Timothy Greenfield Sanders

“Imagine …” Elizabeth Gilbert begins, and I’m already enrapt.

Since 2006, the acclaimed author’s eating, praying, and loving has ignited imaginations all over the world. Indulging her audience with awe-inspiring humility, whimsical wit, and food for thought, her storytelling bursts at the seams and leaves her readers craving more, more, and more. But Gilbert’s journey to storytelling ​— ​which she will speak about in a UCSB Arts & Lectures–sponsored conversation with Pico Iyer on Saturday, May 6 ​— ​is just as inspiring as her books that have graced best-seller lists across the country.

She continues: “It’s 5 p.m. You head to the nearest hardware store to buy one bucket of paint. You enter your new apartment and start painting in the middle of a white wall. You run into shelves and nails and other obstacles. Now you’re out of paint and all you’re left with is a blotch in the center of your wall.”

Gilbert describes her early approach to writing as, yes, blotchy. “It was inefficient. I didn’t know how to plan,” she admits. Now the effortless ebb and flow of her masterfully crafted sentences make it difficult to imagine that her path to authorship wasn’t easy.

In her early twenties, Gilbert was waitressing in New York City, working three jobs to sustain a living yet making no productive strokes on her canvas of dreams. Though she had always wanted to be a writer, fulfilling her artistic visions with limited resources and time seemed impossible. But one evening, a painter’s harsh words would inspire Gilbert to draw creativity into her life with premeditated strokes, careful planning, and fierce dedication in spite of the many obstacles life presented.

Perhaps what makes Gilbert’s stories so moving and universally relatable is her ability to uncover the life-changing lessons in seemingly mundane realities, like painting a wall. “It’s become a lifelong practice of collecting clues and following creativity,” she explains.

At some point, we all have to begin sketching the outlines of the lives we hope to lead. For Gilbert, it’s not the final aesthetic that counts; rather, what marks our successes in this world are the strategies with which we go about crafting our lives and the perseverance to complete the tasks we set out for ourselves. After all, she says, “the point, and whole game of life, is staying with ‘it.’”

Gilbert has dedicated her creative life to helping women everywhere discover their own “it,” whatever those “its” may be. “At this moment, women have agency, more than ever before,” she says with an infectious resilience in her voice. “Women have always been strong and fierce, but they didn’t have rights. I don’t want to waste that. When I’m feeling small and powerless, I think of my ancestry, and they always say, ‘do it!’”

And do it she does. Named one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in the world by Time magazine, Gilbert pursued her dreams, filling the world with stories that empower millions to paint their lives colorful and pursue their own dreams ​— ​whatever they may be.

“This is an incredible moment for individual power,” she says. “The world will always have a place for you, if only you ask it to.”

4•1•1 Elizabeth Gilbert will speak in conversation with Pico Iyer on Saturday, May 6, 7:30 p.m., at the Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). For more information, visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.


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