Author Elizabeth Gilbert spent most of her life traveling, reporting, and struggling to unleash her creativity. Here’s what she says her parents did right.
You may know her as the woman who wrote the memoir that launched several thousand book clubs, and you’d be partly right — Eat, Pray, Love was the kind of publishing phenomenon that follows a writer around permanently — but prior to that global bestseller, or her new book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote of the kind of guys you watch on the Discovery Channel. 2002’s The Last American Man, provided the blue print for the Mountain Men reality show genre and her pre-fame life was a filled with adventure, travel, some bad-ass journalism, and self-reliance. She’s lived the kind of life many of us want our sons and daughters to experience. Not surprisingly, credit goes to her parents, whom she describes as, “the only people she knew who made their own goat milk and voted for Reagan.” Here’s what Gilbert says her parents did right:
They Ruined Birthdays
“Every year on our birthday our parents gave us a gift – and they gave us a new responsibility. And it was all planned out ahead what it was going to be. So when I was nine I got a birthday present but I also got a new responsibility. And my new responsibility was my mother no longer was in charge of my physical appearance. That’s what she told me in a sort of formal statement. That if I never wanted to wash my hair again, if I didn’t want to wear clean clothes to school, she wouldn’t do anything about it. That was up to me. And she held that.
Of course, it didn’t stop at nine. There was a point in which my mother said, ‘Your room is your own, and I don’t do anything in it. So if you want it to be a pigsty, it can be a pigsty. If you want it to be clean you’re going to have to clean it.’ I think was around 11 or 12. You have to do your own laundry. By the time we got to high school we were in charge of our own clothing; they no longer bought clothes for us. [Laughs] Except for at Christmas you might get a nice sweater or something, but you know, you have a babysitting job. You can buy your own clothes. And it went like that sort of all the way up. So you know, it’s just like a weird birthday… ‘Happy birthday, kid. You’re on your own!’” ‘
They Instilled a Fear of Debt
“My dad was a hardliner on self-accountability. It was really important to both of my parents, but to my dad it was almost to the point of hysterical importance that we’d be fiscally responsible people. Living your life debt-free almost meant more to him than anything else. At the time, I thought it was a little over the top, but I have to say not being in debt is one of the things that has made my life stronger than a lot of people’s lives that I know, especially a lot of women’s lives. It meant that I was free. It meant that I was free to pursue my own creative interests, and often times, it meant that I was free to leave men.”
They Taught Her How to Go Hungry
“‘The more you know,’ my dad always said, ‘the less you need.’ I still think that’s a wonderful statement. By the time I was out of college, I just knew how to take of myself. I knew how to travel alone and live frugally so I could pursue creative work without feeling like I ever had to have a day job. I got in trouble in other ways but never in trouble in those really super pragmatic ways. And never by being, like ‘I’m going to buy myself a $500 pair of shoes.’ Instead I’m going to save money for six months and I’m going to go to Europe. That’s more of what I was able to be doing.”
Then They Ignored Her
“I remember once in my mid-twenties confronting them about it, and saying, ‘You guys went really overboard with this.’ And their reaction was, ‘Are you fucking serious?’ They didn’t back down an inch on it. They were sort of like, ‘Who the hell are you? Coming here and telling us we did something wrong?’ They were not about to sit down and have that conversation. And now that I look back on it I sort of feel they were right. I was not formed enough as an adult to recognize what I had gained from that upbringing, and I think that they were already seeing what I had gained from that, so they were like, ‘To hell with you.’
I think there was a level of confidence they had in us, but I think more than that, it was fear based, and the fear was raising people who wouldn’t know how to be adults. You know, I think they were genuinely terrified of that. They saw examples of that in their own family members on other sides, and I think they saw examples of that in the world and it sent a shudder of terror for them that was deeper than the terror of their kids not being happy every minute.”
(Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, came out on September 22. Photograph by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders)