Big Think Interview With Elizabeth Gilbert

Her most recent book is the #1 New York Times Bestselling memoir "Eat, Pray, Love," about the year she spent traveling the world alone after a difficult divorce. Anne Lamott called Eat, Pray, Love "wise, jaunty, human, ethereal, heartbreaking." The book has been a worldwide success, now published in over thirty languages with over 7 million copies in print. It was named by The New York Times as one of the 100 most notable books of 2006, and chosen by Entertainment Weekly as one of the best ten nonfiction books of the year. In 2008, Elizabeth was named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, by Time Magazine.

In addition to writing books, Elizabeth has worked steadily as a journalist. Throughout much of the 1990’s she was on staff at SPIN Magazine, where – with humor and pathos – she chronicled diverse individuals and subcultures, covering everything from rodeo's Buckle Bunnies (reprinted in The KGB Bar Reader) to China’s headlong construction of the Three Gorges Dam. In 1999, Elizabeth began working for GQ magazine, where her profiles of extraordinary men – from singers Hank Williams III and Tom Waits (reprinted in The Tom Waits Reader) to quadriplegic athlete Jim Maclaren – earned her three National Magazine Award Nominations, as well as repeated appearances in the “Best American” magazine writing anthologies. She has also written for such publications as The New York Times Magazine, Real Simple, Allure, Travel and Leisure and O, the Oprah Magazine (where her memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" was excerpted in March, 2006.) She has been a contributor to the Public Radio show "This American Life", and -- perhaps most proudly -- has several times shown up at John Hodgman's Little Gray Book Lecture Series, most notably during Lecture Four on the subject "Hints for Public Singing."

  • Transcript


Question: Why do you write?Gilbert:    Why do I write?  I write for several reasons.  Probably foremost of which is it’s the only thing I can do, to be honest.  I say that because I have friends who, I believe, are cursed by being multitalented.  And I do feel like that is a curse.  Or if you’re not cursed by being multitalented, I know people who are cursed by having many different interests so their attention is kind of fragmented across many fields.  And I think it’s difficult when you’re like that, unless you’re truly a Renaissance person and you can kind of handle all of it at once.  I think it’s hard to sort of find your way and… You know, I just never was interested in anything else.  I was never particularly good at anything else.  There was… There’s no anything else that I wanted or craved or loved as much as this work.  So in that one way, I would say that my life has been phenomenally simple.  I’ve managed to complicate my life in all sorts of other ways.  But just this was a kind of… I don’t know.  I think in everybody’s life, there’s one thing that you get handed as a simple gift.  And for me, it was this whole idea of writing.  Question: What is your creative process?Gilbert:    I follow my curiosity.  I suppose that’s where most people’s creative processes begin, unless they’re sort of more analytical and intellectual about it and they actually set out to conquer, understand something which isn’t necessarily how I work.  I always feel like it’s a tap on the shoulder that begins it, you know.  And it’s not necessarily a passionate response at the beginning, it’s… Curiosity is the best word for it because you feel this little tap and then it just pulls your attention for a minute and you just think, that’s funny, why did I get that response, why am I interested in lobster fishermen, you know, why do I… what is that tweak something in me.  And then, you sort of sniff it out and… And for me… I’m not a particularly imaginative person.  I have a sister, Catherine Murdock, who’s also a writer, and she’s really a fabulist.  Even when we were growing up, she was kind of like Scheherazade.  You know, she can just invent things and make-up worlds.  And I’ve never been that kind of person.  My interest is much more about reflecting on the world as it is.  Even when I was writing fiction, I felt like I had to kind of go to the places that I was writing about and roll around in them for awhile and, you know, just really commune with the people there and, like, taste the soil, you know, and learn about it.  And so, my creative process is really… It’s really involving.  You know, it’s really about a kind of all over sensory experience.  And I can’t begin to write something until I feel like I’ve become a bit of an expert on it.  So the writing comes last.  And it’s all this buildup, all this research, all this thinking, all this contemplation, all this experimentation.  And then, once I’ve got this collective of ideas and information and notes, I can sit down… And, at that point, it starts to feel like I’m an archeologist and that underneath all those notes, there’s an ancient city and I just have to kind of dust it and find it and piece it together and put the pieces of pottery and shards… kind of recreated it in some strange and a kind of indescribable way.  Question: How do you stimulate creativity?Gilbert:    Well, I’m a big conversationalist so I listen.  And, you know, I’m always on guard.  I had a friend who used to say that I use… let’s gets our magazine stories by going to a bar and talking to somebody, you know, and just hearing something that sticks out, you know, as interesting.  