Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear with Elizabeth Gilbert
At certain points in our life, we may find ourselves feeling stuck. Thinking we could not afford any more time than what we currently have to tackle what is in front, we have come to a resolution to just settle and go on with it, convincing ourselves that it is what we want. But what are you willing to give up to have the life you keep pretending you want? This thought-provoking question is at the heart of # 1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert, who encourages us to pursue creative living beyond our fears. She shares some inspiring stories while giving us the three things we need for a creative and relaxed life: priorities, boundaries, and mysticism. Giving great advices that is full of self-love, she tells us how everything is all going to be all right in the end.
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Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear with Elizabeth Gilbert
This is a full presentation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk titled Big Magic: Creative Living beyond Fear from the 2018 Coca-Cola CMO Summit.
Years ago, I was an unpublished writer living in New York City which means that I was a waitress. I wasn’t just a waitress, I was a bartender. I was a babysitter. I sold bracelets in a flea market. I also worked in a bookstore. I had various combinations of jobs at all times. I had come to New York because I wanted to be a writer and that’s where writers are. In my mind, that’s the habitat of where writers are. It wasn’t going well though partially, largely, entirely it was because I didn’t have any time. The reason I don’t have any time is because I always had three or four or five jobs at the same time. I didn’t have any privacy, which is also essential for creativity. I was living in an apartment with three other roommates who were constantly getting high and having sex in various combinations. I had a boyfriend who’s care and feeding required a great deal of my attention. I didn’t have the space of what Melville called, the slow green grass growing world in which men ought to create. This is what the dream of creativity is that somebody is going to give you all this space and room. That’s what I lacked. There was a woman who lived in my neighborhood, who had the life I wanted. You may know her or him. He or she may also live in your neighborhood or work with you or be on your Instagram feed. Somebody who you look at and you’re like, “They’ve got the thing I want. They are the thing that I want.”
She was cool. She was a creator. She was a painter. She is nobody famous, but she’d managed to make living her entire life as far as I could see selling her work. She was respected. She traveled around the world. She was held in regard. She didn’t have to have a million day jobs. She had cool clothes. Everything about her was exactly what I wanted to be. She was self-confident. She was interesting. She was old. She was like 50, so that was weird. Otherwise, everything else was cool about her. I was fascinated by her because I had never met anybody at that point in my life who had become the thing that I envisioned and wanted to be. My dad is a chemical engineer and a Christmas tree farmer. My mom is a nurse. I didn’t grow up with literary people. I didn’t grow up with artistic people so to me, she was fascinating. She became my mentor. She didn’t know this. I didn’t discuss it with her. What it meant for me to have this woman as my mentor was that I bothered her. Whenever I would see her, I would go and hang out around her because I wanted to have that rub off on me, the thing that she was. We were at a neighborhood block party once and I saw her there. I did my stalky thing of going up and being around her with the hopes through osmosis becoming her. She suffered me. She was kind. She would talk to me while looking over my shoulder at the other people she wanted to talk to me more. She knew I was a writer because I never talked about anything else. She said, “How is your work going?” I told her that it was going very poorly. She asked, “Why?” I told her why.Learn to start saying no to things that you don't want to do. Click To Tweet
It was all the reasons that I started off this conversation with like, “I’ve got no time. I’ve got three jobs, I’ve got no privacy. I’ve got these roommates. I’ve got this boyfriend. I’ve got these people having sex and smoking pot all day.” She heard me out. When I got to the end of my litany, she asked me the single most important and life-changing question that any human being has ever asked me in my entire life. That moment became a hinge where I can divide my life into before that moment and after that moment. I will give you that question in case you need a hinge in your life. The questions she asked me was this, “What are you willing to give up to have the life you keep pretending you want?” It was the word pretending that was so deeply painful about that sentence. It wasn’t the life you want. It was the life you’re pretending to want. There’s nothing that somebody who is pretentious in their twenties wants to hear less than they are pretending. I got offended. My back went up and I said, “I’m not pretending to want to be a writer. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’ve always been a writer. I’ve given up more stable possibilities for life to come here in New York.” I was raging in my own defense. She said, “No, you’re pretending that this is what you want. From where I stand, looking at you from everything that you always tell me, all of your time and energy is going into everything except writing.” I said, “I don’t have any time or energy for all these reasons.”
