Writing advice: Elizabeth Gilbert
After reading a positive review of Eat, Pray, Love, a memoir by US author, Elizabeth Gilbert, I reserved a copy at my local library. What a surprise to find I was 30th on the waiting list. Later I discovered that her book is popular world-wide, having sold over 7 million copies.
About Elizabeth Gilbert
After completing college, Elizabeth Gilbert interspersed travel and work. She calls this time her personal postgraduate writing program, when she was ‘listening to how people spoke’, ‘collecting experiences’ and writing. During this time, she was learning about life ‘expressly so that I could write about it’. Later, she worked as a journalist, writing articles for GQ, The New York Times, and O. Besides her memoir, she has authored a prize-winning collection of short stories, a novel, and a biography that made it to the finals list for two awards.
Her thoughts on writing
In her blog, Gilbert presents her views on writing. I’ve paraphrased her ideas.
- Find your own path. Books about how to get published often give contradictory advice; what works for one writer may not work for another. There are many ways, not one. And ‘it is never too late to start writing’.
- Make writing a holy calling. If you are serious about having a writing life, make it a ‘holy calling’: Make a vow, devote yourself to it, build your life around it.
- Maintain self-confidence. When she started submitting her work, she expected rejections. But she kept up her confidence, thinking, ‘[S]omebody has to write all those stories: why not me?’
- Publish. The point of writing is to ‘communicate something to the world’. You cannot just write: you need to share your work with others. You may fear criticism, but do not ‘sit on your work and suffocate it’.
- Do not ‘pre-reject yourself’. You have ‘treasures’ hidden inside you. Have the courage to bring them forth and send your work to editors, agents, etc. Let them make the decision to reject or not. If your work is rejected, keep trying. Your job is to ‘write your heart out’ and ‘let destiny take care of the rest’. Love your work and work hard, but ‘let go of the results’.
- Forgive yourself and keep writing. Discipline is not as important as self-forgiveness. ‘All writers think they suck’, and as a writer, you will always be disappointed: by your writing, your laziness, your failure to meet your promises to improve your writing practices. Working on Eat, Pray, Love, she worried about the quality of her writing until she decided this was not her problem: ‘I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly. . . only . . . that I would write. So I put my head down and sweated through it . . . .’
She relates the story of a struggling filmmaker who complained to the great German filmmaker, Werner Herzog, about how difficult it was to follow his chosen path. Herzog replied: ‘ It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make . . . [nor] to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. . . . stop whining and get back to work.’
Write like a buried miner. She includes a quote from Balzac about needing to write ‘like a miner buried under a fallen roof’. I liked the image of writer burrowing away in the rubble of words, but did not understand the quote, so I looked it up. Here’s the quote in context:
If the artist does not fling himself, without reflecting, into his work . . . as the soldier flings himself into the enemy’s trenches; and if, once in this crater, he does not work like a miner on whom the walls of his gallery have fallen in; if he contemplates difficulties instead of overcoming them one by one…he is simply looking on at the suicide of his own talent.
Her memoir & its effect
Gilbert received an advance, which enabled her to spend a year away from paid work. She lspent the year visiting three countries: Italy (eat), India (pray), and Indonesia (love). I am not a fan of this genre, and I ended up skimming the sections about her time in Italy and Indonesia. In these sections, the storyline seemed packed with too many different ideas and threads. I liked the middle part, where she describes her quest for enlightenment at an Siddha Yoga ashram. Her strength as a writer is in her detailed descriptions, which bring scenes and locations to life.
Gilbert does not want to be the ‘poster child’ for women who read her book, then decide to jettison their old life and embark on a similar enlightening journey. But this kind of ‘change’ memoir is seductive. Will scores of disillusioned thirty-something women be so taken by her memoir that they launch themselves on similar odysseys? If so, it is worth remembering that Gilbert is a skilled professional writer, whose senses are honed to spot and transmute experiences into readable book-worthy material.