Elizabeth Gilbert: How I Write
With her new novel, The Signature of All Things, getting rave reviews, the Eat, Pray, Love author is ready to confess that she doesn’t meditate—and she has a chewing gum addiction.
NC: Describe your morning routine.
EG: Okay, well my morning routine on a day when I’m writing is very different from my routine on a day I’m not writing. So when I’m writing, my routine begins the night before. I had a meditation teacher who used to say that your meditation starts the night before. What time you go to bed is really important. When I’m writing, I tend to go to bed around 9 o’clock. That way I can get up by 4:30 or 5. My favorite time to write is between 5 to 10 a.m., because that way you have the total silence before the world starts chasing you down. By 10 the phone is ringing, emails are coming in, all sorts of things need your care and attention. So I like those secret morning hours. If I’m really gunning, toward the end of project, I might write past noon, but that would be rare.
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours? Any magic hats?
What kind of talismanic devices, hmm. I used to have a pair of glasses, without prescription lenses—they just made me feel more intelligent. Somewhere along the way I lost them! I don’t know what that means, if you lose your fake intelligence glasses … I wore those for years. I wrote my first two books in those. I needed a boost, when I’d look in the mirror I’d think, Writer. These days? I use index cards for book projects. I use a method I learned when I was 14, in Western Civilization class, cataloguing ideas on index cards, in shoe boxes. My newest book has five shoeboxes full of organized index cards lined up. Without them I don’t think I’d have any idea how to write a book. Ooh, and when I finish writing each day, to give myself a boost, I stop in the middle of a sentence. I heard Hemingway did that. When you sit down the next day, you begin immediately able to produce something, without that terrible vacuum. It gives you a sense of momentum.
Anything you like to snack on while writing?
I chew gum ferociously. It’s obnoxious, and another reason why I have to be alone. I chew Trident Tropical Twist Sugarless. Everyone is repulsed by it, but I love it! When I’m writing I’m on, like, a pack a day. The non-smoker’s equivalent of smoking. It activates my brain. I read a study not long ago that chewing actually does activate your brain. It produces some sort of cosmic, seismic activity.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow? I know you’ve got the shoeboxes…
You probably get the point already that I’ve got a very orderly process for work. That’s probably the result of my upbringing, raised by a Swedish farmer mother. Systems and discipline are in place. I have no German Romantic idea about work. There’s no fugue state, you know? I could no more write at 3 a.m. than I could with a quill pen. I keep farmer’s hours and I have that sort of plotting and plodding way. For The Signature of All Things, for instance, I wrote a 70 page synopsis of the book before I wrote the book. I’ve never gone quite that far before, but I knew that what I was taking on was such a complex story, that I wanted to be sure I knew exactly where I was going. For the most part, the final product looks like the 70-page outline.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite workspace?
I live in an old Victorian house in New Jersey. I spent three years working with this great local woodcrafter to turn the empty attic into what we call the Skybrary, the library in the sky. He built this remarkable, almost Dr. Seussian library up there. The instruction I gave him was for the shelves to look not like they had been built, but that they had grown. They’re full of entwined vines that crawl all over the wall, full of secret compartments, hidden cabinets, tiny little doorways. It’s pretty whimsical. It also feels like a tree house, or a ship. An otherworldly feeling. And the best thing about it is that it’s not a space anyone uses or walks through. It was years before I was able to have that, a room only for me and for that purpose. The view is of the Delaware River and Pennsylvania.
You’ve written a number of excellent books, but people know you for Eat, Pray, Love, which is very different from your other work. Does it ever bother you that you are so associated with this one work, and is there one of your other books that you’d recommend to your readers that is more indicative of you as a writer?
Oh that’s a nice question, thank you. No, it almost makes me laugh to say this: It doesn’t bother me to have had a giant best-seller. It’s a tremendous blessing. The boon of that success has enabled me to fund my own work from now on, which is a privilege I never imagined happening. It’s a privilege not many writers, not many female writers, have ever had. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. And I don’t mind being associated with it. I’m proud of that book. I’m delighted with the emotional impact it had on many people’s lives. I wouldn’t ask any readers of Eat, Pray, Love to go back and look up any of my obscure, literary short stories. Read my magazine articles from back in the day. No, it’s fine.
