Now that she's an international name, best-selling author Elizabeth Gilbert is regularly asked by those keen to break into writing or other creative careers how to get to the top.
"My pragmatic advice is not to ask your art to pay for your life," she says. "It's a really rare thing if you are fortunate enough for that to happen. I think it puts a little too much pressure on your creativity, to ask it to pay the gas bill. It's important to have another way to make a living, so that you can do the work you want to do creatively, without being stressed by the outcome."
It's talk that Gilbert has long walked herself in the past. "For years I was a waitress and bartender. I worked in bookstores. I was a nanny. I was a cook on a ranch. I took any job that wasn't a nine-to-five office job so I could have the freedom and liberty to control the rest of my life."
Citing herself as lucky to know that writing was the only thing she ever really wanted to do ("when there's only one thing you want it makes it a lot easier to know where to put your energies"), she also ensured that her side gigs fed the end goal beyond the bottom line.
"I remember deliberately choosing waitressing and bartending because those were really beneficial to my work as a writer. They always tell you to write what you know, but at 22 years old I didn't know much. I needed to be around as many different voices and interactions and kinds of people as I possibly could. Working there were fantastic schemes in which to see people speaking and engaging and in conflict with each other, or in love with each other. I was taking notes the entire time," she says.
Although Gilbert's first publishing success appears to have come early, with a short story published in Esquire magazine at age 24, by that age she'd experienced plenty of the rejection with which most creative types become all too familiar. "I'd been trying since I was 18," she laughs.
Tenacity paid off. That story helped her get a literary agent, launch a 10-year career in journalism, and eventually led to what she's become best known for: novels (most famously Eat, Pray, Love, but also numerous books before that).
No time has been wasted, though.
"There are so many different things you can use writing for. One of those is pure invention. For me, that's my highest reach of it. But you can also use it to write your way through personal problems, which is what Eat, Pray, Love was for me, or make a living, which is what journalism was for me. All of it helps the rest of it. Learning how to meet deadlines, take assignments and be edited helped me be a better novel writer," she says.
Although many in less overtly creative jobs crave a world where the work day appears to be about crafting words on a page, sitting in front of a sketchpad, or penning a tune, Gilbert tries to keep her own creative career in perspective.
"I think one of the reasons creative people suffer so much is that they give it more weight than it maybe should have. There are things people do in their lives that are incredibly important in fundamental ways that benefit humanity; people who devote themselves to the care of others, teachers, doctors, nurses ... all of those things strike me as being extremely important."
While she remains grateful that she gets to do something as "whimsical" as writing and that people care about it, she stays grounded by remembering the advice of an unlikely source.
"Tom Waits once told me that, 'As a songwriter, the only thing I do is make jewellery for the inside of people's heads'. That's a beautiful way to think of it, and it's what I do when I start to get really stressed about writing, or feel like I'm failing in a big way. It can be beautiful jewellery, or strange jewellery, or clunky jewellery or experimental jewellery, but it's just a pretty thing."
Although her "pretty things" are now globally known, and it's unlikely she'll need to head back to waitressing any time soon, Gilbert doesn't take it for granted that the current demand for her work will always remain.
"The arts are fashion in a way, and fashion changes and fads change ... But I'm happy that it happens to be there at the moment."
High tea with Elizabeth Gilbert is at Hippopotamus, Museum Art Hotel, on Sunday, 3pm. She speaks at The Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt, March 10, 7pm and The Embassy, Wellington, March 11, 4.45pm.
- The Dominion Post