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Shelby Stanger: Today’s guest is the writer, Elizabeth Weil.
Welcome to Wild Ideas Worth Living, an adventure podcast presented by REI Co-op, the brand who helps get you outside through gear, classes, and adventures. We talk to experts who have taken a wild idea and made it a reality, so you can, too. From people who have climbed the tallest peaks, started thriving businesses, and even broken records. Some of the wildest ideas can lead to the most rewarding adventures. I’m your host, Shelby Stanger, and I hope you enjoy the show.
Have you ever read an article on the magazine that was so good, you looked to see who wrote it? Well, I’ve done this time and time again with today’s guest, the award-winning writer, Elizabeth Weil. Liz covers people and subjects I’m especially interested in, people who tend to live on the fringe and do wild things. She also has impeccable taste for detail in her writing, and she’s a voracious reporter.
She’s written about everyone, from snowboarder Shaun White, to swimmer Diana Nyad, Olympic skier Mikaela Shiffrin, Olympic swimmer Dara Torres, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. She’s also written books about her own marriage, helped countless people write their own books, and she recently penned The Girl Who Smiled Beads, which won several awards and was a New York Times’ bestseller. Aside from writing, Liz is a mom to two teenage daughters, and she’s married to the famous surf writer, the author, Daniel Duane.
We cover a lot of ground in this interview, but we focus mostly on one of her more recent subjects; he’s a man who paddled across the Atlantic three times in a kayak, all by himself, the third time when he was in his 70s. We discuss why she’s attracted to people like this, who do wild things, and what she’s learned from them. We also dive into how to make it as a writer today, how to get the attention of editors and actually make money doing it, and how to write an awesome pitch. We even discuss why adventure can be really good for your relationship. Enjoy the show.
Liz, thank you so much for coming on the show. You really seem to be attracted to people who not only want to live wildly but just don’t want to feel stuck, and I love that about you.
Elizabeth Weil: I love those people. I feel like those people, the people I write about, are me but more extreme, and that is my greatest fear in life to feel stuck and trapped. I’m mostly a fairly risk-averse person, so I love going and meeting these people who are much braver than I am.
Shelby: You grew up on the East Coast, right?
Elizabeth: I grew up in deep suburbia on the East Coast.
Shelby: Deep suburbia. What made you risk-averse, just maybe give us a little background on you.
Elizabeth: I think it’s partly just who I am. My scare reflex is so strong. If I even think maybe something bad is going to happen, like a little bad thing, like if I’m a passenger in the car and I think someone’s not paying attention, I get so sweated with cause, all that I can feel it coursing through my body and it hurts.
I think partly it’s just who I am. I also grew up, as I said in suburbia, in a very risk-averse family, like no one in my family barely even did sports. It wasn’t the culture that I grew up in, and I was attracted to it, like I did way more of that stuff than anybody in my family, but I’m still in a way novice even at middle age.
Shelby: I love that, because I actually grew up in a family from the East Coast. My mom was like, “You can only go surfing if there’s a lifeguard out,” and I was like, “That is just not going to happen, mom.” Eventually, we broke that. I also think that having that sensitivity to fear must be what also makes you such a good writer and pay attention to the detail.
Elizabeth: I think I’m mesmerized by people who don’t feel that way, and so I’m just fascinated by every little piece. [laughs] This weekend I went to see Free Solo, the Alex Honnold movie.
Shelby: Yes, you do.
Elizabeth: I was sitting next to my 16-year-old daughter who is a Yosemite climber already, and she is in utter control of her fear however much she feels it. I was sitting there watching the movie, which I know ends well, right? We know Alex is fine, he’s not dead, but I could not watch it, like I had my hands in front of my face [laughs] the whole film. That’s just how I am.
Shelby: That’s hilarious. Your daughter, let’s just put a little side note in here. Your daughter climbs with Beth Rodden, a former guest of this episode who you’re advising on a book, which is so cool.
Elizabeth: Yes, Beth has been just like this miracle friend, mentor, all-around awesome person in all of our lives. I love Beth as a friend. She has been just this total dream to Hannah. She’s taken Hannah climbing a bunch of times. She is unbelievably kind and supportive.
Shelby: Hannah is how old?
Elizabeth: She’s 16.
Shelby: Imagining 16, and your climbing coach is like one of the legends. That’s amazing. Beth Rodden, I don’t think you’ll get a better climbing coach than that.
Elizabeth: Not for her in that Beth, as you know, she’s a person who does these incredibly scary things but meticulously. She’s very controlled and safe person. As a parent, too, like, “Hannah wants to climb,” okay, I’m like, “Okay, but you need to talk Beth into it,” because I would feel completely safe with Hannah in that circumstance because Beth is just like, she’s the best.
Shelby: That’s awesome. We’ve gone completely off topic, which is great, because I can talk to you forever about everything. I want to start with one of your most wild characters that you interviewed a little while ago, that was in New York Times magazine, Doba, a guy from Poland who decided to cross the Atlantic in a kayak, not once but three times, the third time in his 70s. When most of our parents in their 70s, mine goes to SoulCycle, or some retire, this guy is kayaking three times.
Maybe you can just tell us a little more background on him, and then why you think he felt compelled, even at 70, to do it again.
Elizabeth: Yes, first of all, he is amazing. He’s maybe my favorite character, ever. He is just like a force of nature. Like you said, he’s Polish, and because he is 70, he grew up when Poland was still communist, and when what you could do, your freedom both politically and just where you went in the world and what you were allowed to do, was so curtailed that I think, one, it made him just desperate to have those experiences. He’s the kind of person that has existed always that just loves those experiences and craves them, and he had to do whatever it took to have them.
I think one piece of it is how he grew up. The second piece of it is related, but I think the feeling of freedom is so incredibly important to him, and even now in Poland, the democracy, like freedom to him is getting to just go rage against the world. Just go, put yourself in the most extreme environment that is most outside of culture and expectation. That feels truly free to him.
There is, he’s like a strong guy, [laughs] and he’s mentally so tough and irrepressible that he feels like, “I don’t want to just sit around now that I’m 70. I want to keep living my life, and I’m strong enough to do it, so here I go.”
Shelby: Wow. Can I read this little passage from it?
Elizabeth: Of course.
Shelby: Okay. Hopefully I don’t butcher anything.
Doba kept no schedule. “I’m not German, always 9:00 AM paddle,” he explained. “I’m Polish, I paddle when I would like.” His skin broke out in salt-induced rashes including blisters in his armpits and groin. His eyes blew up with conjunctivitis, his fingernails and toenails just about peeled off. His clothes permeated with salt, refused to dry. The fabric smelled horrendous and aggravated his skin, so he abandoned his clothes. That’s pretty awesome, so he basically kayaked naked.
Ocean kayaking is catastrophically monotonous. The primary challenge is not physical. Doba described the tedium as a form of dementia; hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of repetitions. His brain is removed from the process. Doba rotated through three kinds of freeze-dried porridge for breakfast, four kinds of freeze-dried soup for lunch, and an assortment of a dozen freeze-dried entries. He ate all the meat options first.
He also snacked on dried fruit and his wife’s plum jam, but he ran out of that halfway across the ocean. Every time he closed his eyes, Doba told me, “I dreamed I was paddling in the winter in Poland.” He lost 45 pounds. Still, the trip was perfect. 99 days after leaving Senegal, Doba arrived in Brazil. He was greeted by one journalist and the Polish ambassador. Nobody cares if you crossed the Atlantic in a kayak. The fact that Doba knows this is clear in his eyes. In photos from the ends of his trip, he looks ecstatic and feral, in the best possible sense intrinsically wild and free.
Damn, Liz, that writing is so good, and he just seems so cool.
Elizabeth: He is the coolest. He is the coolest I think,
because like that line that, “He knows that no one cares,” I think that in a certain sense like, yes, a few people care if there really is kayaking that you have crossed the Atlantic in a kayak, but, in general, not so many people care; you’re doing it for yourself and you are doing it because you want that experience. He knows that.
To me, that is so incredibly appealing, that you’ll do this incredibly difficult thing and then not be waiting for anybody to pat you on the back that you’ve done it for yourself.
Shelby: I think that’s so interesting. I interviewed Diana Nyad, who crossed to Cuba just swimming, but there are people there at the end.
Elizabeth: It’s funny, I wrote a piece about Diana eight years ago. I wrote it before she succeeded, like after her second swim. She’s a massive extrovert. I love her. She’s such a people person. Part of me always has been fascinated, like, “How can she do this?” She loves to talk and she loves an audience. She’s so relational. Doba is pretty extroverted, too, in a way, but he’s not the kind of person who thrives on that interaction.
Shelby: You already talked a little about why you think he did it, but you also wrote this line that I thought was really interesting. It said, “You can be made small by life or rage against it,” and then it’s a word in Polish that I’m not going to try and pronounce, and it translates to, “I do not want to be a little grey man,” a common expression in Poland and a good motto for us all. I don’t want to be a grey man.
Elizabeth: I think that’s his greatest fear. I think for a lot of us it’s a great fear, of like, “I don’t want to be just like tiny dull person slaving away in an office, my life all grey, and monochrome, and boring.” He’s willing to do just like the most extreme thing, ever, to not be that person.
Shelby: How did you find him?
Elizabeth: He was on National Geographic, I forget if they’re called Adventures of the Year, Explorer of the Year, or whatever. I had read about him a few years before I did the story. I saw this picture of him, he’s like completely fantastic-looking. I saw this picture of him. At the time, I felt like, “Oh, my God, no one cares if you kayak across the Atlantic, what am I going to write?” It’s so monotonous. I just kind of forgot about it.
I wrote a really depressing book, and then I felt like I needed to find some cheerful, awesome people in the world stories, and I remembered seeing him. The book was about genocide. [laughs] We don’t need to talk about that book. It was like the darkest of the dark, and I felt like I needed to get away from that. Anyway, I go through these phases when I want to think up new stories, where I just poke around the Web and bounce from one thing to the next, to the next.
I remembered him and then it turned out he’d done it again. I hadn’t even really realized that he had done it a third time when I started thinking about him again. I went over and looked him up, and I researched him, and I wrote a pitch, and then off I went to Poland in January.
Shelby: It wasn’t very warm then, right?
Elizabeth: No. [chuckles] That’s the other thing about him, is that, not only will he paddle across the Atlantic, he paddles in the Arctic, he doesn’t care how cold it is. Polish people are so tough, like there is no suffering that is too much suffering for them. They have this national identity as the people who are the toughest, will suffer the most. They love that about themselves. They’re really proud of it.
Shelby: What did you learn from Doba that you’ve applied in your life that maybe could help people listening to this podcast?
Elizabeth: I learned that throwing yourself against the world, that there is a kind of freedom in the absurdity of it. One guy in a kayak in the middle of the Atlantic is so small, and in a certain sense, you could get all essential about it and be like, “You’re nothing,” you’re out there, you’re this tiny little spec in the universe, you’re meaningless, except he flips it all around, of that like, you are out there, you’re this tiny little spec, you’re the only thing, you’re the hero.
I feel like that’s a really good lesson. It totally flips the whole crisis, defeatist mentality on its head, to be like, “I’m this horrible situation, and it’s an opportunity for heroism,” as opposed to like, “I’m in this horrible situation and I’m a victim.” He totally never plays the victim role. He will turn anything into a situation where he is the hero.
Shelby: I love that, because I just interviewed an astronaut, and she talked about how small you feel from outer space, and what it looks like looking at the Earth. I love that analogy of flipping it on its head. That’s pretty beautiful.
Elizabeth: In a way, an astronaut I think is like the perfect example of it, like where would you feel smaller, nowhere than like you are out there in space, you’re this tiny little thing, you’re removed from everything. You could decide that you’re nothing, or you could decide, “I’m having the greatest experience of my life, I’m on this huge adventure and I’m the star of my adventure.”
I think part of it is also not needing everyone to care. You are the star of your adventure and you’re the hero, as long as you presume that, in some ways, you’re the audience also. Do you know what I mean?
Shelby: Yes. Let’s go back. Besides capturing detail, how do you pitch this story, because when we talked about it, I mean the pitch is so important, but you say you pitch a story that’s obvious, but then the story is about something completely different.
Elizabeth: I think there were two pieces to pitching this story. I think that they’re, for me, often there for most pieces. Which is like, the first part is, you have to make the editors reading the pitch love your person, or that’s often where I come in. Unless you’re writing about a politician, or doing investigative reporting, or doing some whole other kind of thing, or a criminal, that is well, I don’t know, sometimes I feel like you have to make them love the criminal. That is of massive consequence.
You’re basically writing about a person because you think they’re interesting. I think a big part of the job is being enthusiastic, and conveying why you’re interested and getting that energy on the page. For me, I often feel like a lot of that is loving the person, and I also feel like I’m sitting on a couch and the reader is sitting next to me, and I’m like we’re looking at the subject of whatever I’m writing about like across the room, and I’m telling them why this person is so awesome, like I’m sitting there describing them.
For me, at least these days, I feel like being in a positive place is where I want to be. I mean, whatever, not everyone has to take the positivity approach. Part of pitching it is seeing the person with clarity to show an editor exactly why they’re awesome. I think a second piece of it, and that it was certainly true in this pitch, is then explaining what’s the bigger thing this person is going to let you get into, like why do we care?
For Doba, part of it was saying like, “Okay, we don’t actually care about kayaking, or very few people actually care about kayaking,” more of your listeners and readers of The Times Magazine care about kayaking, but they care about the human experience. They care about trying to have a meaningful life, and a good life, and figuring out how to get through it with exuberance.
I feel like part of the pitch towards the end usually, is sort of saying like, “And here is what the story lets me get into,” here’s the really big thing that it’s bigger than the overt topic that I’m going to be able to segue into. People call it like your angle, or your slant, or your whatever. I somehow don’t usually think about it in those terms, I think about it in the story of it, and what is this story really, really about.
Shelby: And why does it matter now.
Elizabeth: I think that’s important in pitching, is both showing the editor that you’re capable of thinking that way and then also doing that work for them. Editors are so busy, they read so many pitches. The more you serve them up the thing that they’re looking for, the easier it’s going to be to get it refined.
Shelby: One of the things though that you did in this story that was so good, was you captured so much detail. You talked about a little bit what he looks like but I’m just going to read what you wrote.
“Even here at home, Doba’s physicality is sweet gentry. His body appears to be assembled from parts belonging to people of vastly different ages. His skin looks 71, his chest looks 50, his hands and forearm look 30 straight off of Montana Roper. His hair and beard appear to be taken from a Michelangelo painting
There’s a lot of people listening, including myself, who’d love to write like this. How do you do that? Do you write all these visuals about him when you’re there, do you take pics, or do you let it soak in and then you write these amazing descriptions when you get back?
Elizabeth: A little of those. The description that you just read was a sort of both situations. I remember at one point on this trip sitting there just looking at him, I was like, “Okay, he’s such a physically compelling person. How am I going to describe him?” and feeling like, “Oh, my God, he looks so old and so young,” and all that stuff at the same time. That idea happened while I was sitting there.
The Michelangelo painting part happened at home. That’s just sitting there at my desk being like, “Oh, my God, how am I going to describe his totally fantastic beard? What’s it like?” like, “Oh, right, it’s like those paintings.” I think that there’s not one simple answer. I also think that taking the time while you’re reporting, to just sit there and try to let your brain relax and be a little creative, is really important. Those ideas, when you have them you have to write them down, or at least if you’re me you will forget them, for sure, by the time that you’re trying to write.
Shelby: What are some other tactics you did to get this story? I listened in another podcast when you reported the heck out of it, but you don’t speak Polish. I know you swim, but I’m guessing you’re not professional kayaker.
Elizabeth: No. No, I’m a crappy kayaker.
Shelby: You used Google translator to translate his book?
Elizabeth: There were a couple kinds of translating that happened. Before I went, he sent me a doc that was the manuscript of a memoir he wrote in Polish. I clearly wasn’t going to spend the money to have it professionally translated, like no one was going to reimburse me, it was just too much. I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll just throw the whole thing through Google Translate and see what happens.”
It was rather hilarious, but it was good enough for me to have a bunch of background to know more what questions to ask him. Obviously, I wasn’t going to quote this Google-translated mess. Then, I also had a translator working with me on the story, and he was a really, really good translator. By good, I mean he’s a journalist. He’s a guy who used to be the editor in chief of Polish National Geographic, so he knew the job that I was trying to do beyond just like, “What did he say?” He could ask the questions in a way that was going to get Doba telling me stories, and he was going to translate back to me with all the detail that I was going to need.
I said to him, just like, “Actually tell me word for word. Let’s go really slow. I want to be able to capture his voice, so let’s not worry about how long any of this takes. Let’s just do it word by word.”
Shelby: How many words did the piece end up being, around the pages or words in the New York Times Magazine?
Elizabeth: I don’t really know. It’s maybe 6,000 or 7,000 words.
Shelby: That’s a long piece of the magazine.
Elizabeth: It’s a long story.
Shelby: That’s like 14 pages.
Elizabeth: It’s a long story. He’s an amazing character. I often think stories should be shorter. I’m not a writer who thinks everything should be long, but I just loved him.
Shelby: Do you ever come back from doing these stories on these adventures and then you have to go do an adventure, you’re inspired to go do something, or you’ve changed in some way?
Elizabeth: I came back from this story really wanting to travel. I didn’t come back thinking I need to go on a grand kayaking trip. I mean it sounded great. What he did is so obviously awful. Do you know what I mean?
Elizabeth: I wasn’t inspired to do that thing. I really loved the experience of getting to go somewhere and drop in on some weird little niche of the world. He had inspired me to want to do more stories that took me to weird, random people and places.
Shelby: You also interviewed this amazing hiker who has the record.
Shelby: She is long distance hiker. Who was she? Maybe just give me a little more information about her.
Elizabeth: Her name is Sarah Marquis. She is also completely nuts. She goes on these really epic walks. I wrote about her after she’d done this walk that started in Siberia and then went down through Mongolia, and she wound up taking a boat over to Australia, and then she walked around Australia.
Anyway, she, too, is a person who just really hurls herself at the world to test what the limits are of being a human animal. Even more than Doba, I think she really just wants to strip it all away and be like, “What can a human being do?” She’s pretty interested, too, in what can a female human being do in the world. She’s very clear that she thinks the greatest risk to a female human in the wild is a male human in the wild.
Shelby: Going back to this theme of being unstuck, what did she learn from walking all of these miles? Do you even know how many miles she walked? It sounds it’s probably an impressive number.
Elizabeth: The story I wrote about focused on a walk that she did that was almost 10,000 miles, so really, really, really long. What did she learn? That’s a good question. She’s more focused on the question of survival. It’s a little less about ideas for her than it is about physicality, like what do you do if you’re in the desert and you don’t have water, or what can you eat out there? She does a lot of eating of insects. She’s very interested in the physical limits of survival.
I think she learned that you can really survive quite a lot if you have at least minimal gear, like if you have a tarp to collect water with off of bushes in the desert at night when it condenses.
Shelby: That’s good, because you can buy tarps at REI.
Elizabeth: You can buy tarps at REI.
Shelby: Sorry, shameless plug. We’re going to take a quick break to hear from our sponsor. When we come back, Liz shares some awesome writing tips, so stay tuned.
Shelby: With Black Friday just two days away, it’s almost time to opt outside, which means REI will be closed on Black Friday, again, because they think some things are more important than selling stuff, like spending time outdoors. That’s why they pay their employees to opt outside and they invite the world to join. Even though it’s your fourth year in a row, it’s still all about doing something different. There’s thousands of ways to get outside, all the surfing and hiking, so change up your routine and opt outside this November 23rd, 2018. Happy Thanksgiving.
Shelby: I’m curious about your writing, Liz. You’re such a good prolific writer. I mean you’re the only female adventure writer who I Google constantly, or I look at the byline. It’s awesome. How did you get the wild idea to be a writer?
Elizabeth: It’d be kind of a boring, embarrassing story. Like I said, I grew up in this crappy town. I took one writing class in college that I loved, and then I graduated, and I felt like, “But I have to get a normal job,” like that’s just what everybody does. I got a job editing textbooks. I had a boyfriend who quit that same job to be a freelance writer, and he was like, “You should quit your job and be a freelance writer.” I was like, “Okay,” so I did.
That was, now, a very, very long time ago, when I worked in a coffee shop and I wrote anything for anybody. I wrote quizzes for Seventeen magazine. I literally wrote for anybody, and then I just kept doing that. Now it’s 30 years later -- not 30 years later -- and now it’s 25 years later.
Shelby: I love that you write quizzes for Seventeen magazine, because I was probably the kid doing those quizzes.
Elizabeth: I really did. I wrote for all those teeny girl magazines when I was really young because I felt like, “Okay, what do I have to offer as this incredibly young and experienced female writer?” I was like, “Well,” so let’s place this, it’s good to be young. You’re more in that mindset.
Shelby: Yes, I know. I got my start at Lemonade, so fly for women, Foam Magazine. Teen Vogue.
Shelby: Then I wrote
for outside. Any advice to writers? There are a lot of people who want to be writers who listen to this podcast. I’d love to just get some advice from pitching to what makes a good story, just to how to do it.
Elizabeth: Okay, what is my best advice? I would say, like I said before, I think being able to convey your enthusiasm and your interest is a very big part of getting pieces assigned. Starting at the beginning, how do you get a piece assigned? I think being able to do that is key. Doing a lot of reporting before you pitch is also really key, especially if you’re starting out.
Editors, they don’t have a reason to trust you yet, they don’t even know who you are, so you have to serve them up a thing that just shows them that you are capable. The way to do that in a pitch is to have done all of the pieces that you’re going to eventually need to do, like the components of the thing that you’re eventually going to need to do in the story. You need to write it the way you’re going to write it, and you need to report the pitch enough to show like, “I understand that reporting is a very big part of my job here, and I’m going to do that.”
Pitching, at least if you want to be a magazine writer, is a very, very big deal, because if you don’t get that right, you’re not going to have any work to start with. Getting that right basically teaches you to do everything you’re going to need to do later, anyway.
Shelby: I feel like the best investment was I took a How to Pitch class from Mediabistro years ago, and just learnt to pitch like a master. I actually like pitching better than writing the story.
Elizabeth: I love pitching. I would pitch all day long. [laughs]
Shelby: You don’t get paid to pitch. You get paid when your pitch is accepted. That’s the tricky part is making a living as a writer is not easy.
Elizabeth: Yes. You don’t get paid to pitch, but if you only write pitches that you haven’t put in the work on, you don’t get paid to do anything because you don’t get them assigned either. I do think that it’s a worthwhile investment of time to work hard on pitches.
Shelby: I just want to break it down for anybody listening who wants to be a writer, that you’re going to have to basically work for free to make your pitch, and then you might get paid. [chuckles]
Elizabeth: Yes. [laughs] Obviously, it is not a great way to make money in the world, being writer given the lame financial landscape of it all. Lots of businesses work on like you bring a proposal to somebody, and you do, you get the job or you don’t get the job. That’s essentially what a pitch is.
Shelby: That’s a great way to look at it. But then on the side, you don’t just do magazine pieces, you write books and you help people with their books. Is that how you balance it and make it all work?
Elizabeth: It is. I live in San Francisco, which is preposterously expensive, and I’m married to a writer, and we have two children, all of which is set up for needing to squeeze every penny you can out of your writing career. I do some ghost writing on the side. I do a little book coaching on the side. I do some book projects. It’s not that those wind up being necessarily like a quicker way to make some money, but the ghost writing certainly is.
I feel like it gets exhausting writing all the time, so having a mix of helping other people, means that I can do more and make some more money than if I was just writing and I would get exhausted and then be done.
Shelby: It’s probably really fun thinking about someone else’s work always than your own.
Elizabeth: It is. It’s always more fun to hear someone else’s story. In a way, I feel like sometimes that it’s easier to be creative but there’s less internal pressure. Most writers I know feel a lot of internal pressure that your thing has to be so good, and there’s so much anxiety wrapped up in that. When you’re helping somebody else, all that just like is taken down a notch, where you’re there to help somebody, your ego is not on the line in the same way.
Shelby: Do you have any routines or things you do to keep that ego or just to deal with that anxiety and internal pressure? I experience it, too. Sometimes I get nervous before a podcast and I experience. It’s much easier I feel like to do a podcast than writing, but I feel it.
Elizabeth: I do have a routine. Part of it is that I have kids who are in school, so I think I’m inclined to work a very regular schedule anyway. Given that the family is on, or like the weekdays you get up in the morning and then you go do your thing, and then they do a lot of sports, and so then they come home at night, and we have dinner and whatever. I basically work from 8.00 to 3.00 or 3.30, and then I almost always go get some exercise or just my way of resetting.
I work at home, so then I can come back home and be outside of my work frame, and more relaxed and rejuvenated. I can work really hard, long days, like a couple of days in a row, but then I get burned out and I can’t keep doing it. Having a more regular schedule, for me at least, means I can actually just keep doing my job as opposed to working really hard and getting burnt out, and not being able to do my job, and then needing a big reset, and then repeating that.
Shelby: Thanks. Actually Mark Lukach, who was on this podcast last year, could ask me like, “How do you do it all?” It sounds like you’ve figured out a way to have balance.
Elizabeth: Yes. I think that when I was starting out, signing a schedule for myself and keeping a schedule, all that, so hard. Like anything, if you do it for a lot of years, those pieces of it get easier, and you figure out what works for you. I used to remember saying to people, “I think you have to work at home for two years until you get used to it. You don’t just want to go lie on the couch and watch Netflix all day,” which you do.
If you haven’t been living that life, you’re like, “Oh, my God,” all of a sudden you have all this freedom to do what you want with your day, and then you do that, but then if you do that enough times, then you get to the self-loathing part of it, where you’re like, “Oh, shit, I just wasted my entire day. I don’t actually want to live a life of only watching Netflix, I would like to actually be a writer, so I better do that.”
Shelby: I started working from home 10 years ago, or 11 years ago now, and there was no Netflix, or at least I had no TV. That was not an option, but surfing was an option, and that was challenging. How could I not surf all day and run all day? Eventually, you can’t surf all day and run all day, so you have to go home and write. You do a lot. I don’t really know how you juggle it.
Even Mark Lukach, the writer, who we’ve had on this show who actually said you were a mentor of his and recommended I interview you, he said I should ask you about the role health and nutrition play in your family; because even when I went to your house, you had gymnastic rings hanging in your house, and when we stopped for lunch, Dan made this incredibly healthy, yummy, gourmet salad, and it was awesome.
Elizabeth: Yes, I am very lucky. Dan is the cook. I work in the basement and he works in a loft above our kitchen. I generally get a text in the middle of the day that says, “Lunch,” and then I run up the stairs. Sometimes, like when you were here, we sit down and have lunch. A lot of days we don’t take a break then because he’ll want to go surf later in the afternoon and I’ll want to quit, too. Sometimes there’s a break for lunch in the middle of the day and sometimes there’s not. There’s hardly ever, like I was saying, just work straight through until evening.
Yes, all of it is such a habit at this point in time to think about, but we eat healthy food. We’re not vegetarians, or vegans, or any of that, but we eat healthy. We live fairly like lifestyle-wise, straight, narrow life.
Shelby: You adventure together though, too, like you swam across to Alcatraz together, correct?
Elizabeth: Yes. I don’t mean like straight nearby we don’t have adventures, just like we get enough sleep. We get the basic things to keep feeling good, because I do think if you feel like crap, you’re just not going to get anything done, it’s too exhausting. Yes, we’ve had some big adventures together. We swam from Alcatraz together. We generally go on a big family backpacking trip in the Sierra every summer.
We had a phase of doing triathlons together that ended with back problems for me, but, yes, we go do family stuff out in the wild.
Shelby: I think that’s great. I actually just was interviewing Gabby Reece yesterday. We talked about, I was saying, “I run with my fiancé now,” I’m like, “But now we race, because he’s getting as fast as me.” She’s like, “Do not
compete with your husband, or fiancé, or boyfriend, whatever he is, like just don’t compete with them. It’s not good for your relationship.”
Elizabeth: Yes, that was hard. We had a hard time running together. [laughs] That was the one thing where we never totally sorted out our egos. I had been really into running. In the years where we were running together, Dan was also lifting, so some days he’d be like, “Okay, let’s go for a run,” and then we would start out and he would be like, “Well, yes, I squatted really heavy yesterday. I basically can’t move,” and then I will be really frustrated because I want to have my run. Anyway, it was a whole saga that we have not encountered in other areas. I agree with Gabby, competing is bad.
Shelby: I appreciate that. You wrote a book about your marriage and how doing adventures bring you closer together. I’ll put that book in the show notes. It’s a long title. Will you tell me the title of it?
Elizabeth: The title is No Cheating, No Dying: I Had a Good Marriage and Then I Tried to Make It Better. Basically, it was like I scoured all of the marriage advice, and couples’ therapies, and whatever out there. Frankly, one of the best pieces of advice was like, “Go do new stuff together.” It sounds kind of hokey and very relationship advice, but it’s really fun to go do new stuff together.
Then if you’re in a really long relationship that if you don’t go after new stuff, then it just tends to fall away because you get in your habits and you keep chugging along your habits, and then the years go by and then you’re like, “Oh, my God, this is getting to be a little bit of a rut,” so I highly recommend it. That was what prompted the Alcatraz swim, we’re like, “We need a big new thing.” We’re trying to do that.
Shelby: For people listening, go do an adventure with your partner, whoever your partner is, at whatever stage of relationship.
Elizabeth: Go do a new adventure. Go do something that is outside of normal. It doesn’t have to be extreme, necessarily, but just that is not your known turf. Better if it’s not one person’s turf or the other person’s turf, but it’s just like-
Elizabeth: A neutral new thing.
Shelby: I like that.
Elizabeth: It sounds goofy, but I think it’s good.
Shelby: That’s good. We’re going to start doing that question on every podcast, like, “What’s the wild thing you should go do right now?” I think if you don’t have a partner or significant, a friend, or your mom, or a family member, someone who you have a relationship with, that’s a really good thing to do. You’re a mom to a teenager.
Elizabeth: To two teenagers.
Shelby: Two teenagers. I feel like 15 is a pretty, like 14, 15, 16 teenage years are tough, especially for women. Any advice, if you go back to your 15-year-old self, that you would give her?
Elizabeth: Yes. It’s a little corny, but I feel like, believe in yourself and dig into your passions. I think the beautiful part about being 15, and the horrible part, is that everything is so intense. It’s like the volume on your emotional life is so loud. I think, in general, it’s a really bad wrap, but there’s also a great side to that passion. My advice to her would be to just dig into the parts of it that are positive.
Shelby: I think that’s good advice. I forgot to ask you, what are you working on now that you’re excited about that you can talk about? You mentioned to me this story that you’re working on about this guy who climbs.
Elizabeth: I am just about to start working on a story about this British guy who has Alzheimer’s, who climbs the same mountain every day. I’m really excited about it. It sounds to me like this fairytale, in a way. I love how iconic the setup is, and I love how adaptive it is in this beautiful way, like staying strong physically is a really important piece of combating Dementia.
His way of doing it in this place that is familiar. He’s still in fairly good health. He’s very aware that this mountain is the last thing that he will remember. Anyway, I haven’t reported yet, so I don’t know very well, but I’m really looking forward to it.
Shelby: That’s such a timely piece. I think one out of five of my friends’ parents has Alzheimer’s right now.
Elizabeth: Yes. It’s so scary. I feel like it’s terrifying to me in a way than almost nothing else is. His way of approaching it is somehow very comforting to me.
Shelby: Yes. It sounds like he’s still early stage, too.
Elizabeth: He’s still early stage, but I feel like there’s something that is both accepting and positive about how he’s approaching it that I really admire.
Shelby: Liz, I can’t wait to read that. My partner’s mom is going through it and one of my best friend’s father’s going through it. I’ve another friend who is writing a book about it, and her mom is going through it, and it’s just so-- losing your mind has to be the hardest thing, and it’s hard on other people. I’m curious to know how you’re going to report how it’s affecting other people in his life.
Shelby: So many questions about that. Thank you so much for this. I just want to know; any other advice you can give to people who just want to live wildly? You’ve interviewed so many people who live wildly. For me, wildly doesn’t mean they’re just wild and crazy and they do these things, but they live life full on their own terms. Advice on how to do that, because I’m guessing it hasn’t always been easy for you to kind of carve and live the path that you’ve lived. Maybe you could talk just a little bit about anything that’s been hard that you’ve been able to overcome and advice you can share from it.
Elizabeth: I feel like the secret to dealing with the hard part of writing, a fairly large part of that is not quitting, which I know is complicated and I know it can be a mess financially and all these things, but I feel like it’s hard. A lot of these adventures that I write about, most people quit. It’s not that they don’t have valid reasons or whatever, but the truth of it is that most people quit, and most people who want to be writers quit because it’s hard and it’s a pain in the ass, and you don’t make that much money, and there’s a lot of risk in a not super exciting way, generally speaking.
I really think that not quitting and working hard, and just all the things people say, and reading, and deconstructing stuff to figure out some piece that you love, like, “What is even in it? How did they put it together?” Then not being afraid to just copy the big building blocks as you try to get going on a draft, is like, “What kind of thing was valid anyway, and what was the structure?” Just grabbing hold of the things that will let you keep going, and believing that you have a right to keep going. I feel like there’s such pressure on all of us to do the normal thing.
When I started out as a journalist, being a journalist was a much more normal thing than it is now, so I think it takes a whole other level of bravery than I had to muster at the beginning.
Shelby: I appreciate you being honest. I’m curious to know. One, I really appreciate you being honest about the financial part, because when I went to college, I had this mentor that I loved and he had a really nice house, and he’d written a book. He was crushing it as a writer. I was like, “Wow, I could make it financially as a writer.” What I didn’t realize until much -- I knew it, but I didn’t put it all together -- is his wife is the heiress to a large banking family.
Shelby: Like a really large one. I’m not going to say the name of it, but you know it. You probably do your banking there. We don’t always know people’s financial situations and how they get to do the wild thing they do. The financial part’s a big part of it.
Elizabeth: I do think, and what’s been really true for us, is keeping your life cheap. It’s like if you don’t keep your life cheap, forget it, unless you have some fortune tucked away somewhere. If you’re like most people and you have no fortune waiting for you, keeping your life cheap is a very big thing that you have control over that can make it sustainable or not sustainable.
Elizabeth: We go backpacking a lot. I would love to go on some big fancy vacation every year but that is really expensive with a family, so we, generally speaking, don’t. It’s not like nobody feels that or wishes things were otherwise sometimes, but I wouldn’t trade our life for doing some other kind of work and having a lot more financial stability.
Shelby: Where do you go backpacking?
Elizabeth: We go backpacking on the eastside of the Sierra Nevada.
Shelby: You’re not giving it away, but that’s okay. [laughs]
Elizabeth: No, we don’t always go to the same place. We’ve gone on some great trips to Twenty Lakes Basin, which is like if you were driving from San Francisco to Tuolumne Meadows, and you went up and over the crest, and just out the park on the eastside, it is a fantastic
place to go backpacking with your family. You can get to completely spectacular, beautiful country with just a few miles of walking that’s not very steep.
Shelby: I think what I’m learning is that, I thought there was only Yosemite, but just all around Yosemite there’s incredible backpacking everywhere?
Elizabeth: Yes, and if you’re outside of the parks, then the whole permitting process is less intense, and there are fewer people, and there’s beautiful, beautiful stuff outside the park boundaries.
Shelby: Liz, we ask all of our guests this. If you could throw a party, what kind of party would you throw, who’s coming, what are we eating and drinking?
Elizabeth: I’m such a boring person and I’m really an introvert that I would literally just throw a party with my close friends. I really would. [laughs]
Shelby: Dinner party at your house?
Elizabeth: I would have a dinner party at my house where I didn’t have to clean up anything with my close friends. I guess this is a big testament to my life. I don’t feel like in a dinner party I crave a different thing. I really love our community.
Shelby: I love it. Any mottoes or advice you could give to those who just want to live wildly?
Elizabeth: [laughs] My joke is, in our family, is that dehydration is the leading cause of crankiness, so I don’t have great advice other than hydrate. I’m sorry.
Shelby: That is great advice, hydrate. I think that’s probably some of the most honest advice on the podcast. Liz, thank you so much.
Shelby: To find more on Elizabeth Weil, go to her website, elizabethweil.net. Liz, thank you so much. Thank you to Dan for having me at your house doing this interview, and Dan to making amazing lunch, and to both of you for just putting amazing work into the world. To you, for listening to this show, I really appreciate it. I’m actually wrapping up this season. I’d love to hear what shows stuck out, what you want more of, if any of them helped you, so just email me.
You can also write a review on iTunes. I read those, and my whole team reads them, and they’ve been awesome. CaroRoseKish, thank you so much, you wrote a really nice review, so did dirttraildude. This one’s really funny, it’s from YaYaGracie, said, “I’ve been infected by this podcast. Symptoms included, but are not limited to, binge-listening, urge to quit my job, desire to do things that scare me, desire to hike, encouragement to keep going to the gym and get healthy so I can do all the things, and sharing this disease with all my friends every chance I get.” I really appreciate it.
This show has been really fun for me and I’ve learned a lot. I really love hearing from listeners. It’s getting towards the end of the year. We only have a few more shows. We have Eric Goodman, a fitness expert, coming up, and some more and a really good recap, so stay tuned. Don’t forget, some of the best adventures often happen when you follow your wildest ideas.
[00:53:11] [END OF AUDIO]
Here’s the Wild Idea
Elizabeth’s Wild Idea: To write about people who adventure for a larger purpose.
There are some writers whose words resonate so well and whose descriptions are so deep, their words hit you to the core and transport you into their world.
Today’s guest, Elizabeth Weil, has evoked that feeling for me time and again through her work. The award-winning writer often covers the kind of people I love – those who live outside the normal boundaries of society, and pursue their own wild ideas and make them a reality. She has written about everyone from snowboarder Shaun White and skier Mikaela Shiffrin to swimmer Diana Nyad, Senator Kristen Gillibrand and a man named Doba who kayaked across the Atlantic in his seventies. In addition to writing articles for The New York Times Magazine, Outside Magazine, Wired, and more, she has also written a book about her own marriage, and she recently penned the New York Times bestselling book, The Girl Who Smiles Beads. In addition to being a writer, she’s also a mom and a wife. She’s married to one of my other favorite writers (who happens to cover surfing and rock-climbing), Daniel Duane.
In our conversation, Liz and I talk about a few of the subjects she’s covered including Doba, and some other adventurers who have done wild feats without the desire for any recognition. We also talk about why she is attracted to stories about people who live wildly, why they do it, what she has learned from them, and her advice for anyone who wants to make a living as a writer.
Listen to this Episode if
- You want to be a writer.
- You love reading amazing stories.
- You like stories of adventurers who do wild things just for themselves.
- You are looking to improve your relationship.
- You need help balancing your personal and professional life.
- 3:00 – What made Liz risk averse.
- 6:45 – Who is Aleksander Doba and why his story is so fascinating.
- 12:05 – How she found Doba.
- 14:05 – What Liz learned from Doba.
- 16:20 – How she goes about pitching a story.
- 21:45 – The challenges of writing Doba’s story.
- 24:10 – How Liz is affected by her stories.
- 25:10 – Who is Sarah Marquis.
- 28:30 – Where Liz got the wild idea to be a writer and her advice to writers out there.
- 33:10 – How Liz also helps other people write their own stories.
- 35:00 – How she balances her writing work and her personal life.
- 43:00 – What advice she would give her fifteen-year-old self.
- 44:50 – The story she is working on now.
- 46:20 – Other lessons she has to share.
- 49:35 – Where she goes backpacking.
Episodes to listen to
The Girl Who Smiled Beads
No Cheating No Dying