Message in a Bottle
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Creative Genius


One of the most surprising books I read this year was Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, The Signature of All Things. It’s a massive and triumphant work of fiction, tracing the life of an extraordinary female botanist during the 19th century. The protagonist, Alma Whittaker, could be the female version of Charles Darwin. In fact, she develops her own similar theory about survival of the fittest, right around the time Darwin published The Origin of Species. Rather than the ecosystem of the Galapagos, the behavior of Alma’s large variety of mosses leads her to the same revolutionary conclusion. She just doesn’t publish it ahead of Darwin.

Alma’s father was Henry Whittaker, an Englishman who became the richest man in Philadelphia. He was an enterprising botanist and thief who made his fortune by selling his revolutionary plant samples to a pharmaceutical distributor. His story is the precursor to Alma’s and sets the stage for her scientific pursuits.

A spinster until the age of 48, Alma is not the kind of woman who would have ever read Gilbert’s bestselling memoir of self-discovery, Eat. Pray, Love. In fact, it’s hard to believe that the Elizabeth Gilbert we met in Eat, Pray, Love created this bold and science-driven character. The only thing the two appear to have in common is they both went on long and arduous journeys to different countries to seek out truth. The narrator in Eat, Pray, Love was looking for meaning, self-knowledge, and love throughout her journey, but Alma is merely looking for facts both large and small, from the truth about her deceased husband to the secrets of the universe. She already knows who she is, and her sense of identity and self is never truly in question.

I’m a huge Gilbert fan, especially after meeting her several years ago right after the publication of Committed (the follow up to Eat, Pray, Love). She’s just as lively, charming, and compelling in person as she is on the page. I could feel all her warmth and energy pouring off the pages of The Signature of All Things, but I would never have expected her to write it. How did she go from her past work to this utterly unique and different novel?

The explanation came to me by chance. I stumbled across Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk from 2009, “Your Elusive Creative Genius." Gilbert talks about the notion that genius might come from a higher being, and that knowing that might give artists the confidence to get up every day and do their work without fear of failure. She takes the responsibility of success off the artist’s shoulders and encourages them to keep hacking away. Gilbert’s father was an engineer, and as she explains, he never felt frozen or terrified to do his job each day. Most people don’t stop working because they fear they won’t make a masterpiece, so why should artists have to wallow in the crazies?

Gilbert wasn’t preaching God here, don’t misunderstand me. What she was trying to do was validate an artist’s right to consistently do their work as an occupation and a craft. Coming off the tremendous success of Eat, Pray, Love, she must have struggled greatly with the expectations when people suggested her best work might already be behind her.

In the context of her TED talk, it makes sense that Gilbert matured into a writer who would create a heroine far stronger and more self-assured than the person who appears in her own memoir. She obviously found herself long after she thought she’d “found herself” during that big journey that became such a bestseller.

Her TED talk is motivational, but what’s truly inspiring is Gilbert herself. Not only has she continued to reinvent herself and grow as a writer, but she keeps showing up to do her job. And by doing that, she is making sure that her best work isn’t behind her. If The Signature of All Things is any indication, her writing will only continue to ripen and improve with age.


First Line Friday: Non-Fiction Edition




Previous installments of First Line Friday have been dominated by fiction, which probably shouldn’t be too surprising. Non-fiction writers tend to be concerned with having a sound basis for their arguments rather than worrying about the sound of their sentences. But many in the reality-based community marshal their facts in a stylish and memorable way, so I thought it was time to give some of them their due.

Memoirs generate a fair number of great opening lines, and one of the best is from a real master, Vladimir Nabokov. His Speak, Memory is considered a monument of the form, and its beginning lives up to the billing: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Portentous, isn’t it? He’s going to talk about his own life, but first he has to sum up our timeless existential condition.

Augusten Burroughs might not be so high-minded, but his opener for Running with Scissors is at least as catchy: “My mother is standing in front of the bathroom mirror smelling polished and ready; like Jean Naté, Dippity Do and the waxy sweetness of lipstick.” Where Nabokov was universal, Burroughs is specific; the perspective of a child and the era in which he lives are immediately apparent. 

