Chris Anderson: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the TED Interview. This is Chris Anderson, the guy lucky enough to run TED.
Here at TED, we're borderline obsessed with the power of ideas. Ideas are such weird things. They get inside your head, and they might just give you a little piece of knowledge, or they might actually really reshape how you see the world. They can even change who you are. They're this powerful common currency that humans have and can share with each other.
Now, we normally share them in the form of TED Talks, which are recorded on a stage, 12, 15, 18 minutes at a time. But here's the thing about ideas: they don't just land perfectly formed. They want to be critiqued, played with, iterated on, and sometimes that takes longer than 18 minutes.
So in this series, I'll be having hour-long conversations with some of the most compelling TED speakers to dive deeper, learn more. And there is no better medium to do that dance than podcasting.
On this first episode, my guest is author Elizabeth Gilbert. Fifteen years ago, in response to a personal crisis, she took a trip around the world and wrote about it. And that book, "Eat Pray Love," became a global phenomenon, topping best-seller lists for years. In 2009, Liz came to the TED stage to talk about how hard it was to follow that success with another book. So Liz started a research project where she explored the question: How do other societies conceive of creativity? And once again, a very personal quest for Liz, a desire to understand how creativity happens, turned into inspiration for millions of viewers and a book called "Big Magic."
Liz has always been open to new possibilities. Two summers ago, she announced the amicable ending of her marriage and a new relationship with her best friend, the writer Rayya Elias, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Rayya passed away in January of this year.
Liz, that fact makes it all the more astonishing that you're willing to come now and spend time with me. Welcome.
Elizabeth Gilbert: I'm so happy to be here with you, Chris. Thank you so much. You always invite me to things and I always say yes, because I always know it's going to be good.
CA: Well, I can't imagine what you've been through these past couple years, but let's perhaps not start there. Why don't we start with the subject of your TED Talk and the subject of "Big Magic," which is that these insights that you have around creativity, they are not the usual story we hear about creativity. In the TED Talk, you put out there this notion that creative genius wasn't something that people have. It's not like there are ordinary people and then there are these geniuses who have this special ability to do extraordinary things, that genius is actually something that comes from the outside. Talk about that.
EG: Well, I want to start by saying that when you describe my ideas about creativity as being unusual, I agree with you, but only to the extent that they are unusual only very recently in history. My ideas about creativity are actually very classical, and they're very normal, and they're very human for how human beings regarded creativity for nearly all of human history until, basically, the middle of the 19th century. You know, what happened was there was this really toxic revolution in creativity that I like to blame on the German Romantics that put the individual at the center of the story, a very narcissistic version of creativity, a very Great Man-based version of creativity: it all came from you, it all came from you, from your talent, from your greatness, from your efforts, and, generally speaking, in a very romanticized way, from your struggle and your pain and your suffering. So what became idealized was the suffering itself as the badge of honor of a creative person, which all you have to do is look at any of the arts in modern Western society to see how idealized that still is. And I don't personally believe that that's how human beings made art for most of civilization and for most of humanity. I think that art and creativity have always been a conversation between a human being and a mystery, a mystery that they wanted to connect to. And that mystery is called "inspiration," which literally means "the in breath," you know, that something comes to you. And what I find fascinating is, even the most didactically rational, empirical thinkers in the world, when they talk about where their ideas come from, they tend to use the ancient language of inspiration. Even they do. They say, "This idea came to me." That's still how we say it. But if you were to nail them down on it, they would be like, "No, it came from me." And I'm like, "Well, I'm not sure it didn't come to you." So that's where it all begins for me.
CA: And then where it gets even more surprising is that when you say an idea comes to people, you don't just mean an idea in the sense of a neuronal pattern of electrical activity. You literally mean something from the outside coming in. Talk a bit more about that.
EG: Yeah, and the way I describe it is only the way I've empirically experienced it, which has broken down in my life to this notion, which is that ideas are living entities. They have consciousness. They don't have matter. They can't be seen. They can't be felt. They can't be proven. But they have will. And the way I picture it — and it's sort of whimsical, but I also have literally based my life on this — is that the universe is sort of swirling with these ideas that wish to be created, and they're constantly looking for human collaborators, because for some reason, we have this oddly sensitive consciousness that can hear them and find them. So the way I picture it is, they just sort of roam around being like, "Are you my mother? Are you my mother? Are you my mother?" And every single human who is struck by inspiration describes the experience exactly the same way. It's a very mystical experience. There's chills. There's a feeling of your stomach kind of getting upset. There's a dampness on the back of your neck. There's that uneasy feeling of falling in love or about to jump off a cliff. There's nervousness, and then there's this distraction, where the idea sort of consumes you, and in that consuming, which can take months, weeks, years, the idea is interviewing you and asking you, "Do you want to do this thing with me or not?" And that's the most important conversation that I think human beings can have, is that dialogue between your willingness to cooperate and show up and make something with this idea and manifest it and the idea's desire to be made and the question of whether you are indeed the right partner. And my feeling is, when you say no, it just moves around and looks for somebody else, because they want so very much to exist.
CA: So let me put on my skeptical devil's advocate hat for a minute.
CA: Some people will say, "You've lost me. You're someone who believes in the supernatural, who believes in this world of magic. I'm a down-to-earth person. I think the universe is made up of matter and atoms and electrical forces, and all this other stuff is kind of 'woo' on the outside." It seems to me that your advice can be used even by someone who believes that view of the world, that there is a stance that someone can take to be open to creative spark. Or does the magic not work unless you actually believe that worldview that you just outlined?