She said, “Where’s your free time going?” I said, “I don’t have free time. I have three jobs.” She goes, “Everybody has three jobs, or did or will again, at some point in their life, there’s no shame in that. Everybody’s got to make a living. It’s not that big of a deal. That’s not what your problem is. I want to know where your free time is going.” I said, “I don’t have any free time.” She said, “Really? What’s your favorite television show since the ’90s?” I was like, “Seinfeld.” She was like, “It’s so great that you have time to watch that. What are the magazines that you read?” I pretentiously said, “The New Yorker and Harper’s and Atlantic.” She goes, “How wonderful that you’ve got time to read the writers whose work you admire. What’s your favorite bar and restaurant in this neighborhood that you go to with your friends?” I was beginning to not enjoy this conversation and I told her. She said, “That’s interesting. You have time to see people and hang out with them.” She kept hammering at all these places where my time and my energy were going. She said, “You told me earlier in the conversation that you and your friends have got your money together from all your tips in your various jobs. That you rented a house on the Jersey Shore and you’re going for a week this summer.” I said, “Yes.” She goes, “You’re not going. They’re going and they are going to have an incredible time. They’re going to take pictures and they’re going to have a wonderful vacation. You’re not going. You’re going to stay home in your apartment. You’re going to work on your book or else I’m not having this conversation with you anymore.”Creative living is any life where your decisions are based more on your curiosity than your fear. Click To Tweet
I was like, “That’s not what I pay my mentor to tell me. I see it.” I took my tough love. Maybe there was no love in it. Maybe it was just tough. I don’t know. I took it and I digested it. I got back into myself. I said, “I got you. I hear what you’re saying. What I hear you telling me is that I’m going to have to learn to start saying no to things that I don’t want to do.” She looks at me with this expression of infinite pity and compassion. She said, “No, it’s so much worse than that. You’re going to have to start learning how to say no to things that you do want to do with the understanding that you have one life. You have one energy stream. You cannot do everything that you don’t want. You cannot do everything that you do want. You’re going to have to start saying no to people that you like and to things that are interesting to you if you’re serious about wanting to make this work.” She gave me this amazing hint too. She said, “There’s a mythology that when you start doing that, you’re going to have to start saying no to people. There’s a mythology that when you start saying no to people, they’re going to like you and respect you more. It’s not true. They’re going to like you and respect you a lot less. They loved you when you said yes to them. They loved you so much more when you agreed to everything that they wanted and everything that they wanted to do. You’re going to lose some people because of this and that’s fine, and the ones that you don’t lose are your tribe.” I stayed home that summer. I didn’t go to the Jersey Shore and I sat in my stuffy apartment with a view of a brick wall. I worked at my first book and that’s how it happened and that’s how it’s happened ever since.
I have told this story hundreds of times since then. I’ve told it to so many people. I’ve told it to everybody who comes to me who wants to make something, whatever it is in the world. I tell it now on social media, which didn’t even exist back then. I’m often faced with questions that people have on Facebook. I asked one time openly on Facebook, what is the single greatest obstacle that you have to live in a more creative life? Nearly everybody wrote that they didn’t have enough time. People on Facebook told me that they didn’t have any free time without even for a second recognizing the irony of that situation. I was like, “I have no sympathy for you. Here’s one thing you could do. Shut that computer off right this second. Do not make me go to your Facebook page and see what you’ve been doing with your time because I will. I will call you out on it.” That’s something that I want to put a pin in that story. We’re going to call that story priorities because I’m going to talk about three things and one of them is priorities. All of it, everything that I want to talk about is in the interest of inviting you to think about creativity in a new way.
There are a lot of words that we use surrounding creativity in our culture, especially when we’re trying to inspire people toward creativity that we want them to be bold. We want them to be brave and we want them to be badass. We want them to be disciplined. We want them to be inventive. These are all fabulous words I desperately want to embody all of those words myself, but they don’t feel revolutionary to me. The reason they don’t feel revolutionary to me is because I don’t think any of us would have any trouble coming up with lists in our heads of people we know who embody those words. Who are brave, who are bold, who are inventive, who are disciplined or who are badass. We easily, all of us in our lives, are surrounded by a lot of people who have a lot of those qualities. That’s not new to me. What would be new and what I searched for and do not see in the culture and I searched for and do not see among my own community of people who I love and respect and do not see it in myself is one word that would be the total game changer. That word is relaxed. What would it look like to be completely relaxed in your creative endeavors? Totally at ease in your own skin as you come for the beginning of the creative endeavor to the end of it, whether it’s a failure or a success. Wouldn’t you follow somebody who was relaxed anywhere? The martial artists all know that the most relaxed person in every room is the person who holds the power.
