[February 3, 2010, UNM Sub Ballroom]
By Carolyn Flynn
Elizabeth Gilbert in Albuquerque, February 3,
2010, in the UNM Sub Ballroom, photo © 2010
by ybonesy. All rights reserved.
From The “You Can’t Hurry Love” Department:
The age at which people marry is the greatest predictor of a failed marriage, so marry late and lower your expectations.
“You almost can’t wait long enough,” says author Elizabeth Gilbert to an audience of about 720 book lovers that gathered in the University of New Mexico SUB ballroom in Albuquerque this month to hear her read from her newest book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage.
“The expectation thing is huge,” Gilbert goes on to say. “We have overloaded this institution.”
American marriage is supposed to be the safe harbor for soul gratification, life partner, wealth building, child rearing and everyday companion.
“I don’t want to become the goddess of lower your expectations,” Gilbert says, “but manage them.”
In an interview before the event, Gilbert says more about that: “People who marry at heat of infatuation. The only one way to go from there is to speed down. People who marry from place of love and friendship find that over the years they find their love just deepens.”
Gilbert didn’t set out to be an expert on romance and marriage. Rather, the author of the mega-best-selling Eat, Pray, Love set out to be the “bride of writing,” as she proclaims on her Web site, elizabethgilbert.com.
“I married it,” she tells the audience, which, judging by the questions, has more concerns about what she will write next and how she writes it than fixing up their love lives. “This is what I’m for. This is my purpose.”
The “unidentical twin”
Gilbert set out on a career in writing with this simple goal: “I just wanted to see something published before I died. And people in my family live a long time.”
She also set out to travel, to do yoga and to recover her heart after a brutal divorce and an even-more brutal breakup in a rebound relationship. That led to Eat, Pray, Love, which took readers from Italy to India to Indonesia, where she met the man she loves and shares her life with, the Brazilian gem importer she calls Felipe in her books.
What she didn’t plan on was that her journey would lead her to Committed, released in January 2010.
That book opens with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announcing to Gilbert and her sweetie that their 90-day chunks of commitment — which resembled marriage in every way but weren’t marriage — weren’t going to pass muster. Felipe, an Australian citizen, was in the U.S. on a limited visa that allowed him to stay with Gilbert in their non-wedded state of bliss in Philadelphia about three months at a time. Then, he would have to depart to parts elsewhere, sometimes with Gilbert, only to return. This activity appeared suspicious in the post-9/11 world. Homeland Security announced they would deport him… though a friendly official known only in the book as “Officer Tom” gently advised them that they could solve this problem with the M-word — marriage.
“What we determined, quite swiftly there in the bowels of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport was that it would be hugely to our benefit to do this,” says Gilbert.
Thus, another journey began — and another book.
The route to writing a follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love, was, shall we say, a learning experience.
“The notion that we (as writers) are supposed to be defeating ourselves strikes me as cannibalistic and a little scary,” Gilbert says.
The author considered that Eat, Pray, Love, was her last book “and maybe she would be selling scented candles.”
But she also reminded herself that writers have long careers, and she planned to be writing at least until she was 80. Now 40, she realized that she had 40 more years of writing ahead of her, of which Eat, Pray, Love, would be a small part.
The struggle that she believes every writer has is that the final product is often the “unidentical twin of what you had in mind.”
It took 500 pages and some time off to shed the mantle of expectations for what her next book would be. She freely admits she rejected the first 500 pages, making the painful decision that she could not turn it in to her publisher, which was expecting a manuscript.
She had to take six months off and do something completely different until it became clearer how to approach the next book. That meant a lot of gardening. “Your hands are in the dirt, it’s restorative, and every so often you get a cherry tomato,” she says.
One day in the fall, the first line of Committed came to her. It was in a different voice.
“The problem with the early draft was trying to write in an imitation of my Eat, Pray, Love voice,” she says.
Lessons about love
That version of the draft was a completely different way to tell the same story she tells in Committed, which gets us back to what Gilbert has learned about marriage.
At the Albuquerque event, Gilbert read from the opening of the book, in which she and her sweetie, whom she calls Felipe in both books, were averse to marriage, though there was no absence of love. Both were survivors of nasty divorces. Gilbert had borne witness to what she referred to in Committed to the fact that every relationship has buried within it the “ever-coiled makings of a catastrophe.”
In an interview before the event, Gilbert says her yearlong search to define marriage for herself, she came to understand what had doomed her first marriage was not going to doom her second. “What doomed our marriage — pretty simply, (is we were) young stupid, selfish and immature.”
“You take those traits and apply them day-to-day and watch them get eroded.”
But Gilbert also had to make her peace with how much of her marriage was public – owned by the government and the community – and how much was private. “It’s not just your own story,” she says.
Yes, two people who are in love write their own code, governing the graceful balance of give and take.
But their relationship also belongs to the community. And to the U.S. government, as she learned. And to history. “And some would say it belongs to God,” she says in the interview.
‘Waiting to be born’
Gilbert worked through the tremendous expectations not only about marriage, but about her next book. She admits to big time writer’s block. In a 2008 TED lecture on creativity, she wonders why writers put this on themselves. Her father, a chemical engineer, never had chemical engineering block.
Gilbert tells the audience in Albuquerque that what saves her is her work ethic. “I’m a little bit sloppy.”
The newspaper columnist Russell Banks admitted to being lazy and a perfectionist.
This is a difficult aspect in a writer, Gilbert says. “You need to be the opposite.”
“I just refused to die as a person who had 30 pages of a novel in her drawer,” she says.
The biggest thing that kept her going through Committed, is she wants to get to the next project, which she says will be fiction. There are “those things lining up waiting to be born.”
Carolyn Flynn, an MFA candidate in fiction and creative nonfiction at Spalding University, has seen her literary short stories published in Ellipsis and The Crescent Review, as well as the German anthology Wilde Frauen. She is the winner of the Renwick-Sumerwell and SouthWest Writers fiction prizes and has been short-listed for the Tom Howard Prose Prize in creative nonfiction and the Danahy Prize in fiction. For the past ten years, she has been editor of SAGE magazine, published monthly in the Albuquerque Journal. The author of seven nonfiction books on body-mind-spirit topics, she lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her 10-year-old twins.
Carolyn also wrote red Ravine posts An Evening With Elizabeth Gilbert & Anne Lamott after seeing the two writers together in 2008 on the UCLA campus and The Devil Came Down To Austin about seeing ghosts of her father while attending the 2007 Agents & Editors Conference. You can find out more about Carolyn at carolynflynn.com.