Light Meets Magic: A Conversation Between Anthony Doerr And Elizabeth Gilbert
Stories are beautiful in the way it allows a person to dive deep into another world that tends to bring out certain pieces in us that we don’t know about. Yet the process of telling and writing stories is not often as easy as it is to see its beauty. Two great writers speak about their writing process, taking in the struggles they meet and finding creativity in them along the way: Anthony Doerr of All The Light We Cannot See and Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love. In this Light Meets Magic conversation, they share their takes on failure, creating under pressure, ending a story, and taking comfort in the randomness of ideas. They also address how the creativity process reflects certain struggles in business, most especially with the changing faces of people’s consumption.
Listen to the podcast here:
Light Meets Magic: A Conversation Between Anthony Doerr And Elizabeth Gilbert
On Failure And Pressure
What’s different now about the way that you create from 25 years ago or twenty years ago however long it was when I first discovered you? How are you different?
You’ve been a mentor. I read Big Magic. This was Liz’s published book on the flights here and there was so much relevance to me. All The Light We Cannot See was my fifth book. My first four books reached some human beings around the world. I would go to the Barnes & Noble in Tampa Bay and there would be 21 amazing people there. I would want to hug them all and they would all be women of a certain age. I go, “Thank you so much for coming,” and then I go to the Barnes & Noble in Topeka and do it again with 22. Suddenly this new book came out and I had a lot more people showing up to these events, thousands, and I got very overwhelmed psychically. You sit alone all day in a room consuming sugar and then suddenly, you’re supposed to be a public person. I was researching the book for a long time but now I got invited on 60 Minutes to talk about it. I was like, “No way. I’m not a historian. I can’t walk through the streets of France where part of the book is set, point out historical landmarks. You need to hire a historian to do that tour.”
There’s all this fraud that comes up and you’re like, “I’m basically a fraud.” It has changed creativity for the first twenty minutes. There are maybe a few more membranes of fear that you need to claw through but once you get started, it still plays. You’re still doing stuff. There are maybe a couple more little extra things you have to kick out of the way. There’s also this Pulitzer Prize thing that gets in your head too. On the flight from Boise to Denver, there’s a Sudoku in the back of the flight magazine and I’m like, “I’m going to bang this out.” It was rated two out of five stars. I was like, “It would be good for my brain,” and I can’t do it. I can’t get it right. I’m like, “I got this number wrong,” and then you see this headline in your head like, “Pulitzer Prize winner cannot finish two-star sudoku.” You have to lift those things away. I’ll turn to you quickly. Eat Pray Love reached millions and millions of human beings. You seem like you are so good about generating new energy with each new project but there had to be a moment when you thought, “Each sentence that I write now is going to reach so many more people.”
I’m glad you brought this up because it’s on the subject of failure and taking. Eat Pray Love sold twelve million copies. What do you do after that? You do the next thing you’re interested in and I wrote this book called Committed. I don’t know the exact numbers but I’m safe in saying that it sold 1/1000th of the numbers of Eat Pray Love. It’s not necessarily true that every sentence you wrote is going to be read by another twelve million people because the hive mind of what people choose to love is completely up to them. When people talk to me and they say that they want to write a bestselling book, I’m like, “So do I. I don’t know how. If I knew how, I would have seven of them.” I have one, but I still write anyway because I like doing it. I liked doing it before Eat Pray Love and I liked doing it during Eat Pray Love and I like doing it after Eat Pray Love. If I charted my own success as a human being based on having to have my life be a graph, that goes up and to the right. Every year I’m expected 10% growth or 5% growth. That’s so inhumane and it would be so impossible to do and I certainly would have never done anything after the book, Eat Pray Love. That 1/1000th of the people read but I liked that book.
Aren’t a lot of you under that pressure?
Every day. It’s Corporate America. That’s the only direction. It works very well for corporations. It’s a system that’s very efficient and productive. It’s not such a great gauge for human individual life. Just be careful to not take that home with you because the human individual life looks more bad. It’s a rudderless plane made of balsam in the wind flown by a four-year-old. Maybe it’s just my life. Don’t run your life like it’s a brand. Just run your life like it’s a life. We have a question, “In the corporate world, we have to turn on creativity in certain meetings when it’s not our peak time necessarily. I’d love to know if you have any advice for those of us that need to do that.”
