Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Elizabeth Gilbert (@GilbertLiz), the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Big Magic and Eat, Pray, Love, as well as several other internationally bestselling books. She has been a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her latest novel, City of Girls, was named an instant New York Times Best Seller and is a rollicking, sexy tale of the New York City theater world during the 1940s.
Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors.
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Tim Ferriss: Liz, welcome to the show.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Hey Tim, thanks for having me.
Tim Ferriss: I am thrilled to have you, and I have messages to impart. My girlfriend insisted that I tell you that she loves you. So, that’s important to check in the very beginning.
Elizabeth Gilbert: You tell her — I’ll tell her. I love you, too.
Tim Ferriss: I have so many questions and we are going to improvise as we go. And I thought it would begin with The Alpha Wolf, if you don’t mind. And this was introduced to me, and for those who don’t know, this is a Moth talk/presentation story/tear jerker/laugh out loud at moments tail that my girlfriend asked me to listen to with her together in bed before we went to sleep several months ago.
And, I saw that Rayya’s birthday, her 60th birthday, was just a few days ago. And I have questions about preparing for The Alpha Wolf, but perhaps you could give people some context. I’ve fallen in love with The Moth, partially thanks to Neil Gaiman, partially thanks to Catherine Burns. And this was a very strong talk on a whole lot of levels, but could you speak to who Rayya was, a little bit of context, and then how you prepared for that?
Elizabeth Gilbert: There’s quite literally nothing I would rather talk about than Rayya. So, you started in a good place for me. So, Rayya Elias was quite simply the love of my life. She and I were friends for 17 years. I was married for most of that, and just very slowly and very quietly over the years, fell in love with her.
She was a lesbian, Syrian, Detroit-raised, rock and roll, hairdresser, filmmaker, author, musician, who had always wanted to live just right on the edge of life. She had been a speedball heroin junkie on the Lower East Side of New York City in the 1980s. Was in Rikers Island, was in Bellevue, was in various rehabs and rehabilitations. Was homeless, was — oh, God, she’d had such a storied life. And then she finally put it all down and she spent 19 years clean and sober. And when I met her, she was on the other side of that recovery, and she was the strongest, most extraordinary person I ever met.
And as I said, in that speech that I gave in that talk that I gave at The Moth about her, which I shared a year after she died. She was the most powerful person in every room that she ever walked into. And I adored her, she was my guide, she was my teacher, she was the rock, the ground underneath my feet. She was the one person in the world who always made me feel safe. And she didn’t just make me feel safe, I felt — the feeling that everyone had when Rayya walked into the room was, “Oh, thank God Rayya is here. Everybody’s safe.”
You know, that’s what the alpha is, right? The alpha is the person who keeps the entire pack safe. And, because she was the most powerful person in the room, what I always knew when she walked in was, not only would she make sure I was okay, if anybody was preying on me in any way, she would make sure the predator was okay, too. She had everybody under her wing to make sure that people were all right.
She just had this way of handling humans like nothing I’ve ever seen in my entire life, and I absolutely adored her. And I was a loyal wife, and I loved my husband, and the three of us were really good friends. And there was no way in the world that I was ever going to cross that line. I just kept that love very quietly in my heart. And we all just had a beautiful life together until the day that she was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic and liver cancer.
And I got a phone call from her saying that she’d gotten this diagnosis, and that they said she had six months to live. And from that point forward it was no longer possible for me to keep that love hidden. And very swiftly after that I had a conversation with my husband and said, “I need to go and be with Rayya.” And no one was surprised by this. He wasn’t surprised by it, he’d seen it for years. And he very, in one of the greatest acts of courage and dignity I’ve ever seen anybody do, he very graciously stepped out of the way, and we separated and I went to be with her, and I was with her until the end of her life.
So, that’s who Rayya was and that’s who she was to me. As for that speech that I gave at The Moth, that talk, what I was challenged to do in 12 minutes was to try to get over the net who that person was, the most epic human being I’d ever met. And I decided the way to do that was to tell a few stories about the experience of her death and dying, which were mostly based on ideas that I had about how she was going to become very helpless, and I was going to have to be her hero and protect her versus the reality of the situation, which is that she never became helpless. She remained the alpha in the entire situation.
She was a really hard patient to take care of for that reason. She absolutely refused to cooperate with my version of some airy-fairy soft hippy that I wanted to give to her, and instead she died the way she lived, like the bad-ass, fierce, unrelenting warrior that she was. And it was brutal, and it was beautiful, and she never stopped taking us by surprise right even up till the last second.
Tim Ferriss: Was it difficult for you to have the conversation with your husband, or difficult to prepare for this talk, or did both come to you very naturally or something in between?
Elizabeth Gilbert: It was very natural, and very difficult. And, I was only guided by, again, going back to the teachings that Rayya gave to me, one of her great expressions that she lived by was: the truth has legs. And what she meant by that, and she would expand on it, and say it this way: “The truth has legs. It’s the only thing that will be left standing in the end.”
So at the end of the day, when all the drama has blown up, and all the trauma has expressed itself, and everyone has acted up and acted out, and there’s been whatever else is happening, when all of that settles, there’s only going to be one thing left standing in the room always, and that’s going to be the truth. And Rayya’s policy of life was since that’s where we’re going to end up, why don’t we just start with it? Why don’t we just start with it?
And I can’t tell you how many times I heard her say that, and how many times I heard her just go right to the center of it with people where she’d be like, “Okay, put your truth on the table. Let me put my truth on the table. Let’s skip the drama and let’s just go to the truth, because that’s the only thing that’s ever going to survive. And let’s just begin right there.”
And, that was a truth. The truth of my love for Rayya had reached a point where it could just no longer be hidden. I couldn’t hide it from myself anymore. And I certainly didn’t want to hide it from this wonderful man who I loved and still love. And, there’s that adage, I think David Foster Wallace said, the truth will set you free, but not before it’s had its way with you. It’s a frightening thing, but I just felt like the only way that I could honor how much I loved him was to honor that great man by telling him the truth. And he honored me in return by accepting it.
Tim Ferriss: What did you learn about grief, your own grieving process, grief recovery plans, anything related to grief through that experience?
Elizabeth Gilbert: So everything about Rayya humbled me. That was one of her great roles in my life, was to just show me how you can plan till God leaves Chicago. You can plan shit till things get better, you can plan till the end of days. And trust me, I’m a planner. I am an organized person, I have — my mom’s lesson always in my childhood was like, the best thing you could be with somebody who had her ducks in a row. Just get it all in order, get it all organized. And life has a marvelous way of refusing to cooperate with that.
And, so I did not — I planned to be a good, loyal wife, and then God or the universe was like, “Oh, that’s a great plan.” The way that I say it now is “A good guess. Good guess, Liz, good guess. Like a really good guess, honorable guess done with the best of intentions. But actually that’s not your love, this is your love.”
And I spent years just being like, “No, it’s not. No, it’s not, because I have this plan.” And life’s like, “Yeah, it actually is. It actually is.” And, the point is going to come where that truth is going to become bigger than your plans. And, that extended into the way that I tried to manage, I’m using air quotes now. Manage Rayya’s death. I also went into her death with a plan. We’re going to have an enlightened death, we’re going to have a real hospice death. We’re going to bring grief bereavement experts in here to talk.
I laugh now because it’s like — it’s just Rayya, who is such a biker chick. It’s like, “You’re going to bring a fucking grief bereavement expert in here to talk to me? Give me a break. I’m going to go down watching football, eating chicken wings, and smoking. This is like, I’ve no interest in that.”
And so she just waylaid that plan completely, and died on her own terms. And then I think by that point I’d given up even having the idea of a plan for grief. I just remember, I think I walked into my grief, kind of, like just naked and broken, and just like, “Okay, what do you have for me?” And, it just — what it had for me was so beautiful and so hard. I found that — I guess I did have a plan to a certain extent, because I still thought that I was going to be good at it.
This is like, I love when I walk into really hard things like, “I’m going to be good at this.” You can’t be good at grief. You can’t be good at it. It’s not something that is to be mastered. It’s something that’s to be survived, and it’s something that has great lessons for you, but you certainly have to drop any sense that you’ve got control over it, or that you can manage it. It’s bigger than you, and it’s bigger than us. It’s a force of nature, it’s a weather system.
And, what I learned in grief was you let it take you. You just have to let it take you. When those waves come, you have to let them break over you. If you try to resist it will only hurt you more. And one of the things that really shocked me in my grief was how much rage there was in it. I don’t think of myself as a very rageful and angry person, but my grief was shot through with an absolute white-hot boiling rage.
And I was enraged at Rayya. I was enraged at Rayya for not dying the way I wanted her to. I was enraged at her for dying at all. I was enraged at her for leaving a whole bunch of shit for me to take care of after she died, which also felt like how our life together had been. It’s like, “Why do I have to handle everything? Why didn’t you arrange this? Why didn’t you work this out?” She’s like, “Because I’m not that person, you’re that person. I lived in the moment, you make plans, you figure it out.”
I was enraged at family members and friends who I felt hadn’t shown up for her, or for me in the way that I needed them to. And it was an incredibly uncomfortable feeling. I was enraged at God for taking the one person in the world who ever made me feel safe. And I had a long list, a really long list for God of other people who should have died instead of her. And God’s like, “Yeah, that’s adorable, but that’s not how we’re doing it.”
And, I just spun in rage for months, and it hurt him. It was not manageable. It was incredibly painful. And then finally, I remember one of my final pieces of rage was, I’m enraged at my rage because it’s interfering with my grieving. Because I had some sort of idea that my grieving would be this sort of poetic, beautiful, weepy, softwood experience.
Tim Ferriss: Minor key music or candlelight….
Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah, exactly. And instead it was like Sid and Nancy. It was just like, “What’s going on inside of — ” just violent anger toward everybody and everything. And when I had that thought, I was given the grace of an answer, and the thought I had was, “I need this anger to go so that I can grieve.”
And then the answer came: “This is your grief, and grief is the most uncomfortable experience you’ll ever have in your life. And for you, Liz, the most uncomfortable thing you can ever feel is anger toward anybody, even a teeny tiny bit. So, why wouldn’t you think that your grief would come as the most battering emotion that could possibly happen to you?”
I’m really comfortable being sad. I can do minor key, rainy day, sweet sadness. I can’t handle anger. And so, of course, it came as anger, and it had to in order for me to feel the magnitude of the loss. It had to be something that was bigger than I could hold. And that’s what grief is.
Tim Ferriss: One thing that strikes me, and there are many things that strike me. But one of the things that strikes me about your work of which I am a fan, a big fan, is how well you use humor and lightness along with the difficulty, and the darkness. And so, I’d love to chat about that for a minute. I’ve read about your, I don’t want to call it position — that makes it sound too strange. But your discussions of creativity and the allure and the danger of fetishizing pain.
