Mar 8, 2011

Me, Myself, and Muse

Imagine you're a writer, but the words won't come. Could you bargain with creativity to get past your writer's block? Oliver Sacks found himself in that very situation back in 1968: he was struggling to finish his first book, and got stuck. He imposed a deadline on himself that, while it got him writing again, came with a terrible cost. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Gilbert (the author of Eat Pray of the most popular books ever), wanted to find a way to, as she puts it, "live a creative life without cutting your ear off." She offers some advice for doing battle with your muse, and explains why she believes your muse wants you to fight back.


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JAD ABUMRAD: Hey, I’m Jad Abumrud.

ROBERT KRULWICH: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab and today…

ROBERT: Today, we’re trying to figure out how to make a deal with yourself when most of you doesn’t want to do what the rest of you wants to do.

JAD: [laugh] Right. And we’ve talked about these kinds of deals when it comes to avoiding the sirens or quitting smoking. 

ROBERT: Or figuring out what to do with the bounds of your life…

JAD: Now, we’re going to change things a bit.

ROBERT: Let’s say, instead of being an addict, let’s say you’re just…

JAD: A writer. 

ROBERT: Yeah. And you want to be inspired, you want the words to come and this is a very typical situation.

JAD: They’re not coming.


JAD: No words. So, the question is, in that kind of situation, what kind of deals could you make with yourself to get the words out?

OLIVER SACKS: This is—this is fanciful.

ROBERT: My friend Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and a writer, he made a deal, which frankly, I find this kind of astonishing.

OLIVER SACKS: A bonk with creativity, I will tell you, although I probably shouldn’t, the first book I wrote, Migraine, was very obstructed.

ROBERT: And by obstructed, he means he just got stuck.


ROBERT: Day after day, he tried to write something down and it just didn’t come.

OLIVER SACKS: And I was getting desperate on the matter. And finally, on September 1, 1968, I said to myself, you have 10 days to write this book, if it is not done then, you commit suicide.

JAD: Woah.

OLIVER SACKS: And under the imagined threat, which seemed to terrorize me in a way.

ROBERT: Your—the other half of you thought that the first half of you meant it?


ROBERT: Did the first half of you mean it?

OLIVER SACKS: I don’t know. But—the result of this was after months of stewing and not doing anything, I started work and what started as—a fearful task soon became a joyful task with its own momentum.

ROBERT: And suddenly, he had this feeling that there was something inside him.

OLIVER SACKS: Some engine inside me, a wonderful associate of engine, which weaves thoughts together, brings unexpected things into apposition.

ROBERT: It had kicked into gear and it was kind of pulling things out of him, putting right there on the page.

OLIVER SACKS: I felt like the book was being dictated to me.

ROBERT: Really?

OLIVER SACKS: I—I was passive, I was the bridge, I was the transmitter. And in fact, I finished the book a day early. [laugh]

ROBERT: [laugh] That’s a strange way to kick yourself in the pants, I have to say.

OLIVER SACKS: Yeah. Well, for me, a deadline, sometimes is felt almost literally as such.

ROBERT: This is not an easy way to go to work everyday, I wouldn’t think.

OLIVER SACKS: I don’t think one could make bargains like that.

JAD: Definitely not too often.

OLIVER SACKS: It would have a cost.

ROBERT: Oliver, of course, only did that once, but the story he told got us thinking, is there a bargain that you can make with yourself…

JAD: Your creative self…

ROBERT: That somehow voids this terrible cost?


ROBERT: That led me…


ROBERT: To a woman who just does it differently.

ELIZABETH GILBERT: Well, I have this fascination with trying to figure out how you can live a lifetime of creativity without cutting your ear off. You know what I mean?

JAD: And—who is that?


ROBERT: And just something a little bit more.


ROBERT: Which Liz Gilbert are you?

ELIZABETH GILBERT: I’m—I’m Liz Gilbert who wrote the book called Eat, Pray, Love, I guess that should be the way I describe myself because that’s how my obituary will read.

ROBERT: Eat, Pray, Love, in case you were born under a rock...

JAD: Or raised by wolves...

ROBERT: Is one of the most popular books ever, ever, ever, in the world. It became even more popular when the book became a movie and guess who played Liz?

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Julia Roberts: Liz Gilbert is remarkable.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speaker 1: Julia.]

ROBERT: Roberts.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Julia Roberts: Her courage and the way she...]

JAD: America’s sweetheart.

ROBERT: And the success was great, but she says, you know, it was also kind of frightening because there she was, back at home... 

JAD: In front of the same old blank page.

ROBERT: With a new question.

ELIZABETH GILBERT: How will you outdo what you did last time?

ROBERT: Suddenly, she’s back where Oliver was.

OLIVER SACKS: Obstructed.

ROBERT: She didn’t think that the success was going to be there the last time, so was the last time a fluke? Do I even have another big book in me?

ELIZABETH GILBERT: A dangerous recipe for madness.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speaker 2: Madness.]

ROBERT: But then, she thought back to a conversation that she once had with…

JAD: Who? Who?

