Elizabeth Gilbert Shares Helpful Creative Processes

Her most recent book is the #1 New York Times Bestselling memoir "Eat, Pray, Love," about the year she spent traveling the world alone after a difficult divorce. Anne Lamott called Eat, Pray, Love "wise, jaunty, human, ethereal, heartbreaking." The book has been a worldwide success, now published in over thirty languages with over 7 million copies in print. It was named by The New York Times as one of the 100 most notable books of 2006, and chosen by Entertainment Weekly as one of the best ten nonfiction books of the year. In 2008, Elizabeth was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, by Time Magazine.

In addition to writing books, Elizabeth has worked steadily as a journalist. Throughout much of the 1990’s she was on staff at SPIN Magazine, where – with humor and pathos – she chronicled diverse individuals and subcultures, covering everything from rodeo's Buckle Bunnies (reprinted in The KGB Bar Reader) to China’s headlong construction of the Three Gorges Dam. In 1999, Elizabeth began working for GQ magazine, where her profiles of extraordinary men – from singers Hank Williams III and Tom Waits (reprinted in The Tom Waits Reader) to quadriplegic athlete Jim Maclaren – earned her three National Magazine Award Nominations, as well as repeated appearances in the “Best American” magazine writing anthologies. She has also written for such publications as The New York Times Magazine, Real Simple, Allure, Travel and Leisure and O, the Oprah Magazine (where her memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" was excerpted in March, 2006.) She has been a contributor to the Public Radio show "This American Life", and -- perhaps most proudly -- has several times shown up at John Hodgman's Little Gray Book Lecture Series, most notably during Lecture Four on the subject "Hints for Public Singing."

  • Transcript


Question: How do you stimulate creativity?

Gilbert:    Well, I’m a big conversationalist so I listen.  And, you know, I’m always on guard.  I had a friend who used to say that I use… let’s gets our magazine stories by going to a bar and talking to somebody, you know, and just hearing something that sticks out, you know, as interesting.  So there’s a lot of talking involved in my work.  And I don’t think that’s necessarily all that common for writers.  I think a lot of people become writers specifically because they can’t abide that and they don’t want to be, you know, in the mix and in the conversation and they would prefer to be… having a sort of hidden dialogue, in silence.  I’m not like that.  So definitely, I feel like I have to be engaged wherever I am with the people who are around me.  That really helps a lot.  And then… You know, I… I’m just very… It’s weird because in the rest of my life, I’m not this way but when it comes to writing, I’m very disciplined.  I grew up in a farm and I was the most useless person on that farm.  But somehow, I kind of took all those lessons about doing your chores and being responsible and I apply them to this work.  And so, I was really bad at taking care of the chickens and the garden but somehow, it’s the same muscles or something that I use.  And when I’m working, I’m pretty diligent about kind of clearing out my life and setting aside huge periods of time, going to bed early, getting up at 4:30, 5:00 in the morning, working in this very rigorous kind of hour by hour disciplined way.  And I can’t focus or cope without that so I can’t write in chaos.  So there’s a certain amount of… certain amount of order that I have to keep in my life in order to be able to work. 

Question: Is physical health important to your process?

Gilbert:    It’s funny.  Actually, my meditation practice completely, what there is of it, completely drops away when I’m working.  I think it’s because the work isn’t meditation itself and also because there is absolutely no way I would be able to quiet my mind when I’m in the process of creating… And I wouldn’t want to.  You know, I kind of need to keep it, like, keep those ovens kind of fired up.  I don’t really want them to come down to a certain level of calmness.  Although it is calming, oddly, because it’s so, I don’t know, such an enormous sense of focus, which is actually, of course, what meditation is.  So instead of sitting in silence and staring at a candle, I’m sort of sitting in silence and staring at a page full of words and just trying to kind of drive my attention to solving whatever the problem is.  And physically, that all falls away when I’m working too.  I just… everything kind of falls away when I’m working.  And just part of the reason that I found over the years that when it comes time to actually write a book, it’s really kind of better if I go away.  And as much as the beginning of my creative process, is so much about being around people and ideas and conversation.  Once I’m actually working, I really sort of need to be in a cave by myself, not showering and not talking to anybody and not going to yoga class and, you know, any sort of engagement becomes a really big distraction at that point.    

Question: How important are physical surroundings?

Gilbert:    I think the physical surrounding affect enormously where you are and what you’re writing about.  I mean, for so much of my life, I actually went and kind of manipulated myself into particular physical surroundings.  And certainly the book “Eat, Pray, Love” is all about what these 3 countries, Italy, India, and Indonesia bring forth from me, you know.  And that’s why the 3 sections of the book are so different because they were composed in these… in these different places.  But… I don’t know.  I’m changing about that now so I’m not sure… I’m not sure anymore of… Really, my life is quite down a lot and now I live in New Jersey so God knows what that’s going to bring.  But it’s… I don’t know.  Now, I’m feeling a different impulse, which is about community and being in this small town and having certain daily rituals and having a garden and neighbors and pets.  And all that stuff kind of matters to me in a really serious way now, which makes me think that my work is probably going to change as a result or maybe this is the beginning of a new topic of discussion in my mind.