How I Get It Done: Elizabeth Gilbert

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

It’s been over a decade since Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat Pray Love transformed her into a cultural phenomenon. During that time, she has written four more books — most recently City of Girls, a novel about a young woman in Manhattan in the 1920s, available June 4. She has also delivered two wildly popular TED Talks (her first has over 17 million views and counting), kept up a breakneck schedule of speaking engagements, and started teaching creativity workshops. But it hasn’t all been rosy: In 2018, she lost her best friend turned partner, Rayya Elias, to cancer — a loss she has opened up about on social media and in a story for the Moth. She lives in New York and spoke with the Cut about recovering from grief, managing her in-box, and how she gets it done.

On her writing schedule:
My life is divided into times when I’m actively writing a book and times when I’m not. I’m only actively writing a book once every three or four years, and when I am, my day is very simple. I get up at 4:30 or 5 a.m. and I write nonstop until midmorning. Then I spend the rest of the day staring at a wall because my brain is like a fried egg. I’ll have an early dinner and an early bedtime, by 7 or 8 p.m., and I’ll do it again the next day and the next until the book’s finished. It’s a very militaristic thing, the early hours. But I really want to be uninterrupted and the world doesn’t wake up in a way that bothers you till about 9 a.m. That’s when the phone starts ringing, emails and texts start coming in. If you can get a four-hour jump on that, it’s incredible how productive that time is.

On meditating:
It took me 20 or 30 years of trying, but I finally have a meditation practice thanks to meditation apps. God, if they’d always had apps I would’ve been able to meditate years ago. I use Insight Timer and I have a meditation of choice by this guy named Mooji. He has the most soothing voice any human being has ever had, and he has a couple great meditations that make me actually believe that everything’s going to be okay. I spend a lot of the day doing various things to make myself believe that everything’s going to be okay because I have a rather high-vibrationally anxious mind.

On having mornings to herself:
I guard my mornings ferociously because it’s that very special time before any disasters have happened. I really want that time for myself, and then the rest of my day sort of belongs to the world. Mornings are for stuff I want to do, and the rest of the day is for stuff that I have to do, and that I’m responding to. When I’m not actively writing a book, I get up at 6:30 or 7 a.m. and I make homemade chai for myself. It’s got to boil for a while, so I put it on to cook and then I meditate. Right now I’m doing the Artist’s Way course, which I do every few years, so after I meditate I’ll do my morning pages. Then I dance.

On her dancing routine:
I started dancing every morning as part of my grief recovery plan about a year ago. I will put on my upbeat dance mix and I’ll hit shuffle and I’ll dance to whatever comes up. It just seems to be a really good way to move energy through your body and start the day. Sometimes I dance to two songs, but the rule is that I have to dance to at least one. After I dance, I might go running or do some yoga for half an hour, but don’t get any big ideas about what that means. “Run” and “yoga” should both be in quotes.

On her dancing playlist:
I’ll hit shuffle right now and tell you what comes up, even though that’s super scary because it could be very lame. Oh, Run-DMC, “It’s Tricky.” That’s pretty good. There’s a lot of hip-hop in there.

On her daily check-ins with friends:
Around 9 a.m. the phone calls start, seeing how everyone survived the night. I’m very co-dependent with my friends. Usually someone is in a crisis, so we’ll all check in on each other via calls, text, WhatsApp. I have about ten women in my life who are my core, and it’s rare that a day would go by when I didn’t have an intimate conversation with at least one of them.

On checking social media:
I use social media the way I think most humans do, which is that I look at it when I wake up, when I’m waiting for my water to boil, and when I’m waiting for the subway. I probably spend way too much time looking at it. When I have something to say or some picture to post, then I’ll say it or I’ll post it. And then I do what we all do, which is go back throughout the day to see if anybody likes me.

On posting about her love life:
Sometimes I use social media to share certain things because, frankly, it makes my life easier. I recently posted that I was seeing somebody — more than seeing somebody, that I loved somebody — largely because I’m out in the world a lot in public, and I would much rather tell you who I’m with than have people speculating and gossiping. There’s no reason to be coy about it. I wanted to say, “If you see me around town with this lovely, tall, handsome man on my arm, this is who he is, and don’t freak out. I also noticed that I’m kissing someone in a restaurant, and it’s fine; we’re all okay.” Whenever I can share anything about my life that will make another person feel like their life is more normal or understandable to them, then I’m very happy to do that. I don’t feel like it’s a responsibility because that seems heavy. I’m just happy to say, “If you lost the most important person in your life and now you’re feeling attracted to someone and you want to explore that, that’s all right.” Or, “If you were attracted to somebody of one gender and now you’re with somebody of another gender and you need to know if that’s okay, let me tell you that’s okay.”

