As she told the TED audience last night, Elizabeth Gilbert found herself in a creative crisis eight years ago. Why? She had published a bestseller.
The book — “Eat, Pray, Love” — was a global success. It sold over 10 million copies, was translated into more than 30 languages, made it into the Oprah Book Club, and was adapted into a film starring Julia Roberts
To her surprise, that success had a dark side. Gilbert worried
that everyone who loved “Eat, Pray, Love” would inevitably be disappointed by the next book for being different.
Gilbert thought about dropping the writing thing entirely.
But “if I had given up writing, I would have lost my beloved vocation, so I knew that I had to find some way to gin up the inspiration to write the next book, regardless of its inevitable negative outcome,” she said. “In other words, I had to find a way that my creativity could survive its own success.”
This led her to an insight into her own psychology. She discovered that the experience of epic success and massive failure isn’t that different, since we spend most of our lives in a comfortable middle ground.
“Failure catapults you abruptly [into] the blinding darkness of disappointment,” Gilbert said. “Success catapults you just as abruptly, just as far, into the equally blinding glare of fame, recognition, and praise.”
While everyone agrees that success is good and failure is bad, Gilbert believes your subconscious can’t tell the difference. All you can feel is the “absolute value” of the change, the distance that you’ve traveled from your normal experience.
That’s why during the “crazy ride” of “Eat, Pray, Love” Gilbert felt like the diner waitress she once was, when she spent six years after college trying to get her stories published and receiving nothing but rejection letters.
So she had to do the same thing she did back then: She looked for “home.” But it’s not a physical place.
“Your home is that thing to which you can dedicate your energies with such singular devotion that the ultimate results become inconsequential,” she said. “For me, that home has always been writing. After the weird, disorienting success that I went through with “Eat, Pray, Love,” I realised that all I had to do was the exact same thing that I used to have to do all the time when I was an equally disoriented failure. I had to get my arse back to work.”
And so she did. In 2010 she published the “dreaded” follow-up to “Eat, Pray, Love,” which promptly bombed. That was fine, she said, because she had broken the spell of success. So she went back “home” to writing with another book that came out last year, which got a much better reaction.
But the reception’s not the point, said Gilbert.
“My point is that I’m writing another one now. And I’m writing another one after that,” she continued. “And another, and another, and another. And many of them will fail, and some of them might succeed. But I will always be saved by the random hurricanes of outcome as long as I never forget where I rightfully live” — which, of course, is in the craft that she loved before she tasted success.
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