And then for instance, I’ve read The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, which is a book I absolutely adore, which I think touches on that also quite a lot. And, what I’m wondering, I’ll try to make this as digestible a question as through, say, your grieving process, certainly this comes up in The Moth talk. There are some very funny, funny moments. Do you experience those or find those in the process, say, of grieving, or is it something that you unearth after the fact when you are doing your writing? Or is there another way to look at it?
Elizabeth Gilbert: I’m just thinking of something that a hospice nurse said to me because we were cracking up one day. I can’t remember what it was about, but there’s a lot of — anybody who’s ever been by, you know, there’s a lot of humor that shows up, and it is literally gallows humor. It really is like, I’ve got a picture of me, and Rayya’s ex-wife, and Rayya’s ex-girlfriend, who were the two women who showed up like champions at the end of her life to help to take care of me and help to take care of her because they loved her so much. And it was also just such a factor of what a boss, Mack Daddy Rayya was that she had every woman who’d ever loved her came back to take care of her when she was dying, and to take care of each other.
And, there was a lot of laughter between the three of us about just like handling this force of nature as she was dying. Like, “Can we survive it?” She’s the opposite of a good patient. And so there was a lot of humor in there. And the hospice nurse was laughing with this one day and I said to her, “It’s amazing that you can laugh given the line of work that you’re in.” She spends her life working with people the worst, most painful parts of their lives at the end of their lives. And she said, “We have a little motto. We say, ‘If you can’t laugh at death, get out of show business.'” Like, “You shouldn’t be a hospice nurse if you can’t find — if you can’t laugh, you won’t survive.”
And I’m sure that you and I are talking right now in the midst of the COVID crisis, and I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve been thinking about the nurses that I know and I’m imagining that, you know there is some dark ass humor happening in those hospitals right now. There has to be in the same way that soldiers would tell you about the humor that happens when you’re under fire. There absolutely has to be, or you just simply won’t be able to survive it.
So, I will say that the humor is there in those moments. I mean, right after Rayya died, I mean, we had been through such hell with her. And literally, and her death was not, as I say, it was brutal. One minute after she took her last breath, her last horrible breath, Gigi, her ex-wife stood up, brushed off her hands and goes, “Okay, so that’s done. I’m going to be on the next flight out of here like a two o’clock.” It was hilarious, but it was also just like what Rayya would have done. Because I was like, “Okay, you guys good? We good? We done here?”
We just all rolled over laughing in the middle of our tears. And I feel like that humor has to be shot through the entirety of your life or else you really are not going to make it through earth school, because earth school’s a hard, hard school, and it’s a hard assignment. And I think the humor is that, is quite literally grace. It’s these pieces of grace that are shot through the nightmare.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Let’s talk about writing something that’s — I’m fairly sure that you’re fond of on some level. And I was doing homework for this conversation, and it seems like you decided to be a writer very early in life. And that there were supporting plans, but not backup plans, so to speak. And the line that I found, and you can fact check or correct anything that I’m saying. But, the — I’ll read a quote which is from an interview you did on Read It Forward, readitforward.com at least.
And that is something you said to yourself: “This is what I do and I’m willing to be a diner waitress and a bartender and an au pair and somebody who sells jewelry at flea markets. I’m willing to not have very nice, fancy things. I’m willing to give up going on vacation with my friends to stay home and write. I’m willing to give up everything for this because this is my source of light.” How did you know it was your source of light? What did that feel like?
Elizabeth Gilbert: It felt like — I’ve said this before. Okay, so I’m — I would say that like I officially launched a spiritual journey when I was around the age of 30, and going through a very bad divorce that if you’ve heard of a book called Eat, Pray, Love you already know about. But —
Tim Ferriss: I have heard of this.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah. So, a couple of people read it, so you might know. And I continued that spiritual journey in what I would call traditional ways, so prayer, meditation, contemplation. But until very recently — so my meditation practice has only very, very recently actually I would say only in the last two years only since Rayya passed has my meditation practice deepened to a point where I might actually say that I’m actually doing something called meditating when I’m sitting there rather than what I’ve done for the last 20 years, which is sit down for 20 minutes, and either think a lot or fall asleep. That’s what my meditation practice is usually with like —
Tim Ferriss: Thinking with your eyes closed.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Thinking with your eyes closed, or just flat out falling asleep. But every single thing that the scriptures and all the holy teachings promised me that I would get through meditation, I’ve gotten through writing. And I got that from a very early age. So the main thing is the silencing of the mind. And it’s really ironic, because there’s a state the mystics talk about going into that’s called wordless oneness, where you, where your mind, the chatter of the mind and the languaging centers of the mind goes silent, and you feel yourself to be quiet oneness with everything around you. It’s also called the zone. You could call it serenity. There’s many names for it. But I like wordless oneness because it implies an absence of the chatter in the mind.
It is so fascinating to me that one of the ways to drop into wordless oneness, and this has actually been studied by neurologists is by writing, which is ironic because that’s the use of words, it’s the use of language. But it comes from a different part of the mind. It comes from an intuitive part of the mind more than it does from the part of the mind that I’m using right now to speak to you.
So I found from a very early age, and I was a really anxious kid, that when I was writing, I could have a vacation from what I would now call the egoic self. So, the egoic self never stops talking, and it never stops complaining. There’s nothing you can give it that will satisfy it. It’s constantly looking for ways to be unhappy. It’s constantly looking for ways to criticize what is around you, and you, yourself and everybody in it. And, that is the source of all suffering, is that that voice.
But when I would sit down and write as a kid and to a certain extent, I got it too when I was drawing and making art, but I didn’t have as much of a talent for it. My mind would quiet, and something would happen where I would look up, and two hours would have passed and I didn’t have to be Liz during those two hours.
Now I can’t really say that I decided to be a writer. I guess I did, but it’s more like I never stopped doing that. I think a lot of us, when we’re young, when we’re kids, we naturally gravitate toward creative pursuits that make us feel still, and make us feel calm. I think for many people, the arts are an intuitive, natural way that human beings — and they pick it up as children, figure out that this is a way that I can feel good.
What tends to happen is that when you reach adolescence, you discover all of the other really faster, hotwired ways to feel good, which usually involves sex or substance or spending money. A friend of mine who’s in recovery says, “If it’s not a martini, it’s a man. If it’s not a man, it’s a MasterCard, if it’s not a MasterCard, it’s a muffin.” There’s —
Tim Ferriss: The four horsemen of seduction.
Elizabeth Gilbert: The four horsemen, right? Man, MasterCard, martini, and muffin. It’s like, just give me something that I can — just give me something that I can stuff into myself so that I don’t have to feel this — I don’t have to endure the pain of being a human being. I don’t have to feel my egoic self.
It’s not like I didn’t do all those things, because I didn’t do, do all those things too. But for some reason, I was lucky enough. So, a lot of people put down the creativity when they find the man, the MasterCard, the martini, and the muffin. The math — whatever it is, the workaholism. Whatever it is that you’re using to numb yourself so that you don’t have to feel. The creativity is a slower, gentler way to do that. So when you find the shortcut, you take it. And a lot of people can point to the place in their life where they stopped creating because it’s when they found all that other stuff. But I never put it down.
So, for some reason I was lucky enough to have the good sense in a life that has been filled with a lot of bad sense, and a lot of nonsense. I had the good sense to hold onto that, and to notice, and realize that it’s something that made me happy in a way that didn’t come with a great price tag that comes with those cheap, hotwired ways to make yourself happy. There’s always a hangover and a consequence from those ways, but with writing there isn’t. It really was my place of stillness. And I think in a weird way it was the beginning of my spiritual practice. I just didn’t know that it was, I didn’t have that language for it. I just knew that it felt good.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s pair stillness with awe for a moment. I’ve also read that there are times when you’ll love a sentence so much that you read that you’ll start clapping by yourself, where you happened to be reading. And I would love to know what type of writing, what writers have done that for you, if you could name even a few of them. And, what it is, what are the ingredients that lead to that one-woman standing ovation?
Elizabeth Gilbert: Often in the bathtub. Yay. Well, they say that great art has to contain two features. It has to be both surprising and inevitable. So that’s the great paradox.
Tim Ferriss: That’s good.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Elizabeth Gilbert: That’s the paradox is that you have to go, “Oh, my God, I didn’t see that coming,” and that is the only way that could go. I’m thinking of the ending of Breaking Bad where, that whole show, but the end, the last moments of Breaking Bad.
Tim Ferriss: Spoiler alert.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah, spoiler alert. You’ve had many years to watch it now, people. I won’t tell you the ending, I will just tell you that I also stood up and applauded at that because it felt both surprising and inevitable. So that’s the feeling. You want your whole nervous system to kind of be like, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know that could be,” and yes, of course —
Tim Ferriss: It had to be.
Elizabeth Gilbert: — it had to be. And now, it’s rearranged my DNA in a certain way where I can’t be the same now. Poetry tends to do it. The poets have this amazing ability to put that into such a tiny space where it’s like the encapsulation of inevitability, and surprise. So, I’ll give you an example of one piece that I love, which is a poem by T.S. Eliot called East Coker that has gotten me through some of the darkest times in my life. Some of those moments in your life where you don’t know what to do. Where a human being — and this is where I think human life gets really interesting. What happens to people when they reach the end of their power.
Because especially in this culture where we live in a culture that says you should be able to power through anything. Life will very generously remind you that you cannot, and it will very generously break you at times, and very generously show you. As we’re seeing right now in the COVID virus we’re like, “Oh, actually there’s a limit to our powers here.” And it’s very humbling. And what do you do when you’re at the end of your power? So, the poem East Coker is one, and it gets me every single time. And —
Tim Ferriss: How do you spell Coker?
Elizabeth Gilbert: C-O-K-E-R.
Tim Ferriss: Got it.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah, East Coker. And there’s a part of the poem where T.S. Eliot writes, “Wait without hope for hope of the wrong thing.” Let me start it again. “Wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing. Wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing. There is yet faith, but the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought. And so the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.” That’s a stand up and applause moment.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that is a stand up and applause moment.
Elizabeth Gilbert: And sometimes when people I know are grieving, or they’re stuck or they’re broken or everything has been taken away, I will give them that poem because that says what I don’t know how to say better than that, which is right now you’re being asked to wait without hope for anything that you hope for would be the wrong thing. And wait without love.
Anybody who’s been going through a horrible breakup, I’ll give them that poem like you’re being asked to wait without love right now, because love would be love of the wrong thing. And, anybody who’s a beginning meditator, I give them that poem because of the line “Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought.”
