Elizabeth Gilbert on Joy, Curiosity & Having the Courage to Rejoice in the Marvels & Mysteries of Existence

A writer of buoyant spirit and large-hearted generosity, Gilbert shares her always life-affirmingelizabeth gilbert wisdom in her essay, “In Praise of Stubborn Gladness”— yet another gem from Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.  When asked what inspires her, Gilbert chose a passage from magnetic, mysterious poet Jack Gilbert, whom she first learned of when she was teaching creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville— a rotating position that brought a new visiting writer every year.  Coincidentally, the writer before her had been Jack Gilbert (“I started jokingly calling the position The Gilbert Chair,” she laughed to editor Joe Fassler).  Curious about this man who shared both her classroom and her name, Gilbert began to investigate.  Jack Gilbert, she learned, secured renown early in his career: in 1962, his first collection of poems, Views of Jeopardy, won the Yale Prize and was nominated for a Pulitzer alongside such luminaries as Robert Frost and William Carlos Williams.  He soon rose to the status of literary icon, his captivating good looks gracing the pages of Vogue and Glamour.  Then he disappeared.  For twenty years, he wrote but didn’t publish a single line of poetry.  Though he could have led a glittery life of glamour and celebrity, he chose a quiet existence sequestered from the public eye, residing at various times in Denmark, Greece and Italy.  An unrelenting protector of his privacy, Gilbert only did two major interviews in his life, a brilliant one for the Paris Review and another with the legendary editor Gordon Lish.  When Lish asked him how his self-imposed exile had affected his career, Gilbert laughed, “I suppose it’s been fatal, but I don’t really care!”

At the University of Tennessee, Gilbert’s rejection of fame surrounded him with a sort of mystique.  His romantic Whitmanesque poetry along with his Thoreau-like dismissal of modern notions of success captivated students, who left his classroom emboldened to be more daring and authentic.  “Do you have the courage to be a poet?” he supposedly asked one of his graduate students, “The jewels that are hiding inside of you are begging you to say yes!”  Rather than instruct these young literary hopefuls in the practical business of writing— how to get an agent, how to write a query, how to get published— he challenged them to completely immerse themselves in the marvels and mysteries of human experience, both the ecstasy and agony, solace and suffering, contentment and discontentment.

Of all his works, Ms. Gilbert calls “A Brief for the Defense” her favorite.  A poem she describes as “biblical in scope,” “A Brief for the Defense” ponders how we can reconcile life’s beauty with life’s wretchedness — in other words, the question of how we ought to conduct ourselves.  It begins with heartbreaking images— “sorrow,” “slaughter,” “starvation”— that reveal human suffering’s omnipresence:

“Sorrow everywhere.  Slaughter everywhere.  If babies

are not starving someplace, they are starving

somewhere else.  With flies in their nostrils.”

For Gilbert, the beauty of the poem is the way it embraces the paradoxical incongruity of “and” over the simplistic black-and-white thinking of “either/or.”  Unlike the blind optimist, who believes good must always triumph over evil, or the despairing pessimist, who believes the world is wicked and cruel, “A Brief for the Defense” suggests to be human is both joy and misery, the Garden of Eden and Dante’s infernal hell.  Despite the existence of “sorrow” and “starvation” and “slaughter,” there’s still ecstasy and exultation, compassion and connection, love and laughter.  Or as Anne Lamott, writer of breathtaking honesty and woman of whole-hearted wisdom might say, “Periods in the desert or wilderness are not lost time.  You might find life, wildflowers, fossils, sources of water.”

In the end, “A Brief for the Defense” is just that— a defense, a defense of delight and joy though life can be heartless.  Today the line— “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world”— has become the first commandment of Gilbert’s personal credo, a kind of mantra she recites to remind herself to maintain her joie de vivre, her sense of play and wonder, despite the seriousness of suffering in the world:

“So it begins with an admission of how devastating the world is, how unfair and how sad.  He goes on to say what he’s seen from a life of watching very carefully: women at the fountain in a famine-stricken town, “laughing together between / the suffering they have known and the awfulness / in their future.”  He describes the “terrible streets” of Calcutta, caged prostitutes in Bombay laughing.  So there’s this human capacity for joy and endurance, even when things are at their worst.  A joy that occurs not despite our suffering, but within it.

