11 things I learned from Elizabeth Gilbert last night.

Meeting your idols, your heroes or your girl crushes is always dangerous. Disappointment is the most likely outcome. Having admired someone from afar for years or decades can elevate them to impossibly unrealistic heights.

Last night I met one of the women who has been hugely influential for me as a writer, a creative person, a feminist and just a person in the world trying to work shit out. Elizabeth Gilbert did not disappoint.

In fact I’m still buzzing from the few hours we spent together. I feel invigorated, inspired and I sort of want to just sit quietly on a beanbag and think about all the things we talked about, both on stage when I interviewed her for the Brisbane Writers Festival, and off-stage both before and after the event.

interview with elizabeth gilbert
Mia, Elizabeth Gilbert and Rebecca Sparrow (Image: Supplied)

Since I’m a writer though and not very good at sitting still and thinking, I’m going to process the experience by writing about what I learned from Liz. Here we go.

1. It’s a myth that to be a ‘proper’ writer you have to quit your job or carve out months to write a book or write for eight hours a day.

This was a relief because I’ve secretly always believed that’s what proper writers do and I find it incredibly tough, both logistically and mentally to sit down and write for hours at a time.

“Do an hour a day,” she suggests. I can do that.

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2. Ask yourself, ‘What are you prepared to give up to do that creative thing you say you want to do?’

She spoke about a woman on Facebook complaining to her that she didn’t have any time to be creative. “But you’re on Facebook,” she pointed out to much laughter from the audience. To carve time out for creativity, if that’s important to you, there are choices to be made and they’re not always nice ones. To finish one of her books, Liz had to give up watching The Sopranos, among other things. “I never did find out what happened,” she said. But she finished the book.

3. People like you better when you say yes.

Part of the process of working out how to navigate your life and conserve energy for creativity involves saying no to people. Letting them be disappointed with you. “There’s a myth that drawing boundaries and saying no will make people respect you more and like you more,” she said last night. “That’s bullshit. People like you more when you say yes to them. Yes, I’ll pick up the kids from school. Yes, I’ll maintain this toxic friendship, yes I’ll do a three hour book signing, yes.” You have to learn to be OK with disappointing other people because the alternative is sacrificing yourself. And you shouldn’t be OK with that.

An example she gave was that she no longer does book signings after events. It drains her too much because she says she has to meet everyone at the place they’re at. One woman might be in tears and want to tell her a story about how Eat, Pray, Love changed her life. The next woman might have a book she’s desperate to get published and wants some tips. The next woman might not have been happy that she didn’t get what she wanted to hear from the event she just attended. And everyone wants a selfie. Three hours later, she’s shattered.

“It’s changed my life” she told me about saying no to book signings. What’s important to her though, is that she explains to the audience each time why she’s not doing it.

interview with elizabeth gilbert
Part of the process of working out how to navigate your life and conserve energy for creativity involves saying no to people. (Image: Supplied)

4. Stop saying “I’m sad” when you see a woman who’s had plastic surgery.

This is gossip and judgement masquerading as faux concern, says Liz. “I will defend another woman’s right to control her reproduction, how is it then OK to criticise what she does with her face or her boobs?”

You can read more about that here.

Liz told me she’s had botox and she sees nothing wrong with it. “I’m happy to look my age, I just don’t want to look like a tired bitch.” Me neither. I’m so tortured about the idea of Botox. Perhaps I’m wasting my energy.

5. Don’t take criticism from anyone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart.

Liz doesn’t read her reviews anymore. She defends the review process and the role reviewers and critics play in society but she has come to understand that they owe her nothing and thus their criticism will be without compassion. Ask people you trust for compassionate criticism or feedback about your work, sure. But don’t listen to strangers because they don’t have your back and they can throw you off your game.

