At The Cut, Jessica Pressler interviews Elizabeth Gilbert, best known as the author of self-discovery travelogue Eat, Pray, Love, who more recently produced the creativity self-help “manifesto” Big Magic. Among other things, the two discuss how privilege factors into Gilbert’s story and success—an angle she’s often challenged on. She offers what strikes me as a pretty valid response:
“Privilege” still comes up in the Q&A session of almost every talk Gilbert gives. “I want to talk about privilege,” one audience member says at the BRIC, although this is the entirety of her question, and it doesn’t lead to a super-interesting discussion. Still, it’s something Gilbert has definitely thought about and formulated a response to: “I think there’s huge validity in acknowledging differences in privilege,” she said in Central Park. “If that conversation is being had in a serious way, then it’s absolutely a valid conversation. But if that conversation is being had as a way of dismissing somebody’s work, it’s a ridiculous conversation. I mean, the most extreme privilege that I inhabit is that I was born as a woman in this moment in history, in this culture,” she went on, in a voice that suggested she was about to go into a sermon. “I’m the first woman in the entire history of my family who had a public voice. I’m the first woman who had autonomy over her body. I’m the first woman who had autonomy over money. My mom was trying to open a checking account in 1974 in Connecticut, when I was 5 years old, and she was told that she couldn’t do it without her husband’s signature. But I guess my question would be ‘What do you want me to do instead? Do you want me to not become a writer? Or do you want me to use my privilege to create the most interesting body of work that I possibly can, to live the broadest possible number of experiences that I can, to reach out to the most number of women who I could reach?’ ”
This past weekend, just a few days before the release of Big Magic: Creativity Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert’s new ode to the creative spirit, I bumped into her in the restroom at Omega Institute, where she was speaking. As I was drying my hands, she caught a glimpse of the Anaïs Nin quote tattooed on my forearm. “Hold still,” she said. “I have to read that.” She then proceeded to show me her tattoos, done in white ink. One says “Courage,” one says “Compassion,” and a third one says “Stubborn Gladness.”
Later, in her talk, Gilbert revealed the source of that last one. It’s inspired by “A Brief for the Defense,” a poem by Gilbert’s “personal poet laureate” Jack Gilbert (no relation), about the imperative of appreciating joy and pleasure in even the harshest of times.
After the sometimes reclusive poet’s death in 2013, Gilbert wrote about him, and about how he inspired her, in The Atlantic.
When it comes to developing a worldview, we tend to face this false division: Either you are a realist who says the world is terrible, or a naïve optimist who says the world is wonderful and turns a blind eye. Gilbert takes this middle way, and I think it’s a far better way: he says the world is terrible and wonderful, and your obligation is to joy. That’s why the poem is called “A Brief for the Defense”—it’s defending joy. A real, mature, sincere joy—not a cheaply earned, ignorant joy. He’s not talking about building a fortress of pleasure against the assault of the world. He’s talking about the miraculousness of moments of wonder and how it seems to be worth it, after all. And one line from this poem is the most important piece of writing I’ve ever read for myself:
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world.
This defines exactly what I want to strive to be–a person who holds onto “stubborn gladness,” even when we dwell in darkness. I want to be able to contain both of them within me at the same time, remain able to cultivate joy and wonder even at life’s bleakest.
“I was just so committed, and I did have six years of rejection letters. And it really didn’t break my heart. Some of them made me really excited because some of them had little handwritten notes at the bottom. Pretty good, but not our thing. And I was like, I got a really great handwritten note from Harper’s! And I would hang it on my wall, like, That’s such a great rejection letter! I don’t know why I felt like I had the right to do it. I don’t know. I’ve always been really surprised—and I really remain very surprised—at people who don’t think they have the right to do their work, or feel like they need a permission slip from the principal to do it, or who doubt their voice. I’m always like, What? What? Fucking do it! Just fucking do it! What’s the worst that could happen?! You fucking fail! Then you do it again and you wear them down and they get sick of rejecting you. And they get tired of seeing your letters and they just give up. They don’t have any choice. So part of it was real confidence, and part of it was fake confidence, and part of it was insecurity. It was a combination of all them.”