I absolutely agree with Liz that your lesser times are still incredibly productive. Melville said you need this green meadow. He envisioned a green meadow of creativity, but real life is never like that whether it’s just mundane things like, “The kid is sick.” Now you’re going to have to stay home or in our case, we think we have seven snow days in 2017. Snow days are the worst because suddenly you’re like, “Now all the children are at home, which means now I have to be at home.” You can never design your life or find your hours for those great moments of creativity. There are moments you just dig and you say, “Right now I may be going to have to take a little walk before this meeting.” In my case it’s off and just do the dishes, take a shower, walk that dogs and somehow quiet your mind a little bit without my phone before I go do something. At least then your brain is a little bit rested and ready to start pushing.Don't run your life like it's a brand. Just run your life like it's a life. Click To Tweet
I also think that there is an amazing particular creativity that only grows under pressure. You probably have all experienced that in your life where you must do the thing that cannot be done and it has to be done by 4:00 PM. It has to be and so something is born out of that that maybe never would have come out of the long green grass. Most everybody I know who’s a creative person is guided by the deadline, by the money that’s due, by the kid’s tuition that’s due. These are real pressures that exist. It’s part of the reason that I’m so grateful that I was a journalist in my twenties. It took away the preciousness of that creative process because the story was due and it had to be faxed in and it had to be at 6:00. Then they call you and an advertiser has dropped four pages of advertising. You have to cut it by 2,000 words and you have to do it in an hour. My art, it just goes away and I’m so glad I had that training.
I get excited by that so this new book that I’ve written is a novel that was due. I’d gotten an extension for a year when my partner got sick and then she passed away. Two weeks later my agent called my publishing house and I was fishing for another extension and I assumed they would give me one and they didn’t. They were like, “No, this is super due.” People who pay you to work, which is what I do for a living, I get paid to work, they get fussy when they pay you and you don’t give them the work. They have reason to get cranky about it and they were like, “This is due on August 1st.” My agent said, “We can push back against this. We can negotiate this.” The reality is that when she said that, the experience that I had in my stomach was thrilling. It was like, “I don’t know if I can do this,” and that was exciting.
It wasn’t depressing. I don’t know if I can write a novel from this state. A week after the funeral I’m going to begin writing words of this book that’s due in August and it’s February. I haven’t written a word of it. I’ve done all the research, it’s all sitting there but I’m in this deep grieving and some little part of my biome, I’m thrilled to the challenge. I do think that we are meant to be challenged. We get stagnant and rusty when life gets too comfortable. Sometimes the worst thing you can do for a creative person is giving them the long green grass expanse in which to work. It’s better to have the hammer coming down hard in a way. We come from thousands of millions of years of evolutionary survival. All of our ancestors survived. There’s something in us that wants that, that wants it to be a little harder, that wants to put our muscle up against this.
Ending A Story
You’re saying things about the paradox. You’re talking about relaxing. Relaxing helps us be human and at the same time stress can motivate you to do. Many people in here manage people. Sometimes if they’re under the right amount of stress they can produce incredible things. I think about that in terms of parenting when our kids started 9th grade. We have twin boys and you can see that. Their eyes are like, “Do you mean life isn’t all video games and playing basketball?” They come home like, “I have so much work.” You don’t want them to feel so stressed that they’re damaged in any way or they feel like they’re not capable of being functional happy human beings but sometimes stress is growth. You have twelve pages to read by next Sunday. It seems to them like the end of the world. You’re going to get through it.
We have a question, “How do you know when the story is going to end? When your book ended, I wanted more.” The first thing maybe is to disabuse you of the notion that a creator or a storyteller or a quilter makes something in the order that you’ll receive it and some of the storytelling. I’m often working on different pieces all over the place before I even write the beginning. Sometimes you’ve written scenes all along this great continuum and you’re just building connective tissue between them for months at a time. In the case of All The Light We Cannot See, I had written a lot of the ending before I had figured it out exactly how those characters would get there.
This might get a little esoteric for those of you who don’t know but I knew I wanted to bring it into 2016 at the end of the book because I felt like it was so important for people to remember that there are still human beings for whom the World War II memory alive on the Earth and that we’re losing so many of them every day. It’s in this precarious time between history and memory, the Second World War because my son sees it, maybe it’s exposed. World War II comes from the History Channel or through video games instead of meeting people who were in Europe at that time. There were soldiers, they have a concentration camp survivor. That’s a dangerous time for any event. People can use the war politically in certain ways. I knew I wanted to get that out. I wanted to have at least one of those characters alive in the present and then you start writing to that moment. Then you fall asleep and you read it and you think, “I’m getting a little closer to a feeling of resolution,” then you do that 100 or 200 times. Each time you’re believing it as a writer and coming to it as a reader, you try to say, “Does this have a full shape? Does this feel like the chords that I have sound at the beginning are resonating and resolving now at the end?” What do you think, Liz?