Hey Mia: How do you deal with your haters? (post continues after video)

6. Embrace your fear of failure.

Don’t be fearless. Fearless people are fucked up and often sociopaths because they don’t have that inbuilt self-preservation impulse that seeks to protect them from danger. Fear is healthy. Invite it along on your creative journey because it will come anyway. But don’t let it drive or choose the snacks or even sit in the front passenger seat.

Fear might be trying to protect you but if you’re just writing a poem or performing a piece of music or writing a blog post, fear is not really required to warn you of the possibility of impending death or injury. Not gonna happen.

7. The best small-talk question in the world is “What are you excited about right now?”

Elizabeth asked me this backstage after we’d been talking about her for a while and it’s brilliant and disarming and allows you to dive pretty deep with a relative stranger. Everyone has an answer for this, even if they don’t realise it and it opens up fascinating conversations.

8. Don’t let the idea of perfection stop you from creating something good – or even bad.

Liz told a story about her friend, novelist Ann Patchett, who says her favourite part of writing is when she has the idea for a book but she hasn’t yet started it yet. Patchett describes it as a tourmaline butterfly that flies prettily and perfectly around her head.

She likes to be alone with it and look at it and think about her book. But when the time comes to actually write it, she has to take the tourmaline butterfly and put it on the work bench and smash it with a hammer and then reassemble it into something far less perfect. But at least it’s something real because the tourmaline butterfly can never exist in the real world.

And if you measure what you create against your perfect idea of how brilliant it COULD be then you will be forever paralysed or disappointed.

9. Sometimes the only way to stop the negotiation in your head about doing the thing is to just do the thing.

From the moment she wakes up, she starts negotiating with herself about whether or not she’ll exercise. Writing can be the same. “Should I work on my book or should I watch TV? Work on my book? Watch TV?”

The only way to stop that exhausting and exhaustive back and forth is sometimes to just do it. Like Nike says.

10. Creativity is a mix of magic and hard work.

Liz believes ideas circle the universe looking for someone to make them manifest. They brush up against us wanting to know if we’ll work with them. If we say yes, they want to help us. But that doesn’t mean creativity is this mystical muse and you are its powerless vessel. When you enter into a contract with an idea, you commit to doing the work. Sometimes it will show up to help you, other times you’re on your own. Creativity is neither your bitch nor your master. It’s a collaborative effort.

interview with elizabeth gilbert
“When you enter into a contract with an idea, you commit to doing the work.” (Image: Supplied)

11. Don’t confuse Hobby, Job, Career, Vocation.

They may overlap or not. You may have all of them or not. The only non-negotiable in life is to have a job. That’s how you support yourself financially and it give you agency over your own life. Your job doesn’t have to rock your world. It can be boring and unsatisfying. It doesn’t have to satisfy you. It just has to earn you money so you can be independent. A hobby is negotiable. Everyone used to have hobbies before TV, now TV is our hobby. But a hobby has low stakes and should be purely fun or enjoyable. You can start and stop hobbies. Karaoke is Liz’s. She rocks a microphone. You can see evidence of that here:

A career is something you also don’t have to have but if you do, you should enjoy it because it requires years of investment. It’s much bigger than a job.

And a vocation is something you can’t NOT do. It’s bigger than you and it’s not related to money. It might be having a family or volunteering or painting or writing or religion or meditation.

For many many years, in fact until she wrote Eat Pray Love, writing was Elizabeth’s vocation. She had jobs to support herself until that book was published. Now, writing is her career, her vocation and her job. But for most of us, there’s less overlap.

It’s a mistake to try and burden your creativity by trying to make it your job. Because it can only be your job if it’s received commercially well by others and that in itself is no measure of what it gives you emotionally.

You can read more about that here.

It was an amazing night and a real pinch-me moment in my life. I feel quite profoundly affected by meeting Liz and not just because I got to sing Madonna on a stage with a headset.

[In my Hey Mia email newsletter this week I’m going to write about what happened when I got heckled by a member of the audience during our conversation [you can sign up for free here] but I didn’t want to pollute this story with that unsettling experience]

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