EG: No, I'm not a fundamentalist about this. I'm not an evangelical. If my offering to you and these ideas can be useful to you as metaphor, then by all means, use it as metaphor. It was very funny, because when "Big Magic" came out, I was on NPR with this lovely reporter who was trying very hard to take me seriously, and said, "You know there are times when you're reading 'Big Magic' where it almost feels as though you actually believe in magic." And she was giving me a doorway to excuse myself through, and I was like, "Oh, no — I actually really do totally believe in that." You know, thank you for trying to make me sound serious on National Public Radio, but I happen to prefer to live in an enchanted world, but I don't require that anybody else does. If your empirical right-left, black-white, everything-can-be-explained-by-science worldview helps you, and you can be as creative as you can possibly be within that, and you're generating an enchanting life through that, then you have what I like to call "not a problem." But if it's not working for you, then come and sit in my room for a minute.
CA: Certainly this lens gives you a whole new way to empower people to be creative, instead of the mantra around creativity, a certain, "Be willing to suffer, one; two, following your passion, and then somehow, turn that into this creative outburst."
EG: Well, I mean, I rail a lot against passion, because I feel like passion can be very exclusionary and very elitist, and it can leave a lot of people feeling like they don't belong in creative journeys, and they don't belong in creative explorations. I'm much more interested in allowing people to follow curiosity, which is a far more gentle impulse, that doesn't require that you sacrifice your entire life for something. It's more of kind of a scavenger hunt, where you're allowed to pick up these tiny little beautiful clues along the pathway, and it's more of a tap on the shoulder that asks you turn your attention one inch to the left. "Oh, that's a little bit mildly interesting. What is that? OK, now I'm going to take that clue another inch and another inch," rather than this idea that the symphony is born whole, because you sit down and you're struck by lightning and then you start to create. Curiosity, I think, is a far more friendly way to do creativity than passion.
CA: So, I think you yourself have done a pretty amazing curiosity journey in the creation of one of your novels, and you didn't even know that it was leading there. You got curious about gardening, of all things.
EG: Yeah. (Laughs)
CA: Talk to us about that journey.
EG: Yeah, you know, I'm so obedient to curiosity. That's really my policy. My willingness in life is that if inspiration comes to me in even the smallest way, I'm so respectful about seeing what it is. And there came a time about five or six years ago where I found myself just being really — but not passionately — interested, just kind of interested in plants and gardening. I had just moved into a new house. It had a little bit of dirt in the back that I was able to do something with, and I just started to explore it and devote myself to it just in order to do it, you know? Not to become a professional landscaper, but just to see where it led me, and I discovered over the course of my first summer of gardening that I was a lot more interested in the origins of the plants than in the plants themselves — the history and ethnobiography of these plants. When did these tulips come to America? Why wisteria? Who was the missionary who found this? What is a native plant? What is an imported plant? What is the intersection of history between humans and these things that we grow and why? And once I started looking into that, I got really interested, suddenly, in 19th-century botanical exploration. And once I got interested in that, I got interested in the study of evolution as based in botanical exploration. Then I was really interested in the fact that for a lot of the 19th century, the only science that women could practice was botany, because it was considered kind of a lady sport, because women have traditionally been the ones who grow things. So it was as though botany was this back door that women could sneak into into the scientific world, and they could have respect and publish papers, and they were basically allowed to almost be full scientists. And I was like, that's interesting, and I started looking at all those women. And then the next thing you know, I'm traveling to Tahiti and to Europe to study in the botanical gardens of Amsterdam, and I'm making up a 19th-century female botanist and I'm writing a novel about it. And this is why I say that the path of curiosity is the scavenger hunt, because it took me probably three years to get from, "Gee, it would be nice to put some plants in my backyard," to "Here I am in the South Pacific exploring the history of moss and inventing this giant novel." I think everybody thinks that creativity comes in lightning strikes, but I think it comes in whispers, and then the whispers can grow thunderous over time if you're patient enough to explore it, almost in the way that a scientist would. So that's how it happens.
CA: That novel is called "The Signature of All Things." I have to say it's an amazing work.
EG: Thank you.
CA: I have a confession: I never read "Eat Pray Love."
EG: That's OK. You're not really the demographic, Chris. No offense!
CA: I did figure that out. But I did read "The Signature of All Things," and I learned a lot in it, including this idea that is woven in there about the connectedness of knowledge that was sort of almost revealed in the book as this growing wonder and enchantment all of its own. It's really remarkable. But it started with that curiosity journey.
EG: That's it — "What am I going to plant in this 10x10 piece of ground in my backyard?" And to be open to — you don't need to know why you're interested in this. It will be revealed if you continue to investigate. That's it. That's all that curiosity asks of you. Passion asks you to throw it all on the bonfire, and curiosity is way more generous, in that it just says, "Just give me a little bit of your time, and let's see what we can do."
CA: Another of the pillars of creativity in your worldview, I think, is courage. Can you talk about courage? Why does courage matter?
EG: Well, courage matters, especially in the importance of defining it, as opposed to fearlessness, which is what our culture honors, and which is also brutal. You know, we live in a very brutal culture. There's a lot of demands put on people in terms of what they are expected to be, and fearlessness is one of the expectations that we are memed to death about in our culture. "Go punch the world in the face and take it on! Kill fear and bury fear!" And I don't ask that of myself in any way whatsoever. I'm not interested in becoming a person who is fearless, because the few human beings I've met in my life who I would define as fearless were clearly sociopaths. You know? You look in their eyes, and there's something very important missing.
