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Going home after ‘Eat Pray Love’: Elizabeth Gilbert at TED2014

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Elizabeth Gilbert. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Elizabeth Gilbert. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Elizabeth Gilbert has written a memoir so famous that strangers think she’s the author of the book … based on the movie. It sounds like a problem any writer would love to have, but to Gilbert, writing post-Eat Pray Love, seemed an impossible task. Says Gilbert in the final Wednesday session at TED2014, “How in the world would I ever write a book again that would please anyone?”

She jokes: “I knew well in advance that all of those people who adored Eay Pray Love would be disappointed in whatever I wrote next because it wasn’t Eat Pray Love…and all those people who hated would be disappointed because it would provide evidence that I still lived.” Kidding aside, she thought about quitting.

This fear brought Gilbert back to a familiar place: When she was in her twenties, what she wanted more than anything else was to be a writer. She faced nearly six years of rejection — yet every time she wanted to quit, she told herself, “I’m not going to quit, I’m going to go home.” That “home” wasn’t a physical place, says Gilbert, it was the act of writing. “I loved writing more than I loved my own ego — which is to say I loved writing more than I loved myself.”

How did Gilbert find herself identifying so strongly with this failing person, so seemingly different in circumstance from her older self? She explains: Most of the time we experience life in the middle of the chain of human experience, but great success and failure catapult you in two opposite, yet equally far, directions — which wind up having the same psychological effect. She says, “Your subconscious is only capable of feeling the absolute value of those emotions. And there’s an equal danger of getting lost out there in the hinterlands.”

And when that happens: Find your way back home as swiftly and smoothly as you can, Gilbert urges. For her, that meant writing her first work after Eat Pray Love, which flopped. And then that meant writing her next work, and her next work, and works to come. “There is something in this world that you love more than you love yourself,” says Gilbert. “Figure out what it is, build your house right on top of it, and don’t budge from it. Keep doing that again and again, and I can assure you it’s all going to be okay.”