Elizabeth Gilbert: ‘Ask yourself if this sentence, paragraph, or chapter truly furthers the narrative. If not, chuck it.’

By Maryann Yin 

Elizabeth GilbertAuthor Elizabeth Gilbert achieved great success with her memoir Eat Pray Love. Since the publication of that book, she has delivered two popular TED talks and written a second memoir entitled Committed and a novel called The Signature of All Things. Check out the highlights from our interview below…

Q: How did you land your first book deal?
A: I spent about six years sending my short stories out to magazines, and collecting rejections. Then one day Esquire bought one of my stories out of the slush pile and published it. It was through this publication that I found my agent (or, rather, that my agent found me). She then negotiated a book deal on my behalf.

I had a collection of short stories written and ready to go, but I had to promise the publisher that I would deliver a novel, in order to seal the deal. Having never before written a novel, this was rather frightening. But you have to deliver the goods, once you sign that contract, or else they get fussy and want their money back — which is a good motivation to get your work done…

Q: You have written both nonfiction and fiction books; is there any difference to your approach or creative process when writing these two different genres?
A: Less than you might think. I feel that it’s more or less the same process, either way. Because all my work is so research-based, it always begins with a long period of study or immersion. Lots of note-taking. Many shoe boxes of index cards are involved. This part of the process can take years, but it’s during the research period that the story begins to grow in my mind, and that helps me to find my confidence.

Once the research is done, I then outline the book as well as I can, which means putting the index cards into some sort of sensible narrative order. Then I sit down to write. For me, the writing itself is usually pretty fast — but that’s only because I’ve always over-prepared so much. (When it comes time to write, then, it’s kind of like painting a house that’s already been very well prepped: now I just get to roll on the paint.)

And in both cases — with fiction and non-fiction — I make sure that I’ve decided exactly to whom I am writing the book, long before I even begin. Each one of my books has been written to a different person, and always to somebody I know well. I find that this is almost the most important decision (“Who exactly is it for?”) because that intimacy with my imagined reader will completely determine my voice and how I tell the story. I think it’s important to keep that one reader in mind as you write, and to hold yourself accountable to the duty of delighting them or transporting them as well as you can. It keeps me honest, somehow, and gives me a more human touch, I hope.

Q: In your opinion, what’s the best way to self-edit?
A: Fearlessly, and fast. Ask yourself if this sentence, paragraph, or chapter truly furthers the narrative. If not, chuck it. (Keep a document open at all times called SCRAP, and throw your cuts in there. This will give you the security of knowing that the words are not lost forever. That said, once you’ve made the cut, try not to look back.)

Try to move thorough the document quickly, rather than getting bogged down in debating every single semi-colon. Don’t overthink it; your first instinct is usually correct. You have a story to tell here, after all — so use a machete to get you there, if you must, but keep telling the story and keep chopping through the underbrush that stands in the story’s way.

Also, don’t edit as you go. One of the greatest time-wasters in the literary world is to edit as you work, sentence-by sentence. This gives off the illusion that you’re actually being disciplined and productive (after all, you’ve been sitting at your desk for three whole hours, laboring over that one paragraph!) but it’s a lie. You aren’t working; you’re just messing around and calling it work.

So move, move, move. Keep the pace. Think of it this way: Have you ever tried to walk on a tightrope? It’s far easier to do if you’re running, than if you’re looking down and deliberately choosing every step. If you slow down or even stop, you risk wavering and falling. The best writing comes at an uninterrupted tightrope-running pace. You can always fix it later. Better yet, just finish it and hand the manuscript over to someone else, and let them edit you with fresh eyes. And for heaven’s sake, listen to their feedback.

Q: What TED talks do you recommend for writers to watch?
A: Amanda Palmer’s and Isabel Allende’s are both wonderful. I also love Billy Collins’s.

Q: What’s next for you?
A: Moving houses, and working on two books at the same time — one fiction, one non-fiction. We’ll see which one comes out first.