In Oprah Daily’s series, My Creative Space, newsmakers, celebrities, and other notable names reveal the place where they feel most inspired, open up about their prized possessions, and share a few things they can’t work without. Don’t miss our other installments with Yvonne Orji, Aidy Bryant, Ina Garten, and Gloria Steinem.
It was 2006, and Elizabeth Gilbert had spent nearly a year living out of suitcases in Southeast Asia with her soon-to-be second husband José Nunes. The writer, whose soul-searching journey across three countries led her to write the 2006 bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, dreamed of a permanent place that the couple could call their own. That’s how she found herself at an internet cafe in Laos, purchasing a nearly 215-year-old Presbyterian Church-turned-house back in the United States off of Craigslist.
“I’ve done a lot of impulsive things in my life, but that might be the most impulsive thing I’ve ever done,” Gilbert tells Oprah Daily. “I saw this place, and I immediately thought, That’s it.”
The West Central, New Jersey home was built in 1792 and still retains several of the church’s authentic architectural details, including 25-foot ceilings and 18th-century, 16-foot windows. “It’s a teeny-tiny chapel that feels like a little box of light,” she says. But there was one problem: It wasn’t large enough for two people to live in comfortably—a fact Gilbert and her then husband discovered only after they moved in. “The sound control is virtually nonexistent,” she says. “If somebody coughs delicately, you can hear it in every part of the house, and I need a lot of silence when I write.” So for the next decade, Gilbert, who separated from Nunes in 2016, offered the home to friends as a kind of informal artist’s retreat. “Friends have written books, made art, and gotten over breakups here,” she says. “It’s been this healing space that a lot of other people have used.”
That is, until March 2020, when Gilbert—following the death of her then-partner, Rayya Ellis—moved in herself. “When COVID hit, I suddenly thought, Wait, I have a place where I can go and be safe and make art, too,” she says, “Now, I’m more in love with it than ever. It’s been a slow burn of a love story, me and this house.”
Since then, Gilbert has spent most days in one of two spaces, both of which are in the church’s old choir loft: her airy reading area, or her equally light-filled writing room, a “tiny, tiny” space that includes the desk where she wrote Eat, Pray, Love. “My dad was a beekeeper, and that little spot is like my own little honeycomb where I get to create, generate, and germinate life,” she says. “I don’t do anything in that room but write—which is why it’s so inspiring.”
Ahead, the celebrated author—whose other books include The Signature of All Things, Big Magic, and her latest, City of Girls—takes us inside the converted church that she calls home to share the quiet, cozy nooks where she’s currently researching and writing her next novel. Along the way, she also reveals the car part she’s kept since first moving to New York, her intense research process (spoiler alert: it involves thousands of index cards), her best form of bribery, and more.
My Ideal Schedule
I grew up on a small family farm, so I don’t know whether it’s because of that or my biology, but I keep farmer’s hours. That means I wake up really early every day. When I’m actively writing, I wake up even earlier. Everything I love to do most, I love to do by myself first thing in the morning—and it requires a lot of silence. So I’ll get up at 4:30 a.m., do my prayers and meditation, and start writing around 5 a.m. That gives me a solid three-and-a-half hours before people start sending me funny memes or texts about their family drama.
In my experience, the world tends to wake up around 8:30 or 9 a.m. That’s when people start texting you, that’s when the news begins to trickle in, that’s when the emails commence—so the only way to ensure large blocks of uninterrupted time is to get up really early. Plus, that way I don’t feel resentful when I start receiving those texts, because after three hours of work, I’m ready to look at an interesting article or have a conversation with someone.
The truth is, I’m something of a plow mule. That means you get me up on time, you hitch me to a plow, and I’ll finish the work by sunrise, then spend the rest of the day sitting in the field or grazing. As long as you don’t work me to death, I’ll steadily plow that field every single day for three years—that’s how I get things done. Creating takes a lot out of my brain, so by 3 p.m., I feel like I have a little head injury. I can’t do anything that takes a lot of mental or creative energy, so I’ll go for a walk, which, for me, is like rewinding a grandfather clock. I’ll do a lot of tidying, dish washing, and meditative house cleaning. Around 9 p.m., I’ll get in bed, and then repeat that schedule every day until the book is finished.
My Writing Process
Every book starts in this upholstered chair that I bought at the ABC Carpet Outlet in the Bronx. For some reason, I’ve turned into a historical fiction novelist, so 85 to 95 percent of my work is research. That means that for years, I’ll spend four hours a day in that chair, reading about everything from food storage on 18th-century shipping boats to the cost of New York City-based theater productions in the 1940s.
As I’m doing that, I’ll jot down any interesting details, important notes about time and place, plot ideas, and lines of dialogue on large index cards, which I eventually file in boxes that I specifically order from a German brand called Semikolon. They’re really designed to hold CDs, so I’m terrified that someday they’re going to stop making them, because, well…CDs. But they also perfectly fit my index cards, and they’re handsome and sturdy, which is particularly important since I usually end up with thousands of index cards, which I organize by character, chapter, and theme. For example, when I wrote The Signature of All Things, I filled six boxes.
After that, I’ll move the boxes into my writing room, and I’ll use them to draft a synopsis that’s pretty detailed—the one for City of Girls was around 50 pages—and correlates with the index cards. That way when I finally sit down to write, which takes the least amount of time, it’s almost like paint-by-numbers. I’m just stringing together this story that’s already told in those boxes.
It feels like some incredibly kind, generous scholars have gathered all of this for me, but I’m actually the one who did it. And I do it because I know that when future Liz is sailing through a scene and needs to know some minor detail, like where the food goes on the boats, she’s going to reach into those boxes and the answer will be right there. She’ll be like, “Thanks, past Liz!” So, it’s really this gift that I’m giving to myself across time, which in some ways, is similar to flossing. Your future self will be like, “Oh my God, thank you so much for doing that!”
During my first marriage, my husband and I shared a desk—and, honestly, the thought of that now makes me want to put out cigarettes on my eyeballs. It was awful. So to celebrate my first divorce, I was like, “I’m getting my own f-cking desk, and it’s going to be the one I want!” I remember taking the 6 train out to the ABC Carpet Outlet and feeling so incredibly free. It was really a symbol of liberation and creativity, and even now, it’s still a very important piece of furniture for me. I wrote Eat, Pray, Love on that desk. In fact, when I moved that desk into what’s now my writing room, I had a wall built around it—so you actually can’t take the desk out of the room. It’s like Odysseus and Penelope’s bed in The Odyssey. It’s a permanent part of the space now. I love that feeling—it somehow makes me feel very safe.
I do just one thing at that desk—and also, in that room—which is write. I don’t talk on the phone in that room. I don’t check social media in that room. I even have another desk elsewhere in the house that is my command control panel. It’s where I pay my bills, where I fill out insurance forms, and where I do all of the things that my friend describes as the dreaded ADLs: the activities of daily living. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to really appreciate that I’m able to have this dedicated space—even if it’s just six feet by seven feet—where I can go and be alone and bring my books to life. There’s not a single object in there that isn’t beautiful to me, that doesn’t have meaning for me, that isn’t soothing to me. And, I swear to God, there’s not a time when I walk into my writing room and I don’t feel overwhelmed with gratitude.
My Cherished Car Part
If I could only take one thing from my office, it’d be the dashboard adornment from the first car I ever had—a massive 1967 Plymouth Fury. That’s my most prized possession. I bought it in 1993 for $600, and even at that point, it was a dinosaur car. It didn’t have seat belts or airbags, and I think it got 13 miles to the gallon. But it took me across the country and back: I drove it to Wyoming, where I worked on a ranch, then to California, and from there to Pennsylvania. I did it all by myself—in a $600 car.
After that, I went through a really bad breakup, and I drove it to New York City to follow my dream of becoming a writer. But when I arrived, I realized I didn’t know how to get rid of it—not to mention that I had some speeding tickets that I didn’t want to pay—so I left it on 14th Street with the keys on the dashboard and the doors unlocked. I was like, “Godspeed, Plymouth Fury.” For two days, I walked by it, and then on the third day, it was gone. Since then, I’ve kept that little piece of metal on every desk I’ve ever written on. It’s a reminder to be brave—to just get in the car and embark on an adventure, and to write with fury.
My Most-Prized Photograph
Rayya was the love of my life, my best friend for 13 years, and my partner for the year-and-a-half before she died. This picture was taken before I even knew her—when she was still in her first marriage and shortly after she’d gotten clean. She struggled with massive drug addictions for most of her life, and this was when she’d really turned a corner and was super proud of how far she’d come. I love looking at that picture, knowing that we hadn’t come into each other’s lives yet, but very soon we would meet somebody who it would take years before we realized who we’d actually met.
In my life, it seems the best things come slowly: This church might have been a spontaneous purchase, but it took more than a decade to understand what an extraordinary gift it is; my books are best when they grow over time; and my life’s greatest love story took 13 years to happen, even though it had always been right under my nose. There’s something to be said about that patience, knowing things will come to you if you stay in your good and orderly direction, because you never know who you’re going to meet or if you’ve already met them, or what destiny might have in store for you.
That picture, in which Rayya is so full of freedom and life despite not knowing what is coming, is a reminder of that. It never fails to fill me with joy.
My Trusty Terrarium
Despite all the ups and downs of the last decade—the marriages, the divorces, the deaths of loved ones, moving from house to house—I’ve somehow managed to keep this little terrarium alive the entire time. It sits on the corner of my desk, and it requires very little maintenance. I might add a tiny bit of water once a month, but it continues to grow on its own in its own self-contained world…which, in some ways perfectly encapsulates where I am in my life right now, and how I feel in my church, in my isolation.
During the pandemic, I realized that what I used to think were just periods of my life where I needed solitude in order to write might actually be how I love to live my life. This self-contained world is deeply satisfying to me, and it seems to be where I’m the most spiritually and creatively open. Plus, I think I’ve also learned the difference between what it feels to be by yourself and what it feels to be with yourself. I don’t have very many experiences these days where I feel like I’m by myself, but I have lots of incredible days where I feel like I’m with myself—so I’m a bit like that terrarium that doesn’t need a lot from the outside, just some water here and there.
My Chewing Gum
I go through so much gum when I’m writing, and the worst part is, the more passionately I’m writing, the more passionately I’m chewing, so it’s pretty obnoxious. I have a friend who can’t write without smoking, and I can’t write without chewing. Though, in my defense, I’ve heard there is some scientific, neurological basis for that—that chewing gum does stimulate some part of your brain. I used to swear by Trident Tropical Twist, but lately I’ve been experimenting with the all-natural gums sold at health food stores, and I find them to be as effective and satisfying as all-natural deodorant—which is to say that they’re not. I’ve been trying both, but neither works very well.
My Sentimental Souvenir
A number of the really pivotal, seminal moments in my life have occurred when I’ve gone off by myself, and this collection of photographs is one example. About 20 years ago, I was going through a really hard time. I was dealing with my first divorce and depression, and I made a decision: I was going to travel to Gili Meno, a tiny island off the coast of Lombok, Indonesia, and spend 10 days in solitude to see if I could have some sort of reckoning with myself.
Even though the thought of being on my own was terrifying, I felt I needed to go be alone in the farthest away place I could find, and at the time, the island didn’t have power and you could only access it by fishing boat. Even then, though, you had to jump off the boat into hip-deep water and carry your luggage over your head to the shore. I didn’t bring any books, and I didn’t speak for 10 days, but I did take one photograph every single day, and this book contains those images. I’m always proud that I did that, because the experience was transformative. I learned a lot about myself and found something in me that I needed to find.
My Writer’s Block Trick
Whenever I feel stuck, I’ll grab my kitchen timer and set it for an hour. During that time, the only thing I demand of myself is that I don’t get out of that chair. I don’t have to produce anything that’s good—in fact, I don’t have to produce anything at all. I just have to spend 60 minutes at my laptop with my manuscript open, and when that timer dings, I’m allowed to stand up and give myself credit for having a great day at work simply because I sat there and didn’t get up. It also means for the next 23 hours, I can do whatever I want, and then I’ll repeat that the following day.
That works for me, because if I have to sit there until it’s good, it’ll end in tears, but if I only have to sit there for an hour, I’ll usually get something down, and the next day, it’ll be a little easier. Not to mention that if I can do that for 14 consecutive days, I’m allowed to buy a cashmere sweater. Specifically, a charcoal gray cashmere sweater that is an exact replica of the all the other charcoal gray cashmere sweaters that I own. I’m a charcoal gray cashmere sweater hoarder, so that bit of bribery is a really good incentive for me.
To me, the greatest luxury is long, uninterrupted days on end—which is something I didn’t have when I wrote my first four books. I remember writing the first one, and at the time, I was living in the East Village and working as a bartender, so I was lucky if I could get just one afternoon a week where I wasn’t completely exhausted. I dreamt of rural space and silence, but I couldn’t afford it.
So now that I have it, man, I do not take it for granted. I recently spent a few days reading a collection of previously unpublished letters, interviews, essays, and speeches by Vladimir Nabokov, and it felt like hanging out with a great friend. That’s always been one of the most delightful parts of being a writer: The fact that your teachers are the people you admire, and your friends can be dead. Nabokov died when I was in the third grade. We wouldn’t have hung out. But now, we get to, and you’d have to come up with some pretty amazing offer to beat three days alone with him.
In my old house, I used to work up in the attic, and I painted the staircase leading up to the space with a line from Emily Dickinson, one word per step: “The soul selects her own society—then shuts the door.” The truth is there are very few places I’d rather be, and very few people I’d rather be with than here, by myself, which may come as a surprise to some people. Even though I’m very chatty and emotionally connected to the people I love, this is where it gets really good—when the door is shut.
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