Art and compromise (my musings on Eat, Pray, Love)

photo-61Despite watching Elizabeth Gilbert on Oprah years ago, I somehow managed to miss reading Eat, Pray, Love when it came out in 2006. I don’t particularly like memoirs, for the reasons discussed below.

Nonetheless, when something becomes a cultural phenomenon, I figure I should see what the fuss is about. So when I saw a paperback copy on sale for 50 cents at my local library the other week, I handed over my $1 bill (and let the library keep the change!). I read the book on my 11-hour flight back from Japan.

My first thought is that Eat, Pray, Love is a very pleasant read. Some books are slogs. This was not. It easily passed the time, and Gilbert’s self-deprecating humor kept some aspects of the book  from becoming insufferable. The story is tight. The prose is crisp and clean as befits a journalist and National Book Award finalist. The tale is original because Gilbert is quite a character — the sort of woman who’d dance on the bar at Coyote Ugly and write about it. I wouldn’t call the book spiritually significant, as some people seem to think. The hardest spiritual work she might have tried would be attempting to save her marriage, but that might not land you on Oprah. I’m also mystified by her caricaturization of motherhood, but I’m saying this as a mother of three who was on a flight back from Japan while reading her book. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading the book a good deal. Gilbert is a fabulous writer, and I wouldn’t have much to complain about if Eat, Pray, Love was a novel. Indeed, in my newsletter a few months ago, I said I quite liked a similar novel by Pam Houston. I’m looking forward to Gilbert’s next book, The Signature of All Things, which is a novel (and deals with botany! Little known fact: this is one of my favorite subjects).

But Eat, Pray, Love isn’t being sold as a novel. It’s a memoir — sold as Gilbert’s true tale — with all the credibility non-fiction gives. Is this believable? I’m telling you, it really happened. Non-fiction has that power. Things that might be corny or strange in fiction are allowed in non-fiction because it’s perceived as the truth.

The problem with this, as applied to Eat, Pray, Love, is two fold. First, this is not memoir as history. It is created memoir. Gilbert got a good-sized book advance to go find herself in Italy, India, and Bali. If I challenged you to live your life over the next year in such a way that it would create a good story — and gave you six-figures to do so — you might do things differently than you otherwise would. You might befriend people because they’d make good characters. You might do things to advance a narrative. This is not a story of “one woman’s search for everything” as if it is your everyday woman living life. Her book contract depended on her being enlightened. So she became enlightened, much as A. J. Jacobs undertakes stunt journalism for the hilarity that ensues.

My bigger issue, though, seems like a small one to most people: she changed names. Lots of names “for various reasons” she writes in the intro, including everyone at the Ashram in India except Richard from Texas. Most stunningly, she changed the name of the man she falls in love with in the Bali section. In the book he is Felipe. In real life, his name is José Nunes. She winds up marrying him a few years later — which means his real name is part of the legal record. Maybe she didn’t think the relationship would last, but to me, changing a name like this — and changing other people’s names — turns them into just characters in her story, as opposed to real people with their own hopes, dreams, and views of existence.

Indeed, that’s my problem with changing names generally. It is the first step toward fictionalizing. Gilbert doesn’t claim to have created composite characters, but many memoirists do to create a better story. After all, if you’ve changed a name, then you don’t have to defend yourself as much to the real person. It becomes easier to tell a story the way you wish to have it seen, or the way it sounds better. Again, if the person’s name is changed, how can he complain? Sometimes writers change names for reasons of “privacy.” But if you care about the person, and she wants privacy, why are you writing about her?

Truth is a tricky thing. I encounter this all the time with time logs. The way we perceive our lives, and then retell stories, is often different from what actually happened, or the way other people perceive events. But in something that purports to be true, I think we have an obligation to not intentionally make things false, while still drawing from the power that labeling something as non-fiction gives. As Gilbert commands in the quote at the start of her book, “Tell the truth, tell the truth, tell the truth.” It’s good advice.

In other news: Heidi Stevens of the Chicago Tribune interviews me for her Balancing Act column: Is time really the enemy? That link might be behind the pay wall, but you can usually read one story through social media, so head over to my Twitter page (@lvanderkam) and you can find the link there, too.

CNN/Health says you have enough time to work out.

The audio version of What the Most Successful People Do at Work is now available! This link goes to Audible, and this to iTunes.

SpouseBUZZ chooses 168 Hours for its military wife/man spouse book club.

Modern Mrs. Darcy writes about investing in herself. Interesting question from one of my three conferences this past week: have you invested as much in yourself as in your car this year? Since I don’t put a lot of ongoing funds into my car (I paid cash when I bought it and don’t drive that much) my answer is probably yes, but it may be a thought-provoking comparison. Or not, after all, sometimes you need a car to invest in yourself (going to classes, for instance).

Are you keeping track of your work hours this week?


14 thoughts on “Art and compromise (my musings on Eat, Pray, Love)

  1. I just finished plotting out my day today and tomorrow (usually I do this the day before but yesterday sucked). I have 11, now 10 min until my next task.
    I’m gonna put on the first hour of performance today to time myself and work on this review until it is over (at which point I will switch to a revise and resubmit). So I don’t track my hours post-, but instead pre- like your first chapter artist. Unless I’m brain-dead in which case I have no willpower and everything goes all to heck.
    Now 8 min and time to finish up my second breakfast banana.
    Have a good and productive day!

    1. @NicoleandMaggie – I hope the second banana was finished in time! I carved out time to work on the novel today, but I’m having trouble focusing. The internet is such a wonderful and stimulating place…

      1. It was the first banana, but second breakfast. And all was going swimmingly until I realized I’d left the grant I was supposed to be reviewing in my office yesterday. So I switched to my R&R (my afternoon work), but I’m going to have to waste time going into the office today. I figure I’ll combine it with picking up DC1.

        I recommend Leechblock for not letting the internet distract one. You can set it up to block you for an hour or what have you.

  2. I can certainly understand wanting to keep things as accurate as possible. However, forcing people to use their real names could influence the type of information you receive. For example, I would have loved to participate in your most recent time log reviews. However, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time looking for another job, and I couldn’t risk having you print that with my real name . . .

    1. @WG – true. It also influences the other way, too — that is, toward not telling the truth, which is one reason newspapers tend to have many layers of people who need to approve any use of anonymous sources. The anonymity of the internet is also a reason that I think many comment threads (not here, but many places!) get so nasty. When people don’t have to own up to who they are, they behave differently. I’m not saying there are no cases when anonymity might be justified, but in general, real names make it more likely that you’re getting the real story.

  3. On average, I think you are right. The world is getting increasingly exhibitionist/voyeuristic, so people are not as concerned about anonymity.

    /old fogey here

  4. I’m somewhat disappointed that she got a huge advance for that project. It seems very manufactured that way.

    Did she disclose that in the book itself? I read it 6 years ago, so I can’t remember. Maybe it didn’t bother me at the time.

    The other trouble I have is with people writing about taking trips to India to get spiritual and how India is this magical exotic land of peaceful spiritual people, blah blah blah.

    I also think it’s not really protecting (either of) her hubby’s privacy by changing his name. I mean, he’s her HUSBAND. It’s not like people aren’t going to know who she’s talking about. Strange.

    1. @ARC – what, being Indian doesn’t automatically make you spiritual and peaceful? 🙂

      To her credit, she mentioned that she got a book advance in the book. She doesn’t belabor it, of course, but she does mention it.

  5. Eat Pray Love was probably the most-hated book my book club has ever read. Some of us didn’t hate it (I didn’t, but I wasn’t crazy about it), one person really liked it, and something like 4 people just hated it. Absolutely despised it. So I have a hard time thinking about the book without thinking about their reactions.

    More power to her for getting a publisher to find her big adventure- but I’m not sure I’d have wanted to fund my own big adventure that way. Of course, since my husband and I had to fund our “drop everything and go travel” experience ourselves, we stayed in cheaper places and only went for 4 months. But we got to go where the experiences took us, without an pressure to make it fit into a nice narrative later!

    1. Hehe “only” 4 months. That seems SO long to me (and how awesome for you!). I think it’s way better when you’re not doing it for work of any type.

    2. Sheesh, Gilbert has a lot of haters for earning a huge book advance. We all know that would not be the case were she a man, but I digress.

      Like @Cloud, I say “more power to her”! Even though I greatly disliked the book, I’m proud of any previously-unfamous woman like Gilbert who can actually earn the right, all by herself thank you very much, to a large book advance for writing about something outside the norms of what society says women memoirists are supposed to write about (i.e. their kids, their looks, their diet and exercise plan because they hate their bodies, how they enjoy crafting, blah blah snore).

      She was 100% clear about the existence of the advance in her book – that’s how she explains her ability to fund the trip despite being a broke soon-to-be-divorcee. But honestly, so what? Sounds like some folks need to get a lot more comfortable with their idea of women getting paid what they’re worth. What a fantastic investment she was for her prescient publisher.

      Laura, I think your criticisms about the name-changing are perhaps best understood as the residue of way too much attorney input and concomitant CYA-ing. 😉 Just as my criticisms that she buried the lede by saying nothing about whatever it was in her starter marriage that caused her to ponder the tiles on her bathroom floor are also probably best understood that way.

  6. “If I challenged you to live your life over the next year in such a way that it would create a good story — and gave you six-figures to do so — you might do things differently than you otherwise would.”

    This comment reminds me what I’ve always wondered about the journal I’ve kept since I was nine. How is my life different for having taken notes on it all this time?

    I bet the determination to make it a good story is much of the reason it’s held my interest.

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