You don’t have the wisdom right now to have the correct thoughts. So, you need to wait without thought. And then you will see if you do that. And there’s still faith, but the faith is in the waiting. The faith is in waiting without hope, waiting without love, waiting without thought. That’s the definition of faith. Sitting in the darkness in that waiting. And then you’ll see how the darkness becomes light, and the stillness becomes dancing but only every time.
You have to give up. In order to have it, you’ve got to give up hope and you’ve got to give up love and you’ve got to have faith only in the waiting. So that’s a line that makes me applaud. I’m — another author who gets me is — well, another poet who gets me is Walt Whitman and Walt Whitman saying — describing himself in Song of Myself, describing himself as standing both in and out of the game, watching and wondering at it and also being involved in it. That description of him watching himself walk through life both in and out of the game is again something that I think of as the highest point of enlightenment. Can you engage with your life? Can you be involved with your life? Can you feel all of the feelings? Can you fall in love? Can you lose? Can you fail? Can you grow? Can you succeed? Can you fuck up? And also watch it from a little bit of a detached distance and marvel at the game itself.
So that line gets me. And then as far as fiction writers go, I’m so in love with Hilary Mantel, who wrote the Wolf Hall trilogy about Henry VIII and won the Booker Prize for the first two installments of it and then the third one just came out. And the way that I’ve been describing it to people is, imagine if all three Godfather movies were as good as the first two. Imagine if Godfather Part III was just as good as one and two, that’s how good Hilary Mantel is that the third installment — and I’m reading that right now and I’m just — it’s just a bow down moment. As an artist, there are a lot of writers who I look at their work and I admire them, but I see how they did it, because it’s almost like a carpenter looking at another carpenter’s work and being like, “Ah, okay, I see how you did the joints there and you hid that hinge there and that’s cool, I see — well done.”
And then there are people, I look at their work and I’m like, “I literally don’t believe that you’re human. I don’t understand how you can even do this.” And that’s how I feel about Hilary Mantel writing about 16th century England in a way that is so intimate and so — that you cannot read that book without thinking, “This is exactly how it happened and I don’t know how she does that. And I’m very happy to say I’m happy to never be able to do that. I’m just lucky to live on earth at the same time as somebody who can.”
Tim Ferriss: Well, I would push back a little bit and I would say that you have a rare ability to blend readability with wordsmithing sentences that are very memorable and really strike a chord. I don’t think that is easy to do. And I mean, I would say, Kurt Vonnegut is one who comes to mind, but it’s not easy to combine those two things. And I thought it was — well, I don’t think — it made me crack a smile when I was reading about you appreciating sentences and the quote from you at the end of this portion of the interview was, “It’s part of the reason that the arts are around; to remind us that we’re not just here to pay bills and die, that we’re also here to get excited and to feel wonder and to feel awe.” That’s easy to read, but it is something that makes me go, “Fuck. God damn. You’re totally right. I need more wonder and awe. I’m paying too many bills, spending too much time on paperwork.” And so I do want to applaud that ability and it’s —
Elizabeth Gilbert: Thanks, sweetheart.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it is something that I aspire to do more of. But you’re totally right, or I should say, and you’re totally right, there are certain books. I’m in the middle of Little, Big by John Crowley, which is this fantastical — I suppose sort of surreal, yet realistic tale of fairies and so on and it’s one of those books where I’m like, “I don’t know how this guy does this at all. I really just — you have to be another species to weave prose like this.” It’s just like I don’t — yeah.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Right. I mean this is the thing that’s so incredible about a human life. There are only two things in the universe so far that we’ve discovered that appear to be infinite. And one is the universe itself because we haven’t found the edges of it and the other is human imagination because we haven’t found the edges of it. We haven’t begun to find the edges of it. It just keeps surprising us. People keep inventing new worlds and new stories and new ideas — it’s unbelievable. And it’s not like people have been sitting around not using their imaginations for centuries. Everybody’s been in this game for a long time and you would think — you walk into one of the massive libraries in the world and you see all that has been created already and you just think, “Well, that’s all been done,” and then somebody drops something on you and you’re like, “Where, how, how did you find that doorway into that world?” And it’s so incredibly exciting and I think just going back again to the idea of grief, I think the thing that keeps me from tanking is — “Okay, so the most important person in my entire life has gone.” First of all, that’s interesting.
I think that some — a good way to defuse drama and trauma is to just start using the word “interesting” a lot. “That’s interesting, that’s interesting, that’s interesting.” Just on a personal level for me that I would’ve said to the universe, “You can literally do anything and you can take anybody, you can’t take this one. This is the only one I can’t live without.” And they’re like, “Okay, that’s cool honey, we’re going to take that one.” And then I’m like, “Wait, so what does that leave?” Well, okay, apparently I can live without her because I’m being asked to and I’m being invited to. My friend Martha Beck has a really great thing that she always does as a counteraction to co-dependence. She likes to take classical sort of sappy love songs that are about co-dependence and just add one line to them to me to make them — to put them into context. And so she’ll take that song — for instance, this is one of my favorites. She’ll go, “I can’t live if living is without you and yet here I sit eating a sandwich.” It’s like, apparently I can.
I can live if living is without you because here I sit eating a sandwich, life is going on for some reason. But what keeps me here first of all, I’m hungry and I’m going to go eat a sandwich and the body wants to keep continue living. And secondly, I want to see what happens next. I want to see what happens next. It’s a really interesting world where we have not yet met the limits of consciousness, the limits of creativity, and the limits of invention, and the limits of imagination and I don’t want to miss it. So my curiosity I think is going to always be the thing that wins.
Tim Ferriss: So there’s the curiosity, there’s the serendipity, then there’s the organizing and the planning and I’d love to bounce between those two sides of the spectrum. Let’s talk about the organizing for a second and maybe we could start with Mr. Kisco. I think that’s your — one of your — do you still use an index card or a notecard system during research?
Elizabeth Gilbert: I sure do.
Tim Ferriss: Could you describe what your system looks like, please? And I suppose we should probably explain who Mr. Kisco is too.
Elizabeth Gilbert: You know what, I think it’d be funnier just not to. Just let you all — just let that be the mystery in the back. No, I will be happy to explain. Mr. Kisco as you all should know by now was my ninth-grade social studies teacher and I can’t believe that only Tim knows that and not the rest of you. Mr Kisco was my ninth-grade Western civ teacher and really hard ass, really good teacher, really scary teacher. And he taught us how to write term papers and he taught this system that was very simple that involved index cards and a box to put the index cards in. And as you’re doing your research on the topic, you put divisions in the box on different subjects and then every time you find a fact or a piece of information on a page, you would write one fact per index card, one piece of information per index card.
And then there was also a system that you would use for footnoting. So if the first book — the first book I would read would be book A. So at the bottom of the index card I would write A and then the page that I found it on. So A 23 and then when I went to the next book it would be B page 46. So that way you can mix up the cards and you can still remember where everything came from. Very simple and then each card gets one fact only and each fact goes in the filing system under whatever subject, whatever area it is. And when you start to write you’ve got all your facts at your fingertips in order. I’ve taken that system which was used for researching and I’ve grown it into a system that I use for writing my novels because my novels are very research-based.
And so for instance, this recent novel that I just wrote called City Of Girls, that takes place in New York City in the 1940s in the theater world and involves a young woman who moved to New York City in 1940 and gets pulled into a group of showgirls and dancers and playboys and actors and goes on a wild promiscuity bender just as the war is about to begin for America. That book required an enormous amount of research to be able to speak the language of the 1940s to be able to write a play. There’s a musical that’s in the middle of the book and I had to figure out — get the language of playwriting of the 1940s correct. How did people dress? What were they wearing? What was going on in the news at the time? And so I would get a big shoebox and a bunch of index cards and just dive into the research, which took me about three or four years and I would read a lot of biographies and a lot of letters and every single idea and every single fact got its own card.
So every time I had a line of dialogue that I wanted to put in the play — into the book, I would write it on its own card and I would put it for that character into their little section. Every time I found out something about — I had a little section called Fashion 1940s. So every time I found any tiny little detail, I would put it into that section. That was about fashion. Anytime I had a detail about sex for instance — I needed to kind of figure out what the sexual culture was of New York City in the 1940s, what kind of birth control were people using? How were they talking about sex? So anything I found on there, I put into the sex section. Anything I found out about what it was like working at the Brooklyn Naval yards in the 1940s during the war, because my character ends up working there, would go into the Navy Yard section. So it’s all very tidy and organized in box after box after box and by the time it’s done, it’s like I’ve got a novel — I call it a novel. A book in a box but it’s really usually five boxes by then.
But it’s such a great gift because when you’re writing and it really helps you — it really helps me with writer’s block because as I’m introducing a new character into the story, all I have to do is reach into the box and pull out her file. And because I’ve been putting notes in there for the last four years, I’ve got a two-inch thick file on this character of details of things she would say or what she’s wearing or ideas for character development. And so it’s an assistance to myself when I sit down to write that I can draw upon that and use it. And it makes it so, so, so much easier. And sometimes the research is tedious but I — part of my sense of stewardship and friendship over myself is that I try to do really nice things for Liz and I try to do really nice things for future Liz.
I hate flossing my teeth, but I do it for future Liz as a gift. So every night when I floss my teeth I’m like, I hate this but future Liz, this is for you babe, because I care about you and I love you. And so when I’m writing these notes to myself — so I might be sitting there at the New York public library doing research on how much theater productions cost in the 1940s and how many sets — how much the sets would have cost. So who would have been on hand — boring stuff but I’ll just sit there and I’ll find some really great detail and I’ll write it on a card and I’ll be like, oh, my God, future Liz is going to be so psyched when she finds this card three years from now because she’s going to be writing the scene and she’s going to be stuck and she’s going to reach in and she’s going to pull out this detail and she’s going to be like, “Ah, yes.”
And then what happens is that while I’m writing, I’ll reach in and I’ll find some amazing card with a great piece of dialogue on it or a great detail that really helps with the scene and I’ll be like, thanks, past Liz, you’re the best. And it’s this little salute across time where past Liz is like, I got you babe and future Liz is like, thank you for looking out for me, you’re the best. So all of the preparation that I do is to help myself during the hard part which is the creative — the actual creating a novel and I want to give myself all the help I can because I want to suffer the least that I possibly can. So I really do try to really show up for future Liz.
Tim Ferriss: It strikes me that you have a very productive — at times at least — of course I don’t know every detail of your entire life, but balance between this sort of egoless or egoless, at least, meaning less ego, wordless oneness and then the very sort of egoic by necessity planning side of things. Where you’re actually creating multiple Lizes to help sort of clear the decks and steer the ship. When you look at say your five boxes of cards, whether it’s for the fiction, like City Of Girls or nonfiction, what percentage of what you have on those cards ends up making it into finished books would you say? I’m curious kind of what makes the cut eventually.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Tim, I am so happy to tell you that I can give you that percentage because I can see it very clearly because once I pull a card out, I put it into its own separate box once it’s done. So when I’m finished I can actually see how many I used and I’m really interested in that myself. And it is about a fifth.
Tim Ferriss: A fifth.
Elizabeth Gilbert: It’s about a fifth of it.
Tim Ferriss: A fifth makes it into the book?
Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a good — it strikes me as a good percentage.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah. And you definitely need all of it because you don’t know what you’re going to need. You want to kind of overprepare and all of it — I like what you’re saying about the bifurcation of selves of the egoic less wordless wonder creator and the one who’s preparing. But I actually think that there’s an egolessness that’s in the research as well and that is the humility of feeling like I am a servant to this book. I really do feel — and you know this if you’ve read Big Magic, that ideas come to us from a very mysterious outer source. And by mysterious, I mean we will never know why it is that ideas are formed. That ideas as I like to think of them — ideas are these bodiless gigabytes of consciousness and they have desire and they have will and they want to be made manifest. And anyone who’s ever had an idea knows this. The idea itself has an urgency to it. It wants to be born, it wants to be nourished. It won’t leave you alone. It’s waking you up in the middle of the night. It’s nagging at you. It’s sending coincidences to you and serendipitous reminders of it and it just starts to become sort of an obsession. It’s almost a viral infection of an idea coming to you and taking you over.
I think it’s such an honor to be given an idea, especially if it’s a halfway decent one that I feel like my life is in service to that. And when I don’t have an idea and I don’t have a thought for a book, I think of myself — the image that I hold of myself is literally of a servant. Like one of those very proud British servants who doesn’t see their servitude as being demeaning. Sees it as a great craft, a great skill to be a good servant. I see myself in uniform, white gloves, hands behind my back, standing outside the door of the muse at attention waiting. It’s not passive. I’m waiting for the next idea to come and so that I can be of service to it and be ready for it when it arrives. So there’s a certain humility in the research process too, of just, I’m just working for the mothership and I don’t know what the mothership is. I don’t know where the ideas come from, but I am a grateful servant to it.
Tim Ferriss: So this may seem like a forced segue but I’m going to force it anyway. I don’t think it’s forced. You’re mentioning being of service. A number of things have come up, grieving, death, this active waiting if I could give it that phrasing. One book that came up in my research and feel free to confirm or deny because you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet, but are you a fan of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius?
Elizabeth Gilbert: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Why is that? What is the meaning of this book for you or what role does it play for you?
Elizabeth Gilbert: Okay, so Marcus Aurelius was, of course, the great philosopher-king. Plato had always said that the ideal society would be a society where the king was also a philosopher. We have that right now in America. Sorry.
Tim Ferriss: I was excited to see where that was going.
Elizabeth Gilbert: I kid — I kid because I love. Anyway, Marcus Aurelius was that. He was a great scholar and he was a great leader. Excuse me. And he was like all philosophers, somebody who spent his life in examination of the human condition and of his own existence. And his meditations are what survives of his journals and they’re so beautiful and they’re so immediate. I mean the other thing that great art is, is that it’s eternal. So the way that Marcus Aurelius speaks to himself in his journal feels like it could have been written yesterday. He is struggling through the same eternal questions that all of us are struggling through. What is the meaning of my life? How do I serve without being destroyed in service? How do I handle failure? How do I handle difficult people? How do I handle the limits of my powerlessness? What happens when there are situations that are beyond my control?
And he was Stoic as well. So a lot of it is just about, can I survive my emotions? Can I — and Stoicism in that philosophical realm doesn’t mean white-knuckling your way through pain and pretending not to feel it. It means achieving — going back to Whitman, achieving that sense of being both in and out of the game at the same time. Being involved and up to your neck in the messiness of life while at the same time achieving a tiny bit of detachment to watch the — I guess what the — in Eastern philosophy they would call the karmic dilemma that you’re in and recognizing that there may be limitations to how much you can control that.
And I love the way that he speaks to himself directly in his journals. The way that he’ll say to himself, “Come on, come on man, come on Marcus. Dude, get it together. It’s taught — this is a moment for you to act. You can go down now or you can find your strength, you can find your resilience.” The way that he coaches himself, I find that incredibly inspiring. And I also think my friend Martha Beck, who I talk about a lot, because she’s a great teacher, but she has a great teaching that she gives people when they’re full of anxiety and full of fear. There’s ways that you can learn to speak to yourself that will actually mitigate that and one of the ways that she teaches is that she tells — coaches her clients to write down, let their fear speak. So you just give your fear its day. You have to respect it. It exists. It’s part of you. You don’t want to cast it away or attack it. You just open up your journal and you invite your fear to write down everything that it’s afraid of and you listen politely and with nonviolent compassion to your fear as it speaks.
And then once it’s done and it’s had its say, you say, “Thank you so much for sharing that. I’m really grateful that you trust me enough to be this vulnerable and to tell me everything that you’re afraid of.” And then you say to your fear, “I’m now going to ask you, now that you’ve had a chance to speak, if you’ll step aside and I’m going to bring another aspect of myself forward and I’m going to ask it to speak. So if fear — if you would just step aside for a moment, I’m now inviting wisdom into the room and now I’m going to ask wisdom to write down what it thinks and what it suggests in this case.”
And it’s extraordinary to see the wisdom that people find in themselves. That you are not just made of fear, you’re also made of grace and of wisdom and those meditations of Marcus Aurelius, it feels like that’s what he’s doing. He’s writing to himself from a place of fear, anxiety and uncertainty, and then he’s writing back to himself from a place of wisdom and saying, okay, this is what you’re upset about, I recognize that, I see that, and now I’m going to ask wisdom to come into the room and this is what it would suggest. So it’s so beautiful and intimate to get to see a great mind like that working with itself in such an intimate setting.
Tim Ferriss: Well, hot damn am I glad I asked about Marcus Aurelius. And for people who have no familiarity with Marcus Aurelius, to put the philosopher label also in perspective from the leadership within the sort of mesh of leadership, he was the last of the rulers known as the five good emperors and also the last emperor of the Pax Romana, which was an age of peace and stability in the Roman Empire. So very highly effective, highly revered, and also highly reflective, and so I definitely second the recommendation. I would love to chat —
Elizabeth Gilbert: Thank you so much, Tim, for putting him into — of course because I’m so fascinated by spirituality and philosophy I forgot to mention that he was also a bad-ass Roman emperor. He also had a job. He also had a really, really good job and he was excellent at it. So yes, thank you for pointing that out.
Tim Ferriss: Of course and —
Elizabeth Gilbert: He wasn’t just a really thoughtful guy, he was also running the world’s greatest empire.
Tim Ferriss: He was a fascinating character and in some ways a reluctant leader also much like Cincinnatus and some others who — George Washington comes to mind. Fascinating guy and I would love to leapfrog to Martha Beck, because you mentioned this “parts work,” which would be one way to put it. Letting the fear speak, which makes me think also of something called Internal Family Systems or IFS which —
Elizabeth Gilbert: That’s exactly what it is.
Tim Ferriss: It’s super, super, I’ll use the word interesting and also incredibly effective. I’ve seen IFS mostly as used by Michael and Annie Mithoefer, who are therapists who work very closely with a nonprofit called MAPS in developing protocols for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD and both IFS and — well, I don’t want to actually say this about IFS, but cognitive behavioral therapy has a lot of its roots in Stoic philosophy, which has been used for trauma and PTSD and then IFS does as well. That’s just as a bit of context for folks and I’d love for you to speak to what else you’ve learned from Martha Beck. I mean what are some of the other things that have really stuck for you from Martha?
Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah, well I’ll give you one. When I met her, I met her years ago at an Oprah Winfrey event. If you don’t know of her, she’s a life coach, she’s a writer. She’s actually the person for whom the term life coach was invented. She was the original life coach. And I always say, she’s Oprah Winfrey’s life coach, everybody. So if you just want to know some credentials that’s Martha. And when I met her, I met her around the time Rayya was sick. I had reached out to her. There are no coincidences, but we had met years ago and then she wrote a book called Diana Herself that landed on my desk and I read it and I was like, this is so dazzling and I need to reach out to her personally and tell her how great it is. So that reestablished our contact with each other.
And then very shortly after that contact was established, Rayya got sick and Martha was right there for us and really walking us through that and that death and dying experience in such a remarkable way. I can truly say that it would’ve been a very much more painful experience without her help. One of the things that I said to Rayya about Martha once I first started having conversations with her was I said, “I’ve always felt like I’ve played the game of life pretty well.” Martha took the ball and just left the arena. Here I am struggling to play the game well. She’s just like, “I’m not even going to play the game by its rules.” And I didn’t even know that you could just leave the game. And she’s so wild off the charts and her wildness is that she has this very strong belief that your intuitive nature will take care of everything but in order to listen to it, you have to step away from trauma and you have to step away from culture. And that often means you have to unlearn every single thing you were ever taught by your family and by your culture about what is right and wrong. And you have to become a completely natural, wild, intuitive being. And you have to guide yourself purely based on — essentially what she would say is based on what your body tells you.
So any time that you — and that’s located — I’m putting my hand on it right now, but it’s that center located between your navel and your sternum, that’s often extremely emotionally reactive. So if I don’t want to do something, if I don’t like somebody that thing knows. It’s a compass that’s never wrong. And culture and trauma and family and training have taught me to override it constantly.
So somebody invites me to an event and I — my sternum, naval area starts to feel sick because I don’t want to do it. But my training and my culture tells me that I have to, that’s me overriding the only navigational system that is truly my own in order to be a good member of society. Or it’s my fear that’s overriding it because I say, “Oh, I have to say ‘Yes’ to that invitation because I have to network, and if I say ‘No’ to this really powerful person then — ” so and that overrides it. Anytime you say “Yes” with your mind when your body says “No,” you will lead yourself farther and farther and farther away from your path. And so the work that Martha does is about teaching people how to trust that and only that. And she has navigated her life based on that and only that. And she started navigating it that way not for fun but because she was dying. She was literally dying of several autoimmune diseases and she was dying of being a good person. She was dying of doing everything exactly right as she had been taught by her Mormon upbringing and then by Harvard. She went and got three degrees at Harvard so she went from one really oppressive culture, which was Mormonism, into another one, which was academia, and the entire time was trying to be the best, good moral, ethical person as per culture’s recommendations and she was literally dying of it. The way that she cured herself was that she went on what she called an integrity cleanse. This is the most bad-ass thing I have ever heard anybody do.
Tim Ferriss: I like that. That is amazing.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah, it all sounds good until you find out what you have to do to go at it.
Tim Ferriss: True for so many things.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Dude, it’s so hardcore. She got a watch, she got a digital watch — this was years ago before phones. You can do it now on your phone, but like, you know, ask yourself if you really want to. But she did it because her alternative was literally to die, and that’s often what will make people have to change. She got this watch, she put a timer on it to have it go off every 30 minutes. Every 30 minutes, whatever she was doing, she would check and see if she was lying, and if she was lying, she would correct it. So every 30 minutes, every 30 minutes. That means you’re on the phone with your sister and your sister’s saying, “You guys coming for Christmas this year?” And you say, “Yeah, I can’t wait. We’re so looking forward to — ” beep, beep, beep, beep, beep — “Actually no, I don’t want to come. I don’t want to come. We’re not coming.” Next 30 minutes, another one, beep, beep, beep, everything. Every single interaction, every single conversation, no more polite social lies, nothing. This extreme integrity cleanse.
She said it was the most amazing thing in the world. She lost every single member of her family. She lost her marriage. She lost the work path that she was on and what she became was herself and what she got back was her health and her wellbeing and her intuition and her instincts. Then she had a few people left at the end of that and they were her core people and from that, she built her entire new life that she’s still living in now. So it’s a massively bad-ass thing to do, but it’s pretty cool and she said, you know, “I’ve softened it a bit.” She’s like, “I’ll tell a social lie now just to be nice.”
She’s got a new book coming out next year that’s all about this, that I can’t wait to be out into the world because it’s so, yeah, the amount of integrity that she lives with and the amount of integrity that she taught me to live with are huge. When you asked me, was it hard for me to tell my husband that I was in love with Rayya? That was directly a result of seeing the way that Martha lives and just having to be in integrity at the same time as being in respect to somebody.
I’ll give you one more Martha Beck line that I love. She says there are certain moments of your life where you’re standing in front of a bonfire and you have to jump. You just have to jump into it and you have to be willing to burn away everything that you’ve been taught and everything that you’re afraid of and just do it. I remember her telling me this with such glee. She goes, “It’s such a cool moment that you’re in.” She said this to me as I was leaving my marriage and going to be with Rayya, she said that these bonfire moments are so fantastic because there’s only two things that can happen when you jump into a bonfire. One of them is that you find out that it wasn’t actually a bonfire, that you were afraid that it was going to burn you to pieces and it actually didn’t, it wasn’t as scary as you thought. You did it, you took the leap. It turned out to be kind of like warm and soft and easy, so it was no big deal.
The other thing that can happen is that it is a bonfire and you are incinerated and your entire life is incinerated by it. That’s even better because then you get to be reborn as a phoenix on the other side, completely new. Either way, you win, so there’s no reason not to. You’ll either jump in and find out it was nothing or you’ll jump in and you’ll be destroyed and that’s awesome too. So when I say Martha doesn’t play by the game, that’s what I mean, that’s what I mean about — she’s not even in the arena that we would call any sort of normal way of living, and that reason she’s been one of the top three most influential people in my entire life.
Tim Ferriss: You’re like, “Martha, do we go left, right, or straight?” She’s like, “We go up.” You’re like, “What? How do we do that?”
Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: That’s incredible. Let’s talk about the integrity check, that sternum-to-naval area, we’ll have to come up with some sort of perineum-like label that makes it a little easier to —
Elizabeth Gilbert: Inner compass, I think is a good —
Tim Ferriss: Inner compass, there we go.
Elizabeth Gilbert: That’s where it’s located, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: When you do say an integrity check, and I had read that when Rayya was sick, for instance, you began deleting or archiving emails without responding as a bit of a treat to yourself.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Deleting. Not archiving, deleting.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Deleting, goodbye. When you say now, check in with yourself, and decide to say no to something — let’s just, to make it easier, make it concrete, via email, you get an invitation from a friend you do actually really like with something that could plausibly advance your career or be fun, but you check in with yourself and it’s like, “Nope, this isn’t a yes.” How do you phrase your nos or declines? Do you have any particular go-to language that you’d like to use?
Elizabeth Gilbert: I just want to make sure everybody knows that this is not easy. I didn’t want to have any illusions for anybody that this is simple. And the closer the relationship, the harder it is. The closer and more intimately I’m involved with somebody, the more stakes there are for me and the harder it is for me to tell the truth. That feels like it should be — there’s a paradox, the people you love the most should be the people that you are able to be the most honest with. Well no, because they’re the people who you want to hurt the least. Right? That’s where it’s really, really hard.
There’s a couple layers of it, right? So if it’s somebody — I now treat my inbox like it’s my home because I think it’s an extension of my home. So if somebody walks into my home uninvited and announces themselves and doesn’t say how they got a key and asks for something, I delete that email. I will delete that email even if they are a producer for Good Morning America. You know, I’m just like, “I didn’t invite you in. There are proper channels, you know what they are. I don’t know how you got my personal email,” and I just, I just delete it. If I feel a sense in my sternum of offense, of feeling like this person has taken a liberty, I don’t believe that I owe them anything. I don’t believe that I owe them anything any more than if I came down to my kitchen and saw people sitting at my table who I didn’t know eating breakfast, I wouldn’t believe that I owed them to make them a cup of coffee. I’d be like, “Get out of my house. You’re not supposed to be here.” I don’t think I even owe them — I don’t even think I owe them a polite response. I owe them nothing. I didn’t ask you to come into my house, I don’t owe you anything.
That’s the easiest. Those are the ones that are easy and I now treat myself to doing that. I mean, I do that every day. I clear my inbox out very quickly that way. Then I’m entertained when they come back later and they’re like, “Just circling back,” and I’m like, “Yeah, just deleting you again.” Circle back as many times do you want, you are not coming in. So that’s simple.
Tim Ferriss: Just bumping this up because I know you —
Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah, I’m just bumping you back — it’s like whack-a-moles. It’s like, I can do this all day. Delete, delete, delete. If it’s somebody who I care about, if it’s something that I’m interested in but I’m just not going to do it because I don’t want to, I will write back and say, “Thank you so much and I’m really honored that you invited me to this, but I’m not going to be able to do this at this time.” And I don’t feel the need to give a reason. I think a simple no is really, really good and sometimes the reason it’s good not to give an explanation is that if that person is an expert manipulator, as many of us are, that explanation will not suffice. So it won’t matter what you give as an explanation because they can come back and be like, “Well we can do it by audio,” you know? Or we can do, “Oh, well we can do it a different weekend.” Just no.
I learned a lot about this from my teacher Byron Katie, who teaches an amazing thing called The School for The Work. That’s a whole, she’s a whole ‘nother being who’s not at all living by the rules.
Tim Ferriss: She’s extraterrestrial, for sure.
Elizabeth Gilbert: She is extraterrestrial. She is the only fully enlightened human being I believe I have ever met. As such, she does not have any trouble saying an honest yes and an honest no to people.
Tim Ferriss: Just to underscore that, because I did an in-person training with her. I mean, literally no hesitation —
Elizabeth Gilbert: None.
Tim Ferriss: No struggle, no conflict.
Elizabeth Gilbert: None.
Tim Ferriss: It’s bizarre and just mesmerizing to watch.
Elizabeth Gilbert: And she loves you.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah.
Elizabeth Gilbert: And she loves you. There’s also no hostility.
Tim Ferriss: No offense, no hostility —
Elizabeth Gilbert: I remember seeing somebody come up to her, somebody came up to her at an event, handed her a book that they’d written, which people do to me all the time too. So I really marveled at this and they said, “I wrote this and I want to share it with you,” and she said, “Oh, sweetheart, I’m never going to read that.” True. It’s just true. “I’m never going to read that.” And I’m like, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know you could say that.” Right? It’s so — that’s amazing and she said it so lovingly like, “Oh. Oh no, I have no interest in reading that.”
She teaches — I don’t know if you did, when you took her training, did you do where she teaches a simple no and she does training on how to give a simple no?
Tim Ferriss: I don’t think we actually spent much time on that. So I would love to hear you say more. We worked on the emotional one-pages and the turnarounds.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah, the turnarounds.
Tim Ferriss: We did a lot on the turnarounds, which is probably, we could do a whole episode just on that.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Everybody look up Byron Katie, she’s amazing. And if you have the means and if you have the chance to ever take her nine-day School for The Work, it’s the most important thing I’ve ever done for myself.
Tim Ferriss: Oh wow.
Elizabeth Gilbert: I say that quite simply. But she has a whole day in the nine-day School for The Work, which is about the simple no. The simple note is ways to say no. It always begins with, “Thank you,” and there’s never a “But,” because she feels that the word but is very cruel. It’s just an “And.” So it’s “Thank you” and “No.” That’s it, that’s a simple no. Then if they come back, you can say —
Tim Ferriss: Well, hold on, just to pause for a second. Is that literally the phrasing or is it just —
Elizabeth Gilbert: Yes. “Thank you” and “No.” Yeah, that’s it. That’s it. It’s a simple no. It still makes my stomach, because I’m like, “Oh, my God, you can’t just do that. You’ve got to give, you’ve got to like do the dance,” and she’s like, “You don’t have to do the dance.” And she’s the one who taught me, if the person is a good enough manipulator, it doesn’t matter what you bring, they’re going to manipulate it. Right? And the beautiful thing about a simple no is that it gives — in the jiu jitsu game, it gives somebody no weapon that they can take and bring back at you. They can say you’re being incredibly selfish and you can say, “I hear that and you might be right about that.” That’s another one. She always says, “You might be right about that. You might be right about that.” And no. And you just keep adding “and no” after the statement. So then there’s, you know, but you know, “I really — I need you to do this. I’m desperate,” and you say, “I see that, I see your desperation, and no.”
One other thing she’ll add is you can say, “If I change my mind about this, I’ll let you know. And no.” That’s been a game-changer for me. I just did one last week. Somebody who I have a professional relationship said, “I want you to do this one-hour video interview to promote this thing that I’m doing.” Old Liz would have thought, “I owe her that because she did this other thing for me that time.” I checked in with my inner compass and I was like, “Nothing in me wants to do this.” So I just wrote back to her, I said, “I’m sorry and I’m not going to be able to do this at this time,” and she wrote back and pushed in and said, “Oh, let me clarify. I wasn’t clear about why we need it. We really need it because right now, it’s really hard for us to sell things because we don’t have, because of COVID-19 and it’s just — you know, that’s why we need it.” I wrote back and said, “I hear you and I understand you and no.” And it goes away. They don’t tend to come back a third time.