Did Eat, Pray, Love begin as a nonfiction book proposal, and then you embarked on the journey? Or did you set off on the journey, and then conceive of the book?
No it was a proposal. That was my fourth book. At that point in a writer’s life, all books begin as proposals. I certainly would not have been able to afford to travel for a year, after an expensive divorce, without that. I wrote a proposal. I didn’t put forth what I expected to find or would happen on this journey, but I did lay out that I wanted to go to these three countries for four months each. I wanted to look at each country from a particularly aspect of life that I felt had died in me. In Italy that was pleasure, in India devotion, and in Indonesia a search for a balance between the two. That was about all the proposal was, and what the book turned out to be.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
The Onion is always guaranteed to make me laugh. Have you read Jack Handey’s new book, The Stench of Honolulu? I not only read it, I bought like 10 copies and gave it to everybody. I was on a flight with my husband, and the stewardess thought he was having a stroke, because he was laughing so hard, but trying to contain his laughter, so it looked like he was ill. Fantastically funny.
What is guaranteed to make you cry?
Hmm. Stories of reunion and forgiveness, of unexpected grace. A lot of the stupid pet videos that people send me…
Do you have any superstitions?
I have magical thinking. Does that count? I think it does. My essential piece of magical thinking around writing is that it is a relationship, a collaboration, between me and the mystery. The work wants to be made as much as I want to make it. As long as I hold on to that belief, it will come into being. If I have trouble producing it, it’s trying very hard to communicate itself to me. That’s the magical thinking that keeps me from going to war against myself, going to war against my work. I don’t think of it as an enemy. I think of it as a benevolent relationship.
Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?
Yeah, when I was 24 I had a short story published in Esquire. I’d been sending my short fiction out to magazines for five years at that point, I’d started when I was in college. I had a really simple life goal: I wanted something of mine to be published before I was dead. Once that occurred, I felt that my life’s goal has been met. The rest is pleasure and gratitude. But that was the moment I had made it. Whatever else happened, I had that 1994 Esquire magazine.
Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
Once I was doing a signing. I always have a fear that someone will come up to me in a signing line who I know, but whose name I can’t remember. I was reading once at Barnes & Noble. There’s a lovely manager there who’d been with me all afternoon, who’d helped me with stock signings, who’d been just terrific. We’d enjoyed each other. We got to the end of the day and he handed me a book and said, Now can you sign one to me? Of course I had no idea what his name was. So I said, Sure, could you just remind me how to spell your name? There was a bit of a pause. Then he said, “E.D.” It was the worst name you could ever asked someone to spell.
Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
I think people are surprised to know that I don’t meditate. I’m often asked for advice on matters of meditation and contemplation. While I’m constantly making vows to mediate, I actually don’t. Even yesterday I made a vow that, for the next week, I’d meditate each day. I won’t. This is my equivalent of when other people tell themselves they’ll stop smoking. I’ve been completely unable to discipline myself to the practice.
If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?
That was quick.
Oh no, should I say a family member? Let’s go with a literary celebrity, setting aside all the relatives that I’d love to bring back. I’d bring Ben back not only to enjoy him, because he was by all reports a complete delight, but also to show him around. There’s no one I can imagine who would be more fascinated with what’s become of the world, or would have a greater capacity to adapt quickly to understand it. I’d love to take him to an airplane factory, to a housing project—he’d be excited to see how well poor people lived, how good sanitation is and water. By our standards not everyone lives well, but by his standards—he’d be excited to hear about the universality of air conditioning. Just to show him the world. He’d love it.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
It’s funny, what came to mind immediately—I don’t want to steal it from him—E.B. White was asked how he’d like to be remembered. He said, As a fine writer who reached a wide audience. I think that’s a quite nice idea, a nice thing to put on the tombstone.
This interview has been edited and condensed.