EG: Fear is part of our makeup. It's something that's inherent in us. It's a protective device. And my experience with fear is to permit it to exist, and then to figure out how to work with it. To me, working with fear is what courage is. I've never started any project that I wasn't afraid during the entire thing. And the conversation that I have with fear is not to say, "You are the death of creativity, and I can't be creative because you exist," but rather, to say, "You are part of the family of my consciousness. You are one of the emotions that I possess. And I hear your complaint, and I see your anxiety, and I see everything you're putting before me about how this will be a disaster, how I'm going to die, how everybody will mock me, how I'm going to fail, and I thank you so much for your contribution. However, your sister creativity and I are going to go off on this journey now and do this thing, but you're allowed to be in the car. We're going on a road trip, but I don't expect you to not come." And once you allow fear to just be present, it seems to quiet down and go to sleep, and then you can go about your work. But it's never out of the picture, and I don't waste my energy trying to kick it out of the picture, because that feels to me like just a colossal, exhausting waste of energy, whereas a radical, inclusive self-acceptance seems to be a way to be able to create a lot more.
CA: Yeah. No, that's powerful. A lot of people are frightened of giving a TED Talk, and one of the things we try and say is, if you can embrace that fear, make it your friend, it actually can be the motivation that helps you make a much better talk. Like, use that to be the motivation to keep working out there. And the fear will probably get back under control.
EG: Yeah, and it wouldn't hurt, either, to be fully aware that the other 50 people speaking at TED are equally terrified, whether they appear to be or not. And there's a shared humanity in that experience of recognizing that everybody here thinks they're the one who's not supposed to be here.
CA: And another pillar, I think, for you, that you talk about a lot is this idea of discipline, of showing up. And it's paradoxical, in a way, because a lot of people think of the routine of showing up as the antithesis of what it is to be creative. Like, being creative is being open to the moment and going wherever the spirit leads you, as it were. But for you, even though you believe that there is a spirit leading you on key moments, you want discipline from people. You want them to take seriously the hard work part of all this.
EG: Well, that's the devotional part. To me, that goes along with mysticism. That goes along with the sense of spirituality and supernatural, that the human contribution is the labor; that's what we can do. And I learned very early on, it became incredibly clear to me that there are three factors that I was going to need in order to be successful as an artist. One of them was luck, the other one was talent, and the other one was hard work. Luck is predetermined by forces far outside of my — I mean, nobody understand what luck is. We understand talent better than we understand what luck is. I don't know how to control luck. I certainly don't know how to control talent, which I do think has a genetic ... It's a lot of luck as well, [I was] raised in a family where a lot of my talents were allowed to be fostered. That's very lucky. But the only one of those three that I have absolute control over is how hard I work. So it seemed to me that it was obvious that if you want to do this, then maximize how much time you put into the third of it that you have any power over. The expression that I've coined — I don't know if I coined it, but I say it all the time — is: your labor is the contribution to the miracle. And if I'm sitting around waiting for the miracle to do all of it, I'm going to be sitting around waiting for an awfully long time. When people say, "You're so lucky that you got this inspiration," I think, "Then why am I so tired? I've been working really, really hard." But I also have this subtle sensitivity to know the difference when I'm working between laboring like a mule and riding on a jet stream. And every once in a while, once you've been laboring like a mule for months and months and months, suddenly, something really weirdly cosmic happens, and there's an opening, and now you're on the jet stream, and it's flowing and you're in that space, and that's magic, and it's worth working very hard for. But you don't get it for free.
CA: Liz, I'd love to go back and explore a little more this notion of this world in which there are creative people who are sitting there, hoping for a moment of inspiration, and then there's this universe of ideas. Now, you describe them as these entities that are sort of conscious and waiting for their path through a human mind and out into the public sphere. There's a related worldview that in some ways isn't all that different from yours, which is this idea of memes that Richard Dawkins first wrote about 30 years ago, I want to say. The word "meme" has been sort of co-opted on the internet to mean often sort of silly little pictures or GIFs that get passed around and explode to lots of views, but the original idea behind a meme is much broader than that. It's anything that can be reproduced in a mind and spread, including big, beautiful, powerful ideas. I just — for someone who didn't like, in full, your form of magical thinking but wanted to be creative, the notion of being open to the unique combination of memes that could form in your own mind and reproduce and be shared more broadly and to see yourself as — you know, your role in the world is to be in service of those memes.
CA: That's an amazing thing to do, because those things will quite probably live on after you, and they can literally rewire many other people's minds.
EG: Yeah, and I think we could call your view of it "secular magic."
CA: That's a great phrase. I'll go with that.
EG: Because the feeling that you seem to get from it is exactly the same as the feeling I get from it, which is: it is awfully exciting to be a human being. And it is awfully exciting to be permitted to dance and tiptoe and engage and work within this realm, and, "What can I do to make myself be in greater service to this?" Because I can't think of anything better as a way to spend my time. And I don't need to know how the ultimate meme ends. I don't need to see the endgame. I'm just very happy to be one of the pieces in this evolving story. That's good enough.
CA: One of the reasons I think you came to the worldview you did was because you've experienced, in your life, these amazing coincidences, shall we say, that seem to have no other explanation than that there is this purposefulness to the ideas that are out there. Can you tell us the story about your Amazon novel that never was? That strikes me as just an astonishing story.
EG: Oh, god. OK, I haven't told this story in a long time. Let me see if I can get the timing right. So, I had an idea to write a story about the Amazon jungle. I actually went to my publisher, I came with a proposal. This was a novel that I had dreamed up, and the novel was going to take place in the 1960s, and it was about this spinster in Minnesota who worked for a large international construction company. She's quietly in love with her married boss and has been in love with her married boss forever. He has a son who is a bit duplicitous who takes over the business, gets a contract to go down and build a highway through the Amazon, which was a project that was attempted in the 1960s but failed miserably. In my story, he goes down there, gets involved with a bunch of corruption, he disappears, a bunch of money is lost, and she, who has just been a secretary to an executive her whole life, is sent down to figure everything out. The book was to be called "Evelyn of the Amazon." I was working on that book, I got a contract for that book, I was doing research on that book. And around that time, I went to speak at a conference and I met the novelist Ann Patchett for the first time. And she and I took one look at each other and became, like, devoted in-love-with-each-other friends, heard each other speak and were dazzled by each other. At the end of the speech, we did the oddest thing. She's actually a very reserved person, but she kissed me on the lips, and said, "I just love you," I said, "I just love you, too." So put that aside, because that's part of this story. In the meantime, I put away my novel. Something had come up in my personal life, and my then-partner was facing being deported from the country. I had to marry him and leave the country. I ended up writing an entirely different book, a memoir about that experience, called "Committed," put the novel away. After I wrote "Committed," I returned to it with the hope of restoring this work and discovered that — and I can only describe it this way — the life in it was gone. I opened up my book of notes. I went through everything. There was no spark in it. It was a pile of dust. I tried to so hard to revive that book and it was a corpse. It just — there was nothing to it. And then I met Ann Patchett again, only for the second time of our acquaintance. We went out for coffee to talk about what we were working on, and it turned out that she had started working on a novel about the Amazon jungle. I was like, "Wow, that's crazy. I was working on a novel about the Amazon jungle." Already that's pretty cool. Then we sat down. I said, "What's your novel about?" She was about 100 pages into it at that point. And she said, "It's about a spinster from Minnesota who is working in a big multinational corporation, who is in love with her married boss and who gets involved in this really chaotic program down in the Amazon, a bunch of money and a person goes missing, and she gets sent down there, and her life is uprooted as she goes into this jungle in order to solve this mystery. It was exactly the same story. And that's not a genre, Chris. That's not like a vampire romance. That is so incredibly specific, and we were both — I have chills now talking about it. We sat there together and did the math on when the idea had left me and when it had come to her, and we isolated it to around the time that we met, and we like to think that it actually was exchanged in the kiss, that the idea just jumped from one novelist to another, and was like, "This novelist is not going to be good enough for me. I'm going to use Ann Patchett." And it was the most exciting example I've ever seen of how ideas live, because there's no explanation for that. That is beyond any rational explanation whatsoever. And that book, of course, became "State of Wonder," which is an extraordinary novel that she then made her own, obviously, and is amazing. I'm so glad I didn't have to write it, because she did it better.
CA: So I have to say, this is an incredible story, obviously. But the skeptical part of me is going, "Love the story, but you must have friends in common, you talked to one of them and then they accidentally talked to her. There was unconscious transmission that way, or in one letter you might have mentioned something ..." In technology, as I think you've mentioned in one of your books, often things are invented at the same time. There, there is a sort of causal explanation for that, like certain tools come into existence, and they make possible the next discovery. But, I mean — the 1960s, Minnesota ... Where did that come from?
EG: ... spinster in love with her married boss, the guy missing in the jungle ... I'm very comfortable — I have a lot of comfort with mystery. I don't need to understand where that came from. I've got a big warehouse in my mind where I store stuff that makes no sense, and I'm very comfortable in that world. So it doesn't agitate me. It just makes me want to play more. It just makes me want to love this world more.
CA: Yeah. I mean, it could be that someone could get really glum, though, like they feel like, "I'm not going to come up with anything great until inspiration on that level strikes." What do you say to someone who has just been trying for years, and they feel like they've done all they can, but somehow, the moment has never quite arrived where they come up with anything that anyone else actually likes?
EG: Well, I mean ... I was that person for a long time. I had years and years of rejections. I've got files full of rejection letters, and I didn't like it. I didn't like people not liking my work. I didn't like getting letters back from "The New Yorker" saying, "No, thank you" again and again and again and again and again. But that wasn't what I was in it for. That was a side effect. It's not that I didn't want to have recognition and success, because I certainly did and I certainly do. But the feeling that I would get when I would get those letters is, "It's so cute that you guys think that I'm going to stop doing this just because you keep saying no." The bottom-line motivation that I try to give people when they say, "Why should I bother trying? Why should I bother trying to make a thing in this world when it probably won't work?" Which — it probably won't. You know? A lot of stuff doesn't. Most things aren't successful. Most novels don't sell. Most movies don't get made. Most scientific ideas don't revolutionize the world. Like, odds are against it. And it's a very rational stance to take to say, "Why should I bother doing this, and why should I invest this treasure of my time — my time and my labor, which is my greatest treasure as a human being — why should I invest in this thing when there's no guarantee that I'm going to get anything out of it?" And I can't ever promise anybody. I don't blow smoke up people's butts and tell them that it's going to work, because it doesn't always work for me. But what I will tell them, and I can absolutely guarantee you, is that you will be a different human being at the other end of it than you were at the beginning. The process of having made something will transform you in ways that I cannot predict and you cannot imagine. It is so interesting to find out who you're going to be on the other side of that, that that's why you do it. And then if you get subsidiary reward, if you should be lucky enough to be paid for it another way, then great.