When it comes to developing a worldview, we tend to face this false division: Either you are a realist who says the world is terrible, or a naïve optimist who says the world is wonderful and turns a blind eye.  Gilbert takes this middle way, and I think it’s a far better way: he says the world is terrible and wonderful, and your obligation is to joy.  That’s why the poem is called “A Brief for the Defense”—it’s defending joy.  A real, mature, sincere joy—not a cheaply earned, ignorant joy.  He’s not talking about building a fortress of pleasure against the assault of the world.  He’s talking about the miraculousness of moments of wonder and how it seems to be worth it, after all.  And one line from this poem is the most important piece of writing I’ve ever read for myself:

We must risk delight.  We can do without pleasure,

but not delight.  Not enjoyment.  We must have

the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless

furnace of this world.

This defines exactly what I want to strive to be—a person who holds onto “stubborn gladness,” even when we dwell in darkness.  I want to be able to contain both of them within me at the same time, remain able to cultivate joy and wonder even at life’s bleakest.”

jack gilbert

For writer of the smash hit Eat, Pray, Love and, more recently, the spirit-emboldening treatise on art, inspiration and creativity, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Gilbert’s poetry radiates with a profound reverence for paying attention—a simple act that, in our hurried, heedless age, seems like a lost art.  Much like the Buddhists, who suggest peace and enlightenment arises from dwelling deeply in the present moment without judgement, Gilbert believes we should savor the full range of human experience, never flinching from what frightens us.  His philosophy of “stubborn gladness” is not just a commitment to joy and wonderment— it’s an unwavering conviction that to be alive is endlessly magnificent.  Every experience— death, destruction, divorce, decay— can be fascinating if we get curious and take notice.  Or to borrow the words of Herman Hesse, all things, even the uninteresting and ugly, have their “vivid aspects”:

“He has another poem that’s a conversation between him and the gods, who offer him a chance to be famous if he would just give up his weird life.  But he doesn’t settle for that.  He says:

Let me fall

in love one last time, I beg them.

Teach me mortality, frighten me

into the present.

Give me something real, he’s asking, and he’s not fooling around.  Who makes a prayer that includes the words “frighten me”?  That’s a bold thing to ask for.  It’s not “frighten” me in the sense of bungee jumping or surfing—it’s wanting to stand on the edge of the abyss and look in, look in carefully with an alert gaze.  It’s a commitment to literature, and a commitment to living.

I saw the same quality in my great aunt Lolly, who has not had an easy life—but she’s the most stubbornly glad person I’ve ever met.  When she was 85, I visited her and she said to me, “Guess what?  Guess what I have, Liz?”

What,” I said.

I have cancer,” she said, and this big grin spread across her face.  “Isn’t that interesting?”

And that’s part of stubborn gladness, too: to regard things, even the hardest things, as—at their base—interesting.  It’s hard to say that without sounding like a Pollyanna, but the people who you know who can really do this are not innocents.  You see it, too, in Steve Job’s last words: Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.

Full-on wonder, even at the moment of death.

Jack Gilbert addresses this experience directly in “A Brief for the Defense”: “If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,” he writes, “We should give thanks that the end had magnitude.”  That’s another one I always lean on.  At least it was magnificent—you lived and died, that’s magnificent.  To be able to summon some sort of wonder and gratitude for the fact you got to live and die is the highest calling.  It is the best way to go through life—it beats almost any other model of thinking I’ve ever encountered.”

Ms. Gilbert applies this philosophy of “stubborn gladness” not only to her life but to her art.  Because of our legacy of Christian martyrdom and German romanticism, we in the West tend to conflate art with suffering.  In our cultural consciousness, an artist is a tortured soul, a sensitive Van Gogh tormented by mental illness, a precocious Plath harrowed by manic-depression, a glamorous Sexton so haunted by suicidal thoughts that she locked herself in her garage and asphyxiated herself while dressed in her mother’s fur coat.  An artist, we imagine, is someone so delicate they can’t endure life itself.  Though there are innumerable artists throughout time who have been neither alcoholics nor mentally ill, the myth of the starving artist continues to captivate us, perhaps because there’s a certain allure to the image of a lone genius suffering for some heroic goal.  The theatrics of a turbulent marriage like Scott and Zelda’s, the drama of alcoholism like Hemingway and Faulkner’s, the wild lives of excess led by Led Zeppelin and the Doors: tales of talented if troubled artists are exciting— far more exciting than the day to day reality of writing a novel or recording an album.