So there’s a lot of talking involved in my work.  And I don’t think that’s necessarily all that common for writers.  I think a lot of people become writers specifically because they can’t abide that and they don’t want to be, you know, in the mix and in the conversation and they would prefer to be… having a sort of hidden dialogue, in silence.  I’m not like that.  So definitely, I feel like I have to be engaged wherever I am with the people who are around me.  That really helps a lot.  And then… You know, I… I’m just very… It’s weird because in the rest of my life, I’m not this way but when it comes to writing, I’m very disciplined.  I grew up in a farm and I was the most useless person on that farm.  But somehow, I kind of took all those lessons about doing your chores and being responsible and I apply them to this work.  And so, I was really bad at taking care of the chickens and the garden but somehow, it’s the same muscles or something that I use.  And when I’m working, I’m pretty diligent about kind of clearing out my life and setting aside huge periods of time, going to bed early, getting up at 4:30, 5:00 in the morning, working in this very rigorous kind of hour by hour disciplined way.  And I can’t focus or cope without that so I can’t write in chaos.  So there’s a certain amount of… certain amount of order that I have to keep in my life in order to be able to work.  Question: Is physical health important to your process?Gilbert:    It’s funny.  Actually, my meditation practice completely, what there is of it, completely drops away when I’m working.  I think it’s because the work isn’t meditation itself and also because there is absolutely no way I would be able to quiet my mind when I’m in the process of creating… And I wouldn’t want to.  You know, I kind of need to keep it, like, keep those ovens kind of fired up.  I don’t really want them to come down to a certain level of calmness.  Although it is calming, oddly, because it’s so, I don’t know, such an enormous sense of focus, which is actually, of course, what meditation is.  So instead of sitting in silence and staring at a candle, I’m sort of sitting in silence and staring at a page full of words and just trying to kind of drive my attention to solving whatever the problem is.  And physically, that all falls away when I’m working too.  I just… everything kind of falls away when I’m working.  And just part of the reason that I found over the years that when it comes time to actually write a book, it’s really kind of better if I go away.  And as much as the beginning of my creative process, is so much about being around people and ideas and conversation.  Once I’m actually working, I really sort of need to be in a cave by myself, not showering and not talking to anybody and not going to yoga class and, you know, any sort of engagement becomes a really big distraction at that point.Question: How important are physical surroundings?Gilbert:    I think the physical surrounding affect enormously where you are and what you’re writing about.  I mean, for so much of my life, I actually went and kind of manipulated myself into particular physical surroundings.  And certainly the book “Eat, Pray, Love” is all about what these 3 countries, Italy, India, and Indonesia bring forth from me, you know.  And that’s why the 3 sections of the book are so different because they were composed in these… in these different places.  But… I don’t know.  I’m changing about that now so I’m not sure… I’m not sure anymore of… Really, my life is quite down a lot and now I live in New Jersey so God knows what that’s going to bring.  But it’s… I don’t know.  Now, I’m feeling a different impulse, which is about community and being in this small town and having certain daily rituals and having a garden and neighbors and pets.  And all that stuff kind of matters to me in a really serious way now, which makes me think that my work is probably going to change as a result or maybe this is the beginning of a new topic of discussion in my mind.  Question: Is spiritual enlightenment a privilege?Gilbert:    Well… I mean, I think if spiritual enlightenment was also open to the rich, the rich would be, hopefully, a lot better people than they are so I don’t think they’re necessarily linked.  But I think… You know, I have people ask me, a lot of the time, questions along the lines of, you know, how can I possibly… I can’t afford to do what you did, I can’t afford to go and take a year off from my work for my family, for my obligations from the contracts, the social contracts that I have with people or the illness that I’m taking care of or, you know, whatever the things are that hold people into the places where they’re staying, you know.  And I can’t afford to do that in anyway, in any definition of the word afford, you know, so how can I have the experiences that you had.  And I think it will be insulting for me to walk around, telling people that they could do that, you know.  Because the reality is that even in my life, which has been a life that’s… I got a lot of freedom, I don’t have children, I’ve been lucky enough to have a career that facilitates travel, you know, healthy.  Even in my life, there was only one moment when I could’ve done that and it was that year.  I couldn’t do it now, you know.  I’m way too entrenched in the lives of people around me to do it again and… you know.  