What Really Saved Elizabeth Gilbert

The eggs on my butter dish did not save Elizabeth Gilbert.

So today, Vicodin free, I will finish the post I began with such good intention yesterday morning before tooth #31 was drilled into tooth heaven.

I had my students read Eat, Pray, Love a few years ago in my course on contemporary women’s lit at Phoenix College. Not because I love the book–far from it. (An agent I once met called it, as one in a pile of middle-aged-woman-finds-herself-among-the-natives bestsellers, Eat Pray Tampon.) I assigned it because it mystified me. It was  well-written and funny. There was much to learn from Gilbert’s narrative skill. So why did I want to stab it a thousand times and then hurl it into a fire?

That semester, I figured it out. I found a 2006 interview by Alexis Burling with Ms Gilbert (Mrs?) at www.bookreporter.com:

BRC: “Describe your writing process. Did you write at all while you were traveling, or did you save most of your writing for your return?”

EG: “I wrote constantly as I was traveling — both because I knew I was preparing to write a book about the experience, but also because, as Joan Didion said recently, ‘I write in order to find out how I feel about something.’ I can’t imagine that I would’ve had half the revelations I did on this journey if I hadn’t been writing about it as I went along. Writing has always been my particular way of translating life, of taking experiences out of the ephemeral and digesting them, making them real.”

And that was it. It wasn’t eating, or praying, or loving that saved Elizabeth Gilbert.

It was writing.

Sure, she needed to get away. She needed to find herself. But if she couldn’t have written about it, she  might as well have been locked up in a closet listening to self-help tapes. “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means,” said Joan Didion, as misquoted by Ms Gilbert.

Don’t we all? But we see Elizabeth Gilbert eating. praying, loving, laughing, sobbing, babbling in Italian, scrubbing floors, chanting, meditating, masturbating, bicycling, crashing, conversing wittily with men from New York to Bali–but we never, not once in the book, see her writing. Which is what she spent most of her time doing.

Maybe she and her editors thought it would be too meta, but it strikes me as disingenuous not to mention the writing. If you’ve got a compulsion, chances are, its a driving force in your life. Chances are, it’s what brings you down, and it’s also what elevates you. Hi. My name is Elizabeth Gilbert, and I’m a writer.

Why does it seem so important to out it? Because without the publisher’s advance that paid for a year of travel, without Gilbert having the goal of turning her quest into a book, Eat, Pray, Love, and the life-altering revelations described within, would never have happened. It sells itself as being a book about being brave enough to seek the truth in unfamiliar places, but Gilbert found it in the most familiar place she knew: on the page.

Does this revelation make the book any less powerful, for those who loved it, or any less insipid, for those who hated it?

Probably not. But there’s truth in it, and isn’t that what Gilbert claimed to be looking for? Isn’t that what we’re all looking for? Writers find it when they write. Many find it while they’re reading, or out on a run, or in the shower.

Where do you find your revelations?

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