As easy as it was for you to look through your own Rolodex, your own contacts list on your phone and come up with examples in your own life and maybe even in your own self of badassery, boldness, innovation, creativity and discipline. How many people do you know who are relaxed? For me, the model that I look for when I try to figure out how to embody a sense of being relaxed, like what I aspire to. It’s this guy who some of you may have encountered if you happen to read my book Eat Pray Love or see the movie. That would be this dude named Richard from Texas, who I met incongruously at this Ashram in India. Here’s this big, slow talking, slow moving 6’4” Texan who was there to meditate and learn yoga. He was the single most relaxed human being I ever met. I loved being in his presence precisely because of the way he moved through the world, which was whatever’s going on is going on. He’s got that Whitmanesque. There’s a great line about being both in and out of the game, attached to it and looking at it at the same time. The way he cocked his head at the world and always had one hand in his pocket. I followed him around because I’m a very anxious person. For me it was having a Golden Retriever around. He is my comfort animal. He made me feel better and made me feel less high strung. I loved the way that he would respond anywhere we went in the world.There's an enormous power to be had in moments where there's that division in your mind between what is important and not. Click To Tweet
Whenever anybody would say, “How are you doing?” Richard would say, “It’s all going to be all right.” That was his answer every time, which sometimes took people aback, “I didn’t ask if it was all going to be all right.” Isn’t that what we’re all wondering like, “Is it all going to be all right?” When you meet somebody who’s like, “It’s all going to be all right,” it’s very relaxing, especially when it comes from a core within them that embodies that. The fascinating thing to me about Richard’s life is that none of it was all right. None of his, “It’s all going to be all-rightness” came from anything ever having gone right. He was raised in this blue-collar, violently alcoholic family where he, in the Springsteen song, took his first kick before he hit the ground, nothing but violence, nothing but abuse. He went off to Vietnam as a seventeen-year-old and was involved with horrific violence. He came back with shattering PTSD and a heroin addiction. He was an addict for years. He lost businesses. He was in jail. His marriage is disrupted. He was this instrument of chaos in the universe.
By the time I met him, he had had a couple of bypass surgeries. He’s in a lot of trouble with his health. It was not all right and yet it was because somehow in that whole chaotic journey, Richard had found some place to rest within himself that was very real and was very deep. He had heard something or seen something in his meditations and in his stillness that brought them to this place, which was truly is all going to be all right. That’s why those of us who couldn’t believe that flocked to him. That’s what I want to be and that’s what I want to see more of because never more than now do we need that. Do we need somebody who’s able to stand relaxed with one hand in their pocket, watching the chaos in it and out of it at the same time and being like, “It’s all going to be all right.” How do you do that? How do you be that? I have no idea. I don’t know, but it’s the only question that I’m embodying. I’m living my way through the best I can to try to figure it out because it’s the answer to not just creating in the literal ways of making things, making quilts, painting and doing art but in what I call creative living, which is something I define as any life where your decisions are based more on your curiosity than your fear.
Any life where you make your decisions routinely, not just once or twice or ten times, but on the daily where you make your decisions based more on curiosity than fear is a creative life. Your life itself becomes the work of art. That’s what I’m interested in. I’m living my life as a work of art and I want to do it from a relaxed place. Here’s the best that I have come up with. I will share it with you and you’re welcome to take it or leave it. That in order to be a relaxed person, living your life as a creative experiment, there are three things that you need. The first one I’ve already discussed and that is priorities. You need to know the difference between what matters and what doesn’t matter. This is also never more important than now when all of us carry in our pocket a tiny little device that every six seconds tells you what you should be caring about. What matters and this matters and now this matters and now this matters. Never more than now do you need extreme discipline to be able to sift through that and figure out, “In my life and my one embodiment here and my one energy stream, this is what’s important to me and this isn’t. I can’t take this on and I’m going to take this on.”