I just went through this again. I just lived this experience again. And I thought, "Why does this surprise me, when I'm constantly preaching this?" But my partner, Rayya, died in January. I had a novel due in August. And I had to start from the place of my deepest grief to write a novel that was due. I started writing it in the middle of the spring once I had sort of pulled myself together, and I had started this novel before Rayya got sick and before we were together. It was pitched and promised to my publisher as a lighthearted, happy, sexy, fun romp of a book, and here I am with my face on the ground in pain, and from that place, I've got to write this book. And I did all that I could to prepare myself for it in terms of trying to get my health back and trying to get my stability back and trying to get my — I kept saying, "I don't have my vitality, I don't have my vitality. How am I going to write when I don't have my vitality?" And I forgot, even I forgot, you get your vitality by doing it, through doing it. Within a week of me sitting down to write this novel, I was restoring myself to who I am as a human being, because writing is what I do. And within a few months, I had my vitality back, and I even had my joy back. I started that book from a place of darkest grief and ended it in a place of tremendous happiness, and I was a different person at the end of that project than I was at the beginning of it, and I thought, "I can't believe that!" And yet, this is what I'm telling people, day and night, is, "Trust me. Go try it. Go make this thing and see not what you make, but who you become. That's why it's worth doing, because your life itself is a work of art and an interesting experiment. So make your life the work of art, and what you create is not nearly as important as what you are created into through the creation, if that makes sense.
CA: It does make sense. Tell me more about this novel. Did it stay the lighthearted romp, as you called it?
EG: Yeah, it did. It is. The novel is called "City of Girls." It takes place in New York City in the 1940s, and it's about showgirls in the New York City theater world, It came out of an idea I had of wanting to write a book about women who are not traumatized by sex. It is very difficult to find that story anywhere in literature. Women are so punished in art for desire, and they're so brutalized, and that has not personally been my experience with sex, and it hasn't been the experience of a lot of women that I know. And I wanted to write about this group of girls who are very careless, very wild, very irresponsible, and having kind of the time of their lives when they're 19 and 20 years old in New York City, completely oblivious to the fact that the world is burning all around them, that there are wars happening and all of this disaster. So it's a book that the feeling that I wanted it to have was that it goes down like a tray of gin fizzes, that it's just giddy, giddy and gay and light. And there's a depth that comes later in the book as the woman gets older and her life takes on resonance, but at its heart, it is a book about a kind of wild, romping celebration of life, and it remained that even in the wake of Rayya's death.
CA: So that's amazing, because a big theme of your work and your thinking about creativity has been to push back against this notion of the dark night of the soul is what is needed for someone to do anything great in terms of art or creativity. And yet, now you yourself have been through as dark a night of the soul as anyone could, I think. So have you revised your thinking about this?
EG: No, I'm just laughing, because what I want to say is that you don't have to seek out dark nights of the soul. They will find you. Pain will find you. Suffering will find you. When the time is ready for it, when it's your turn to suffer, believe me, you'll suffer. You don't have to look for it, you don't have to romanticize it, and you don't have to glamorize it, because it's part of the experience of what we come here and experience. And what I went through in the 18 months of loving Rayya and nursing her through her cancer, watching her just be destroyed by this disease, was so horrific, that it's shocking how much you can suffer. My experience with suffering is that true suffering — you can't have any perspective on it. I have perspective on it now, but I didn't have any perspective on it when it was happening. True suffering is literally unbearable. That's how you know you're in it. You can't bear it. It's awful. But you don't have to move in, because resilience is also one of the things that we possess, and healing is one of the things that we possess. And perspective over time becomes one of the things that we possess, where we're able to look back on our dark nights of the soul and see it in a grander context, and be able to see the way that what I experienced with Rayya prepares me now to sit in the room with people when they are in their unbearable suffering, and to be in a state of compassionate relaxation with them, to be able to know, like, "Oh boy, I know where you are. And I'm so glad that I know where you are. And I don't know how you're going to get off that floor, but you will. In the meantime, I'm just here holding space for you while you're in agony." So what I don't like about what I think of as "art-school suffering," which is sort of a goth commitment to: "the only way I'm going to be taken seriously as an artist is if I follow the pain," is that you're excluding half of the human experience, because a good deal of the human experience is pain and suffering and darkness, but it's not the full story. There's also incredible love, resilience, beauty and grace within that as well, and if you don't tell both of those pieces of the story, then you're not telling the full story.
CA: I mean, what I hear you saying, Liz, is that you have written this new book. It's not directly from that extraordinary dark night of the soul that you've been through. It's that you've been through this process of healing and resilience, and that you've actually used this novel in a way to be part of that healing, that the actual dedication to go there, to immerse yourself in those original ideas has actually helped you.
EG: Yeah, it was the healing. And the mistake that I was making — and I wouldn't have done that if the book wasn't so ferociously due. You know, my publisher had —
CA: The power of a deadline.
EG: It was a real deadline. And they had very graciously given me an extra year when Rayya got sick, and not a lot of people who have jobs get that kind of time to be able to spend with a partner who's dying. I'm so grateful for that, and I wanted to reward them by giving them the book that they paid me for and that I owed them. But the deadline was very serious, and had I been not in that deadline, I would have said, "This is a terrible time for me to work. What I need to be doing is grieving." But what I actually needed to be doing was creating. The creation for me is the antidote to despair. And as far as the idea of suffering goes, what I do know about myself is that I am willing. The word "willing" has been ringing through my consciousness for months now, for years. I am willing to feel whatever needs to be felt. My friend Martha Beck says beautifully, "I will feel whatever I need to feel to not fall into depression." And that includes grief. I will feel sorrow. I will feel rage. I will feel pain. Because depression is the absence of feeling. It's this sense that I cannot feel, this is too painful, it's too horrible, and so I'm going to shut down. And I won't. And I didn't. I didn't shut down all through Rayya's death, and I didn't shut down after, and I'm not shut down now. So I want access to the whole palette of human emotion. I'm willing to be in all of it, at the same time, often.
