Fun House Mirrors - Permission

Big magic: creative living beyond fear - Elizabeth Gilbert 2015

Fun House Mirrors

Ionce wrote a book that accidentally became a giant best seller, and for a few years there, it was like I was living in a hall of fun house mirrors.

It was never my intention to write a giant best seller, believe me. I wouldn’t know how to write a giant best seller if I tried. (Case in point: I’ve published six books—all written with equal passion and effort—and five of them were decidedly not giant best sellers.)

I certainly did not feel, as I was writing Eat Pray Love, that I was producing the greatest or most important work of my life. I knew only that it was a departure for me to write something so personal, and I figured people might mock it for being so terribly earnest. But I wrote that book anyhow, because I needed to write it for my own intimate purposes—and also because I was curious to see if I could convey my emotional experiences adequately on paper. It never occurred to me that my own thoughts and feelings might intersect so intensely with the thoughts and feelings of so many other people.

I’ll tell you how oblivious I was during the writing of that book. During the course of my Eat Pray Love travels, I fell in love with that Brazilian man named Felipe, to whom I am now married, and at one point—shortly into our courtship—I asked him if he felt comfortable with my writing about him in my memoir. He said, “Well, it depends. What’s at stake?”

I replied, “Nothing. Trust me—nobody reads my books.”

Over twelve million people ended up reading that book.

And because so many people read it, and because so many people disagreed over it, somewhere along the way Eat Pray Love stopped being a book, per se, and it became something else—a huge screen upon which millions of people projected their most intense emotions. These emotions ranged from absolute hatred to blind adulation. I got letters saying, I detest everything about you, and I got letters saying, You have written my bible.

Imagine if I’d tried to create a definition of myself based on any of these reactions. I didn’t try. And that’s the only reason Eat Pray Love didn’t throw me off my path as a writer—because of my deep and lifelong conviction that the results of my work don’t have much to do with me. I can only be in charge of producing the work itself. That’s a hard enough job. I refuse to take on additional jobs, such as trying to police what anybody thinks about my work once it leaves my desk.

Also, I realized that it would be unreasonable and immature of me to expect that I should be allowed to have a voice of expression, but other people should not. If I am allowed to speak my inner truth, then my critics are allowed to speak their inner truths, as well. Fair’s fair. If you dare to create something and put it out there, after all, then it may accidentally stir up a response. That’s the natural order of life: the eternal inhale and exhale of action and reaction. But you are definitely not in charge of the reaction—even when that reaction is flat-out bizarre.

One day, for instance, a woman came up to me at a book signing and said, “Eat Pray Love changed my life. You inspired me to leave my abusive marriage and set myself free. It was all because of that one moment in your book—that moment when you describe putting a restraining order on your ex-husband because you’d had enough of his violence and you weren’t going to tolerate it anymore.”

A restraining order? Violence?

That never happened! Not in my book, nor in my actual life! You can’t even read that narrative between the lines of my memoir, because it’s so far from the truth. But that woman had subconsciously inserted that story—her own story—into my memoir, because, I suppose, she needed to. (It may have been easier for her, somehow, to believe that her burst of resolve and strength had come from me and not from herself.) Whatever her emotional motive, though, she had embroidered herself into my story and erased my actual narrative in the process. Strange as it seems, I submit that it was her absolute right to do this. I submit that this woman has the God-given right to misread my book however she wants to misread it. Once my book entered her hands, after all, everything about it belonged to her, and never again to me.

Recognizing this reality—that the reaction doesn’t belong to you—is the only sane way to create. If people enjoy what you’ve created, terrific. If people ignore what you’ve created, too bad. If people misunderstand what you’ve created, don’t sweat it. And what if people absolutely hate what you’ve created? What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud?

Just smile sweetly and suggest—as politely as you possibly can—that they go make their own fucking art.

Then stubbornly continue making yours.