She was brilliant. She is brilliant.
I had not expected such a nourishing evening. The Queen Elizabeth Hall has become something of a hot destination for me in recent weeks, having seen two excellent dance performances, and this evening met the charming (and brilliant) Elizabeth Gilbert.
She was effortlessly poised in a way that only someone who has really been there (and worked her way through it) could be.
"Stop wearing your wishbone where your backbone ought to be." - Eat, Pray, Love
Without much help from her interviewer with whom she shared the platform, she described her journey, starting as a journalist with a heart who knew she was destined to write fiction.
And funny too. Really funny. I'd almost forgotten how amusing 'Eat, Pray, Love' was. I'm tempted to dust off my copy, with it's dog eared pages, and re-read it.
She spoke about how she wrote her way out of the perplexities thrown up by the depression she surrendered into following her nasty divorce. Autobiography was the only option at that point, Gilbert explained that she couldn't invent drama whilst living drama - so she got a book deal.
And the book deal was her ticket around the world - on a mission to heal. Nothing about 'Eat, Pray, Love' was a foregone conclusion - she quit a well paid job to write the book, and threw all she had into doing so. As she got on the plane she carried in her heart all those on whose behalf she felt she was making the journey. Before eating enough pizza for all of them!
Having travelled for business, for pleasure, for romance, and for adventure this was different. This was a quest. And every quest should be in the service of a specific question. Hers was 'How can I recover the very important aspects of myself that I've lost in the last 8 years?'
Emerging from the grips of depression, where, as anyone who has ever had the dubious pleasure of meeting melancholia will know, the world becomes sawdust, she felt devoid of anything that had ever meant anything to her. Thus, hers was to be a year of eating, praying and then loving... reacquainting with hitherto lost pleasure, reconnecting with devotion and then finding a balance of the two. To identify her destinations, she simply asked herself where it was that seemed to do these things well... Italy - India - Bali.
She learnt about what she wrote through total immersion.
...And found her second husband in the process. Not that she was looking. Which presented something of a puzzle, both emotionally, and as a writer: how should she tell him what it was that she was doing? When is the right time to tell someone that you're writing a book about everything that happens to them, when they already seem to feature prominently? Her reassurance when he asked what it might entail, that he shouldn't worry as 'no one reads my books, anyway!' sealed her success.
And she's been a hit ever since. Well, not quite. A book like that takes two years to edit.
"Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings."
And here was the poise. The success she earned through the book couldn't have come at a better time for Gilbert. As she wrote the book she was far enough out of the dark to see the light. The repetitiveness, wherein the book opens at the same page every day, which characterises a depressive episode had come to an end. By the time the book was received by a hungry audience, she was in the most solid, and stable place she had ever known: it wasn't her first book, she was 38 and in a fantastic marriage.
She describes the whole journey as a fountain of goodness, and a hinge upon which she can hang the door which separates the dark shadow she left to move into the benevolence and grace she reconnected with. The fact that the book has been such a good thing for so many, has allowed it to continue to grow.
The puzzle she then faced was of an altogether different nature. What to do next?
She took her time before deciding that she needed to quickly write another book. Battling the 'terrorists' that live in her head, with their deafening messages drenched in pessimism and self defeat, she arrived at a liberating destination - that of acceptance.
Whatever it is that you're going to do next, is going to disappoint.
And so she wrote 'Commitment'. Which couldn't follow in the footsteps of 'Eat, Pray, Love'. And which wouldn't.
The secret to her success? She put it quite beautifully: "I do what I love." She has a vocation that means the world to her, and it shows. She (and her fabulous pink dress) lit up the space.
She is blossoming, because she is in love. With the process of writing. She spoke in terms I could really understand. She loves the process, and cares far less about the outcome - there's no point: for it's not up to her. So, she makes a life of doing what she loves, and releasing it.
She is thought of as a friend by individuals all over the world; a companion in the weird valley that is life. The two things she never leaves home without: empathy and encouragement. Her presence is one that trainee therapists could do worse than to emulate.
'The Signature of All Things' is her latest offering. "It's a big book, but it goes down easily". She's gotten into gardening and wanted to write about plants. This was one of the clues she happily and generously dispensed this evening. The secret to creativity is that, at the moment of inception, you must work on the thing that most interests you.
Her commandment makes a lot of sense. But then she's in a fortunate position. She spoke with great humility about the legacy of 'Eat, Pray, Love'. Translated into 30 languages she's sold over 10 million copies worldwide. She finds herself in a wonderful position to indulge her curiosity for the rest of her life.