It really does just stop. And let it sit at the no. The more words you add after that, more entangled you get. But again, I want to make clear, it’s hardest closest to home and it’s hardest with family and. With family, I find if I anticipate that I’m going to be asked something, I really have to practice. I really — because it’s scary and I have to really practice and be like, and just practice saying, “I’m not doing that right now. I’m not coming this year. I’m not doing it.” And I’ll say it a thousand times. I’ll just go for a long walk and I’ll just practice it and practice it and practice it. Because as I say, the closer the people are to you, the more difficult it is.
Tim Ferriss: You know, the — as a bit of a personal digression here, I was working on a book, an entire book about saying no, this past summer. The great irony, of course, is that I came up with all the reasons why I shouldn’t write the book in the process of —
Elizabeth Gilbert: Oh, I love it.
Tim Ferriss: — putting it together. But what I noticed as I was practicing different ways of saying no is that it’s an incredibly clarifying exercise because it, in a sense it kind of brings to surface the true character of many people you know or people who were attempting to reach you. What I found surprising, and maybe I shouldn’t have found it surprising, is that many of my close friends who I anticipated might be upset, would respond with, you know, “Dude, good for you for respecting your boundaries. That’s a great line. Rock on.” They got it and they were just like, “Ah, I wish I could say that more myself. Good for you.” It was the bonfire that wasn’t a bonfire, in those cases.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Did you ever run into a bonfire that was one?
Tim Ferriss: Oh, for sure. Absolutely. Then I’m like, oh wow, because if you — what I like about what you said about the — or the sort of jiu jitsu analogy is that if you provide really specific reasons for why you can’t do it and you elaborate, you’ve just created a potential negotiation. Right?
Elizabeth Gilbert: Right, right.
Tim Ferriss: But if you, if you don’t provide that grip, that toehold, then one of the few responses someone can give you if they’re upset and still want to push is some type of personal ad hominem attack or an accusation and then you’re like, “Oh wow. Okay, now it’s that kind of party. Okay.” This is good to know before we’re on stage having a public tiff at God knows what. I mean, this is valuable information. So there were definitely some bonfires and basically people just self-emulated, right? Because I was like, “Oh, wow, you’ve just proved my internal compass to be extremely accurate.”
Elizabeth Gilbert: Right. This is the reason and here is the reason I’m not working with you. But you don’t even need to say that. You just know it. You just know it because the body knows first. The body knows first. The body knows first but only always. One of the things that Martha says that I love that she’s like, because culture and civilization have overwritten the software system of the body so much and told you that you, don’t trust that, what you trust are the rules and the mores and the fear-based, scarcity-based, grasping, this is how you have to act, this is who you have to be in order to be safe. And meanwhile, our body’s like, “Eew.” You know? Like, “No, gross.” Or on the opposite side, like, “Yummy.” Like that’s, “I want to be over there. I want to be with those people. I don’t want to be with these people.”
If you think about it, the wisdom of the body is so incredible. It’s such an amazing machine. It’s such a fantastic machine and it’s ancient. It’s been honed by literally millions and millions and millions of years of evolution into this phenomenal machine of reception, of conscious reception, of being able to respond and being able to know. The mind, thinking mind, is brand new. It’s the newest update. It’s only a hundred thousand, maybe 200,000 years old. It’s got a lot of bugs in it.
I think the best example of this is if you were to break your femur, snap your femur in half, the biggest bone in the human body, if it’s properly set, that thing’s healed in six weeks and you’re walking back on it. Your body knows what to do. If somebody tells you you’re fat or that you’re stupid 40 years ago, it still hurts now, right? Like these wounds, the mental and emotional body, mind, doesn’t know how to heal itself nearly as well as the body does. It’s so vulnerable and the body is so much stronger.
So what Martha says is that if you are given this amazing body that’s this incredible antenna of operating in the world and always knowing what’s right for it and what’s wrong for it, and you override it with the mind, essentially, it’s as if you’ve been given the brand new, fanciest, like highest speed operating thinnest MacBook Air and you’re using it as a placemat. Because you don’t know how to use it, right? So that’s what the body is. It’s like this machine that you’ve been given but if you’re just eating your cereal off of it and thinking that you’re doing… You know? And it’s like, no, open it up and start using it because it’s never wrong. It’s never ever, ever wrong.
It’s a tricky thing. It’s especially tricky thing to tell to people who have been addicts because nobody trusts their intuition less than anybody who’s been through addiction because they’re like, “Oh, you don’t want me doing what my body wants me. You don’t want me saying yes to what my body’s — ” But there’s a really big difference between addiction and intuition. If you look back at your moments of addiction or your moments where you’re out of control of yourself, you usually can find that your intuition was trying to tell you something and your addiction was overriding it. Your intuition knew this was not a good move but your mind, the addictive, broken, diseased mind was giving you instructions. So truly, the intuition can be trusted. I know it’s so hard for us to believe, but it does know, it does know right from wrong for you.
Tim Ferriss: I could not agree more. If I look back at the biggest — just to maybe contain the scope, the biggest business disasters or partnerships, I knew on day one that it was a bad idea or there was something I felt that indicated discomfort and I overrode it. Right? Every single one. It was a somatic sense that something was crooked or off before I signed on the dotted line. I mean, every single time.
Elizabeth Gilbert: How many people do you know who said, “I knew the night before my wedding that this was a mistake.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Oh, tons. Yeah.
Elizabeth Gilbert: How many people do you know say that? And yet why did you do it? Because you were 29 and it was time to get married. You know? Because you’d been raised in a culture that said, “This is what you do now.” Because the invitations had been sent out, because 300 people had gathered, because you’d spent, your family spent $30,000 on the wedding. Whatever the reasons were, you knew somewhere in that sternum area you knew — and how much you had to drink that day in order to override that, whatever you had to do in order to shut down that compass that was saying, “Uh-uh (negative).” You know, it’s brutal. You know? It’s brutal. But yeah, that’s the work of the second half of my life. I can say that now that I’m 50 that the only thing I’m interested in anymore is that.
Tim Ferriss: Let me ask you a question that may be leading us to a dead-end but I’ll ask nonetheless, just because it keeps coming up in the sort of deeper currents. Like if you’re sort of kayaking on top of a pond and you see the current shifting the opposite direction from the top level of the water surface level. This keeps popping up for me and I’ll ask and then we can edit it out if it doesn’t go anywhere.
Elizabeth Gilbert: I’m so psyched for what’s about to happen because I have no — I’m like — anticipation is one of my favorite emotions and I’m in it right now. I’m like, I have literally no idea what he’s about to say.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. This could be like a lot of lead up for a terrible punchline, but do you have any perspective on psychedelics? Do you have any thoughts at all related to psychedelics?
Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah. I would love to talk about that. I do and I’ve done it and I’ve done it recently and I’ve done it in controlled settings with people who you know are good at it. I’ve done it with shamans and I’ve gotten a lot out of it. I’ve also stopped doing it recently, so I’m happy to talk about both of those things. I don’t think that that should be a condemnation for anybody’s exploration of this.
I think those substances are really fascinating. My experience of it was exactly as promised, that it will open up your entire consciousness where you can move through time and space, you can see things that you never could have seen otherwise. I was given — I had one journey with a shaman’s help during the time of Rayya dying that really truly gave me what I needed, a piece of information that I needed to get me through to the end of her life, that I think I would have broken if I hadn’t been shown that piece of information. I brought the shaman in specifically because I said, I’m at the end of myself and I need a vision. I can’t sort this out myself. This is beyond my capacity and I think it’s beyond the capacity of counselors. I need a divine vision. I need to see into some other realm on this because this world is not providing the answer. And I got it, and it was essential.
I also had an experience of being told things and shown things in that state that turned out later not to be true. So I know that you can also — you have to be careful. I also had the experience of just basically just getting high. Just basically getting high with my friends and having us think that we were having divine visions from God, but really we were just fucked up. And really, we were just like, basically we weren’t much more than high school sophomores sitting around being like, “You know, I think the universe is — ” and thinking that we were having these really profound experiences. Then later when sobriety came being like, “Oh, we were just high.”
All of that needs to be taken into account, I think. I’ve also seen people think that they were great healers and great spiritual leaders and be a little bit deceived in that and lead people into stuff that maybe they weren’t ready for. I think it’s very hard to take a Western mind and try to make it into a 14th century Peruvian, you know? I think that when people go on ayahuasca journeys, then they go to Colombia and I think that’s what’s going to happen, there’s a lot — the rot is deep in the Western mind. There’s a lot of ego, there’s a lot to untangle, and so if you bring an egoic mind into a sacred circle, I think you can go in some possibly mistaken directions.
Okay, all of that is to say people, do what you want and do what you think is best for you and follow your own intuition on it. I followed my own intuition into psychedelics and then I followed my own intuition out of it and I don’t regret having done it. I may do it again. It’s not a fully closed door, it’s just that right now in my life, I’m at a place where I want to have a clear mind and I want to see whether I can manage to negotiate my life without being altered in any way. So I’ve stopped drinking and I’ve stopped — I stopped doing anything that alters my mind. Again, that might not be forever. It’s just, that’s where I’m at as of this moment. So that’s my very long answer to your question, but I do think they’re remarkable, powerful substances. I’ve had great things come out of them for me and I’m taking a break from it.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you for answering that.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s just sort of a whisper I wanted to pay attention to so thank you for answering that. I will underscore —
Elizabeth Gilbert: I have no dogma on it. Like really, really, really. I may even do it again some day, but just, just not for now. I think I went a little too far with it and I was like, “I’m just getting fucked up now. This is like — ” I think you have to just have to be really accountable to yourself about are you using this for transformation or are using this for escape and only you can know that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I do want to underscore a few things that you said since this is a subject and area that I spend a lot of time thinking about, have for the last six years or so, that these are very, very powerful compounds and they create a plasticity that can be molded for the better, it can also be molded for the worse. There are just busloads, there are arena-loads full of charlatans who have a messiah complex who believe themselves to be able to reach into your soul and fix what is broken, who have no —
Elizabeth Gilbert: Amen.
Tim Ferriss: — who have no track record, no credibility, no training that would lend itself to that type of confidence. You wouldn’t go on Craigslist to find someone to perform a neurosurgery on you and I would suggest, particularly if you are psychedelically naive, meaning you have not used these compounds, that you take it that seriously. That might seem like a very — an overstatement, but I don’t think it is because there is a — I’ve found tremendous value in psychedelics over the years, over the past 20 years. Nonetheless, I like to be a voice of caution because there’s a survivorship bias with the positive stories, if that makes sense. It’s kind of like the mutual funds you read about in Barron’s. It’s like, yeah, those are the ones that have survived. But if you have a thousand orangutans flipping quarters, eventually one of them might’ve flipped heads a thousand times —
Elizabeth Gilbert: Wait, did you have a vision where you saw a thousand orangutans?