CA: Tell me a bit more about Rayya.
EG: Oh my God. Rayya was everything. Rayya was the biggest person I ever met in my entire life. She was so epic. She was a Syrian immigrant. She came to this country when she was 10 years old. And she was a musician, she was kind of a rock star in the '80s on the Lower East Side in New York City. She was a hairdresser, she was an artist, and she was an addict. She spent 17 years as a speedball heroin junkie on the Lower East Side in the 1980s and should have died, did die. One of the things she used to say when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer was, "You know, I've had some experience with this. This will be my fourth time dying." She had overdosed on many occasions. She had rock-bottomed. She rode life very hard, and it rode her very hard. She was in prison a number of times. She was in mental hospitals a number of times. And then, in 1998, she got clean, and she was clean for 20 years. And she carried with her this extraordinary capacity to meet people as exactly who they were, because of what she had been through. And because she had really, literally, for quite a long time, been the worst person in the world, she never judged anybody. I'm such a perfectionist, and I'm such a Goody Two-shoes, and I try so hard to never do anything wrong, so when I see people behaving in a way that I would call wrong, I can be very condemning of it. And what I loved about Rayya more than anything else was that she understood that there are people trapped in their minds in ways that somebody like me could never understand, and she could be in the room with absolutely anybody who was behaving in absolutely any way. And she had tremendous boundaries. She would never let them mess with her. She was very street-smart, very tough. But she also was the most forgiving human being I've ever met. And when I asked her one time, "Why are you so forgiving? You have such a capacity to forgive." She said, "I've had to beg forgiveness from so many people for things that I've done, and they've given it to me, that forgiveness and mercy are what I owe." And I was her best friend. I mean, we were best friends for years and years and years, but I was always kind of in love with her, but I just kept the boundary, because I was married, and I didn't want to cross that boundary. And then she got sick, and then it was like, there's no way I'm not letting her know what she is to me.
CA: So it was because of the diagnosis —
CA: ... that you decided you had to make this a public relationship.
EG: There was a vision I had in my head, and it was the scariest thing I ever saw. It was me sitting in a hospital room holding her hand while she died and her never knowing that she was the love of my life. I couldn't do it. I just couldn't do it, not for any vow, not for any reason could I do it, and so I just had to tell the truth. And she was in love with me, too. We had just been very careful with each other. So we had an amazing, very romantic, beautiful, tiny piece of moment together, and then she died.
CA: I mean, Liz, there are probably ... you know, some of the many millions of people who read "Eat Pray Love" — they love this perfect ending, the happily-ever-after ending, and will have been shocked by what happened, in a way. What's your message to them?
EG: Well, first of all, I want to say thank you to them, because when I made this announcement, they responded with love and compassion. And I didn't get a single person say, "You ruined my favorite book." People are human enough and wise enough to know that my life didn't end on the last page of that book, and in the same way that your life didn't end last weekend. Our lives are this moving canvas that's very chaotic, and stuff happens to people. Hearts change, you know? Events occur that shock us even as they're happening to us, and it never occurred to me not to be very open and honest about it. I put it right out there. I wanted to be able to walk around holding Rayya's hand without having to feel like I was doing something wrong. And I just felt like, well, I'm a known person, you're going to be seeing me with this person. Let me tell you what's going on. Here's what's going on. And the response of the world has been completely loving and very beautiful.
CA: But you knew at the same time in that decision that you were signing up for one, two years of the deepest pain.
EG: I thought I was signing up for six months at the time. It turned out to be 18. I couldn't be anywhere else but by her side. From the minute of her diagnosis, it was physically painful for me to be anywhere but in the room with her. There was nowhere else in the world I could have been, and the idea of anyone else going through that with her made me enraged. The first doctor's appointments that she went to, I wasn't there, and I was so angry. I was like, "This is my job. This is my person. This is my love. I need to be next to her through this." And it was harrowing. It wasn't fun. You know? I mean, we had an amazing few months where we really got to actually have fun, because we were so thrilled that we got to finally be together, but it was horrible, it was dreadful. Cancer's dreadful.
CA: When she left, did you feel — I don't want to over-romanticize it, but is there a sense that she left in peace and a sort of feeling of some kind of resolution, or is it just awful and these are the kinds of stories that we try and tell ourselves after to try and make life bearable?
EG: Chris, she was such a badass. You know, Rayya was such a warrior. She never did anything peacefully. You know, I came in with all my, like, yoga ideas, and I was like, we're going to orchestrate and curate the most beautiful, peaceful death. And that is not what happened, because that's not what Rayya's life was like, and it's not what her death was like. She went down swinging. I mean, I said to her ex-wife GiGi, who was in the room — the really beautiful thing that happened at the end of her life was that the three women who took care of her while she was dying were her ex-wife, her ex-girlfriend and me, and it just shows how loved she was. She was so devoutly loved by all of us, and we just came together as her wives, really. It took three of us because she was so hardcore, and she was not an easy patient, and she didn't have a zen death. She didn't have a monk's death. She went down — I think the moment after her death, I said, "She just left claw marks on whoever came to get her." And it's not what I wanted, but I couldn't curate it, because she had agency, and she went down fighting. And shortly after she died, I turned my phone over to GiGi and I said, "Will you tell everybody, because I just want to lay here with her." And GiGi went in the other room and sent texts to everyone in my list, saying Rayya's passed away, and this is GiGi letting you know. And somebody wrote back to her, "I trust she had a peaceful death." And GiGi wrote back, "I trust you never met Rayya Elias."