It’s done when its due. That certainly was the case for this book that I finished. “It’s July 31 and it’s done.” For me, often it’s done when the next thing I want to do is pushing against it wanting to be born. I want to get this thing off my table so that I can turn my attention to the new exciting thing. Sometimes I get hasty where I want to finish this because I’m not excited about this anymore and I’m excited about this new idea. I think of ideas waiting to be born as an energy field that pushes you toward finishing that thing that you’re on, so you can get to them.We are meant to be challenged. We get stagnant and rusty when life gets too comfortable. Click To Tweet
I’m sure we all know people who have made something and tinkered with it. I have a friend who’s a painter. Sometimes he’ll paint over the entire painting. You can’t quite figure out when it’s done. We have an amazing creativity, act of creativity being done at the back of the room by the graphic recorder, by Stephanie. If somebody told me you’ve got to make a drawing based on Liz’s lecture, three months later I’d still be like, “I think I’m done.” Some amazing thing might say it’s done what it’s due like it’s due at the end of this talk and Stephanie’s got to finish it. What’s interesting about this room I would think that most of you have difficulty in not seeing the end. Marketers go and you say, “We want to do something that’s never been done before. Can you tell us what the metrics are going to be?” You already want to know what the performance is going to be even though it’s never been done before. The notion of playing with the end when it comes in sometimes it’s pressure and sometimes you’ve got it before you’ve got the beginning is interesting for marketers because we typically start at the end and work our way towards that. That’s most comfortable.
We have a question, “The way that people consume books and printed media has changed a lot and is still changing to the point where people read books in the checkout aisle on their phone. Are you conscious of that as writers? Does it influence your creative process? Do you imagine people reading when you’re writing and does that influence the way that you write?” I think about it lately in terms of audiobooks a lot. I don’t know if you are following but the audio market is exploding. eBooks have stagnated and that’s super interesting. I love reading to my kids. Mostly I listen to podcasts when I run but occasionally, I’ll listen to a long nonfiction book and link together a bunch of runs. I have started thinking about it. My books tend to be pretty structurally complicated where you’re asked to move around and I can always imagine a reader being able to flip back she can flip back like, “What time was this week? Which character is this?” Audiobooks are much more complicated. I do occasionally start thinking, “Will I lose all of my audiobook readers with this move I’m making right here?” Yes, sometimes technology does work backward into your mind like that.
I have never thought about the device upon which people will be reading the story and now I’m thinking, “Should I be?” In a weird way, I’m always writing audiobooks because stories are meant to be told. When I write, part of the reason I have to be alone in a room is that I’m speaking out loud the entire time. For a good day of writing, I’ve lost my voice because I’m reading every sentence aloud and I’m trying all the dialogue aloud. It’s a very auditory experience for me. Writing is very new into human consciousness and storytelling is very old so maybe we’re just returning back to people wanting to be told stories. We have the devices now to be able to offer that to people, to replace the campfire and the story around the campfire.
The human appetite for narrative never wanes. I’m sure all of you can feel that as storytellers and marketers. We want stories, it’s just different media that we’re seeking stories through that whether it’s Netflix or video games or some new virtual reality. I know some people who are working on a way of telling stories. We’re still going to be seeking a story. We have a question, “What was it like having the process go from seeing your book being made into a movie? Did you feel like you lost him in that creativity? Were you able to be a part of that process and feel close to it? Tell us a little bit about that.”
The best place for a novelist or memoirs to be when her work is being made into a movie is at home at her desk writing another book and letting them do it. I don’t know any other way to do it and stay sane. It’s such a different medium. I’m completely in control of every comma that I create when I’m writing and a movie is a collaboration where even the director is not in charge of it. It’s hundreds of thousands of people coming together. Decisions being made, compromises being made. It’s such a giant machine. The nice thing about the people who produced Eat Pray Love and me was that we were in agreement that it would be better if I wasn’t there and I couldn’t be happier with that decision. Also, when I’m done with the book, I’m done with it. My feeling was like, “I got out of it what I needed to get out of it when I wrote the last page.” It had changed me in the ways that it needed to change me and then it didn’t belong to me anymore to a certain level. It belongs to the readers who choose or don’t choose to read it.
From Book To Movie
Whenever I hear writers get very upset about books that they sold and that they didn’t like the movie and they felt that they had done it injustice, I feel like, “You sold it.” I sold it for a lot of money and I took the money and I spent it. I bought a house with it. I had a great time with it. I took my parents to Europe. I did all this stuff. You don’t get to sell your house and take the money and spend it and then drive past your old house and be like, “They tore down the pergola?” Don’t sell it, then. It’s done. It’s an exchange. In that exchange, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. They let me see the script and there were a couple little changes that I suggested but mostly I was like, “Whatever you want to do, it’s fine. I’ll be over here making something else.” Then I got to go see a movie that I didn’t know anything about, which was great. I loved it. Anthony, what’s your perspective on? Have you had those conversations? Do you want to have those conversations?
For example, the movie rights got sold the day the book came out to Fox and then they put it to Fox Searchlight. That stayed there for two years and now it’s back to a Fox or something. My agent thinks that’s the best possible scenarios if they never make the film but just keep renewing it because every eighteen months, they have to renew the option, which means they send you another check.Stories are meant to be told. Click To Tweet
Do you see how much we defend and are passionate about our precious art?
Liz is right. I can blow up a building or describe a tree and it costs me the same amount of money. The filmmakers always have to make decisions about how will an eight-year-old character age until she’s 80 or we have two actresses play. How will this work? I never have to think about those things. I’m the set designer or the costume designer, I’m writing the soundtrack, I’m writing the dialogue, it’s very hard to give up that kind of control and I’m glad we don’t have to. We get to use these inexpensive materials and then you can go study. A kid can go into a public library and study the work of the masters for free and then all she needs is a rim of paper and a pen maybe $5 and a full belly and she can make more stories like that. It’s a truly democratic art form.
It’s the soccer of art forms. You need a grassy field and a ball. It’s not like football. Anybody can do this. We have a question, “How do you know when you’re on to a big idea?” I follow the physical symptoms. The physical symptoms of inspiration have been the same for humans for all time and it’s nervous stomach, chills, it’s a feeling of great discomfort similar to falling in love where it’s like, “Oh God, Oh jeez. Here we go,” and it makes you do this ballet inside your stomach. I trust my mind enough at this point to trust that it will magnetize toward the idea that it’s most interested in because it won’t be able to nod. The big ideas are the ones that I wake up at 3:00 in the morning to go to the bathroom when I’m thinking about it. I’m in the grocery store and it’s with me and it stays with me and I’m at a point in my life where I completely trust it and it’s not mine to question why. I just obey it and I’m just a servant of it. I throw myself into it and I follow it even if it doesn’t make any sense or if it’s doesn’t seem like a big idea yet. I trust that if I’m interested in it, I’m being told to be interested in it for a reason that it’s a scavenger hunt.
The tricky thing is when you have multiple ideas. I know sometimes that’s the problem with people, that you may have multiple ideas competing for your attention and you don’t know which one to give attention to or you’re halfway through a project and then another idea comes up and you can’t do both of them at the same time. I do think of it in these terms. I’m the CEO of my own creative mind and the buck stops with me. My ideas don’t govern me. They come to me and then I decide to work with them. If I have multiple ideas, I make them bring me proposals and I’m like, “What do you got?” This idea, Big Magic, was in my head for twelve years. There were three other books in the meantime because it never could bring me a solid proposal. It would be the sort of voices like, “I want to read a book about creativity.” I’d be like, “What’s it about?” “I don’t know. I want you to do it.” I was like, “Come back when you’ve got a more formed answer.” It took twelve years for that idea to finally one day say, “I want to do this. I want to do it in this form, I want to do it this way.” I was like, “Now, you have my attention.”
The other thing to watch out for is if you’re on an idea, part of the creative process is to inevitably be bored and exhausted by the idea that was once exciting and thrilling and new. You get this exciting new thrilling idea and then you’re months or years or days into it, all of a sudden it’s lost its luster. It’s completely dull and then surely as day follows night, you can be certain that some sexy new provocative seductive idea is going to wander across the landscape and be like, “Come with me. I’m new and fresh.” You’re like, “I’m in this drab old idea. You look so new and fresh.” I don’t do that because I know that that thing is going to be just as drab as this thing five years in. I’m like, “Let me finish this and if you’re a real idea, stick around and when I’m done, we’ll work together. In the meantime, I’ve got to just see something through.”
That’s hilarious because it totally happens and you’re like, “This is going to be the best book ever. I’m so excited.” By Friday, you’re like, “Why? Why did I even start this week.?” For me, I always have to look back on it but an idea is a good idea to me if it shows me a familiar thing in an unfamiliar way. Kathy brought up this book about radio. Originally, I was just interested in how the humans communicate using invisible light that can pass through walls. It’s still super fascinating to me. It changed the entire way our society functions and until maybe the past three, four generations of humans it didn’t exist.
Even when I would get bogged down in what are the characters wearing, what do they want, what does a drugstore look like in 1938, all I’d have to go back to is that original interest. Can I ask the question, “How do humans communicate? How has technology changed that?” All of my stories somehow have to deal with that. Why do whales strand? You start to ask yourself. Is it suicide? Is it some kind of environmental destruction that’s causing it? Suddenly you get interested in that and then you start spinning up a story around it. When you get stuck, you can always go back to the original energy of curiosity that you had. Find those things that you’re most curious about and that energy will propel you I think through those dead drab duller moments. Did you ever had that moment during that process and go, “No, not in here?” You’re walking away from what I thought was a big idea.The human appetite for narrative never wanes. Click To Tweet
You’re allowed to do that. I give you permission because I’m your boss apparently. I give you permission to do that if you are on record as being somebody who can finish a thing. If you are on record in your actual human life as being somebody who can finish and has finished things and you’re in the middle of a project and you’re like, “This is a dead end. I’m not going to throw good money in front of that. I’m not going to waste any more time on this,” I’ll give you permission to quit. If your life is a littered road of half-finished things, then what we have is a pattern. You have to get real and honest with yourself about that pattern you’ve taken up, a hobby after hobby that you’ve given up after a month you’ve tried. Finish something. There’s something incredible to me in the power of completing a thing whether or not it’s good, whether or not it’s bad. The only way I got through my first novel which I was like, “What am going to I do? I don’t know how to write a novel. This isn’t good.”
