15 Minutes with Elizabeth Gilbert: On Writing, Disappointment, Love Stories Gone Wrong and Why We Must Stop Asking for Permission

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MANTRA: Do you feel that there’s any real in the unreal?

Elizabeth Gilbert: I think there’s more real in the unreal than there is in the real. I think the thing that I lost in myself when I stopped writing fiction and the thing that I rediscovered and started mining again is, for lack of a better word, magic. It’s the way you can brush up against the inexplicable and the mystical. I’ve always thought of my writing as a spiritual practice. But I think that fiction is the most supernatural kind of writing that you can do—or that I can do—because of the ways that the real and the unreal weave together to create something that feels more true than anything. It feels like a collaboration between yourself and inspiration, a collaboration between the facts upon which your book is based and the lives you invent around those facts. There’s this great kind of spooky dance that happens that I can’t access any other way. I think most of us are given kind of one pathway to that dance, and that’s why I’m a writer—it’s the only way I can get there. I can’t do it through art, I can’t do it through singing, I can’t do it through mothering, I can’t do it through invention. There are other ways that people participate in that collaboration. This is the only way I can do it. What happens and what you encounter, what you collide with—it’s so exciting and revealing about how much more interesting and tricky the universe is than we think in our daily lives.
 

MANTRA: Let’s talk about your work.

EG: Somebody once said that when you write fiction, you’re writing memoir, and when you’re writing memoir, you’re writing fiction. When you write a novel, there’s a level at which you are much more revealing about who you are because you’re less self-conscious about how you’re presenting yourself.

 

You are accidentally leaving your DNA all over everything in a novel because it’s all coming from you. The reality, certainly in my life, is that we all have love stories that go terribly wrong; we all have horribly broken hearts. And somehow we endure. We’re not destroyed by it. We endure and go on to do interesting things and have worthy lives, even though we carry our heartbreaks with us. That’s a kind of personal story of mine that I don’t think I would tell in memoir but I do think I can tell in fiction.

MANTRA: How has disappointment changed you?
EG: It softens me. It makes me be a more sensitive, kinder person. I know what it feels like to be bruised; I know what it feels like to carry things around with you that never totally heal. There’s closure and then there’s the stuff you just kind of like, well, I guess it’s going to be in the minivan with me forever. And you carry it with you and you continue on your journey with your minivan full of stuff, which I think most of us do. All the parts of us that we ever were are always going to be with us. You make space to carry them and you just try not to let them drive. But you can’t chuck them out either. I think I have more compassion than if I had led a life where everything worked out exactly as I had planned or if I had never been wounded or if I had never been betrayed or I had never been harmed. I don’t think I would be as good a person. I’m still aspiring to be a better and better person, but I think those disappointments have made me gentler with other people and their disappointments, the stuff that they have to carry around and endure.

 

MANTRA: What do you think the world needs from women right now?

EG: I think the world needs women who stop asking for permission from the principal—permission to live their lives as they deeply know they often should. I think we still look to authority figures for validation, recognition, permission. I see women who have this struggle between what they know is right, what they know is necessary, what they know is healthy, what they know is good for them, what they know is good for the work that they need to do, what they know is good for their bodies, what they know is good for their families—all too often ending that statement with the upturned question mark: “If it’s okay with everyone?” Still asking, still requesting, still ling petitions for somebody to say that it’s all right. I think that, myself included, that has to be dropped before we can take our place in the way that we need to and the world needs us to.

 

The best and most powerful things that I’ve done in my life were when I decided that I don’t f*cking need somebody to tell me that I can do it. To just go and make it myself, do it myself, build it myself, do the project first and not bother along the way to get the requisite paperwork. That requires faith. Primarily it requires a faith in the condition that you are allowed to exist. You are here and you are allowed to be here and therefore you are allowed to make decisions about yourself and the people in your life, rather than sort of backing up and making sure it’s okay with everybody at every turn.
 

MANTRA: Do you have a consistent practice or a perspective that helps you through times of contraction?

EG: I do. It all comes down to these two words: “stubborn gladness.” It’s from
a poem by my favorite poet, a guy named Jack Gilbert. He’s sort of the poet laureate of my life. He has a poem called “A Brief for the Defense.”

 

In the poem he says, “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.” Which is not to edit him, but I guess that’s how I took him in. He carefully put those words in the order that he wanted them, but somehow in my mind they just go into the furnace and come out like two ingots, sort of melded together, these two words that I keep together. Stubborn gladness. What I love about the line is that it doesn’t deny the reality of the ruthless furnace of the world. That God wants us to be in joy, God wants us to be happy. Because of this extraordinary consciousness and this great ability for wonder and marvel, and without denying any of the terrors and horrors of the world, we also have an obligation toward joy and toward miracle and excitement. I feel like if I were to get another tattoo, it would probably be those two words. Just stubborn, stubborn, stubborn gladness.

 

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