. When I’ve gone through dry spells, I just had this belief that there are more ideas, that that last idea I had was not the last idea on Earth. There are plenty of them. There’s room for everybody. And eventually, another one will come. You just have to be ready to receive it, to use a word that you touched on earlier in the conversation. And then act! [Laughs] But only once the signal has come.
So it’s a dialogue. It’s a conversation. But it doesn’t need to be a shouting match. It can be a very gentle, inquisitive mutual conversation between you and the Mystery.
CP: Beautiful. Well, thank you so much for your time, Liz. This has been a real treat and we will see you in October.
EG: I cannot wait! I’m so, so, so excited to be there and to meet everybody. Thank you so much, I really, really appreciate it.