Speaking of specificity, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face starts with a literal bang: “KER-POW! I was knocked into the present, the unmistakable now, by Joni Friedman’s head as it collided with the right side of my jaw.” That’s so on-target it almost hurts. 

There’s some marvelous scene-setting at the beginning of another memoir that was written by a young man who went on to have a pretty significant career outside of literature. It starts off almost like a hard-boiled mystery:

A few months after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news. I was living in New York at the time, on Ninety-Fourth between Second and First, part of that unnamed, shifting border between East Harlem and the rest of Manhattan. It was an uninviting block, treeless and barren, lined with soot-covered walkups that cast a heavy shadow for most of the day. The apartment was small, with slanting floors and irregular heat and a buzzer downstairs that didn’t work, so that visitors had to call ahead from a pay phone at the corner gas station, where a black Doberman the size of a wolf paced through the night in vigilant patrol, its jaws clamped around an empty beer bottle.

That’s Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama. 

Writing about yourself seems to make arresting introductions easier, but biographers, science writers, historians, and other non-fiction authors have managed the trick:

  • Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man: “By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree.”
  •  Vincent Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter: “It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon.”
  • Diane Ackerman’s An Alchemy of Mind: “Imagine the brain, that shiny mound of being, that mouse-gray parliament of cells, that dream factory, that petit tyrant inside a ball of bone, that huddle of neurons calling all the plays, that little everywhere, that fickle pleasuredrome, that wrinkled wardrobe of selves stuffed into the skull like too many clothes into a gym bag.”
  • John Hersey’s Hiroshima: “At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk.”
  • Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “We were somewhere outside of Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

Not sure what non-fiction category to put that last one in, or even that it isn’t really fiction underneath, but that’s a good segue. You didn’t think I’d let you go without peppering you with some eyeball-grabbing openers from novels, did you? Let’s kick off this section with a few titans from the middle of the last century.

Saul Bellow, who won the Nobel Prize in 1976, could write circuitous sentences with the best of them, but he could be concise when he wanted to be, as he was when he began Herzog: “If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.” The Adventures of Augie March is more characteristically prolix and swaggering: “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.”

Philip Roth is still with us and may match Bellow’s Nobel yet. His tribute to onanism, Portnoy’s Complaint, was shocking in its time and remains influential today: “She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.” Augusten Burroughs may have had that line echoing in his head when he picked up his pen, in fact—see above. Roth hasn’t softened with age, either. His recent Sabbath’s Theater raises eyebrows right away: “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.” You won’t see lofty vocabulary crash into the gutter any quicker than that. He transitions from elevated diction into earthy Anglo-Saxon without an intervening word.

J.D. Salinger, that shrinking violet, would never dare be so explicit, but he’s quotable nonetheless. Franny and Zooey commences as follows: “Though brilliantly sunny, Saturday morning was overcoat weather again, not just topcoat weather, as it had been all week and as everyone hoped it would stay for the big weekend—the weekend of the Yale game.” 

Going back even further, we have Isak Dinesen’s atmospheric Out of Africa: “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” The location is doing a lot of work for her there, of course. Probably wouldn’t have achieved the same romance if she’d said, “I had a farm in Iowa.” 

Contemporary author Joshua Ferris challenged himself with an even less romantic setting than that—a cubicle farm in a corporate office. The dehumanizing nature of the work he comedically describes is comprised by the narrative voice he uses. Instead of featuring a single protagonist in his And Then We Came to the End, he gives us the collective experience of the employees: “We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise. At least those of us who smoked had something to look forward to at ten-fifteen.”

Science fiction has its share of tasty hors d’oeuvres, too. A sampler plate:

  • Octavia Butler’s Kindred: “I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.”
  • J.G. Ballard’s High Rise: “Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.”
  • Michael Swanwick’s Stations of the Tide: “The bureaucrat fell from the sky.”
  • James Morrow’s Towing Jehovah: “The irreducible strangeness of the universe was first made manifest to Anthony Van Horne on his fiftieth birthday, when a despondent angel named Raphael, a being with luminous white wings and a halo that blinked on and off like a neon quoit, appeared and told him of the days to come.”

If that angel is an avid reader, he’ll already know what’s in store, but the rest of you will have to wait until the next time First Line Friday rolls around.


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