ROBERT: Tom Waits.

JAD: Huh? Tom Waits?

ROBERT: That Tom Waits.

ELIZABETH GILBERT: [laugh] That’s sort of where all of this began was—I was a journalist for GQ when I did an interview with him and he spoke about the creative process, I think more articulately than anybody I’ve ever heard. And he was talking about how every song has a distinctive identity that comes into the world with and that needs to be taken in different ways. And he said you know, there are songs that you have to sneak up on, like you’re hunting for a rare bird. And there are songs that come fully intact, like a dream taken through a straw. And there are songs you find little bits of like, pieces of gum under the desk and you scrape them off and you put them together and you make something out of it. And there are songs he said that need to be bullied. Where he said, he’s at the studio working on a song and the whole album is done and this one song won’t give itself over and he said, you know, everyone has gotten used to seeing him doing things like this, he’ll march up and down the studio talking to this song saying, “The rest of the family is in the car, we’re all going on vacation, are you coming along or not? You’ve got 10 minutes or else you’re getting left behind.” You know, it’s like you’ve got to shake it down sometimes.

ROBERT: Liz says that interview was maybe the first time she thought of inspiration as a…

ELIZABETH GILBERT: As an it. And I remember feeling my own center of gravity shift and thinking, wait, you’re allowed to talk to this thing?

ROBERT: That the source of her ideas was outside her and she could get some distance from it, maybe negotiate with it, even fight with it, instead of beating yourself up all the time.

ELIZABETH GILBERT: Right. And the story that I love that he told me about where his artistic anxiety ended and his sort of new artistic liberation began was when he was driving along the freeway in Los Angeles, like eight lanes of traffic one day, and this little fragment of a beautiful song comes into his head. And there’s no way to record it, he’s got no pencil, no tape recorder and he’s in eight lanes of stressful traffic. And he immediately starts to feel all the old pressure that he’s felt his whole life of I’m not good enough. All the artistic struggle, right? I can’t do it, I’m not good enough, I’m going to lose it, it’ll haunt me forever. And then he just backed off from it. And instead he established that negotiating distance between him and that melody and looked up at the sky and said, “Excuse me, can you not see that I’m driving? If you’re serious about wanting to exist, I spend eight hours a day in a studio, you’re welcome to come and visit me while I’m sitting at the piano, otherwise, leave me alone and go bother Lenard Cohen.”

ROBERT: Oh, that’s very bold.

ELIZABETH GILBERT: It is. I think that’s what she wants. She wants you to push back and she wants you to set some terms and some boundaries. She doesn’t want you…

ROBERT: You go to a Lenard Cohen’s concert, two years later…


ROBERT: And [beep] hear it.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Lenard Cohen: So very kind of you to come to this…]

ROBERT: Now this idea that somehow the creative act comes from outside you. You get a visit from a somebody. This isn’t a new idea, it’s a very old idea.

ELIZABETH GILBERT: You know the Greeks would call it the “muse”. The Romans called it the “ingenium”, the genius, which was an interesting idea because it’s not the way we use genius today, right? Today we say that a person is a genius and back then they would have said that person had one. And again, it’s this separation so that the creative person has this externalized collaborator.

ROBERT: So, this is a Tinkerbelly kind of thing? It sprinkles you? It has little wings?

ELIZABETH GILBERT: I think it depends. [laugh] I think it depends on the process. I mean, it’s got a lot of names because it takes a lot of forms, right? And we’re talking about all this as though these are—I actually kind of believe this. [laugh]

ROBERT: [laugh]

ELIZABETH GILBERT: Because I don’t think it would work otherwise. I kind of do believe that the world is being constantly circled as though by gulfstream, forces ideas and creativity that want to be made, manifest, and they’re looking for portals to come through people and if you don’t do it, they’ll go find someone else, you know? And so, you have to convince it that you’re serious and you have to show it respect and you have to talk to it and let them know you’re there. Like, for the last few years, there’s been a novel that has been stirring in me and I haven’t had time to give it the attention that it wants me to give it but everyday I talk to it and have little conversations with it, and I say, “Listen, in April, I will be with you. I want you to stay, don’t let me wake up and read it in the New York Times that someone else wrote you. Stay here with me, I’m coming.” [laugh]

ROBERT: It sounds like a golden retriever or something that you have to keep petting it. 

ELIZABETH GILBERT: Actually, that’s probably as good a metaphor for me as any because I would relate to that being I’m half golden retriever myself…

ROBERT: [laugh]

ELIZABETH GILBERT: And liking dogs. That’s great.

PAT WALTERS: When you say you talk to it in its golden retriever form…

OLIVER SACKS: That’s our producer Pat Walters.

PAT: Like do you actually talk to it?


PAT: Out loud?

