Firstly, let me confess:
Confession #1: I hated ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. It irritated me from the outset, but I persevered until chapter eight (of the 128 chapters in the book) when I closed the covers once and for all, and I have not looked back.
At the time I read it, I had four young children and was still in the workforce. I was exhausted, snowed under, and had barely a moment to myself. I dreamt of being able to go to bed and sleep until I woke, free of fatigue.
So, as I read Ms Gilbert’s book about a childless woman around the same age as me, who quit her marriage and embarked on a year-long international journey of self-discovery, I uttered phrases like, ‘Yeah, ‘cos we can all do that’ and ‘self-obsessed rubbish’. Her book didn’t speak to me at all and I didn’t open another book of hers. (I wonder if I picked it up now, if I’d still think the same …)
Confession #2: I only bought the tickets to see Liz Gilbert at the Perth Concert Hall because I was already going to hear Dame Hilary Mantel, and I thought, Well, I’ll already be there, I might as well see both …
Dame Hilary Mantel
I probably don’t need to tell you how articulate, thoughtful, insightful, and intelligent Dame Hilary was. Michael Cathcart, the interviewer, posed his questions as if they were in casual conversation in a lounge room, not in the Perth Concert Hall via video link from London and with an annoying two-second delay. If you’re interested, you can listen to the interview on podcast here.
After the interval, it was Liz Gilbert’s turn. I was preparing for something akin to religious evangelism—a jump-on-my-bandwagon-and-you-too-can-find-happiness speech.
Liz was introduced, rather gushingly, by her friend, Rayya, and I thought, Here we go … However, within about sixty seconds I’d done a complete about-face.
Liz came on stage alone, no interviewer, no prompts, no script, and spoke for an hour. And I was not bored once.
Here are the key messages I took home from her talk—others may have taken home different points, but here are the ones that have stayed with me:
1. On Fear
Fear and creativity go hand in hand. Acknowledge it and accept it, but don’t let fear dictate what you do or where you’re going.
Liz told us that she says to her fear, ‘Dear Fear, Creativity and I are going for a drive. We know you’re going to want to come, and that’s okay. You can come for the ride, but you’re in the passenger seat. We’re not giving you the map, and you’re certainly not getting behind the steering wheel.’
She said the only people she’d ever met who were fearless were three-year-olds and psychopaths. In other words, fear is normal. Fear is even good—it stops us doing really stupid things, but it is also boring. We think we’re the only one with our fear, but we’re not. Everyone else has it too. Don’t let it stop us from being ourselves, and don’t let it stop our creativity.
2. On Perfectionism and ‘Getting the Job Done’
Liz’s next point was that fear and perfectionism also go together. Don’t worry about doing something well, she said, just get the job done. It’s better to have something, than nothing.
She told us that there was a character in her novel, ‘The Signature of All Things’, who wasn’t as fully realised as he/she might have been. In the end, she left the character as he/she was, and went ahead and published the novel anyway. She did this because if she’d tried to perfect that character, it would have taken something else away from the book.
At the time she said this, I wondered if I could have sent out my manuscript knowing that I might have been able to make it better. However, it got me thinking about flaws and how sometimes it’s the imperfections in art that make it beautiful. Some flawed things are better than their perfect counterparts—like something hand-made compared to machine-made; a live plant compared to a plastic one; live music compared to a pre-recording; a technically perfect singer, compared to someone whose voice wavers with emotion.
Perhaps that’s the key to it: that emotion is carried in the imperfection, and it’s emotion that gives art its energy, makes it unique, and speaks to people. And all of this can be lost if you try to make it technically perfect.
There are scenes in my novel that could be better written and which I’ve tried to improve. I’ve revised them countless times, but after a certain point, the scene gains nothing and starts losing something—its natural energy, its heart.
A couple of years ago, I did a ‘Freefall Writing‘ course during which we had to write ten pages each day and hand them in. We weren’t allowed to edit, and I didn’t—writing ten pages each day doesn’t leave a lot of time for editing, and besides, I was so concerned about getting my ten pages done that I didn’t worry about what I was writing or how it would read.
The next day, the facilitator read our writing aloud to the group. I was rather anxious, and I wished I’d cheated and edited it. The thing was, we were all feeling the same—exposed and vulnerable. For all of us, it was a first draft and unedited. However, the writing was gripping and intense because it was coming from a place close to our core. Somehow, by just getting the work done, we’d given our unfiltered, uncensored, non-judgemental selves. What’s more, it was better than the writing our perfectionist self could have made.
I’m not sure this was Liz Gilbert’s message, and I think I’ve extrapolated a little, but this is what I took away from this part of her talk.
3. On Owning Your Own Shit
The last message I took home was a point Liz made in response to a question by an audience member:
‘What are you most proud of?’ she was asked.
‘Owning my own shit,’ she responded.
She said she used to go through life thinking, ‘Who is lighting all these spot fires around me? Everywhere I go, someone lights a fire …’ and ‘Who keeps crashing this car … that I’m driving?’.
In the end, she had to finally admit it was her. She was the one causing all the fires, all the car crashes, all the problems in her life, and she was the only one who could fix them. It was hard work, she said, and required a lot of counselling, but she did it. She ‘owned her own shit’, and once she’d done that, she could do something about it.
These words resonated with me. About 25 years’ ago now, I reached a point in my life where I knew I had a choice: to continue making stupid decisions and end up with a shitty life, or start making good decisions and have a good life.
Part of me wanted to keep making the same bad decisions—it would have been easier to wallow in self-pity, and blame my childhood and my sister’s death for how badly my life was turning out.
But another part of me wanted a good life, and I knew the choice was up to me.
I decided to ‘own my own shit’ and stop making bad decisions. It didn’t just happen—it was hard work, especially at first, and I could only make small changes at a time. Little-by-little they added up, until a few years later, my life was unrecognisable—I was healthy, I had a lifetime partner, and I had a career. I had a good life and a beckoning future.
So, Liz’s answer resonated—I’d ‘owned my own shit’ and by doing that I’d been able to forge a good life.
I walked out of this session with a completely different perspective on Liz Gilbert—her words had finally spoken to me and she’d won me over. I came away more determined than ever to not let fear stop me, to trust myself enough to get the job done, and to continue ‘owning my own shit’.