Tim Ferriss: No. That would be very visually arresting though.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Something that you could see in those states.
Tim Ferriss: That’s kind of the screensaver I want on my computer. But so just say people should be cautious and particularly if you have no experience, to take it very seriously.
Elizabeth Gilbert: That’s very wise advice, yeah. And people will do whatever they’re going to do.
Tim Ferriss: And people are going to do whatever they do. People are going to do whatever they do. At the very least, if you are considering that type of tool, I would suggest that you start with at least a month of daily meditation and possibly journaling, which is what I would like to ask you about next because we’ve mentioned letting your fear speak, we’ve mentioned that in the context of Martha Beck. I read that every few years you go through The Artist’s Way course, and I just love to hear how you decide when it is time to do that and what role Morning Pages have for you. If you could speak to that.
Elizabeth Gilbert: If people don’t know what The Artist’s Way is, it’s, a wonderful course that was created 20 years ago, 25 years ago, something like that by a woman named Julia Cameron. It’s based on the 12-step recovery program actually, but it’s a way of recovering your creativity from its trauma. And Brené Brown has talked about this too, a lot about what we call art scars that people have for very good reason. Many people were mocked for their creative endeavors when they were children and they shut it down, or you were told that you can never make a living out of this. This isn’t a responsible way to live. This is for children. Put away your childish things and take on the mantle of adulthood.
And so it’s a 12-week-long course, self-guided course where she leads you through a series of questions and exercises that are meant to liberate your inner artist from their wounds. The two foundations of The Artist’s Way are The Morning Pages, which is every morning you wake up and you write three pages, anything, no matter what, as soon as you wake up. And the second thing is The Artist’s Date, that once a week you take yourself on a date to something interesting alone, that you go do, whatever it is. It could be anything from going to an art gallery to taking a walk in a part of town that you’ve never seen before, just something that you do that is entirely your own.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, eat, pray, love would not exist without The Artist’s Way. I was in a terrible depression and in a lot of pain and in a lot of emotional suffering and going through a divorce. And somebody gave me the artist’s way and I did it. One of the things that happens when you do it is that various ways she asks on almost every single exercise, she’s asking you various interpretations of if there was one talent that you wish you had, what would it be? If there was one skill that you would love to learn, what would it be? If there’s something you wish you had studied when you were younger, what is it? If you could have five talents that you have now, what might they be? If you could have five — and she keeps asking these questions in various ways and you answer them again and again and again.
And when you’re done doing The Artist’s Way, you go back and you read through all your journals and you see what keeps showing up because that’s your clue as to what the next direction of your life was. And when I did it, what kept showing up was apparently, I really want to learn how to speak Italian because it was on almost every page. It’s like I wish I could speak Italian. I wish I could speak Italian. And this is the beautiful thing about the way that the mind hides things from us, I literally didn’t know that about myself. I had no idea that it was such a big deal in my life that apparently my consciousness really wanted to learn how to speak Italian. So for no reason whatsoever, I just started taking Italian lessons at night in night school, the new School of Social Research in New York, which I call night school for divorced ladies because it was all a bunch of divorce, women taking classes to better themselves. And I was one of them.
And I started taking Italian with no plan and I fell so in love with it. And “I just want to master this, to master this, I’m really going to have to go to Italy.” And that was the beginning of me creating the idea of going and spending that year traveling, starting in Italy and then going to India to meditate and then to Indonesia. It would’ve never come up, it would have never come up.
So I can’t overstate what you can get out of doing The Artist’s Way. I tend to do it between projects. Actually, I’m glad you brought it up because I haven’t done it in a while and I’m just looking over at my bookshelf and I see that the book is sitting right there and I may take this as an invitation to — it’s a good thing to do during quarantine, to dedicate myself to it again. And the other reason that it’s important, I think to do it again and again, is you don’t know what you’re going to find, you change, the world changes and you change. And I have a feeling that if I did The Artist’s Way again, it’s not going to be, I want to learn Italian on every page. I don’t know what I’m going to find but I’m curious enough to find out. Why don’t I do that, Tim? Well, thank you. Thank you for reminding me. I’m going to take it on.
Tim Ferriss: I literally have, I’m touching it with my hand because it’s on the table where I’m working The Artist’s Way Morning Pages Journal, which is a companion volume to theirs. And I’ve been using it, I’ve dusted it off and said, “I think the monkey mind has had free reign for long enough. Let me trap some of this in the Amber, see what’s going on.”
Elizabeth Gilbert: So cool. Okay, that’s it. It’s happening. I feel it. It’s a full-body yes. This is the other thing I’m really into lately is, getting a full-body yes. Somebody mentions something and your whole body’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s on.” Which is actually, going back to, it’s actually why I started doing psychedelics because I heard somebody talking about it and I got a full-body yes for it. And I did it until I got a full-body no. But anyway, so cool. Yeah, The Artist’s Way, very important.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I’ve been really impressed with the power of Morning Pages. I was introduced to Morning Pages by Brian Koppelman. I will admit something rather embarrassing, and that is, I’ve never taken or created an artist’s date. And I would love to hear if you have taken yourself on artist’s dates, what maybe one or two of them have looked like?
Elizabeth Gilbert: I’ll tell you. One of them was, you know The High Line in New York?
Tim Ferriss: I do.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Okay. So before it was created, there was an article about it in The New Yorker saying that there’s this weird strange thing running up the West Side of New York City. So for those of you who don’t know it, The High Line is this amazing elevated pathway, just one block above New York that runs from down in the Meatpacking District up until Midtown, it’s expanding now. But it’s what was remaining of what used to be in an industrial railroad track that was an elevated railroad track that ran through the city, and it ran right through the middle of certain buildings in the meatpacking district because they would bring actually livestock in on those trains and they would butcher them there in the city so that the meat would be fresh and then they would move the meat out.
Anyway, it had long been derelict and falling apart. And it was one of those things that was too expensive for the city to tear down. And so it just was allowed to kind of rot there. And some very forward-thinking citizens, including Gloria Vanderbilt and some other people got together and decided to restore it and to bring it to life as a pedestrian walkway. So it’s this beautiful, beautiful, beautiful gift to the city of New York.
But the first time I read about it in New York, in The New Yorker years ago, I was living on 39th street and 10th Avenue at the time. And it was describing where this thing was and I realized it was right around the corner from me. It had not yet been open to the public at all, the project hadn’t even begun, but I made it a point to try to find it. And it wasn’t easy to find because it’s buried in like — the path of it disappears at times and it goes under highways and it goes — so I spent an entire day tracking as best I could, what was the beginnings of The High Line, even finding a few spots to climb up and see if I could look at it and get above it, trying to get into building. So it became like a sort of Tom Sawyer adventure that I took myself on for a day. So that was my favorite artist’s date.
And nothing comes of it. This is a really great thing about these artist’s dates, that wasn’t toward anything. That wasn’t because I was working on a book about New York City. You just do something that you think is interesting and curious and you see where it takes you and that’s it. And you just make a habit of continuing to do that, and it’s about kind of opening up your life to following your curiosity even if there’s no cost-benefit, even if it doesn’t turn into some great big project or a new business or anything. You just do it because it’s fun, and because as I said before, you’re not just here to pay bills and die.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I’ll have to figure out how to make it work in quarantine, but I do need to get on that artist’s date. I think that’d be very good for my mental health and just spiritual health on top of that.
Let’s talk about City of Girls for a minute. This is your latest novel and I think many people know you for your nonfiction without knowing how much experience you have and how good you are at fiction. I think that’s worth just saying since Eat, Pray, Love, the 800-pound gorilla, 15-million-plus copies, it’s just such a beast, which I watched, I must say with admiration, this juggernaut, because my first book came out in April, 2007 and you were still dominating and continued to dominate the lists forever. And so I remember watching that phenomenon unfold in real time, which was really fun, so congratulations.
Elizabeth Gilbert: It was fun for me too.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I bet.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Talk about being both in and out of the game like, wow, this is happening. I didn’t do it, but it’s happening. Wow. Yes anyway.
Tim Ferriss: This is just a curiosity that came up earlier. How closely did the book proposal for Eat, Pray, Love match the ultimate book, and were there other titles you considered?
Elizabeth Gilbert: The title was the last thing I had and the title, and now it’s so funny because it turned into such an iconic, it feels both surprising and inevitable. That title really does seem — it’s all about the title. But that was the hardest title I ever had to come up with. I had to enlist every friend that I knew. I had so many other titles for it, all of them bad. I kept trying to work with puns based on the fact that all three of the countries that I was going to begin with the letter I, and I was going on a spiritual experience of the self, so I felt like there was something in there. It was so labored. So all of these titles had to do with the three eyes or the Is, like in search of I, I couldn’t get off that. And finally it was a friend of mine who came up with its title, Eat, Pray, Love, and I was like, “Oh, that works.” Just completely different.
But as for the proposal, so again, this only works because this was my fourth book. This would not work for a first-time book proposal or maybe even a second one. But it was my fourth book and it was an editor who I had worked with, who knew me and trusted me, so I was able, I guess to get away with this. But essentially I just sat down and wrote him an email, a personal email, and said, “I have this idea of something that I want to do.” It just poured out of me. I think it was like if you were to print it, it was probably a page, maybe a page and a half. And I said, “I want to quit everything and I want to go on this journey and I want to go to these three countries and I want to look for pleasure. I want to discover the art of pleasure in Italy, the art of meditation in India. And I want to find the balance between pleasure and spirituality in Bali because they seem to be a culture that’s really good at both of those things. And I want to go for a year and I want to quit my great job at GQ. I want to get rid of my great apartment. I want to stop writing novels. I want to go do this.”
I’d never written anything so personal in my life up until that point, been a fiction writer and a biographer and that was it.
I delivered what I said I was going to deliver. I didn’t say what I was going to find, I just said what I was going to look for and they were generous enough to trust me to let me do it, to give me enough of an advance that I could pay for the trip, which was such a miracle, such a miracle. I still remember that check coming in and being like, this is — because I was recently divorced. I was like, “This is the first money I’ve ever made that’s mine, just mine. The first money I’ve ever made in my profession as a writer that is just mine and I get to do with it this adventure.” It just felt so incredibly miraculous and it still does.
