Life Coach / Author of "The Signature of All Things", "Eat, Pray, Love", "Committed"
At what age did you figure out you wanted to become a writer?
Liz: As soon as I found out that there was such a thing as a writer, I knew that this would be my path. There is a level at which my life has been really simple because of that certainty — I never once entertained another possibility. I think I'm fortunate also in these two regards: That I am not multitalented, and that I embrace the talent I have. I say this because I watch friends who are multitalented struggle with refracted attention and confusion about where to put their energies. Because I can't sing or dance or do math or comprehend anything mechanical or run a business, I am spared from this confusion. It is all about single-pointed focus with me. Also, I have friends who are extremely talented at one thing, but wish to be something else, and so they fight against their gifts. This just seems exhausting to me. The simplest path seems to be to embrace what you are good at, which is like swimming with the current, rather than against it.
What is the greatest lesson you have learned (so far)?
Liz: There is a line from the Bhagavad Gita that I love: "It is better to live your own life imperfectly than to lead a perfect imitation of someone else's life." I suppose this is really what it's all about, right? But to figure out what, indeed, your own life is all about requires a ferocious level of attention to the way you are tuned, and equally ferocious stewardship of the Self — a kind of burning inward-facing mother love. (The good kind of mother, I should add! Not the Joan Crawford kind of mother, which we sometimes become toward ourselves.)
After writing two memoirs, did you find it easy going back to writing fiction with "The Signature of All Things"?
Liz: It was a joy and a liberation. I had started out as a fiction writer, but had strayed from it for so many years into the world of journalism, biography and memoir. I don't regret any of the work I did for those 13 years that I wasn't writing fiction, but I did begin to feel like I was drifting too far away from some central component of my soul. At first, I was afraid that maybe i had lost the ability to write fiction at all — like maybe it was a foreign language I had forgotten how to speak, because I was out of practice. But once I began writing, it became clear to me: This is not a foreign language; this is my native tongue.
When Committed came out, were you worried people would be expecting "Eat,Pray,Love pt.2?"
Liz: Well, they most certainly were expecting that. The problem was, I don't know how to write Eat Pray Love part 2, because I don't even really know how I wrote Eat Pray Love, Part 1. That book had been so organic; there was no way to repeat it artificially, so I didn't even bother trying. All I could do was what I have always tried to do, with all my work: Write the book that I most wanted to read at that moment in my own history. In 2001, when my life was falling apart, I would have loved to have read a book like Eat Pray Love — to help me sort out my own path. And in 2006, when I found out that I had to get married for a second time, I would have loved to have read a book like Committed — to help me make sense of matrimony. Four years ago, when life was sweet and I was feeling creative and free, I would have loved to have read a book like The Signature of All Things — to vanish into a broad, old-fashioned tale. So I wrote that one! You must write the book that you feel is missing from your bookshelf.
What makes you happy?
Liz: Freedom. I need freedom to write, freedom to travel, freedom to choose how I use my own hours, freedom to explore. I do well with freedom. I say this because many people do not. For many people, too much freedom equals too much danger (they either atrophy in the absence of routine, or go too wild) and they are more stable surrounded by rules and routine. But I'm good at establishing my own rules and routine, and shaping my own days. I do not respond well to feeling trapped, and from an early age I knew that I felt happier with the uncertainty of change and movement than I felt with the confinements of "security." I've always worked hard, but have never had a 9-to-5 job. As a young person, I knew that I would rather go without certain comforts than to be locked in a higher-paying position. I have always been at my most unhappy when I feel the most confined. I need to feel like there is always a window to ventilate my life — or a door open somewhere that I can slip through, at a moment's notice, if things start to feel crushing. The more freedom, the more my creativity can grow.
It's been almost ten years, have you since had a meal that surpassed the ones you had while in Naples & Rome?
Liz: Ha! What a great question! I had a meal in 2006 in Luang Prabang, Laos that was pretty extraordinary! But I always say that my favorite meal is my next one.
Describe yourself in 5 words:
Liz: Lucky, focused, loving, stubborn, awake.
What do you most value in others?
Any advice for aspiring writers?
Liz: Tend to your craft above all. Writers get so hung-up on the outcome of their work, rather than the process, which can be a distraction. (Am I going to be published or not? Is my book going to be a success or not? Will my work support me or not? Will I win awards or not?) My suggestion is to focus not on becoming successful, but on becoming great. (Or, better still, focus on becoming GOOD. Often I would rather read a really good, really competent writer, than one who is actively, painfully trying to be great.) I also advise against the goal of having your artistic work support your life, financially. Of course this is the dream of dreams — to make a living by your art — but it is a rare thing, when that works out. Or sometimes it might work out for a few years, and then you run out of money. If financial success becomes the standard by which to determine if you are successful or not, you are likely setting yourself up to feel disappointed in yourself and your work. It's not fair to your craft, to put this kind of pressure on it. Get a job on the side to pay the bills, and learn how to live an inexpensive, frugal life. (The motto I always use is: Aim for a bigger, smaller life. Bigger in spirit, smaller in material need.) Then devote yourself to your vocation. In other words, don't demand that your art supports your life. Instead, make a promise that your life will always support your art. Get whatever job you need to get in order to pay the electric bill, but let your art rise and grow based on its own desire, its own momentum, its own urgency. And try not to go into debt on your way to becoming an artist. My heart was broken in half recently by the story a friend told me a student of hers, a promising young writer, who was just accepted into Columbia University for a graduate program in writing...at the cost of $200,000! This young woman, who has no money, was taking out giant loans to go into this program because she was convinced that this is what would make her a writer. (When, meanwhile, the average payment for a first book — if she should ever be lucky enough to be published — is $18,000.) I find that whole operation criminal. A degree in writing is not what makes you a writer. Writing every day is what makes you a writer. And writing every day is absolutely free. If you can afford schooling and feel like you need it, go ahead. But never take out a loan to become an artist. You don't need to. All you need is your own devotion, your love, your commitment, and the example of the authors whom you most love — all of whom become your teachers (for free) whenever you read them.
Any last words?
Liz: Just one: ONWARD.