And I have one of the freest schedules of anybody on earth, you know.  So it’s… And I also don’t think everybody should do that, you know.  I have a friend… One of my favorite moments before I left on this trip, this editor, friend of mine, in New York said to me, “Wow.  You’re going to an ashram performance to meditate.”  There’s a part of me that’s so wishes that I wanted to do that but I really, really have no desire for it whatsoever.  You know, he’s going to find his way in a different path.  But I do think there are people who long for that.  And all I can think of is that, you know, if the only people who had spiritual enlightenment available to them are those who can afford a plane ticket to India, the world will be an even more unfair place than it already is.  And the example that I always think of is this friend of mine from high school, actually he was my prom date, who is in prison now as my mom predicted at the time.  But anyway, he’s having the spiritual experience of a lifetime because he’s using that time to focus on meditation and contemplation and self-transformation.  And he’s in an eight-by-eight foot room where every minute of his day is sort of organized by other people.  I would argue that it’s probably easier to find time to meditate in prison than it is if you have 2 little kids at home, you know, and, also, sort of holding down a job and struggling with a lot of other issues.  But I have to believe because it would work to much my understanding of humanity that questions of divinity are available to anybody and that the entrance to those questions are everywhere.  And certainly, evidence shows that.  You know, people have transcended religious experiences in refugee camps.  They have them in traffic jams.  They have them during war.  They have them at their offices.  You know, these invitations arrive in people’s lives wherever they are.  And I was lucky enough, for a lot of reasons, to be able to carve out this huge period of time to go to this very special place and do this work in a really organized way.  But my spiritual practice is today.  You know, my life in New Jersey are nothing compared to a lot of people I knew who have much busier lives than me, who insist on making time for this.  You know, they wake up at 4:00 in the morning and they hold that time sacred.  And they work at it and they meditate and they didn’t have any of the advantages that I have.  And they are way, way, way closer to the destination that I was seeking, merely on the count of the fact that they’re demanding it whether they live in Queens or, you know, Indiana.Question: Why do you think Eat, Pray, Love was so popular?Gilbert:    I don’t know.  I don’t know why “Eat, Pray, Love” has had the impact that it’s had.  I also don’t know… I mean, I’ve written books before this, you know, and they sold upwards of dozens of copies each, you know.  I don’t know how that happened.  If I knew how that happened, I would do it again or I would’ve been doing it all along, you know.  It’s… There’s a… There’s a certain randomness in the way that my questions, for some reason, about my life intersected… dovetailed with questions that apparently a lot of other people, women in particular, at this moment in history were asking about their lives.  One possible answer is… I mean, I do feel like I’m a pretty representative example of my culture, you know.  I’m pretty representative 21st century, middle-aged, American woman in the way that I’ve been educated in the way that… you know, the things that I’ve been led to believe that my life should feel like and the disappointments that I experience when my life doesn’t feel like that, the particular kinds of questions that haunt me at the things that I want and wonder about.  You know, I don’t think I have any particularly special… I think I feel that stuff the same way that certainly everybody I know feels those things, you know.  And, again, pointing to the question of privilege because of the fact that I’m a writer, I have… and because of the fact that I’ve been able to build a career as a writer and sort of organize my time in a certain way, I have access to a lot more time than other people might have to think about those things.  I was able to say, I’m going to take one entire year and do literally nothing every minute of the day except think about all these questions.  I remember, before I left on the trip, this friend of mine who’s a mother of two, she’s a doctor.  She’s, you know, at home right now with her kids but certainly has this ferociously intelligent mind.  You know, she just sat me down and said, “Take us with you,” you know, “All of us who are asking these same things but are staying here, you know, with our families, with our kids, with our work.  You know, take us with you and ask the questions that we would ask and do the work that we would want to do if we could,” you know.  So, I think, I felt a great obligation to do that while I was traveling in that way, didn’t forget that.  And I would ask myself, what would Suzanne, Kat want to know if they were here and sort of feel that and try to answer those questions on the page.  And I wrote the book very directly as a letter to one specific person.  I wrote the book to my friend Darcey Steinke, who’s a wonderful novelist and a memoirist and who’s also in a very different sort of spiritual path… a spiritual path but a different one for me.  