Ibelieve that inspiration will always try its best to work with you—but if you are not ready or available, it may indeed choose to leave you and to search for a different human collaborator.
This happens to people a lot, actually.
This is how it comes to pass that one morning you open up the newspaper and discover that somebody else has written your book, or directed your play, or released your record, or produced your movie, or founded your business, or launched your restaurant, or patented your invention—or in any way whatsoever manifested some spark of inspiration that you’d had years ago, but had never entirely cultivated, or had never gotten around to finishing. This may vex you, but it really shouldn’t, because you didn’t deliver! You didn’t show up ready enough, or fast enough, or openly enough for the idea to take hold within you and complete itself. Therefore, the idea went hunting for a new partner, and somebody else got to make the thing.
In the years since I published Eat Pray Love, I cannot tell you (it is literally beyond my ability to count) how many people have accused me in anger of having written their book.
“That book was supposed to be mine,” they growl, glaring down at me in the signing line at some book event in Houston, or Toronto, or Dublin, or Melbourne. “I was definitely planning to write that book someday. You wrote my life.”
But what can I say? What do I know about that stranger’s life? From my perspective, I found an unattended idea lying around, and I ran away with it. While it is true that I got lucky with Eat Pray Love (without a doubt, I got exceedingly lucky), it is also true that I worked on that book like a maniac. I spun myself like a dervish around that idea. Once it entered my consciousness, I didn’t let it out of my sight for a moment—not until the book was good and finished.
So I got to keep that one.
But I’ve lost a good number of ideas over the years, too—or, rather, I’ve lost ideas that I mistakenly thought were meant to be mine. Other people got to write books that I dearly longed to write. Other people made projects that might have been mine.
Here’s one: In 2006, I toyed for a while with the idea of writing a sprawling nonfiction history of Newark, New Jersey, and to call it Brick City. My notional plan was to follow around Newark’s charismatic new mayor, Cory Booker, and to write about his efforts to transform this fascinating but troubled town. A cool idea, but I didn’t get around to it. (To be honest, it seemed like a lot of work, and I had another book already brewing, so I never quite revved up enough juice to take it on.) Then, in 2009, the Sundance Channel produced and aired a sprawling documentary about the troubled history of Newark, New Jersey, and about Cory Booker’s efforts to turn the town around. The show was called Brick City. My reaction upon hearing this was one of sheer relief: Hooray! I don’t have to tackle Newark! Someone else took on the assignment!
Here’s another one: In 1996, I met a guy who was a good friend of Ozzy Osbourne’s. He told me that the Osbourne family were the strangest, funniest, wildest, and most oddly loving people he had ever met. He said, “You’ve gotta write something about them! You should just hang out with them and watch the way they interact. I don’t know exactly what you should do about them, but somebody has to do a project around the Osbournes, because they’re too fantastic to believe.”
I was intrigued. But, again, I never got around to it, and somebody else ended up taking on the Osbournes—to noteworthy effect.
There are so many ideas that I never got around to, and often they became someone else’s projects. Other people told stories that were intimately familiar to me—stories that had once been called to my attention, or seemed to come from my own life, or could have been generated by my imagination. Sometimes I haven’t been so nonchalant about losing those ideas to other creators. Sometimes it’s been painful. Sometimes I’ve had to watch as other people enjoyed successes and victories that I once desired for myself.
Them’s the breaks, though.
But them’s also the beautiful mysteries.