There are times in your life where that will become easy to see. Often, that is in times of great tragedy where suddenly it becomes incredibly evident. You may have spent your entire life trying to figure out what your priorities are. One day, one minute to the next, something will happen where it is very clear. This happened to me when my beloved partner was diagnosed with pancreatic and liver cancer. I got that phone call that she had terminal cancer. I was not in the same state as her, so I instantly was at the airport getting on a flight because that was a priority to go and be there instantly. I remember after having made the necessary phone calls and having talked to her and reorienting my entire life to this new reality. I remember sitting in the airport and opening up my iPad to send some messages to people and let them know. I opened up my inbox. If you’re like me, your relationship with your inbox is fraught with anxiety. Me probably introducing the word inbox into this room full of people, who are in the middle of afternoon having to be away from their inboxes is probably releasing a viper into the room in terms of the amount of anxiety.If you go through your entire life making everything equally important, nothing will ever be important. Click To Tweet
There’s been studies shown on how afraid of their email most Americans are at this point because this horrific never, ending flesh-eating bacteria. The way that I deal with my email is that there are emails that I responded to within minutes. There are emails that I respond to within days. There are emails that are going to sit in my inbox until the sun explodes because for some reasons, I can’t figure out what to do with it. They pile up and they pile up and they pile up. On that day when I found out about Rayya’s illness, I went select all and delete for the entire inbox because I realized I don’t care. The reason that I have never responded to these emails is not because I don’t know how to say whatever. I don’t know what to do with this problem, it’s because I don’t care. I don’t care about your project. I don’t care about your request. I don’t care about your reunion that you’re doing. I don’t care. I’m sorry. I don’t care if it matters to you. It doesn’t matter to me. Nothing was clear to me on that day than that all of this stuff doesn’t matter. I didn’t care.
I said, “Get rid of them. I’m not going.” I don’t regret it because it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter. It was relaxing to do it. It was a relaxing moment for me to know I care about this person. I care about this situation. There’s about four people, who I have bandwidth for and everybody else I care about you so little. I don’t even have the language to tell you politely why I don’t care. I’m deleting it. There’s an enormous power to be had in moments like that where there’s that division that’s instant in your mind between this is important and this is not. If you go through your entire life making everything equally important, nothing will ever be important because you can’t. You have to pick a few things that matter. The second thing that you need in order to live a relaxed life as you are creating your life in whatever way you need to boundaries. First come priorities then after priorities come boundaries. You can’t have boundaries unless you know what your priorities are. The first thing you have to do is identify, “This is what matters. This is what I care about. This is what’s important to me. This is who is important to me. This is the political cause that matters to me. I’m not going to take a hit off every crack pipe of outrage that is passed around on Twitter every five minutes. I don’t have the energy for it.” I’m choosing. This is what matters. This doesn’t. What I love about boundaries is that we think of it as a very hard word, almost like a border or a wall.
Joseph Campbell was this great mythologist who spent his entire life studying the religions of the mythologies of people and cultures from all over the world. Seeing how there’s one human hive mind and there’s only one story that keeps being told no matter what language it’s in. He was very interested in the sacred. I remember seeing him in an interview with Bill Moyers a long time ago in the ’70s. Bill Moyers said to him, “How do human beings make things sacred? How is something determined to be sacred?” Joseph Campbell said, “It’s the easiest thing in the world. All you have to do as a human being to make something sacred is to put a circle around it and say, ‘Now this is sacred.’ That’s now sacred. That’s how you sanctify something. There are certain spots of the world that we have humans has decided this is sacred, this cathedral here is sacred, this museum here is sacred. This spot where these people were martyred is sacred. We’re going to put a circle around it and everything that’s outside of that is mundane. Everything that’s inside of that is sacred because we said so.” He took his $15 Timex watch off, put it on a piece of paper, drew a circle around it and said, “Now my watch is sacred because I said it was.” That’s how you make a boundary.
