In Part 1 of our interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, she discussed her new book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage.
Here, Gilbert, now happily married to the Brazilian-born beau she describes in her book, talks with us about the importance of finding and listening to yourself, even in the context of relationships.
At The Women’s Conference, we hear a lot about how women need to learn to be more fearless, take more risks and learn how to ask for what they want. You seem to have learned how to do all of these things. How did you get there?
Women define themselves often in relationships to other people. This is the source of the conflict. This is why it can be so troubling when women love because women tend to love and to give everything. So what you want, when it stands in opposition to what your family might need or what your husband or parents might want, this can cause a great deal of trouble for women. And often times, women may want the things that will make other people happy. And that might not be in conjunction with their best interests. As I said in the book, I come from a long line of women who very much put themselves last. Literally, women are the last ones to eat, to go to bed. There’s something so noble and magnificent about that. We certainly don’t want to live in a society where everyone puts themselves first. But there’s got to be some sort of in-between. My grandmother kept nothing for herself. I think that’s something that women of my generation finally said – no. You can’t have everything about me. You can have most of me, but you can’t have all of me.
I’m very lucky to have been raised by a mother who felt I was capable of anything. I also don’t have the additional problem of wondering what I want to do with my life. That’s always been very clear to me. And for many women, that question takes up years, if not decades, of their lives – trying to figure out what you’re going to be when you grow up. I only ever wanted to be a writer. So I made my vows to that calling almost as though I was taking a vow of priesthood. So a lot has come second to that over the years and I’m happy about that. I think that makes it easier. And I have a keen sense of adventure. I’m curious about the world. I’ve been following my curiosity more than I’ve even been following passion or conviction.
Have you been able to figure out what chord you struck in so many women with Eat, Pray, Love?
There’s a theme that runs through a lot of conversations I’ve had with women who have read the book. They felt the book was a permission slip for their own lives. The excitement that people sometimes felt about the book was excitement about themselves. They recognized something – or they remembered. I was sorting through my own life, saying “What am I here for? What brings me passion and what makes me have meaning and what makes me feel joy?” As I was asking those questions, other women were reminded to ask those questions in their own lives. One of the stories that was most touching was from one woman who said “I forgot that when I was ten years old, my favorite thing to do was to ice skate and I’ve missed it and denied myself this for the last 20 years. So I read your book, bought some skates an started taking skating classes.” And often the story ends there. It’s not – now I’m an Olympic skater. It’s that now there’s this corner of my life that is devoted to this new joy.
We all need permission from the principal, especially those of us who have spent our lives being good girls -- and good women. I always say to myself – are you waiting for permission from the principal? Who are you waiting for permission from to go do this thing that you want to do. I love that moment when people can recall that they can enable themselves to do these things.
Starting a new year, not to mention a new decade, invites reflection. What are you hoping to accomplish in the coming year?
It’s a funny moment that I’m in right now. I want to live my life at home. I’m really fascinated by this community that I recently moved to – a small town in New Jersey. Neither one of us has ever felt that we belonged anywhere before because we’ve both been such gypsies. So for the first time I’m experiencing first-hand what it feels like to be part of a community. I don’t think there’s anything going on in my life right now that’s as exciting and important as that. A lot of this year I’m hoping to be home as much as I can be. I have this increasing sense that right now we all need each other. And we’re not going to need each other any less over the coming decade. So cultivating those deep relationships of care and trust and reliability is the most interesting alchemy going on in my life right now. It’s also very novel because I haven’t stayed in one place long enough to become part of something like this.
Elizabeth Gilbert is an award-winning writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Her short story collection Pilgrims was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award, and her novel Stern Men was a New York Times notable book. Her 2002 book The Last American Man was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. Since its initial publication in January 2006, her most recent book Eat, Pray, Love spent 57 weeks in the #1 spot on the New York Times paperback bestseller list. A film adaptation of the book is coming out this summer from Columbia Pictures.