Though such romantic notions of the artist’s life are enticing, making art does not have to be a Greek tragedy-level drama.  Creating only becomes painful when we bring our theatrics to the keyboard.  “How many times can you possibly use one word?” we’ll berate ourselves, “Have you ever heard of a thesaurus?”  “Really, you’re going to end your story that way?  Talk about uninspired…”  When we react to our disappointments with histrionics and melodrama, we make writing more distressing than it needs to be.  Instead of simply address the fact that our word choice is imprecise or our ending is only a first draft and a little sloppy, we throw up our hands in defeat.  “Who am I kidding?  I’m too unoriginal to be a writer…guess I better chug this vodka to distract myself from the embarrassment of a novel I’m writing.”  But there is a better way: just as we can remain “stubbornly glad” despite life’s catastrophes and calamities, we can maintain a detached objectivity despite our work’s many shortcomings:

“As someone who struggles with anxiety and cowardice, as we all do, I’m profoundly inspired by this full-on commitment to wonder, to wonder as a response to anguish or difficulty.  It makes everything a puzzle, right?  A catastrophe is nothing but a puzzle with the volume of drama turned up very high.  For now, I’m best with stubborn gladness when taking on the challenges in my writing life.  Because writing can be a very dramatic pursuit, full of catastrophes and disasters and emotion and attempts that fail.  My path as a writer became much more smooth when I learned that, when things aren’t going well, to regard my struggles as curious, not tragic.

So, How do we get through this puzzle?  That’s funny, I thought I could write this book and I can’t, instead of, I have to drink a bottle of gin before 11:00 to numb myself at how horrifying this is.  You could almost call it a spiritual practice I’ve cultivated over the years.  I really worked to create that kind of relationship—so that it’s not a chaotic fight.  I don’t go up against my writing and come out bloody-knuckled.  I don’t wrestle with the muse.  I don’t argue.  I try to get away from self-hatred, and competition, all those things that mark and mar so many writers’ careers and lives.  I try to remain stubborn in my gladness.”  

In the end, Gilbert’s poetry pleads for us to deliver ourselves from the shackles of caution and convention so we can develop into the most authentic expression of ourselves.  To live fully, to sip all the wonderful wines of life, to be unconditionally, unabashedly ourselves— for Gilbert, that was the ultimate goal.  But to write this way, to live this way— his protege reminds us—requires we be brave and bold:

“I have an uncle who’s a great reader of poetry, and I shared Jack Gilbert’s work with him.  He said he didn’t like him, and I asked why.  My uncle said, “I like the poems, but I don’t like the way the poems make me feel I haven’t lived a brave or interesting enough life.”  That’s the pain and pleasure of reading Gilbert.  He offers an uncompromising challenge to his readers: Make the very most of your life, no less.  In this, he holds up a model of something I would so love to be.  Sometimes I brush up against in it sideways ways, and then skirt away from it again—because I long for security and affirmation more than I long for the purity of a life spent in examination of the poetic mysteries.

Do you have the courage to be a poet?” Gilbert asked the graduate student, after all.  We need courage to take ourselves seriously, to look closely and without flinching, to regard the things that frighten us in life and art with wonder.  We tend to surround ourselves with the things that make us feel safe, but can then wall us in.  We’re aspirational, we’re ambitious, we’re insecure, we want comforts.  Live bravely when you’re young, we say.  And maybe again when you retire, if you play your cards right.  

Jack Gilbert refused that argument: No, I’m just going to live that way every single day of my life, thanks.  And he did, by all accounts.”

Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process remains a must-read for writers hungry for inspiration or anyone fascinated by the mysterious workings of the muse.  For more wisdom on art, literature and life, explore the rest of the collection, especially the illuminating essays of Maggie Shipstead, Marilynne Robinson, Yiyun Li, Khaled Hosseini, Andre Dubus III, Hanya Yanagihara, and Mary Gaitskill.

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