I was so bogged down in it and the only way I could finish it was with this ferocious stubbornness that said, “I’m not going to be somebody who goes to her grave with 50 pages of a novel in her desk.” I’m going to finish it and if you don’t like it, you can write your own but mine will be done. It will be done and dig in but because I’ve done that enough and I know that I can finish things. I’m allowed to say, “No, this project isn’t working and I can stop.” Does that make sense? You’re allowed to do whatever you want. I don’t know why I’m telling you what you’re allowed to do. Be honest about what you’re like. Lie to me but don’t lie to yourself. Be honest. If you’re somebody who never finishes a project, then your task in this human life is to finally finish one and be true to that and see it through.
You have a line in Big Magic and I’ll put it on the spot. It’s like, “A crappy finished novel is a lot better than a perfect unfinished one.”
Pivoting A Story
Done is better than good. Patton famously said, “A mediocre plan violently executed today is better than an excellent plan next week,” about the Art of War. That goes to your original question about how do you create under pressure. You do it when it has to be done. We have a question, “What about pivoting? Can you tell us about the times where you started with something that you had the full intention of completing as it was in your head but then had to shift? You didn’t necessarily stop it. It changed from what you initially envisioned it would be.”
There’s almost always a pivot in every short story or novel, even an essay sometimes. You think it’s going to be one thing. You go to sleep, you read through what you’ve got for the twentieth time and you just don’t feel the electricity going through it yet and often you have to work your way to that pivot. You think maybe it’s sometimes a new idea. Instead of just leaving it out on the balcony like you’re describing, you bring in and you have a threesome. You smoosh it together and suddenly the two ideas are somehow collaborating. What I was mentioning as I was writing a story, it has taken me forever called The Caretaker. I was originally interested in what was happening in Liberia because I had been in Kenya on the other side of Africa when I was twenty. There was a terrible civil war going on and I felt so ignorant that I was this happy backpacker leading these mountaineering trips and I had no idea that people were suffering on such a scale close by. I was trying and grinding and I couldn’t quite figure out how to make this a compelling human story. Then I decided to smash my interest in whale strandings into the same story so that a Liberian refugee travels to Oregon and sees a stranded whale. Suddenly then the story got interesting for me again. Sometimes those little pivots are something you grind your way towards. You feel like there isn’t life and something and then you bring a new life somehow.
Vladimir Nabokov said my characters are galley slaves. In other words, he doesn’t let them have a life of their own that he sat down to write. He knew exactly what was going to happen and he never pivoted. He’s the only person I know who created that way where it was essentially like, “I know exactly what this is going to be.” I prepare a lot for my work. I spent years researching every book. The bulk of my work is preparation. I don’t want surprises. I want to sit down and know where I’m going. I’ve got five shoeboxes of index cards by subjecting character lined up in front of me the day that I sit down to write the first page because I’ve prepared it. I’ve prepared as much as I can and then my characters disobey me. They’re like, “No, that’s not who we are.” I have to let them and then follow them. It’s like a dance. They disobeyed me and then I get them back in line. What I don’t do is wait for inspiration. Somebody asked me once, “Do you believe in discipline or in magic?” The answer is, “Yes, I believe in discipline and in that discipline while you’re working, the magic will come.” Then you shift the pivot based on that but be as prepared as you can possibly be. Don’t leave it all to magic.
Social Media And Storytelling
Elizabeth, I’ve noticed you’re very active and influential in social media, Instagram, Facebook stuff like that. You’ve mentioned before it’s a big distraction also sometimes too. How do you balance that? Do you see that as a new way of media storytelling? Is it just something personal that you like doing or something else?Part of the creative process is to inevitably be bored and exhausted by the idea that was once exciting, thrilling, and new. Click To Tweet
I’m fiddling around with it the same way the whole world is right now. We don’t know what it is yet. We’re monkeys who’ve been given this new toy and we’re playing with it. We’re inventing it in real time as we go. I’m interested in it. I don’t have a policy about it. I try to be as natural in social media as I am talking to you. Other novelists that I’ve talked to have had social media advisers come in and talk to them and they give this program of, “You should be posting this time many times a week at this time of day and you should be pushing this message.” That makes me want to cry and then it gives me hives because it feels like everyone’s going to feel how artificial that is. I post when there’s a picture that I want to put up. I post when there’s a political situation that I want to respond to. I post when I feel like I can help. I post when I need help.
I’ve been lucky enough to create this lovely corner of the internet that’s generally speaking very kind and it’s filled with people who are all asking the same questions that I’m asking. What I like to see is people in my comments section meeting each other. That’s interesting, reaching out to each other, helping each other, giving suggestions to each other. That, to me, seems miraculous that in real time people in different parts of the world are having it happen. We don’t know what this thing is yet. This is ten seconds old. I do sometimes think that social media is a toddler with a gun. There’s tremendous power and we don’t know how to handle it yet, so we have to be careful of it but it’s too late to mix all the metaphors. It’s too late to put that genie back in the bottle that’s out. If it’s out, I want to use it in the most interesting ways that I can.