And her curiosity seems boundless...
Hers was a message of service. In 'The Signature of All Things' she wanted to write the book that others could, had they had the chance. She spent three years studying nineteenth century botany (well, why not?!) to write a 500 page novel about a woman that studies moss. Yes, moss. Which she eloquently described as the universe in metaphor.
Elizabeth Gilbert is a woman's woman. Passionate about the vocations women find for themselves, convinced that her own has saved her more than once.
This is a woman who's been there, and done it. And come back too. I adored her philosophy, as she spoke about sibling relationships and those she has espoused in her writing. It is, she suggests, much easier for people to accept the labels and roles we're all given when we're growing up, and wear these like name-tags, in an attempt to simplify something. Anything.
Thing is, it doesn't stay simple. And soon the labels don't fit. And that's where it gets tricky, and uncomfortable. And trickier still.
"You know why your family pushes your buttons... they installed them!"
This is Gilbert's first novel in thirteen years. She sought to entertain and delight herself. She was also very afraid that she might have forgotten how to do it. And then she feared that she might not remember why it was that people write fiction.
It was like re-learning a foreign language. Only with a particularly nuanced dialect. That being that she set herself the task of writing a period novel, ensconced in the world of science. About which she knew very little. The scope of the project was daunting. And energising.
She quickly remembered why she fell in love first time a-round: when writing fiction, you can say anything (well, almost - it helps to be believable). Whilst she wrote it in a blast, this didn't happen quickly. It has taken four years, and has been something of a labour of her love. Which is why she felt just a tad indignant when someone tweeted 'love the book. Did you just go with the flow?'
#areyouinsane - No, she didn't just go with the flow. There are some things that happen when you go with the flow. Novels like this aren't among them. 5 pages of index cards and a 70 page outline. Flow that!
And what of fiction? Fiction is, for Gilbert, about an emotional resonance that can't be reached any other way than through the imagination. When you write fiction you write about yourself, and when you write about yourself, you write fiction. Fiction is, she thinks, how we connect with a deeper consciousness. A human consciousness. She would, I think agree with Blake...
Today, Gilbert writes in seasons. There is a season for inspiration and a season for research, a season for writing and season for editing. Then comes season for publicity. And a season of recovery. Before starting all over again. But it wasn't always like that. You don't (and probably won't) get your first book deal writing with the seasons. You must, she insists, write daily.
Whilst she writes in a way that you can feel her pain, she doesn't have to go there. She has publicly refused to write about the marriage that took her on the journey that was to become Eat, Pray, Love. With yet more humility, she stated simply that neither she nor her husband's behaviours were exemplary. Whilst she is not in contact with him, she does not wish him ill. The opposite, in fact. "If I wanted to complain to someone about my divorce, I'd pay them by the hour." Writing about it was not an option - as it wouldn't feel okay, ethically, or spiritually. "I prefer pretty... Or useful".
Describing herself as always having had one foot with the fairies, she said that whilst she doesn't believe in magic, she does believe in interpreting coincidence however the hell you like.
Each of her books is dedicated to one person. 'Eat, Pray, Love' was written to a dear friend, Darcy. It is to them that she addresses the book. And this was just one more gem she imparted to her grateful audience on the Southbank this evening. When writing, worry less about why you're writing, and concern yourself firstly with who it is that you are talking to. For generations, we have gathered round fires to hear stories told. Aspiring writers should hold their intended audience at the forefront of their mind. When writing for a specific enough audience, the storyteller's voice is galvanised, and true intimacy achieved. This is how she meets her readers - and how they feel that they've met her.
"To lose balance sometimes for love is part of living a balanced life." - Eat, Pray, Love
She sees writing as a spiritual practice to which she is devoted. For her, the written word is a communion between the human beings' labours and the mystery of inspiration: we none of us know why we're called to follow curiosity - ideas are made manifest through us. This is, she feels, the best possible collaboration: to be inviting of our thoughts, and remain open and receptive to inspiration when it takes hold of us. She sees ideas as responsibilities, but not burdens: they want to be born as much as we want them to be. She is in the business of making ideas happen. And for that I admire her. Greatly.
Gilbert has become something of a heroine. Her accountability is something I would eagerly aspire to. And her grace. Hers is a wisdom that is as simple as it is indisputable: we should all eat, pray, and love.