Elizabeth Gilbert was told to give up her dreams of being a writer. She didn’t—and we’re all the better for it. Here, she discusses how to move past fear and unleash your creativity. 

Wheat Field

Elizabeth Gilbert

WRITER

2019

WRITING / CREATIVITY / FEAR / CITY OF GIRLS / BIG MAGIC / BOUNDARIES / MYSTICISM / LOVE / CANCER / TRAUMA / SEX / CONNECTICUT / VOGUE / ZUMBA

In the literary world, everyone is fond of the frame—publishers package authors; journalists prep angles and approach; readers repackage authors’ work via word of mouth … and the circle of life goes on.

In the game of framing, Elizabeth Gilbert has been many things: kickass, brazen writer of men’s magazine articles. Pensive, literary short story writer. All-encompassing “chick-lit” guru. Philosophical memoirist. Intensely researched, vibrant novelist.

Yet she does not play to any of it. She never has. Rather, she just writes, definitions be damned.

And with that, I too am following in the footsteps of the frame. So here, in 26 quotes to accompany the latest episode of Design Matters With Debbie Millman, Elizabeth Gilbert speaks in her own voice.

Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief

“I was born on a Christmas tree farm and my parents were a nurse and a Christmas tree farmer. I wasn’t born in the Penguin Random House building. As a child, I never met anyone who was a writer, but despite that fact, this was a path that I etched for myself and started on when I was 15 years old and chose and sacrificed for. It was my decision not to ever have a profession beyond writing; I didn’t have a backup choice. I said to myself … ‘I’m willing to not have very nice, fancy things. I’m willing to give up going on vacation with my friends to stay home and write. I’m willing to give up everything for this because this is my source of light.’”

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“Twenty-five years ago, I was a struggling, unpublished writer living in a stinky apartment in New York. Which means I was a waitress.”

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“I failed at getting published for almost six years. So for almost six years, every single day, I had nothing but rejection letters waiting for me in my mailbox. And it was devastating every single time, and every single time, I had to ask myself if I should just quit while I was behind and give up and spare myself this pain. But then I would find my resolve, and always in the same way—by saying, ‘I'm not going to quit, I'm going home.’ For me, going home meant returning to the work of writing because writing was my home, because I loved writing more than I hated failing at writing, which is to say that I loved writing more than I loved my own ego, which is ultimately to say that I loved writing more than I loved myself.”

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“I don’t mind talking about my struggles because I don’t think there’s anything to be embarrassed about. I feel very connected to the common difficulty of being a human. It’s a strange thing to be a person, and nobody knows how to do it. I don’t think there’s anything more interesting than talking about that.”

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“This woman asked me the single most important question I’ve ever been asked in my life. It forever changed the direction of my life. She looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘What are you willing to give up to have the life you keep pretending you want?’”

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The first thing I do is open the blinds to bring in the light. I always say hello to the morning. I’d be willing to bet that the first prayer that the first conscious human ever spoke was to say hello to the morning—the miracle that the light went away, and now it’s back! It’s a clean slate.”

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“Ideas are living entities. They have consciousness. They don't have matter. They can't be seen. They can't be felt. They can't be proven. But they have will.”

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“The universe is looking for collaborators, because creation’s not finished. It’s not something that happened in seven days and ended. It’s an ongoing story that we’re part of.”

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“No experience in this world has ever been cathartic without the willing participation of the individual. Life does not automatically bestow wisdom or growth upon anyone just for showing up. You have to work ceaselessly on your end to digest and imbibe your opportunities or, I have come to believe, they will gradually slip away and knock on someone else’s more receptive door.”

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“The thing is, there’s not one creative thing I have ever done that doesn’t begin with my doing something I have no business doing.”

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“In the artistic or the creative worlds, the contradiction that I think you have to be able to imbibe if you want to be sane is, ‘What I’m creating right now is the most important thing in the entire world—and it doesn’t matter at all.’”

