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Writing advice: Elizabeth Gilbert

12 November, 2009

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 GQThe 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.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 November, 2009 5:50 am

    Junot Diaz is amazing. I’ve never read any of his stuff but if you go to the ABC net au Book Show I think they still have a great interview with him online, a podcast…a truly amazing interview…


    • 15 November, 2009 6:13 am

      The only writing of his that I’ve read is the Oscar Wao novel. He drops readers into the world of young Dominicans in the USA, complete with their almost incomprehensible Spanish slang, but also uses copious footnotes to present immigration’s ‘back story’, i.e., the Dominican Republic’s bloody history. I’d like to read some of his short stories. Thanks for the tip about the ABC podcast–will look it up.


  2. 12 November, 2009 11:01 pm

    i do like her writing advice tho! (i forgot to mention this, sorry!)


  3. 12 November, 2009 10:51 pm

    I found the book very readable…she can write, there’s no doubt about it, and she obviously had amazing experiences.

    For me I found it hard to get beyond the specificity of the language and perspective. Some of the language, the casual chatty turns of phrase, her assumptions about the reader sharing her cultural viewpoint, even grammar choices, were so…American…I found it hard going sometimes. I do read widely and I can’t put my finger on exactly why this book bothered me a little.

    Really, I think it was a good book, but in a world where US publishers “Americanize” books and readers and reviewers in the USA complain about Australian slang in books (for example) I find it wearisome to read something so American…

    I sound completely anti USA, but i’m not, i suppose the majority of authors i read are US…French…Australian…British…definitely Western in anycase, so I can hardly call myself multicultural in my tastes. And of course, everybody writes from their own viewpoint, don’t they?

    But still, I could’nt help feeling annoyed by the tone. Even if she’s a decent writer and apparently a pretty nice person too…


    • 13 November, 2009 8:13 am

      Yes, I think her writing advice is good, especially the idea of trying to get published rather than ‘pre-rejecting’.
      I too had doubts about the book’s style. At times, I felt I was reading a 20’s-something chick lit offering rather than a true account by a 30’s something going through a major life transformation. The need to come up with book-length memoir–about enlightenment no less!–was a near-impossible task. To me, it seemed she didn’t spend enough time sifting the important from the trivial.
      It’s hard to fault an American writer for using American grammar but I take your point about cultural blind spots. I’m generalising that writers who have lived in different cultures (however you want to define that) must shed their monocultural blind spot in order to survive, and doing this changes their writing perspective. The best writers don’t simply explain their culture, like a travel guide, but draw readers into it. Junot Diaz did this well in his novel, The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
      I’ve had a look at your website. Your study looks fantastic! I’ll have to read older posts to find out how you ended up in France.


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