In order to make boundaries in your lives, you have to be able to identify what is sacred. You’re like, “This is sacred, these people, my family members, sacred.” Putting a line around it. You don’t get to cross that. You don’t get to violate that. Everything outside of that are mundane. This creative work that I’m doing is sacred. This matters to me. These people are sacred. This cause is sacred. These beliefs are sacred. You circle it. It can be very light. Just a circle in the dust. You’re the only one who has to know. The appropriate response to somebody crossing a boundary into the sacred is anger, is to like, “No, you don’t get to do that. You don’t get to come in here.” As Gandhi said, “I don’t let anybody walk through my mind with their dirty feet.” Don’t let anybody into the temple with shoes on. You have to decide what in your life is so sacred that nobody and nothing gets to walk into it with shoes on. One of the things that you can make sacred is your time, which is sacred because it’s nonrefundable. It’s the only one that you get is this life with a certain number of minutes. You can choose which pieces of your time are going to be sacred. One thing that I want to invite you to think about, because you’re all grown up adults, you are old enough. You have lived long enough that every single person knows what time of day they are at their best. You all have a certain biology. You all have a biorhythm. You all have a DNA imprint.One of the things that you can make sacred is your time, which actually is nonrefundable. Click To Tweet
Let’s be very honest, you each get maybe if you’re lucky. I know this is true for me. I have one or two good hours a day where I feel good, where it’s all working in a syncopation. My brain is working and my body feels okay. My back doesn’t hurt. I’m not tired. I’m not too stressed out from too much coffee. There’s this little window. For me, I’m old enough to know. I’ve lived in this body long enough. I’ve experimented with all different ways of living. For me, it’s between six and eight in the morning. That’s it. Everything else for the rest of the day, you get a second-rate version of me. You are getting a third-rate version of me because it’s like the dip in the middle of the afternoon and I’m probably getting a third-rate version of some of you. That’s cool. Our third-rate versions are still productive and good. Most people will never notice. Find out and identify what your sacred time of the day is where it all lines up and you’re in your zone. Guard that, put a boundary around it and demand greedily that it belonged to you. My friend, Adam McKay, who wrote Talladega Nights and won an Oscar for Big Short. His is between midnight and 3:00 AM. He doesn’t wake up until about 9:00 PM. It’s this completely different rhythm. It’s how he formulates it and so that’s his time. That’s when he writes. That’s when he works.
The question that I have for you and that I dare you to ask of your life is one, have you ever figured out what the good one or two hours a day are that you’ve got? Two, who currently gets that time? Who or what in your life currently gets that time? Does it go to your family? Does it go to your boss? Does it go to your anxiety? Do you give it to the watching the news? If you take your sacred two hours a day of feeling good and you give it to watching the news. You can watch the news on one of your bad hours, but you only get this flame where the flame is burning bright for this short time and that’s true of every lifetime. It’s also true of every day. Find that, identify it and demand that it belongs to you. Do whatever you want to do in that time, but that’s yours. Give the rest of the world this cast off the rest of your energy. They’ll never notice especially moms and dads, give your kids the B rate. They’ll find frozen peas in a dinner. They won’t even notice that you’re dialing it in. They’ll be fine.
Make sure that you take this for yourself. My friend, Glennon Doyle, who wrote Love Warrior. is becoming this tremendous voice of an activist and a writer. She told me that the only thing she had to do to become a writer was so simple. It was to go to bed at 9:00. That was it. There’s nothing fancy about it. She has three kids. She was working. She had to go to bed at 9:00 when her kids went to bed. She said, “It was a very hard.” Talk about what are you willing to give up to have the life that you keep pretending you want. What she gave up was what she calls the finish line for moms, which is your kids are in bed, you got a glass of wine, you can watch TV. She gave it up. She went to bed at 9:00 and she set her alarm for 4:30 in the morning and she got up. She worked for that hour and a half before anybody else got up and she demanded it. She put a boundary around it. She declared it sacred. She burned bright in that moment. That was hers and that’s all it took was for her to say, “This is mine.” You can have the mundane part that isn’t that. You’re welcome to all of it, but this is for me.