And I laugh about it, because it was her, and it's what I loved about her. You know? She just — my personal definition of the word "Rayya" is "that which you cannot see coming and that which you cannot control." She was such a force of nature, and she wouldn't have had it any other way. So it's not the death I want, it's not the death I would want you to have, it's not the death that I tried to orchestrate for her, but it's a death that was absolutely in keeping with who she was. And I've kind of got to hand it to her for staying consistent to the theme for the entire life, of going through life with her fists up and just being epic. That was who she was.
CA: Is there anything else you'd share with people about grief? I mean, it's one of these topics that isn't comfortably talked about that much by many people. It's just a hard conversation to have with anyone, and yet almost everyone goes through intense grief at some point. I had my own story. Eight years ago, I lost my 24-year-old daughter, and, you know, I had, um ... yeah, the world disappeared. And there aren't many sources, like, people don't know how to talk to you. They don't know how to relate to you. Everyone is loving, but they don't know how to help. Do you have any thoughts or wisdom to offer on that, having just experienced this?
EG: I'm new in the game. You know, it's not over. I'm in it now. I'm still in grief, you know? But I know this; this is what it's teaching me about itself, and I'm a willing student. Um ... It happens upon you. It's bigger than you. There's a humility that you have to step into, where you surrender to being moved through the landscape of grief by grief itself. And it has its own time frame, it has its own itinerary with you, it has its own power over you, and it will come when it comes. And when it comes, it's a bow down, it's a carve out, and it comes when it wants to and carves you up. It comes in the middle of the night, comes in the middle of the day. It comes in the middle of a meeting, comes in the middle of a meal. It arrives. It's this tremendously forceful arrival, and it cannot be resisted without you suffering more. So the way that I'm learning how to dance with grief is that when it comes, I get about 10 seconds of warning, you know, like, "Oh shit, here it's coming right now." And the posture that you take is you hit your knees in absolute humility and you let it rock you until it's done with you, and it will be done with you eventually, and when it's done it will leave. But to stiffen, to resist, to fight it is to hurt yourself. And there's this tremendous psychological and spiritual challenge to relax in the awesome power of it until it's gone through you. I've also found, interestingly enough, that dance and music help enormously. I now have a practice where I dance every day — and I'm not a dancer. I wouldn't want you to see me do it.
But grief is a full-body experience. You know, as you know, it takes over your entire body. It's not a disease of the mind. It's something that impacts you at the physical level. And to be able to actually move your body and allow movement to kind of let that energy — it's an energy that wants to go through you. I feel like it has a tremendous relationship to love. Because first of all it's, as they say, it's the price you pay for love, but secondly, in the moments in my life where I have been in love, where I've fallen in love, I have just as little power over it as do I in grief. There are certain things that happen to you as a human being that you cannot control or command that will come to you at really inconvenient times and where you have to bow in the human humility to the fact that there's something running through you that's bigger than you. And that, I see, in our very arrogant culture, that what we want is to — there's even the word "grief management." How are you going to manage that?
CA: Yeah. Those words feel like they don't belong in the same proximity.
EG: No, you can't manage that.
EG: It doesn't want to be managed.
CA: Liz, on Instagram, you posted something about Rayya that I thought was just unbelievably moving and eloquent and so forth. Would you consider even reading that?
EG: Sure. I don't know what it is, but the answer is yes. Oh — "People keep asking me." OK. Great. "People keep asking me how I'm doing, and I'm not always sure how to answer that. It depends on the day. It depends on the minute. Right this moment, I'm OK. Yesterday, not so good. Tomorrow, we'll see. Here is what I have learned about grief, though. Grief says to me, "You will never love anyone the way you loved Rayya," and I reply, "I am willing for that to be true." Grief says, "She's gone and she's never coming back." I reply, "I am willing for that to be true." Grief says, "You'll never hear that laugh again." I say, "I am willing." Grief says, "You will never smell her skin again." I get down on the floor on my fucking knees and through my sheets of tears, I say, "I am willing." This is the job of the living, to be willing to bow down before everything that is bigger than you. And nearly everything in this world is bigger than you. I don't know where Rayya is now. It's not mine to know. I only know that I will love her forever, and that I am willing."
Willingness is everything, and it applies to everything. Creativity, too. I'm willing to do this. I'm willing to try this. I'm willing to fail. I'm willing to be unsuccessful. Are you willing to take the hits and then remain in the story? Or are you going to leave the story? I don't want to miss this story. I don't want to come all this way to do this life and then decide that it's too hard and not show up for it. That's really what it's about for me.
It's an honor to be in grief. It's an honor to feel that much, to have loved that much, and it's what's owed. It has a lot of anger in it, too, which I find interesting. In February and March, I was just sick with rage, and I had this thought for a while that I was frustrated because I felt like this is interfering with my grief, and then I realized, "Oh, no — this is my grief. My grief is manifesting itself as ferocious, blind rage right now."