She’s a student of Christianity but is also this hipster who lives in Brooklyn, single mom.  And we’ve had a long ranging conversation over the years about marriage, about divinity, about autonomy, about all these questions that, you know, are foremost in our minds.  And this book became a kind of extended letter to her.  And the one thing that I’ve heard people to say when they read the book or when they respond to it in this way, and certainly not everybody has responded to it positively by the way, you know, but the people who do say, I feel as though we were having a conversation and I feel like you were talking directly to me.  Because in the sense, I was.  I was talking directly to one person who is also a very representative 21st century, American woman.  And so, maybe that’s it, you know.  Maybe it just feels like, you know, we’re knee to knee with, like, a cup of coffee between us, trying to figure out this stuff together, which, maybe, we need right now.  Question: Is escapism part of the book’s appeal?Gilbert:    Well, I think that going and traveling very literally to very literal places is about as much the opposite of, like, the Facebook, blogosphere, you know, avatarist world that so many people live in or at least that I hear so many people live in.  I’m not sure whether people live in that world quite as much as commentators like to imagine that they do.  You know, I still feel like people have a lot of interpersonal contact and communication with each other in really real ways.  Although, there’s nothing like, actually, going to Naples and eating a pizza, you know, to make you feel like you’re really in a place doing that thing.  But I don’t think… I’m not sure that the dream of pilgrimage is new, you know.  I think it’s hardwired into us in some way.  The yearning to step aside from the fold and the [clan] and go off into the desert, the mountain, the cave, the holy city, you know, whatever… you know, whatever the sort of dream of distances.  That’s something that is part of every single human society on earth.  And, I think, the way I did it was just a way that was reflective of, you know, the kind of person that I am and a kind of culture that I grew up and the kind of stuff that I was yearning for and wanting.  But… You know, I always find it really interesting.  You know, you go back and you read these accounts in Roman histories of people going to India, you know, like being sent to India from… by Indian emperors… sorry, by Roman emperors, people being sent to India to specifically find these yogis that everybody was talking about and see if they could get an audience with them, see if they could study them.  And then, they come back to Rome and they would report.  You know, there’re these guys who, you know, go into these states where their heart stop beating and claim to, you know, understand the makings of the world.  And, you know, people were sort of discussing that then and longing for that then.  So… I just think the idea of going on a holy journey is something that not all of us but, damn, a whole lot of us dream about, you know, at some point.  I just can’t tell you how many people have sort of confess that to me as though it’s some dirty hidden secret when, in fact, I think, it’s almost like a linkage of longing.Question: Is Eat, Pray, Love a self-help book?Gilbert:    Well, I… I’m not really insulted when people call it a self-help book because I don’t know what else you would call a book about somebody helping themselves.  Although, I guess, a self-help book, by definition, is a book that sort of teaches, like, intense… You know, its intention is to set out to sort of create a path and say, these are the… you know, these are the steps that you have to take.  And certainly, I wouldn’t do that because I don’t know what the steps are.  But I definitely, you know, use the book as a way to sort of salvage and rescue and recreate my own life, you know, by hand.  It was kind of like a… It was kind of like a girl scout project, you know.  Like, there were… there were materials, you know, like… With these materials in your own house, you too can build a… you know, like that’s kind of the feeling that I wanted it to have, you know, of a certain kind of self-resourcefulness.  But, you know, I say that also with a grain of salt because I think it’s important… You know, we kind of demean the therapeutic abundance that’s going on in America right now.  And I think we have to do that very carefully because some of the stuff is really important.  And so, that stuff really works.  And if you go to cultures where people don’t have access to those sorts of outlets, you can see how they might be served by them, you know.  And as much as we kind of criticize the Oprah-ness of modern life, there’s something to be argued for it as well, you know.  There’s a lot more communication today in a really open way between men and women… within groups of men and women about what they’re feeling, you know, and what they’re sad about.  And that hasn’t always been the case.  And it’s not the case in every culture on earth.  And when you go see cultures where people are still really buttoned down, you can see where there’s a lot of pain that’s intrinsic in that.  And I, myself, as much as I like to call it a sort of self-help book, you know, I didn’t set out on that journey until after I had been through 2 years of therapy on the upper west side, you know.  