ELIZABETH GILBERT: [Laugh] I do. I talk—that’s why I have to be alone in a quiet room because I talk to it all the time. And I ask it questions, I say, “What do you—what is it that you want me to be doing here because you seem to be resistant to what I’m trying to do here. Like show me, give me a clue—the title of Eat, Pray, Love was the last thing that came about of that book and the book was about to be published and it had any number of ridiculous, stupid titles that I’m not going to even tell you because there’s so embarrassing and they’re so not what that book was meant to be titled and I ended up writing an email to all my friends and saying—subject heading was “Title Search” and I said, “My beep] book won’t tell me its name and can all of you help me” and a friend of mine wrote back and said, if you’re going to talk to it like that, it’s not going to tell you anything.

ROBERT: [laugh]

ELIZABETH GILBERT: [beep] Right? So I really did that night…

ROBERT: So you sweet talked it back?

ELIZABETH GILBERT: “Sweetheart, listen, I respect you, I love you, I honor you, I have defended you these last few years. I want to bring you into the world, but you have to tell me your name.” And the next day, Eat, Pray, Love.

ROBERT: Just like that.

ELIZABETH GILBERT: And you know it because—I know the difference between something I thought of and something that I was given. I can—tell the difference.

ROBERT: She says sometimes it’s the whole scene, sometimes it’s just a word, maybe a phrase.

ELIZABETH GILBERT: And then you have the job to make it into something.

ROBERT: Wait, but if—if I say to you “two roads diverged in a yellow wood”.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speaker 3: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.”]

ROBERT: So, you can write that down, “two roads diverged in a yellow wood” and then you’re done.

ELIZABETH GILBERT: Do you know how that poem got written?

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speaker 3: “Two roads...”]

ELIZABETH GILBERT: So he was working for—maybe I’m exaggerating this because I tend to but I’m going to tell it my way. How I heard it.

ROBERT: [laugh] Okay.

ELIZABETH GILBERT: He was working for months and months and months on what was going to be the greatest epic poem of his life. It’s the biggest challenge he was taking on, he was going to be up there with the masters with this.

ROBERT: You should name the person we’re talking about.

ELIZABETH GILBERT: Yes, this would be Mr. Frost. [laugh]

ROBERT: Robert Frost.

ELIZABETH GILBERT: And he was working on it for, you know, forever and ever. I mean perspiration, perspiration, perspiration, right? And it was 20, 30 pages long and it was—I don’t know what the meter was, whatever it was, it was the most ambitious thing he’d ever done and it was arduous and probably had sweat all over it, put it down, went to sleep. Woke up, sat down and wrote “two roads” and all of a sudden, in one setting, this tiny, perfect, immaculate thing was created that had nothing to do with what he had just done. He earned it. I think the angels reward people who are at their desks at 6 o’clock in the morning working. And he earned it by showing his intent to be a great poet and they said, “Okay, cool, you showed your intent, that thing you just wrote was crap. I’m going to give you this one. Here’s your reward.” So...

ROBERT: What evidence do you have for this kind of justice?

ELIZABETH GILBERT: None. None, except for it’s a great story and I like the idea and I feel like—I really do feel like when they see me working, they take pity on me and they say, “Look, you’re showing a real commitment to this, you’ve been up at 5 o’clock every morning for the last year working on this novel. I’m just going to give you the ending.” You know? Or “I’m going to spare you from that really bad idea you’re just having.” You know, I always think of it like Henry Ford’s famous line about how creativity is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, which is a very mechanical way to divide that, but also assumes that those two things have equal weight. That they’re the same quality, right? I agree with 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration, but it’s 99% oyster, 1% pearl. You can’t even compare the matter, like, it’s a bargain to get 1% inspiration. You know? It’s a miracle.

JAD: I could get with the muses. Sort of.

ROBERT: What do you mean? 

JAD: Well, I think it’s interesting you can hear at one point she says that she believes.

ELIZABETH GILBERT: I actually believe this...

JAD: And the other point she says, it just makes a good story.

ELIZABETH GILBERT: It’s a great story and I like the idea…

JAD: You can hear her negotiate with the idea.

ROBERT: Yeah, of course. She’s a little bit between the two thoughts.

JAD: Which is interesting.

ROBERT: I mean you know—a serious neuroscientist would tell you…

JAD: That’s it’s all in your unconscious.

ROBERT: And it’s all you, all the time.

JAD: Yeah.

ROBERT: But another way to think of it is—is to say that you got a gift and—therefore it’s not all about you when it’s bad and it’s still about you when it’s good, but it’s not all about you. It’s just this business of all.

JAD: Okay.

ROBERT: This is a form of well organized modesty.

JAD: It’s a nice phrase. I’m—I’m just going to go with that.


JAD: It’s time for us and our fairies to go to break.

ROBERT: [laugh]

[ELIZABETH GILBERT: Hi, this is Elizabeth Gilbert. Support for NPR comes from NPR stations and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, helping NPR advance journalistic excellence in the digital age.]

[Speaker 4: MetLife Foundation committed to promoting healthy families and good nutrition on the web at]

[ELIZABETH GILBERT: And the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, supporting unconventional approaches to transform health and healthcare at This is NYPR. Thanks. Bye everybody.]


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