Photo: Shea Hembrey
When Elizabeth Gilbert's passion went AWOL, she was shocked, bereft...and stumped—until she got a piece of advice that led her back to the thing she was meant to do.
I've always considered myself lucky that I do not have many passions. There's only one pursuit that I have ever truly loved, and that pursuit is writing. This means, conveniently enough, that I never had to search for my destiny; I only had to obey it. What am I here for? No problem! I'm here to be a writer, and only a writer, from my first cigarette to my last dying day! No doubt about it!
Except that two years ago, I completely lost my life's one true passion, and all my certainties collapsed with it.
Here's what happened: After the unexpected success of Eat, Pray, Love, I diligently sat down to work on my next project—another memoir. I worked hard, as always, conducting years of research and interviews. And when I was finished, I had produced a first draft that was...awful.
I'm not being falsely modest here. Truly, the book was crap. Worse, I couldn't figure out why it was crap. Moreover, it was due at the publisher.
Demoralized, I wrote a letter to my editor, admitting that I had utterly failed. He was nice about it, considering. He said, "Don't worry. You'll figure it out." But I did worry, because for the first time in my life, I had absolutely no passion for writing. I was charred and dry. This was terrifyingly disorienting. I couldn't begin to know who I was without that old, familiar fire. I felt like a cardboard cutout of myself.
My old friend Sarah, seeing me so troubled, came to the rescue with this sage advice: "Take a break! Don't worry about following your passion for a while. Just follow your curiosity instead."
She was not suggesting that I ditch my passion forever, of course, but rather that I temporarily ease off the pressure by exploring something new, some completely unrelated creative endeavor—something that I could find interesting, but with much lower emotional stakes. When passion feels so out of reach, Sarah explained, curiosity can be a calming diversion. If passion is a tower of flame, then curiosity is a modest spark—and we can almost always summon up a modest spark of interest about something.
So what was my modest spark? Gardening, as it turned out. Following my friend's advice, I stepped away from my writing desk and spent six months absentmindedly digging in the dirt. I had some successes (fabulous tomatoes!); I had some failures (collapsed bean poles!). None of it really mattered, though, because gardening, after all, was just my curiosity—something to keep me modestly engaged through a difficult period. (At such moments, believe me, even modest engagement can feel like a victory.)
Then the miracle happened. Autumn came. I was pulling up the spent tomato vines when—quite suddenly, out of nowhere—I realized exactly how to fix my book. I washed my hands, returned to my desk, and within three months I'd completed the final version of Committed—a book that I now love.
Gardening, in other words, had turned me back into a writer.
So here's my weird bit of advice: If you've lost your life's true passion (or if you're struggling desperately to find passion in the first place), don't sweat it. Back off for a while. But don't go idle, either. Just try something different, something you don't care about so much. Why not try following mere curiosity, with its humble, roundabout magic? At the very least, it will keep you pleasantly distracted while life sorts itself out. At the very most, your curiosity may surprise you. Before you even realize what's happening, it may have led you safely all the way home.
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Watch Elizabeth Gilbert's complete talk from O,'s Live Your Best Life Weekend
From the November 2010 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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