I agree that it’s a fascinating tool, however there are insecure parts of me. I joined Facebook. I don’t like the way you want to go back to check to see if something you put on there has people approving of it. It generates a feedback loop in folks, especially folks who are insecure that you want it. Somehow you’re seeking validation because it helps reinforce the idea that external metrics validate who you are. That can be quite dangerous for folks. I have enough problem just living my life as is. We have a question, “Have you always been that disciplined with your ideas? They just come and you tend to hold off? If you haven’t, was there a turning point where you shifted your mindset to not let them take over?”
It took me a long time to figure out how to do this work. We have very similar backgrounds in one way. I know that your favorite toy in childhood was a typewriter, mine was too. My dad brought home a typewriter from his office that was being thrown out and my sister and I fought over that thing more than we fought over anything of our lives. She turned out to be a writer too. I’ve been doing this literally since I had learned how to read. My sister and I used to make books and we would put a binder on them and we would create a cover for them. On the back, we would draw an author photo of ourselves on them because we’d seen that on our parent’s bookshelves. We had Gore Vidal on our books when we were kids. We were doing only this always so there’s a level at which I’ve only ever been trying to figure out how to do this but when I look at my twenties and how much I suffered and how painful like tear-stained my work was. In my first novel, there were tears on every page of that thing and what I see now is that I didn’t know how to work yet.
I knew that I wanted to make thing. I didn’t know how to make them. There was the difference between the desire to be an artist and mastering the craft of how to be an artist. I had the discipline, I just didn’t have the skill. I would go to my desk every day at the same time and I would sit there and I would cry because I didn’t know how to do it. It was like I’d been handed tools and a pile of wood and been told to build a cabinet and I didn’t know how. Most of what I’ve done in my life is to learn how to build a cabinet. When I talk about my crazy index cards in my shoeboxes, that’s what I learned how to do. What I learned how to do was to help myself as much as possible by preparing as much as I could and leaving as little to creative chance as possible. This novel that I read, which is about New York City showgirls and the theater world in the 1940s, it’s five years for me of doing nothing but reading books about New York City theater in the 1940s and interviewing another generation that’s dying, our showgirls.
The 1940s and ‘50s showgirls in their 90s, finding them and interviewing them, taking notes and reading novels that were written in the years that I’m writing to learn the language that people were speaking in at that time and taking tours of Times Square with historians to show me what those neighborhoods would have looked like. I didn’t know how to do any of that when I was 22. I wanted to write stories and I would sit down and I had nothing to work with. I will never leave myself that exposed again. When I sit down now, I’ve got so much to draw on that I can reach for. It’s a very loving relationship that I’ve also grown with my creative self where while I’m doing that hard work and sitting in the library and taking notes and I’m bored, I’ll write like a cool word or phrase or idea on an index card and put it in one of those things in the file of a certain character. I’m giving a gift to future Liz five years down the road when she goes to write that character. She’s going to find that card and she’s going to be so psyched to have that line.
I do it with awareness where I’m like, “Future Liz, this is for you. Me spending these four hours in this library today is so that you have this great moment five years from now.” Then five years later, I’m sitting there working and I pull that card and I’m like, “Thanks, past Liz.” It’s like this conversation across time that I actively involve myself in and how much can I help myself so that when the hard part, scary part comes and creative part come, I’ve given myself as much preparation as I can humanly give. Other people do it totally differently. Other people do it completely intuitively. I don’t think it matters. My friend, Cheryl Strayed, we did an event together and she was like, “I don’t do any preparation.” For me, it’s like painting a house in the dark in the middle of the night. She starts putting paint on the walls and sees where it goes and I was like, “Who cares? Your books are brilliant whatever you’re doing it’s fine,” but this is the way that I do it that makes me feel safe and held and in a certain amount of control.Social media is a toddler with a gun. There's tremendous power and we don't know how to handle it yet. Click To Tweet
There are so many ways to do it as there are writers as artists. However, sometimes perfectionism can be the enemy of those early ideas. The more experience I get, the more I learn everybody even your greatest idol whether it’s Beyoncé or Toni Morrison or Caulder, all the beginning of mushing around with ideas is ugly. You have to allow yourself to be human and fail and make a bunch of notes that you’ll never use for every gift you give future Liz. That’s so frustrating. I read about Canadian paratroopers all day, otherwise I don’t have a single Canadian character in the novel. Why am I doing that? Then you realize maybe it was just one sentence you read that’ll filter in three months later, so you have to acknowledge that things will be imperfect and inefficient at the beginning. Otherwise, you’ll never get going. We have a question “We often have to collaborate creatively which is both a gift and a challenge because you get the gift of a lot of times that energy and new ideas and it can be great. If you are a super controlling creative person, it can be frustrating or difficult sometimes when you’re off swirling in the space of, ‘I came out here and I read about this today and I’m over here’ and you’ve got all these ideas. Do you guys ever get in that space where you’re challenged to convey where it’s going? Maybe necessarily somebody else doesn’t or have you collaborated or thought about collaborating in general?”
