Operating Instructions from the Mother Ship

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Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert’s manifesto on creativity, was published years after her runaway bestseller Eat Pray Love.  It’s not just for artistic types.  Consider her definition of what it means to live a creative life: any life where you consistently choose curiosity over fear.

From Big Magic came Little Magic, this monthly column, and a nod to the mother ship.  It was Mother’s Day weekend and I was on my way to the Berkshires for a workshop offered by Gilbert and her partner Rayya Elias.

I’m one of the millions who fell hard for Eat Pray Love, the story of Gilbert’s year-long spiritual sojourn, though I know plenty of people who found it whiny and self-absorbed.  I was most impressed by its scaffolding–108 journal entries imagined as mala beads, the book as a prayer necklace.  She made it look easy. 

If only I had some great organizing principle, I often thought, bedeviled by the notion that I could magically pluck out a book from the reams of pages I’ve amassed as a life-long journaler.

In each of four sessions over three days, I sat at the back of the great hall, watching Gilbert projected on a giant screen working an audience of 350, many with dreams not unlike mine.  The front row seats were in high demand–everyone wanted a piece of her.  And who wouldn’t?  She’s frank, funny, clever, and warm.  Even with those numbers, the gathering felt intimate.

Elias, Gilbert’s partner and co-presenter, was absent at the first session.  When Gilbert rose to take the mike after the introduction, her voice was congested.  “Allergies,” she said, then added, with characteristic honesty, “This is what tears sound like.”

Elias had been diagnosed with terminal liver and pancreatic cancer three weeks after they’d contracted to do the workshop over a year before.  They’d had a touch-and-go week.  She might not be well enough to make it at all.  Because they’d intended to do this thing together, Gilbert hadn’t had a chance to come up with a new plan.  The best way she could honor her contract to be there was to stand in the truth of what was really going on with the two of them.  Or, as Elias had gamely suggested to her just the day before, “Let’s go have a love story with these people.”

Somehow I’d missed a pivotal plot point along the way.  I last had Gilbert living in New Jersey or Pennsylvania with Felipe of the closing pages of Eat Pray Love.  Already my head was spinning.

She talked about mysticism, likening religion to being in God’s office and mysticism to being in God’s arms.  While she was fine with the word God, she said, she understood that some people had a problem with it, so call it what you will—source, mystery, the universe.  It’s that something more than we can see, that thing that throws down the gauntlet when you thought you were going to be giving a workshop and serves up a medical crisis instead.

The first step of mysticism, she said, is to decide what really matters.  What are you willing to give up to have the life you keep pretending you want?  You give time and energy to everything but the thing you say you want.

We tend to wait in a state of suspension for the cloud-parting revelation, the insight from on high that suddenly brings clarity or delivers marching orders.  Meanwhile, we miss the earthier guidance right under our noses.  The truth, she said, may not be easy but it is always simple.  Drama spins, but the truth has legs, it always stands.  She was quoting Elias. “When everything else in the room has blown up or dissolved away, the only thing left standing will always be the truth.”

If you listen, if you’re really present to your circumstances, you can follow the trail of enchantment one breadcrumb at a time, discerning the simple truth of The Next Thing.  Tell your husband you are leaving him.  Call the doctor.  Go back to bed.

It takes courage to live a creative life, and we were going to access our courage through our fear, the first thing that comes up on the way to our dreams.  Give it a voice, she said, since you’ll never be able to vanquish it anyway.  Just don’t let it have the final word.   She gives fear the first word in any serious creative endeavor.  In our notebooks, she instructed us to write:  Dear (your name), I am your fear and this is what I want to tell you.

We let our fear speak for six minutes.  It comes in two varieties, she noted—oceanic or highly generalized (the planet’s about to blow up and we’re all going to die) and granular or highly specific (I’m afraid of dying a bitter old woman who never managed to write that book.)

From here we moved on to Enchantment, the voice of wonder, awe, and curious engagement.  Dear [your name], I am your enchantment and this is what I want to tell you. The enchantress is connected with the archetype of the child.  She knows what she wants and it probably won’t be practical or economical.  Magic, Gilbert reminded us, takes guts.  What is your enchantment telling you to do?  (To sit in the front row and meet Elizabeth Gilbert; to follow the animals.) 

She called this shamanism, animism.  We are a multitude of voices loosely held in the field of a body and mind.  We learn to hear, differentiate, and engage the voices that keep us stuck as well as those that whisper our next step.

We engaged the voice that gives out the hall passes, the guy who decides what you’re allowed to do.  In the schoolyard of your mind, she said, there’s no higher authority than the Inner Principal.  We wrote letters to our Persistence, our Monster, our Soul.   We wrote letters to the person who stands at the head of our tribe (father, mother, boss, spouse, institution), the person you’d have to betray or abandon to live your authentic life, to become who your soul wants you to be.  “Here is what you will write,” she said. “Let’s keep it simple:  Dear [Whoever], Now I am going to betray you.  Now I am going to disappoint you.”

We wrote a letter back to ourselves from that Ultimate Tribal Authority saying Dear [your name], I completely understand and I bless your journey.  I see what you need and I want you to have what’s best for you.  After this, the dear stranger sitting next to us read this letter back to us and we collectively shed tears.

The good news is that you don’t actually even have to follow through to get the benefit of this exercise; just doing it lowers cortisol levels in the body.  Elevated levels of this stress hormone have been implicated in a staggering list of physical and psychological diseases.  She credited a book by Dr. Mario Martinez, The Mind Body Code.  I could already feel a softening around my rib cage.

Elias showed up for her part of the love story Saturday afternoon and held the floor for two hours, standing in her beautiful, badass truth.  She and Gilbert had been friends for 17 years.  They first met when she was working as a hair stylist and Gilbert came in for a cut.  Gilbert, impressed with her life story, told her she should write a memoir and eventually staked her to the challenge—she’d be her benefactor and let her stay in her guest cottage while she wrote, but Elias would have to produce a first draft in nine months.  And so she did.  That draft became her memoir, Harley Loco.

In the final session, Gilbert delivered the next breadcrumb:  specific operating instructions.  She was talking about Eat Pray Love.  All she did that year was journal obsessively.  What you have if you work in this way is a mountain of papers.  So when she came home from her year abroad she started going back through those pages, moving quickly, working intuitively.  “Now,” she said, “Go back through your notes from this weekend, underline the things that jump off the page.  Don’t think too much.  Don’t even read, just scan.”

After we’d done this she told us to go back and do it again, to find just five things.  She compared it to dowsing for water, divination—look for the things that rise up to meet you.  Make those into a poem, your takeaway.

My poem was more like a recipe:  Nine months to grow a baby.  Be quick, light, fleet-footed.  Follow the animals.  Do it again and again.  Lickety-split, you’ll have a book.

Pavement ants favor the desk area in the kitchen where I write.  They come in through the cracks around the window and get into the poison baits.  Most mornings, and again at the end of the day, I wipe up a desktop peppered with the dead and some that are still moving microscopically.  Even in the face of certain death, they’re so persistent that I think they’re trying to tell me something.  Ants are mythical helpers, after all, experts in sorting and discernment.  They teach patience and perseverance.  They turn dreams into reality through sheer pluck, working at the granular level, crumb by crumb.

Lindsay Fleming
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  1. Elizabeth Gilbert’s inspired coaching to name & break through your fears to find a way toward and drawing out the enchantments within… now that’s a Mother’s Day gift that will keep on giving. Thank you for sharing Gilbert’s Big Magic!


  2. Elizabeth Gilbert inspires you; and you in turn inspire others…truly paying it forward. Loved this essay.

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