The third thing that you need in order to be relaxed creator is mysticism. We call this by their names, but that would be me sugarcoating that I’m not going to talk about mysticism to you and I’m totally going to talk about mysticism to you. What I mean by mysticism is that in every religious culture in the history of the world, in every corner of this planet, in every moment of time, in every group of being, there have been mystics. The mystics are people who have a different, deeper connection to source than anybody else does. They are chosen. They come into being into very strange ways. They download messages from the universe in very strange ways. They are often selected in traditional societies at least to be the guide for the whole group because they have this magnet that’s attached to something in the universe that they can get oriented to in a way that other people can’t. What I find fascinating about the mystics, and again this comes from Joseph Campbell, a great mythologist. He spent a lot of time talking about mystics and interviewing and learning about them. He was writing back in the 1920s. He was meeting some people who were ancient at that time and who had never been around media. He was traveling all over the world to talk to some of these people. There was this one gentleman that he talked to who back in the 1920s who was in his 90s. He was the Shaman and the mystic for his native Alaskan tribe way up above the arctic circle.The world only turns because it has a crank on it that you can turn. Click To Tweet
This guy had been born and he was odd. That’s the other thing about mystics is that they tend to be off. There’s something about them that in this society would put them into a special class. They’d be given certain medication because they’re hearing a signal that none of the other kids are hearing. He was odd. In his oddness, he was largely useless to this tribe. He wasn’t going to be a good hunter. He wasn’t strong, but he had this strange shimmery weirdo energy. What the tribe did was to find out if he was a mystic or not. The way they did that was that they packed them up on a dog sled and he was nine years old. They took him a couple hundred miles away from the encampment where he’d grown up in the dead of winter in the Arctic circle where the sun is like for two seconds over the horizon. It’s nothing but darkness. They built an igloo. They put a little bit of food in it. They left him there alone for about two weeks without telling him what they were doing or why to this child. They put them in the ice in the darkness alone for two weeks and drove off. The whole plan was to come back in two weeks and either he was their mystic and their next leader, or he was dead or had gone insane, in which case no big loss because he wasn’t any use to the tribe anyway, but this is how you get your mystic. They put him in there. He had the experience that any child would have which was utter psychopathic terror, horror, fear, anxiety and trauma.
He stayed there in the darkness. He sat there in the darkness. He got more defeated and surrendered by sobbing worrying. He dropped into this state. When he dropped into this state, he was able to reach this place of light, beauty and peace. The voice came and found him. The voice said in his own language, “It’s all going to be all right,” which is the only thing it ever says. This is the uniting thing of mysticism that every mystic, every person, who has ever had a transcendent experience comes back with the same message to report, which is it’s all going to be all right. Whatever happens, it’s fine. We got you. This is what Richard from Texas had. This is what he had found through drug addiction, through failure, through bankruptcy, through divorces, through his heart condition was this somewhere deep magnetic sense that it’s all going to be all right. Tapping into that is the difference between a life spent believing that your actions, every single one of them are so important that if you drop the ball for one second, this entire universe is going to collapse. That the world only turns because it has a crank on it that you turn. Making yourself the primary actor in the universe and relaxing into some sense that there are forces, scientific, religious, whatever you want to call them that are happening all around you that are bigger than you. That are deeper than you, that are more mysterious than you, and that are holding this whole thing together in a way that you can never understand. The only thing you need to know is that it’s all going to be all right.
That’s the deep mysticism that I wish that all people could find. I have touched on it in moments of danger. It’s weird where you get that voice. Anybody in this room who’s ever been in a twelve-step program. You’ve heard people in those rooms talk about being at the rock bottom and suddenly finding this weird piece that said, “Even though it is contrary to everything it looks like here, it’s all going to be all right.” People have heard that voice in emergency rooms. They’ve heard that voice at the funerals of their beloveds. I’ve heard that voice while I was with the love of my life being next to her as she was dying. Getting the sense deep in those middle of the night hours when you’re sitting with somebody who’s passing, I fell into this deep sense of what I can only call relaxation. The feeling that I had was not that Rayya was dying, but that she was being died in the same way that you could say that a baby is being born.
There was a process that was happening here that was supposed to be happening. That she was being died and that I was being lived. All I had to do was be present in that room and know that it was all going to be all right. Having come through that experience has transformed me where I feel braver than I’ve ever felt in my creativity and braver than I’ve ever felt in my living. I went to the Polynesian Islands once when I was working on my novel, The Signature of All Things. I was being guided by this great sense of trust. Tony’s got that too. I know that you started on a light we cannot see because you were on a train and you heard that somebody behind you complaining about his cell phone service. You started thinking about how we’re so spoiled that we don’t even know how rare and amazing radio transmissions used to be. From that idea grew this epic novel about World War Two and this German radioman in the army meeting this blind girl. You chose to trust that little tiny moment of inspiration and build this entire story around it. That’s a deep, relaxed trust. I don’t need to know how this ends. It doesn’t need to make sense. I’m going to do this weird thing and follow the magnet. I did that with my book, The Signature of All Things. It led me to French Polynesia to do research on moss. It made sense at the time.