We spend our entire lives alone in our pajamas, but you do because you’ve published books and you work with Nan Graham who’s an incredible editor. I’m sure that when you handed that book to her, she didn’t say, “We’ll take it right to print.” Maybe she did but I’m assuming that you collaborated on the editing of that book and that it was a give and take that you didn’t self-publish. You collaborated with your publishers and with your editors.
It’s slower unfortunately than you’re describing because she’s been my editor in all of my books. She takes it, she makes notes all over it, she writes you this coherent letter, she makes sure to front-load it with little praise and then just gets into it. She’s very good about putting a question mark at the end of everything like, “Maybe you should cut this entire section?” You’re right. That is very much a collaboration. In that case, maybe this is different and it’s not relevant. I’ve built something. I know it’s not perfect and it’s time for another person to help me figure out how to make it better so I’m coming in with something formed. I’m so grateful to have another set of eyes on the thing. It is collaborative but it’s not generating. We’re not generating together.
There are a lot of egos that have to be put aside and that’s hard for those of us who want to be in charge of everything, which very much includes me which is largely why I spend most of my life alone in my pajamas in a small room because I get to be in charge of everything there. I think of when I was working at GQ on that giant squid story that I always associate with your book. I thought that this would be the most exciting thing in the world because what could be more exciting than a story about a search for a mythical sea monster? At that point, no one had ever photographed one. I was with this National Geographic crew and with this guy who is a marine biologist who is dying and he’s dying wish is to see a giant squid. He has taken all his money and bought a submarine and we were out in Cape Coral Canyon in the middle of New Zealand. It was beautiful and it was wild and they had evidence that there was a squid there but nobody saw them. Every day they go down in the depths and try to find them.
I wrote the story about it. My editor at that time who now works at the New York Times magazine, I had never done more edits on a story. She made me do thirteen rewrites of that story. I couldn’t seem to get it right. I kept thinking it was crazy and she just kept sending it back. Then on the twelfth turn, she said to me, “I’m having trouble figuring out how to say this to you and I feel like you’re not getting it. I’ve said it in all these different ways. Do you think you could write a version of this story that isn’t boring?” I was like, “You want a non-boring story?” It was like I was doused with cold water but to be fair, she tried twelve times to say it very subtly. It did work to hear it that way like, “I got you,” and I changed it. Talk about a pivot. I completely changed the entire narrative and started over. I changed the point of view. Every sentence that I wrote, I try to be exciting instead of interesting which is what I thought it was because I was like, “I could talk about marine life all day.” That would have been a very bad story. It hurt my ego, but it made something better in the end.
There’s so much interesting science about sleep. I don’t know how much you guys are paying attention to it. What you’re describing is this meaning where all this stuff is being generated and sleep we’re learning listening to adults as a way of calming out all the noise of the previous day and restoring order to our thoughts, removing the extraneous and streamlining everything. For me, even if I’m just collaborating inside my own head by splashing stuff all over the page, a night’s sleep can be so incredibly valuable. Their studies were like a kid gets stuck at a certain boss in a video game. He can’t get through it in eighteen tries.
After a one-hour nap, the first try he gets through it. If a pianist can’t play this difficult run in a concerto or something, after a one-hour sleep, he or she nails it. There’s something to that like maybe to allow that meaning to run while everybody sleeps on it. Maybe the next day, everything’s a little tighter and finer tuned. We have a question. “Most of us use marketers, storytellers, normally have a goal or a consumer audience in mind when we tell our stories. Do you ever have any commercial considerations when you tell stories? Do you have a target reader in mind or some topics that you want to put in to try to have success whatever that means?”There is a difference between the desire to be an artist and mastering the craft of how to be an artist. Click To Tweet
I don’t necessarily think it is exactly in those terms, but I think about the reader all the time. The reader is somebody who’s never going to know me personally so I have to deliver everything I care about this subject through this clumsy inefficient tool, language, to her without being able to say like, “You’re missing it. You’re not getting this. Excuse me, it’s a gun in his pocket.” I need to always keep her in mind and every day try to be as generous to her as I possibly can. When that first book came out, my publishers called Scribner, it’s a division of Simon & Schuster which is another part of some huge company, published some of my idols when I was a young writer like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I thought, “I’ve made it.”