CA: If you believe that these external things are coming to you and you don't control them, then yes, it's like the universe, how dare you. How dare you take down this person in the way that you did? That is disgusting. That is deeply, profoundly unfair. And part of you — I mean, tell me if I'm wrong on this — but part of you, at least for me, part of the salve has to be to say that there just has to be random evil out there. Your worldview has to include the possibility for random evil. Like, if this was someone's intention, that seems too much. For me, that was the distancing mechanism, to say, for all the wonder and enchantment in the world, there is random evil, and you'd better know it.
EG: And that's a bow down.
CA: What's a bow down?
EG: You know, that's humility. And it is true. And you don't get to know why. You don't get to know why. You're not allowed to. Those answers aren't for you, and they've never been for anyone. For all of time, nobody gets to see into that, and that, again, is part of that warehouse of mystery that I'm growing more and more comfortable with. Like, you don't get to see why this goes this way. It just does. It just does. It just is. It just did.
CA: Do you believe in an afterlife? Do you believe that this is just a temporary separation?
EG: I believe in an always-life. I don't know if I can explain that, but Rayya is very present within me. She is braided into me. I'm very comfortable saying, if nothing else, her afterlife is living within me, changing me, walking through the world with me and making me different. We can have that. But I don't pretend to know much more than that. I think it's insulting to people to ... file it under "mystery."
CA: I mean, anyone who has been through grief can understand why there is a belief in the afterlife.
CA: You can certainly think of it as humans desperately wanting to believe in that as a way of dulling the pain. But I think what you just said is another, I would say, more profound response. I mean, certainly for me, what made the difference after a year of exhausted grey and agony on this was just a very intentional decision to carry Zoe forward, to hold her alive, to be inspired by her, to be excited by her, and to imagine her sparkle and her generosity and so forth, in everything. And many other people felt the same, and I think you can make a case that that is our task when someone who we love goes, is to carry them forward. Of course they will live on. We're all connected to each other.
EG: Everything lives on.
CA: Everything lives on. Right. Everything has consequence. And so there is a way, I think, to sort of celebrate that and to own that and take with you, "I will be inspired every day by this person, even though I can't actually hug them."
EG: You see the world through a Zoe filter.
EG: I see the world through a Rayya filter, and I don't want to not see the world through a Rayya filter. It's a better world, seen through a Rayya filter.
CA: So how do you think of your own future now, Liz? Like, do you see days of joy and delight and hope ahead? Or are you now signed up as another of the world's great, great cynics about life, if you like, that it's all dust to dust, ashes to ashes, there's nothing there?
EG: It is dust to dust, ashes to ashes, and it's amazing. You know? So I don't see any reason to know that it's dust to dust, ashes to ashes and not also think that it's extraordinary. It's incredible that we get to do this. It's incredible that we get to come here and experience consciousness, and we still don't even know what the hell that is, and —
CA: We don't.
EG: We don't. We're no closer to knowing it than we ever were, and we don't know why we have these extraordinary sensitivities and why we want to make art and why we want to make love and why we want to make war. We don't know why we're so different from every other thing that has ever lived on this planet, but we are. And it's a burden and it's a privilege, and I don't know think optimism is changed by tragedy. I'm tremendously excited about my life. I'm thrilled about it. And I will also say this — and I want to say this very honestly, because I want to dare people, when they go through their own grief, to think broadly, as broadly as they possibly can, as bravely and as radically as they possibly can, about what their futures look like, because the truest and broadest reality is that there is a life that I could only have with Rayya, and that life is gone, but there is also a life that I can only have without her, and that life is just beginning. And the fact that I was so devoted to her was such an incredible experience to have of love. But with her gone, to be very honest, there are things I could do that I couldn't have done before. And people feel guilty about saying that because they feel like it's disloyal or that it's criminal to say that, that this person wanted to live and wanted to do these things. But what I'm exploring now is, OK, these are the new terms. The person I loved more than anyone in the entire world, the one person in the world I always said I cannot live without, is gone. So what does that leave me in terms of what I now get to be? OK, well, now I'm a person and there's no one in the world I can't live without. That's very freeing. Where can I go? What can I explore? What worlds can I move in now? What freedom can that bring me? And how can I do that without sacrificing one bit of the love and devotion and passion that I had with this one completely irreplaceable human being? So I got to have that. I didn't want it to end the way it ended, but it wasn't up to me. It ended the way it ended, but now I get to have whatever's coming. And it is ashes to ashes, dust to dust, and it is amazing, and I wouldn't miss it for the world.
CA: Liz Gilbert, to hear those words from someone who has been through what you've been through, I mean, that's one of the most powerful and inspiring things I think I can remember. So I don't know what to say. Thank you so much for coming, spending this time, opening your heart and sharing with us just so much wisdom. Thank you.
EG: Thank you, Chris. I love talking to you.
CA: This week's show was produced by Sharon Mashihi. Our associate producer is Kim Nederveen-Pieterse. Special thanks to Helen Walters. Our show was mixed by David Herman, and our theme music is by Allison Leyton-Brown. In our next episode, I talk with David Deutsch, a physicist and personal hero of mine. We talk mostly about knowledge, why he believes its power is unlimited, and what that idea might mean for our collective future.
David Deutsch: ... the only thing that can prevent, let's say, a spaceship from earth reaching from something a hundred light years away is the question of whether we want to do this. We may decide not to, in which case, we won't do it. But the issue of whether a spaceship can get there is a matter of what we decide to do ...
CA: Now, if you enjoyed today's episode, please rate and review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you're listening, or find some other way of sharing with anyone you know who is curious.
Thank you for listening.