I was traveling with a friend. We went to Tahiti. We had been scrambling up volcanic mountains and in caves and looking at moss and talking to botanists and studying information about 19th Century botanical exploration in the South Pacific and having all kinds of adventures. We decided to have a real adventure rather than a literary boring research adventure. We found out that there was this place between two islands. One of them was Bora-Bora, but I can’t remember the name of the other island where you could hire a local fisherman to take you on his truck. You’d bounce over these rutted deep on paved roads and you would get to the edge of this weird deep ravine in the sea. There was something about the location of these two islands in the ocean where the ocean would roar through this ravine between these two islands at top speed like white water. There was something about the way that the water kicked up in the oxygen that it had created the most beautiful stretch of coral reef on earth. It’s this short little stretch between these two islands, but because the water is constantly turning, which coral likes. It is ecstatic, so you could go to the Great Barrier Reef and you can see miles of this or you can come to this place and you can see these tiny little rivulets of it. It was insane. It was psychedelic colors. It was also dangerous. It’s something that in America nobody would ever let you do because of liability, because it’s fast water.
I was like, “We’re going to do this.” My friend, Shay, was like, “Absolutely, we’re going to do this.” We found a local fisherman. It was us and a couple of French tourists. I was the French speaker on this trip, which was tragic because I don’t speak French, but I had enough of my sixth-grade French to be able to buy us a Coke at the store if I needed one. Shay was relying on me to understand what we were about to do. This fisherman spoke this patois. He was Polynesian. His French was very tricky. He didn’t have teeth. He was talking fast. The tourists seem to get it, but we stopped at the top of this ravine and he gave us an impassioned ten-minute long safety instruction about which I understood not one word. He was firing away. I could see that it was important because the French tourists were getting white-faced and they were taking this very seriously. Shay kept saying to me, “What’s he saying?” I was like, “I have no idea, but it’s a safety instruction.” We got to the very end. He gave us the flippers and they essentially throw you into this water roiling filled ravine. You’d shoot down this thing for ten straight out of totally out of control minutes careening off of coral and rocks. As I was being thrown in, the guy says, “Ne panique en pas.” I was like, “I understand that. Don’t panic.” That was the only word of the instruction that I understood.
Thank God because if he hadn’t said that, I would have panicked so hard because it was so terrifying. I did not have the marine skills to be in this situation. All I had time to do was to shout to “Shay, don’t panic.” She was like, “What?” I was like, “Don’t panic.” We were boiling down this thing and bouncing off of coral and urchins and stuff was sticking up to us. We were flipping around. I was like, “The only thing I’ve been told is not to panic.” That’s all I know how to do in terms of safety. I relaxed into this experience and underneath me is I saw the most magical universe I have ever seen in my entire life. Colors that I could not have dreamed of, insane fish. I saw them at like in milliseconds. It was too fast to take in, but in fuchsias and blues. I was like, “Look at that, look at that, look at that. Beautiful. We’re going to die. It’s so beautiful and don’t panic.” That’s what I want to say to you is that we’re going to die and it’s so beautiful and don’t panic. It’s all going to be all right.
About Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert was born in Waterbury, Connecticut in 1969, and grew up on a small family Christmas tree farm. She attended New York University, where she studied political science by day and worked on her short stories by night. After college, she spent several years traveling around the country, working in bars, diners and ranches, collecting experiences to transform into fiction.
These explorations eventually formed the basis of her first book – a short story collection called PILGRIMS, which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award, and which moved Annie Proulx to call her “a young writer of incandescent talent”.
During these early years in New York, she also worked as a journalist for such publications as Spin, GQ and The New York Times Magazine. She was a three-time finalist for The National Magazine Award, and an article she wrote in GQ about her experiences bartending on the Lower East Side eventually became the basis for the movie COYOTE UGLY.
In 2000, Elizabeth published her first novel, STERN MEN (a story of brutal territory wars between two remote fishing islands off the coast of Maine) which was a New York Times Notable Book. In 2002, Elizabeth published THE LAST AMERICAN MAN – the true story of the modern-day woodsman Eustace Conway. This book, her first work of non-fiction, was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.