On a mild October evening, I’m at the Newmark, a beautiful theatre that is part of a vibrant performing arts center in downtown Portland, Oregon. I’m sitting in the first row, second balcony, on the aisle. This was the “best seat available” and for me, it’s perfect. I have an unimpeded view of the stage below.
The Newmark seats 800, and the place is packed to the rafters. We’re all here to see Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame. To my left is a young couple, handsome and pleasant. We talk about being fans of Gilbert. “Are you a writer?” I ask the young man. “No,” he answers. “Are you?”
“Yes,” I tell him. Definitely yes.
All three of us, like everyone else in the audience, has a copy of Big Magic, Gilbert’s new book. It was handed to us as we walked in—a signed copy of the book was part of the deal when we bought our tickets. The book comes with a large postcard, provided by Powell’s Bookstore, which is producing this author event. Many of us have questions for Gilbert and we write them down, then hand the postcards over to Powell’s staff and volunteers.
We give Elizabeth Gilbert a big round of applause as she enters. She is casual, at ease. She likes Portland, she loves Powell’s. “There are independent bookstores and there are independent bookstores, and then there’s Powell’s.” The crowd roars in agreement. I’m struck again by the warmth and tone of Gilbert’s voice. There are a few writers whose work I admire but who I devoutly wish would hire a voice coach. Because of tension or high pitch or nasality, some of them are hard to listen to. Not so with Gilbert. She’s easy listening without the sweetness or banality. Her intelligence and wry humor are there in what she says and the way she says it, and in the sound and quality of her voice.
She reads a section from Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. It’s a wonderful book, and I only wish her wisdom and wit had been on the bookshelf when I was a very young writer, just starting out. But it’s here now, and it is worth a read at any age. When she’s finished reading, Gilbert is handed a big stack of postcards. She flips through them and answers those questions that appeal to her. What’s on her bucket list, someone wants to know. It isn’t what, but who, she tells us: certain people she wants more time with. First on the list is her parents. She has found, and is finding, ways to have extended periods of time with her mother and father (separately—that’s important, she says). I find out that, like me, she hates the term “bucket list.” I listen to her talk about life and creativity and what she cares about and believes. I think: This is my favorite part of the evening. It turns out that will happen later, at the end, but I’m coming to that.
A young woman ask Gilbert her advice for someone in their twenties with no clear direction. She answers: “Don’t give yourself away.” I know, she says—it’s hard because you’ve got those hormones pumping—but there’s plenty of time for relationships, for all that “being with someone.” Pursue your interests, whatever you’re curious about, read, travel, explore, find out who you are apart from the person or persons you’re sleeping with. She finishes this with: “Sleep alone.”
“Take care of your animal,” she tells us. Especially as writers, readers, and artists, we spend so much time in our heads, we forget that we are animals. This reminds me of my mother Louise, telling me, “You only have one body. Take good care of it.”
Then the evening is coming to a close, and Gilbert talks about all the people who tell her they want to write but don’t, or can’t. Why not? she asks. “They tell me they don’t have the time. They don’t have the energy.” And then she asks those of us in the audience: “What do you have to say no to?” In order to have the time and the energy to live a creative life, what will you have to refuse? When and where do you say no? Because you will have to say no to some things and some people, in order to be able to say yes to your creativity.And this leads to Gilbert telling us that she’s forty-seven. This book tour started in New York in September and will end in Germany in December. As much as she loves talking to people when she’s signing books—she can’t do it anymore. This is something she’s had to say no to. All our books were signed by her in a marathon session before the book tour began.
But because she isn’t meeting us after the reading, there’s something else she’d like to do with us. She talks about “whole-hearted people.” She’s found that all whole-hearted people sing and dance. She’s recently discovered the power and magic of singing, especially singing with others. “Are you up for trying something?” she asks. A resounding YES! from the audience. “Would you like to sing?” YES! Okay, she says, we’re going to sing “Country Roads.” (It’s her event, she gets to choose.) “Get out your devices and find the lyrics,” she tells us. “If you don’t have a device, look at your neighbor’s…”
All of a sudden there are hundreds of little rectangles of light all over the theatre. All those lights, all at once–wow. Gilbert invites the first row to join her, and men and women of all ages crowd around her on the stage. Someone on the theatre staff puts John Denver’s “Country Roads” on the speaker system, and now there’s music and we are singing, singing, singing. I don’t have a device and I don’t have to lean toward my neighbor, because my wonderful friend Stephanie taught me this song, a song she loved, one she sang and played beautifully. My tears flow as I sing, because Stephanie is gone now, but she’s with me in this big magic moment—800 people singing “Take me home, country roads, to the place I belong…” And for the length of this song, we are home. We are one big family gathered on a joyous island in time. We are the human family.
This is the best part of the evening, and Elizabeth Gilbert has given us this—her gift, for a few sweet minutes, is to give us to each other.