On deleting emails without reading them:
When Rayya was sick, I started doing this to treat myself: I just delete some emails without responding. It’s taken me to almost the age of 50 to have the courage to do that. I get a lot of unsolicited emails from friends of friends who are like, “So-and-so’s my friend and they recommended that I write to you because I’ve got this project, podcast, book, dream, question, vision, something that I want from you.” And I finally learned to just hit delete. I can’t even keep up with emails from the people who are actively in my life, so I’m not going to politely respond to these other ones. Even if it’s a publicity thing or something that could benefit my career, like a speaking engagement — I delete those too. There are channels for those requests and they are all very clearly on my website, and if something is that important to you then you’ll find the right person to talk to about it. I still feel guilty about it, but it allows me to be able to do other things like dance in the morning.

On managing her to-do list:
I send myself emails of things that I need to do, otherwise I forget it. I look through my email every hour, so I’m like, “Oh shit, there’s a thing I’m supposed to do this afternoon.” I’ve tried to-do list apps but it doesn’t seem to work as well as just emailing myself. Right now I have an email reminding me that I have to get my driver’s license updated. Those things just live in my in-box until they’re done.

On her mailbox:
I have a really small apartment, like 600 square feet, and I don’t get my mail delivered there. I think my neighbors would hate me if I did because I get so many books that the hallway would be overflowing with packages. So I use this wonderful mail service called East Village Postal. One of the happiest moments of my day is just walking over there and collecting my mail, which feels very old-fashioned. But with great piles of mail comes great responsibility, because there’s invariably manuscripts and galleys and things, and then I have to weigh out who’s going to get my attention. That’s a lot of my life, trying to figure out whose stuff I’m going to read and who I’m going to help champion and who I’m going to disappoint by not helping and championing.

On public speaking as a creative outlet:
I’ve come to really, really like public speaking. There’ll be a topic that I am really interested in and it’s nice because not everything has to be a book. Sometimes an idea can just be a 45-minute talk. If I didn’t have that outlet in speaking then I would probably be writing more essays. My public speeches are public essays, in a way. But I also want it to feel intimate. I love the communion of it, and sometimes I’ll make people sing. When I was in Sheridan, Wyoming, just a couple weeks ago for a speaking event, I made the entire audience sing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” with me.

On always traveling with a carry-on:
My great gift from God is my ability to pack lightly. I’m a fascist about trying not to check luggage. My greatest packing achievement ever was a seven-week-long trip that involved three countries, a wedding, a book tour, speaking at a TED conference, and a range of temperatures from Vancouver in the winter to Santiago in the summer. And I did it all in a carry-on. The magic trick is to figure out the shoes. If you only bring two pairs of shoes, you can wear one pair on the plane and bring the other pair in your suitcase, and of course black is the answer. When I’m traveling I tend to look like I’m going to an Amish funeral because I’m always in some versions of black or gray. You need a thing you wear to dress up, another thing you wear to sleep, another thing you wear to be casual, and the thing you wear on the airplane, and that’s it. I don’t like having too many choices. You’ve also got to have that cashmere scarf in case of air-conditioning or cold weather, and the right lightweight jacket. It’s tricky, but it can be done.

On her favorite karaoke bars:
I love karaoke and I’ve got a couple friends where that’s our spiritual practice. We’ll meet a couple times a month and just be idiots. We’ll go to Baby Grand down on Lafayette, or Sing Sing on Avenue A. I have been known to wander into a Korean restaurant at 1 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon and be like, “Is your karaoke room open yet?”

On winding down:
My idea of a bang-up, great night is to have early drinks or dinner with somebody I love and then come home, take a bath, and read until I fall asleep. I take two or three baths a day. Baths are a big part of my mental health. It’s like, “Ah, I’m stressed. I’m scared. I’ve got 20 minutes, so I’m going to take a really quick bath and read a novel and disconnect.” I’m not a bath-salts person or anything. It’s a snap treatment when you don’t have time to go away.

On her lifestyle:
There’s a level at which I think I have fewer responsibilities than almost anybody I know because I don’t have kids and I don’t have a real job. I live in this tiny little apartment that doesn’t need much upkeep, so I’m pretty free. I work hard when I’m working, but most of my life I’m just doing what I feel like doing. I just went to Mexico with my best friend from childhood, back in January, for nine days — like, who gets to do that? Believe me, we ran amok, or at least as much as two women who don’t feel like getting off their beach chairs for nine days can. We had a ball. I just took my parents to Budapest and we went on this riverboat cruise because I got to christen the boat. I have all these crazy privileges and I get to include the people who I love in them.

*This interview has been edited and condensed.

How I Get It Done: Elizabeth Gilbert