Everything Elizabeth Gilbert knows about writing

For all of its powers and benefits, the best part of the Internet might be its random, long-winded discoveries. Take this sequence the other day:

I was lazily scrolling through Twitter and found this tweet from New York Times columnist Nick Bilton with a link to his discussion with Clive Thompson about Clive’s new book.

 

I like Nick’s work, and I was intrigued by the subject of Clive’s book – how technology is NOT ruining our minds – so I decided to check out the discussion on the Times’ Bits Blog.

“Since I’m already here on the NYT’s website, I might as well hop to the sports section and see if there’s anything of interest,” I thought. And after scrolling through a couple sports pieces, I decided that, well, since you’re here, check out the great NYT Magazine to see if there’s anything interesting. So I did that.

At that point I saw a link to Steve Almond’s great profile of Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of “Eat, Pray, Love.” Elizabeth has a novel coming out, and the title of Steve’s piece is, “Eat, Pray, Love, Get Rich, Write a Novel No One Expects.”

I only skimmed Eat when it came out – yes, it’s long been time that I go back and read it thoroughly; it’s been added to my queue that always seems to lengthen no matter how much time I spend trying to work through it – but I knew Elizabeth was a talented writer, and I knew that I didn’t actually know much about her, so I clicked on the link. It was a great story.

This led me to curiously search Google to see if Elizabeth was active on Twitter. She is, so I visited her page. And on that page, I notice a link to has a personal site, wondering what must be there. So I then visit that. I don’t even remember Nick Bilton’s tweet when I see, in the middle of the page tucked under the ‘e’ in Elizabeth, a little typewriter icon with the words “Thoughts on Writing.” Well, that’s a must-click, so I do. The page begins:

Sometimes people ask me for help or suggestions about how to write, or how to get published. Keeping in mind that this is all very ephemeral and personal, I will try to explain here everything that I believe about writing. I hope it is useful. It’s all I know.

I WILL TRY TO EXPLAIN HERE EVERYTHING THAT I BELIEVE ABOUT WRITING.

Oh, damn. Jackpot.

There’s no date on the page, so I’m not sure how old this post is or if Elizabeth would have anything to add (or subtract) were she writing it today. I don’t believe she would, because the stream of gold writing kernels that followed mostly consisted of thoughts on approaching a writing life more than “how to write,” because, as Elizabeth describes, that can’t really be explained.

Below are a few of Elizabeth’s thoughts, in particular, that resonated with me. I’m offering only snapshots, and purposely not including a lot of good stuff, with the hope that you visit Elizabeth’s site and read her post in its entirety. If you care about writing, it’s worth your time (again, find it here).

No matter what, send your work off somewhere (anywhere) to be read

All writers of all ages hear the most powerful word in language: “No.”

If you hear it enough, it can become crippling and foster an expectation of doom even before you send a pitch or piece off to an editor. Many writers reject themselves this way and perhaps never said off a work, believing – well, fearing – they already know the outcome.

“Magazines, editors, agents — they all employ young people making $22,000 a year whose job it is to read through piles of manuscripts and send you back letters telling you that you aren’t good enough yet,” Elizabeth writes. “LET THEM DO IT. Don’t pre-reject yourself. That’s their job, not yours.

“Your job is only to write your heart out, and let destiny take care of the rest.”

The most important virtue for a writer is self-forgiveness

Elizabeth addresses the common writerly feeling of being terrible, no matter who’s writing what. When she was writing Eat – a book that sold more than 10 million copies worldwide – Elizabeth says, “I had just as strong a mantra of THIS SUCKS ringing through my head as anyone does when they write anything.”

I’ve never heard a great explanation for how to get by this feeling of awfulness that everyone shares to different degrees.

Some say it’s simply a matter of “more confidence,” whatever that means to a brand of people who make their livings staring at a blank white page and wondering how it will ever fill up.

Others say the feeling of awfulness fades some the more you are published and the more you settle into “your voice,” which sounds far too simple to be true. Even generally self-confident people can morph into self-loathers at the seat of a keyboard.

Here is how Elizabeth moved past that dread:

I had a clarion moment of truth during the process of [Eat]. One day, when I was agonizing over how utterly bad my writing felt, I realized: “That’s actually not my problem.”

The point I realized was this — I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write. So I put my head down and sweated through it, as per my vows.

Brilliant.

When it comes to getting published, nobody really knows anything

Whenever I’ve reached out to writers I admire to talk shop or ask for advice, I have always comes away with two things:

1) At least some good nugget of wisdom or advice that I store away and let marinate.

2) A feeling that what the writer I’m speaking with really wants to say – if he or she weren’t awesome and trying to help as best they can – is, “You know, I can tell you what I’ve done, but I have no idea if that’ll work for you or even if you should try it.”

And I think that second point is as close to the truth as you ever get.

You become full on doubts and worry, wondering if this will ever work, trying like hell to make sure it does, fearing what happens if it doesn’t … until, I guess, you one day realize you HAVE done something. And then you just keep going.

“There is no WAY [to become a writer],” Elizabeth writes. “There are, instead, many ways. Everyone I know who managed to become a writer did it differently — sometimes radically differently. Try all the ways, I guess.

“Becoming a published writer is sort of like trying to find a cheap apartment in New York City: it’s impossible. And yet … every single day, somebody manages to find a cheap apartment in New York City.

“I can’t tell you how to do it. I’m still not even entirely sure how I did it. I can only tell you – through my own example – that it can be done.”

Email: tmitrosilis@gmail.com Twitter: @TMitrosilis

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