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Karen Bouris

The Stubborn Gladness of Elizabeth Gilbert

Before Eat, Pray , Love was a movie and a travel tour, it was a memoir by the award-winning writer Elizabeth Gilbert, whose story of losing and finding herself resonates with just about every woman who looks in the mirror. With Eat, Pray , Love and its follow-up, Committed , Gilbert’s connection to readers has been immediate and enduring. What woman hasn’t sobbed in secret on the bathroom floor, after all?

Yet Gilbert is more than these two books. Her collection of short stories, Pilgrims , was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and her debut novel, Stern Men , was a New York Times Notable Book. Her 2009 TED Talk on creative genius, where she claimed mysticism and the divine as allies in the creative process, has been viewed nearly five million times. Currently, she is putting the final touches on her next novel, The Signature of All Things , due out October 2013.

You experienced enormous success, and then you moved to a small town and took up gardening. Why the retreat?
It was after the tsunami of Eat, Pray , Love, and it was quite literally grounding. This thing had happened in my life, which was every inch a blessing, but at the same time it was a challenge to try to meet it responsibly. I felt like I was on vigilant alert for about three or four years to make sure that I was receiving the gift of that popularity in the appropriate way, that I was being a good ambassador for the book. . . . I had to vibrate at a very high level. So when we moved to this little town and there was a little bit of garden, it was so healing to stop writing for a while, . . . then stop doing interviews. . . . My mom used to say that every day that goes by that you don’t touch the earth, you are not really alive.

She is a gardener, and my dad is a Christmas tree farmer. We spent a lot of time touching the earth when we were kids, but I didn’t enjoy it at the time. I wanted to be reading and writing plays and doing other things. That I came back home to that [connecting with the earth] was profoundly resettling. It was like rewinding a grandfather clock in some part of my soul, and it was a tremendous delight to realize that I know a lot more than I thought I knew about gardening—despite all my best efforts to not learn anything from my mother.

Do you feel that creativity and spirituality intermingle?
I think creativity is entirely a spiritual practice. It has defined my entire life to think of it that way. When I hear the way some people speak about their work, people who are in creative fields who either attack themselves, or attack their work, or treat it as a burden rather than a blessing, or treat it as something that needs to be fought and defeated and beaten. . . . There is a war that people go to with their creative path that is very unfamiliar to me. To me, it feels like a holy calling and one that I am grateful for.

I can lay out the biography of it and say, “My parents are big readers, and they spent a lot of time in the library. And I had an older sister who is really creative, and we used to write plays.” I can even break it down and say, “I am really disciplined, and I work really hard, and I put decades of work into learning how to write.” And I could have put decades into playing a violin, yet I wasn’t going to become advanced. I took piano lessons for 10 years; I still can’t play very well.

I was given a contract, and the contract is: “We are not going to tell you why, but we gave you this capacity. Your side of the contract is that you must devote yourself to this in the highest possible manner, you must approach it with the greatest respect, and you must give your whole self to this. And then we will work with you on making progress.” That’s sort of what it feels like for me.

With the exception of the experience of four months of meditating in India in an ashram, there has never been anything in my life that’s even approximated the