Tim Ferriss: What an incredible moment, and what an incredible feeling that must’ve been. You mentioned the art of pleasure, City of Girls as you mentioned, set in New York City theater world of the 1940s, there’s one theme that I’d love to hear you explore or expand upon a little bit that is seemingly deeply embedded in this, and that is what it means to lead a free and open sexual life as a woman without suffering terrible consequences. Can you speak to that in any way that makes sense to you?
Elizabeth Gilbert: Yeah, I wanted so much to tell that story and to write that story. I, as a female reader, I’ve gotten so tired over the years of the trope, the cliche of the story of the ruined woman. Classically the story of the ruined woman is woman from a nice family, respectable, good prospects ahead of her, makes a terrible decision based on passion and ends up dead. It’s like one false move and you are dead. And that is the message that those stories convey, that’s Anna Karenina and it’s Madame Bovary and it’s Hedda Gabler, and it’s Daisy Miller, all of those novels written by men, I should say. And I love them as works of literature, as a student of literature they are some of the best books that have ever been written.
But it’s depressing as a woman because it really does — they’re meant to be warnings. They’re meant to tell women to stay in their lane. And then there’s this other side, and I’m going to see if I can get this over the net. There’s another story that’s told of women often by women, which is still the story of the ruined woman, that something bad happened to a woman and her life was destroyed because of it. And in both cases, what it’s saying is that women cannot survive life, that women cannot survive the dangers of being female. They cannot survive their own desire, they cannot survive their own risks, they cannot survive men. And that just doesn’t feel true to me based on the empirical evidence of how many women there are out there surviving. I like to say if women could not survive the terrible decision making that we have some times around sex and love, I’m talking about women, our own terrible decision making around sex and love, there wouldn’t be a woman left surviving in this world, all of us have just made such bad choices about ourselves and about our bodies. And yet we’re here and yet here we sit eating a sandwich. We’re here and we’re fine and bruised maybe, but not destroyed, not destroyed.
I have tremendous faith in female resilience and I have every reason to have faith in female resilience because the entire history of womanhood is the history of resilience. And that’s a story that I really wanted to tell, and I really wanted to tell a story about a woman who was very sexual and is very sexual from a young age, and then is very sexual for the entirety of her life, who’s very promiscuous and has consequences from that of all manner and still remains somebody whose sexuality is open and curious and who wants to engage with the world at that level. And I feel like that’s a very hard book to find. I don’t think we’ve seen a lot of that. And I didn’t want to tell a story about a woman who is sexual in her youth and then puts it away to get married and become respectable.
I want to tell a story about a woman who’s sexual for the entirety of her life. And that is my character, Vivian Morris. And there’s a line in the book where she says, “At some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed of herself all the time, and then she can become who she truly is.” And I think that’s the essence of the book. There’s another line in there where she says, “You don’t have to be a good girl to be a good person.” And that’s the trap that I think so many women fall into, is trying so hard to be good that they are not able to be who they actually are.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any aspects, portions of any book you’ve written that you wished readers would pay more attention to? Something that in retrospect is important to you or you think important to the reader that maybe didn’t get enough space or that people just didn’t take enough notice of? Is there anything where like, “Man, the thing that people missed or didn’t pay enough attention to was this?” Is there anything that comes to mind in any of your writing?
Elizabeth Gilbert: If there is, it’s my fault because it’s my job to be clear and I take that on as my own responsibility. And I also have a great sense of the autonomy of the reader to take away whatever they need and that they want to take from it.
One thing that I do think is funny, and I wrote about this in Big Magic, is this absolutely bizarre but very human phenomenon of people putting things into my books that aren’t there, which I think is absolutely amazing. I spoke about this in Big Magic about a woman coming up to me and saying, “Because you spoke so openly about domestic violence and the physical abuse that you suffered at the hands of your first husband, I was able to leave my domestic violence situation.” And I was the last person in the world at that moment who was going to say to her, “That is not in the book and it’s also not anything that I’ve ever experienced. And I don’t know why you put that in there, but I’m delighted that you left your abusive marriage situation.”
And I’ve had this experience as a reader where I go back to read a book that I loved and I find that it’s actually not the book I remember reading, which I think is very strange and bizarre, like the elves came in the middle of the night and took that part out of the book because I can’t find it in there anymore. I think it’s almost like the way your mind fills in the blind spots of your vision with what it thinks is there. I think sometimes we as readers put in things in books that don’t exist.
But I will say that with City of Girls, one thing that I would ask you to pay attention to as you read it is that it’s been marketed, and this is fine with me because it is a book about female sexuality, it’s been marketed as a book about a woman who’s very promiscuous and very free with her sexuality. And that’s a very important part of the book. But by the end of the book, what I would love for you to see is that it’s a book about female friendship and it’s a book about the families that we create versus the families that we come from. And Vivian walks away from culture and family. She essentially walks away from trauma and culture in order to become her own woman. And in that, she finds her own tribe, and it’s this group of women who she is with for her entire life and that is 1000 percent based on my life and on my reality.
The female friendships that I have that are decades-long are the foundational relationships of my life. I think that I was taught that the most important relationship of your life is going to be the person that you marry, and I believed it once, I believed it twice, and now at the grizzled old age of 50 and being very happy in myself as who I am now, I can say that what I was taught you were supposed to get from one man, I’ve actually discovered from a multitude of extraordinary women. And I feel a lot healthier as a human being not looking for it from one person anymore, but receiving it from a community and from a community of female friends. And that’s what Vivian ends up with too. The key relationships in her life are with her aunt and with her best friend who’s also her business partner, with the showgirls who she meets in New York City who formulate her as a young woman into a sensual being. Those are the relationships that make her into who she is and that support her through the entirety of her life.
Tim Ferriss: Hear, hear. I have so enjoyed this conversation. We’re running up on time. You’re a gifted writer, you’re a gifted speaker. This has been just the best way I can imagine to spend coming up on two hours.
Is there anything you would like to mention or talk about before we wrap up and I’ll certainly let people know before we close up where they can find you online and we’ll put everything in the show notes as well. But is there anything that you’d like to share or talk about before we close up?
Elizabeth Gilbert: Thank you, Tim. I’ve had such a wonderful time as well. Any time I get a chance to talk to people on the subject of mercy, I just want to put in a word for it because I believe that we live in a merciless culture and I believe that we are merciless to ourselves and I believe that we are very often merciless to each other, but most merciless to ourselves, because we’ve been taught to be. Mercy is the guiding word of my life right now. And I don’t think that I’m going to be okay mentally or spiritually without it. And it’s such a lovely word. It’s such a gentle word. I love that it’s the word that if you’re wrestling with your brother, it’s the word that you traditional uses the word of surrender, like, okay, enough. Mercy is something that I have only found for myself in moments of surrender, in giving up my illusions of power, giving up my illusions that I control the world, giving up my illusions that I control anybody else, giving up my illusions that I’m meant to live some sort of a perfect life and accepting everything as it is and feeling mercy toward myself for how difficult it is to be human being within that realm.
Most people who I know, I wouldn’t really have anybody around me who wasn’t like this. So I can say that most people that I know would say that it’s a goal of theirs to practice universal human compassion, that that’s something that means something to them, that they want to be a compassionate person to the entire world, that they want to be a humanitarian, that they want to think of others, that they want to take care of, that they want to be kind, they want to be forgiving, they want to be selfless, and most of all that they want to be compassionate universally. And I just always want to remind everybody, especially if you’re out there and you’re one of those people who is practicing universal human compassion as best you can, while at the same time assassinating yourself and having voices in your head that are so vicious to yourself and holding yourself to such an impossibly high standard, I just want to remind everybody that universal human compassion that does not include the self is not universal. And universal human compassion starts at home by extending an olive branch of mercy between you and yourself and beginning, and I would say to love yourself, but I know that that can seem very out of reach to people, so I would say beginning to be friendly towards yourself, to treat yourself with a certain level of stewardship and friendship that says —
This is how I talk to myself sometimes, I say, “I don’t know why they gave me you. I don’t know why they gave me you to take care of, but they did. They dropped me into your body. They dropped me into this mind. They dropped me into this family. They dropped me into this culture. They dropped me into this moment of history. They gave me these talents. They gave me these mental illnesses. They gave me these gifts. They gave me these addictions. I don’t know why they gave me you, but I accept, I accept that and I accept the sacred responsibility of taking care of you. And I will take really good care of you. And I haven’t always, but I will now.”
And that’s the beginning of reaching out a friendly hand of mercy from yourself to yourself, without which I don’t think you can actually practice universal human compassion because the hardest person in the entire world to like, to endure, to forgive, to show mercy for is of course yourself. And once you’ve done that, the rest of it is a breeze. I’m never going to meet anybody who’s as difficult to handle as I am. You’re never going to meet anybody. You’re never going to meet anybody, Tim, who causes you more trouble than you cause you. That’s just a rule. And none of us are ever going to meet anybody whose shame is harder to forgive than our own. But once I’ve learned how to just be very gentle and gracious toward myself and merciful again, just with that word, I find that I can sit with people now who are in all kinds of bad behavior and it’s less agitating for me because I’m like, “Oh, hello me.”
I love George Saunders, says when he sees people, the writer George Saunders, who is a practicing Buddhist as well, but he says whenever he sees somebody acting out, he has a name for them, a special name for them. And that name is me on a different day. And it’s so kind and until you can really be kind toward yourself, how could you be kind towards you on a different day? Which is everybody else. So just mercy is the word and it’s the thing that the world needs. It’s the thing that you need towards yourself. It’s the thing that the people that you work with and live with need from you, but mostly that you need from you to you.
Tim Ferriss: Liz, you are doing such good work in the world and you’re sharing many important messages, please keep it up. People can find you of course at elizabethgilbert.com. They can find you on social, on Twitter and Facebook @GilbertLiz on Instagram @elizabeth_gilbert_writer. And I will link to all of your —
Elizabeth Gilbert: I was a late adapter to Instagram, can you tell? @elizabeth_gilbert_writer_14_*.
Tim Ferriss: And I will link to all of these so people can just click on something in the show notes, as always. tim.blog/podcast, including everything we’ve spoken about, the list of which is your latest novel, City of Girls, which was named an instant New York Times bestseller and is a very fun book, very exciting book, very thoughtful book, rollicking sexy tale of the New York City theater world during the 1940s. And I also owe a thank you to Cheryl Strayed for making the connection and setting in some ways the ball in motion so that we can have this conversation, so thank you, Cheryl.
Tim Ferriss: And Liz once again, it’s been such a pleasure and so much fun to spend time with you and I appreciate you carving out the time.
Elizabeth Gilbert: My very great pleasure. Thank you so much, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: And thanks to everybody for listening and until next time, mercy and compassion, and if you need it to be universal, that needs to include you. Thanks for tuning in.
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