Elizabeth Gilbert Admits: "I Need a Dose of Courage Every Day"
Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, a chronicle of her post-divorce adventures in Italy, India, and Bali, became an iconic travel memoir not for its incredible scenes, transcendent experiences, and fascinating characters—although it has all of those things—but because the story began in a place where many of her readers have found themselves: kneeling on the bathroom floor in crisis.
Gilbert's account of making peace with the past and discovering her more authentic self gave women an example of another kind of hero's journey, one in which the treasure at the end of the quest is a more truthful life. Eat, Pray, Love fans have told Gilbert that the book inspired them to begin or end romances, to embrace motherhood or eschew it, to change their job or their address or their beliefs. These radical shifts, she says—like any profound transformation—don't necessarily have anything to do with planes, trains, or automobiles.
"I have a painting of Emily Dickinson, who spent much of her life in her bedroom but still created some of the most monumental poetry ever written," she says. "That painting reminds me that the answers to my life are not likely to be found out there. The world is an enchanting place, but there are worlds inside us, too, that are always ready to be unlocked."
In her subsequent books—such as Big Magic, a how-to for cultivating creative expression, and The Signature of All Things, the story of the fictional 19th-century botanist Alma Whittaker—Gilbert has remained an intrepid explorer of intellectual and emotional terrain. She's also spent the past few years navigating challenging personal territory, caring for and then grieving her partner, Rayya Elias, who died of cancer in January 2018. "I can't live without her, so I don't," Gilbert says. "Sometimes I make a recording into my phone and just talk to her. The fact that the message is being recorded makes me feel like she's receiving it."
Despite Gilbert's trademark blend of lightness and earnestness, common sense and magical realism, she says her equanimity doesn't come easily. "I need a dose of courage every day, because I'm frightened every day. There will always be a nervous little person inside me. But if there's a creative project I'm afraid to attempt, a truth I need to tell, or a painful new reality I must face, I ask myself: 'What's the alternative?'"
Below, Gilbert answers 20 questions from O.
20 Questions for Elizabeth Gilbert:
1. What's your no-fail, go-for-it motivational song? "Get Up Offa That Thing" by James Brown. When James Brown tells you to get up, you'd best get up.
2. What's most important for your mental health? Every day I write myself a letter from love—divine, unconditional love. I ask for advice, and love always gives me kind answers, which I write down as they come to me. Even in my darkest hours, love has always shown up, saying, "I'm right here. I've got you. You're never alone."
3. What is the physical challenge that scares you most? Anything that involves getting in the path of powerful ocean waves.
4. What's the one mystery that you'd most love to solve? How much control do we humans have over our behavior and personality? Can we change our nature, or are we all just victims of our brain chemistry, genetics, hormones, and upbringing?
5. Who's your hero? Sister Mary Scullion of Project HOME in Philadelphia—a wonderful Catholic nun who has devoted her life to providing housing, education, medical care, and dignity to homeless people in her native city.
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