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?

Wake Me Up When the Light Turns Green


I’d started a post this morning titled “What Really Saved Elizabeth Gilbert,” in which I was going to reveal the true lifeline that hauled the celebrated Eat, Pray, Love author’s soul back through the doughnut hole of salvation, but then I got a root canal.

Or half of one anyway. My endodontist (I never wanted to be able to say that) wants to see me again next week, and I don’t think it’s because he didn’t get enough of admiring my hairless nostrils (see yesterday’s post, The Ex-Con’s Rule). But that may be modesty or the Vicodin talking.

I hate Vicodin. But it hated me first.

After C-section #2 two years ago, I popped one, desperate for some pain-free sleep. I got it, except all night long I dreamed my mother (Passengers in Zone 4…) was doing laundry in the next room. Loudly. It sounded so real that I had trouble believing her the next morning when she said she’d slept through the night and all of Husbot’s boxer shorts were still dirty. But I’d been so tired since the arrival of Mbot, sixteen months before, that I didn’t even notice if it made me drowsy.

The Wilcox-Jewett Obtunder, used at the turn of the 20th century that used a periontal syringe to inject anaesthesia, usually cocaine. (www.dentalassistantschools.net)

Today, when the anesthetic wore off right after dropping Mbot at preschool at noon, my world was reduced to the size of my tooth, which felt as big as my head, and like someone had just slammed it in a door. I felt sorry for all those people in the Stone Age whose  endodontists’ tools were limited to stones. I felt sorry for myself. Not the least because now I wouldn’t get to eat the smoked salmon tortellini that was on the menu tonight. Or drink a glass of wine with it. With a chaser of Brie and ibuprofen, a good red wine is my painkiller of choice. A bad one is my second choice.

I hauled Gbot back to the car and toward the CVS Window of Mercy (our old friend, see Eye-Found-It!). Because I couldn’t open my mouth, I held up a piece of paper with my name on it, as if I were meeting someone I’d never seen before at an airport. I swallowed a pill in the parking lot.

But like I said, Vicodin and I, not BFFs, and by Mbot’s pickup time at three, I would not have passed a sobriety test. And I had a tick under one eye. I put the car into park at intersections because I was afraid of nodding off before the lights turned green. By the time we landed at Grandma’s, my head was doing the loll-and-jerk thing that it hadn’t done since I was nursing Gbot and Mbot was on strike against sleep. I probably should not have been driving, especially with Midgets in the car, but of course without Midgets, I wouldn’t have had to drive. One of those hilarious little Catch-22s life throws at you like a rotten tomato.

Bottom line: Elizabeth Gilbert will have to wait. I’ve got sudsy underwear to dream about.

What’s your painkiller of choice?