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“Don't be daunted. Just do your job. Continue to show up for your piece of it, whatever that might be. If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cockeyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts, then ‘Olé!’ And if not, do your dance anyhow. And ‘Olé!’ to you, nonetheless. I believe this and I feel that we must teach it. ‘Olé!’ to you, nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”

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“After the weird, disorienting success that I went through with Eat, Pray, Love, I realized that all I had to do was exactly the same thing that I used to have to do all the time when I was an equally disoriented failure: I had to get my ass back to work. And that's what I did, and that's how, in 2010, I was able to publish the dreaded follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love. And you know what happened with that book? It bombed, and I was fine. Actually, I kind of felt bulletproof, because I knew that I had broken the spell and I had found my way back home to writing for the sheer devotion of it.”

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“Perfection murders joy. You cut yourself out of the game before you even start. You cut yourself out of the game because you’ve decided it’s never going to be as good as your ideal.”

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“You’re never going to please everyone. I mean, there are people who think the Sistine Chapel is gaudy.”

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“When fear makes you go to war against it, that’s fear taking the wheel. But when you just let it be there, sharing a space with you, it becomes less of a battle. Fear is a really good sign that you’ve got skin in the game, that what you’re doing matters to you and it has an impact on your psyche. That’s often a very good indication that you’re on the right track, that you’re doing something that’s really scary.”

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“I mean, look, life is a very risky affair, and what could be more fascinating and terrifying than this reality about a human existence, which is that literally anything can happen to literally anybody at literally any moment? And to live in the awareness of that without needing to drown it out or dull it out or suffocate it or deny it is quite an exhilarating way to live. And then you can start to participate as much as possible in how that story unfolds.”

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“I’m not interested in being fearless. I’m interested in becoming brave, and there’s a big difference there. To be fearless means you don’t even know what fear is, which means you’re missing a huge part of what it is to be a human being. To be brave means that you keep going anyway.”

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“I rail a lot against passion, because I feel like passion can be very exclusionary and very elitist, and it can leave a lot of people feeling like they don't belong in creative journeys, and they don't belong in creative explorations. I'm much more interested in allowing people to follow curiosity, which is a far more gentle impulse that doesn't require that you sacrifice your entire life for something.”

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“Whenever people challenge me on this idea that everyone is naturally creative, my rebuttal is that you and I and every single person we know are descended from people who made things for tens of thousands of years. My grandmother made these beautiful hooked and crocheted rugs and she made quilts; they had no money, she had no training, and no education but the things that she made were beautiful. Actually—and this is my favorite definition of art—they were unnecessarily beautiful.

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“The entire world, for better or for worse, has been altered by the human hand, by human beings doing this weird and irrational thing that only we do, amongst all our peers in the animal world, which is to waste our time making things that nobody needs, making things a little more beautiful than they have to be, altering things, changing things, building things, composing things, shaping things. This is what we do. We’re the making ape. And no one is left out of the inheritance of that—that’s our shared human inheritance.”

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“My concern is not that the world is filled with crappy art. My concern is that the world is filled with millions and millions of people who are not making anything.”

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“I’m just joining a history of people who do this work. I’ll do it for as long as I’m permitted. I’ll do it to the best of my ability. It may not be successful, it may not be lucrative, it may not be well-received, but I’m gonna give it everything that I have, and then I’m gonna die, and then other people will do this. And so it will go. And what a wonderful way to live your life! What a great company of saints to join. And a wonderful team to play on: the makers. It’s worth a lot of trouble to get to do that.”

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“Joy has been my teacher and my deity for a really long time. Without joy, everything that you’ve accomplished and everything you have means nothing.”

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“The rule of karaoke is the same as the rule of life, which is: The only way to embarrass yourself is to not throw yourself into it one hundred percent. That’s it. Otherwise you look dumb. But if you’re one hundred percent committed, you always look kind of cool, no matter how bad it turns out.”

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“I wish you luck, and stubbornness, and the absence of the need for a permission slip from anybody. Just go fucking do it.”
 

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman