**WARNING: I am going to indulge myself with this hideously verbose weekend mind-dump. My apologies if you glaze over after two paragraphs.
Last night I went to hear Elizabeth Gilbert speak at Harvard and I’m still trying to sort through the experience. The excitement of seeing her in person is probably the equivalent of what it might be like for most people to meet their favorite movie star. She is at once modest, hilariously funny, quick witted, brutally honest and clearly meant to be my BFF. I don’t mean to be all “single white female” about it, but I would probably sell my firstborn to have dinner with this woman. There is such a joyful truth in not only her writing, but her presence as well, that one can’t help but be enchanted.
Eat, Pray Love seems to divide people into two groups- those who loved it (and I mean LOVED it) and those who found it to be self-indulgent. I clearly fall into the former category. No wait, that doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings about it. I am like the crazy annoying captain of the varsity Eat, Pray, Love Cheer Squad. Pom poms shaking, cartwheels, back flips and all. When I read it for the first time I had a truly visceral experience. I had never felt so personally connected, so deeply understood -as a writer, a woman, a reader- in my life. Maybe that sounds crazy to you, but it’s the honest truth. And honesty is the name of the game with Gilbert. I could not believe how exposed she made herself, and in such a laugh out loud way, which only makes her more charming. For those who felt her year long journey of self discovery was self absorbed, I counter by saying that I believe that it was painful, honest and brave. I think, in a way, taking that trip was a very responsible thing for her to do. Instead of jumping into another relationship with the wounds from her previous one still raw and bleeding, she would have not only hurt herself but also the next person she decided to share her life with. I think we’ve all done that at some point. And that, I fear, is a bit reckless. Instead, she stepped away to explore who she was, who she wanted to be and what ideals were important to her- making her a whole, educated and more at peace person in which to share with another. But then to put it all on paper for millions of people to read the world over–my God, that is just ballsy. When I write personal pieces I am always overwhelmed by that inner voice saying things like “What will people think? What if they you offend someone? What if you hurt someone’s feelings?” So for me, what she admits to is admirable and, for a lack of better word, just plain cool. She unearthed and shared the most treacherous parts of her internal landscape without those concerns about popular opinion or discretion, and I think that also made some people feel uncomfortable. Not everyone will admit or acknowledge the ugliness that resides in all of us. No one is a perfect moral compass or flawless master of human relations. I find those parts of people to be the most interesting, as I believe Gilbert does, but I do believe that it unnerves many who aren’t ready and willing to take the bad with the good and see it all as part of this beautiful mess we call life.
With the passion I felt for EPL, I waited with bated breath for the follow up, which took forever. I felt a mixture of apprehension and delight when I picked it up at the bookstore. The preface made my heart swell again for Gilbert- with her admission that she was terrified to write another book after the massive success of EPL. I can’t imagine the pressure a blockbuster best-seller that people felt to be “life changing” would put on a writer sitting in front of the blank page. I, as a reader, felt the same. I knew that she’d never be able to duplicate what she crafted with EPL and I knew deep down I would probably be let down. Having both admitted that to each other (in my head-again, I sound crazy), I dove in. And I hate to say it, I was let down.
The personal anecdotes and voice I loved so much in EPL were sadly scarce in Committed. There are chapters in which it would appear briefly, like a buried treasure, stuck in between a pretty dry historical and global history of marriage. I find the human condition, and particularly relationships, to be endlessly fascinating. As I get older and gather more experience I only become more intrigued by what it is that makes us tick and do the things we do and how our emotions drive our decisions-logical or not. However, the reason I love Gilbert so much is for her wonderfully familiar voice and casual writing style which makes you want to exclaim “OMG! Exactly! Me too!” Instead of feeling talked to, you feel she is conversing with you. In this book though I did not feel that way as much. One exception was when she listed her worst faults in one chapter. She wrote them down as a way to alert her boyfriend/fiancee about her most unflattering characteristics, protecting herself with a kind of “don’t say I didn’t warn you” insurance policy. That made me laugh, especially as I listed my own faults in my head simultaneously and felt a bit horrified at the thought of presenting them to someone BEFORE marrying them! I seem to operate on more of a “sneak attack” method, I think, allowing myself to seem totally together and then –SURPRISE– I’m actually a totally insecure person who leaves piles of clothes all over the house. I also really appreciated her honesty about her lack of desire to have children, a very unpopular opinion for women in their 30’s in the US. It’s almost an insult to people to hear that woman does NOT want to have a laughing, gurgling little one strapped to her and I commend her for totally owning that decision and being okay with it. Same with her feelings about not wanting to ever get married again. Her exploration of those choices IS interesting, but I did feel a bit of a disconnect this time around. As if there was more she wanted to say but didn’t want to typecast herself as a gut-spilling, emotionally confused person.
So when I was driving over to see her speak last night I was a bit uncertain. But the second she took the podium and cracked some clever jokes I immediately recognized that voice again. In person she is as good as the best stand up comedian I have ever seen but also thoughtful and smart as a whip. She is an educated, graceful person who speaks both eloquently but also isn’t afraid to drop the f-bomb while speaking in a friggin’ CHURCH. And when asked by an audience member what her advice was for aspiring writers, she bluntly advised avoiding all masters in creative writing programs to a somewhat shocked audience. Let me remind you, this was being held AT HARVARD. I almost died laughing knowing that half the people in that room (or more) were probably currently enrolled in such a program. Or even better, taught a program like that. But her explanation was spot on. She said writing is not a trade. You can’t graduate and go the the “Creative Writing Factory” and get a job. This is something that until 50 years ago was never taught and the worst thing you can do for your creativity is go into debt, which most people getting advanced degrees do. This reminded me about the best advice my dad gave me when I was thinking about getting my masters in design- he told me it was a waste of time and money. He said (to the effect of) “either you have it or you don’t honey. You can’t teach how to have a good eye. You have it, so go use it”. Gilbert jovially apologized for offending anyone, but she said “you asked for MY opinion and that’s what it is”. Owning her voice completely, she did not care who turned up their nose or scoffed. For someone who weighs others opinions too heavily, I want to try to integrate some of that attitude in my own life. She continued to present these belly-laugh inducing gems that made us all turn to each other and say “isn’t she just AWESOME??”
I am so immensely glad I got the opportunity to hear her speak. I am more inspired this morning to write than I have been in ages. If you loved any of her books I highly recommend checking her site for her future book tour dates and taking time to go. You won’t regret it.