My second book event was in New York City at this Barnes & Noble in Union Square. You go up five escalators to get to the event space and I’m passing books left and right as you go up there. You start to think like, “I haven’t made it at all.” For a reader to choose this book, she has to say no to Edith Wharton. That’s ridiculous. I felt like if I get her to open the first page, I don’t want to lose her and I want to be as generous as I possibly can in each step of that way. I’m not necessarily trying to anticipate trends or figure out something that she might be interested in four years from now when the book comes out but I am thinking all the time like, “Is this a story she will not find boring?”
It’s beautiful and generous and I love that about your work. I feel that in your work. There’s so often when I read people’s work and I think, “Who are you talking to?” I never begin writing anything whether it’s an essay or a novel or even an email or a Facebook post without deciding specifically who I’m talking to. It’s never a demographic, it’s always an individual. I don’t know if this would work for your work but here’s what I feel about it. I wrote Eat Pray Love for one person specifically. Every book that I’ve ever written, the most important question that I have to answer before I begin writing that first page is, “Who am I specifically writing this book for?” Each one of my books has been written to a different human being, a very specific living person.
I wrote The Last American Man, which is my novel about American manhood to my friend, Andrew Casello, who is a writer at GQ who I thought would like it. I thought he’d be interested in this topic and I wrote that whole book word for word as a letter to Andrew to delight and entertain and transport him. I didn’t write Eat Pray Love to him. It was never meant to be for him. I wrote Eat Pray Love to my friend, Darcy, who is exactly my same age. She’s a novelist. She had gone through a divorce at the same time I had. She had struggled with depression at the same time I had. She was on a spiritual journey like I was and the only difference was she had a child and I didn’t so she couldn’t go do what I did. She couldn’t go travel around the world, so I went on that trip and I brought her with me. My imagination and every word of that book are written to Darcy. When people tell me, “When I read Eat Pray Love, I feel like you’re talking to me,” the reason they feel like I’m talking to them is that I’m talking to somebody. My experience is when people tell me that they want to write a book and this may be helpful to use marketers when people say, “I have this idea for a book.” I say “Who is it for? Who are you writing to?” They always give me a demographic. If they thought of it at all, they’ll say, “This is for women between the ages of 40 and 50 who have recently experienced loss.” I’m like, “That’s nobody.”
When you’re talking to a demographic, you’re not talking to anyone. What it feels like is that you’re talking to a demographic. It feels like it’s so deliberately targeted. You can see it all over the product. This was something that was written for this group of people to try to get their money and to try to get them. Step away from that for a second. Deliver your message and your story to your niece who you know and create something that will delight this one person. You can only delight one person at a time on that level. If you create something that your niece who’s a sophomore at UCLA, who’s into surfing and wants to become a surgeon and you create something that will make her excited, other people will also be excited by it. If you create something that’s for girls between the ages of eighteen and 26, it’s going to reek of something that was created for girls between the ages of eighteen and 26. We can all smell that a mile away. We’re too smart for that. Pick an individual, direct everything to them, make it your intention to delight them and let that be your guide.
That is the lesson of storytelling. It’s about an individual. The path to the universe is always through an individual. That’s incredibly good advice. Maybe all of the storytelling generates meaning by following one person. It’s like The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell. Only then somehow do you get to the ineffable that you’re always working in this little place like, “What does she like? What does she wear? What does this one person?” Because nobody is ordinary. The closer you look at any human being, they’re all so unbelievably interesting and unique. You can never make a generalization about people at all. You just try to find that one niece.
Imagine if I try to write Eat Pray Love for twelve million people and I didn’t slice what that was. Let’s get the demographics on who they are and I’m going to write a book that’s going to delight those people. I don’t want to read that book. It would have never worked.
- Anthony Doerr
- Elizabeth Gilbert
- Big Magic
- All The Light We Cannot See
- Eat Pray Love
- Art of War
- The Last American Man
- The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell
About Anthony Doerr
Anthony Doerr was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. He is the author of the story collections The Shell Collector and Memory Wall, the memoir Four Seasons in Rome, and the novels About Grace and All the Light We Cannot See, which was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Doerr’s short stories and essays have won four O. Henry Prizes and been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, New American Stories, The Best American Essays, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction, and lots of other places.
His work has been translated into over forty languages and won the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize, the Rome Prize, the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, an Alex Award from the American Library Association, the National Magazine Award for Fiction, four Pushcart Prizes, two Pacific Northwest Book Awards, four Ohioana Book Awards, the 2010 Story Prize, which is considered the most prestigious prize in the U.S. for a collection of short stories, and the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award, which is the largest prize in the world for a single short story.
All the Light We Cannot See was a #1 New York Times bestseller, and remained on the hardcover fiction bestseller list for 134 consecutive weeks. Doerr lives in Boise, Idaho with his wife and two sons. A number of media interviews with him are collected here. Though he is often asked, as far as he knows he is not related to the late writer Harriet Doerr. If you’re interested in reading some of his work online, you can find a number of essays here, a story at Granta, and you can watch the actor Damian Lewis reading part of Doerr’s story “The Deep” here.
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.