And 6 months to a year, I can’t remember now, but, you know, a period of time of antidepressants that I was really ambivalent about but still consider a bridge, a sort of necessary bridge, to get me to the last awful months of my divorce.  I probably could’ve done it without it but it made it a lot less anguish… you know, anguishing for me so… you know.  But that too was, I guess, even so, seeking out help from a professional… you know.  I took… Look, I took whatever was available, you know, religion, psychotherapy, friendship, companionship, exercise, drinking 8 glasses of water a day… Look, whatever was on hand, I was using it because I was in a lot of trouble.  And, you know, the last step of it was going off on this journey.  But if I… I certainly wouldn’t have been physically or mentally able to do that even a year before because I was in such a bad place.  So I would caution people against sort of leaping off a cliff in some sort of grandiose gesture of self-reclamation if they’re not… you know, if they’re not actually, somewhat, mentally or psychology stable enough to handle it.    Question: Are Americans suffering from an over-abundance of spiritual practices?Gilbert:    There is a danger, I think.  Look, we’re a young country, you know.  And the more you travel out of America, the more you see that, right?  There’re so much that’s great about youth.  There’re so much that’s great about the youngness of America.  There’s a certain energy here.  There’s a certain willingness to try stuff.  There’s a certain ambition, an eagerness, and excitement.  I mean, I had friends during the Obama campaign who called me from Europe and said, I cannot even imagine what it would feel like to actually believe in things like hope, to believe in… to believe that a politician can change things, to actually have… They were envious, you know, of this huge enthusiasm that was sweeping across America.  That was really real, you know, and really passionate and really fresh in a way, you know.  That doesn’t exist everywhere, you know.  The downside of that youth and that enthusiasm and that freshness is a certain shallowness, a certain inability to stick to, you know, one path, a certain longing to drink out of every well.  You know, certainly the new age movement has a lot of that in there where you’re kind of like cherry picking… like, I want a dream catcher and I want a crystal and I want something tantric and I want, you know, the chakras and I also want to go to mass and I also… And… I’m not necessarily against that because I think there’s… You know, I think, certainly the willingness to experiment… There’s something very beautiful about that.  And there’s something wonderful about a culture that permits you to do that.  That doesn’t say there is one church, there is one belief, there is, you know, one dogma and everybody must march and lock step.  But, you know, it does get… it does get a little goofy.  I’ve been guilty of it myself so I have to say it with a measure of compassion and affection because, you know, I could easily have been accused of every single piece of flakiness that I sometimes judge, you know, when I see that out there.  But its part of who we are.  And consumerism and a profit margin is also a part of who we are, you know.  So you get things in America like competitive yoga, which, you know, I still can never hear without laughing.  Maybe the idea of going to a yoga competition does seem like… Maybe the point is being somewhat missed.  But… I don’t know, you know.  I don’t know what experiences the people in the yoga competition are having.  I don’t know what they’re… You know, I don’t know enough about what their internal world is.  It could be just a big breakthrough for them, winning first place in the meditation price.  I don’t know but it’s… it’s… I don’t know.  To me, I still feel like the benefits of that kind of freedom, the benefits of the excitement that people in this country are willing to feel about things outweigh the goofiness that, sometimes, a little too easy to be snide about.     Question: What does spirituality mean to you?Gilbert:    Well… Look, something happened to me but even saying that, kind of puts it in a little bit too passive of a voice, you know.  I set out to… I set out looking for something very specific.  And through a pretty rigorous search and a pretty rigorous set of practices, I got that thing that I wanted, which to put it really simply and perhaps oversimply is a certain calmness, you know.  It’s… Life is an extremely agitating event, you know.  And I vibrate at a slightly higher frequency than is necessarily healthy, you know, than I always have.  I’ve always been kind of anxious.  I’ve always been super motive.  I feel things harder than is good for me.  Indecision has been part of my life, you know.  And I could see, after a certain age, how that was destructive not only to myself but to people around me.  And… You know, I just think you get to a point where you don’t want to be in other people’s way.  You know, you don’t want to be taking up… You don’t want to be taking up other people’s space and energy to sort of take care of you.  And I longed to be a different kind of person.  You know, I longed to be just a little more at ease, a little more relaxed, and a little more wise, you know, because it seems to me that wisdom is the beginning of serenity, you know.  And, you know, aside from people who are very heavily medicated, the calmest people that I know tend to, also, be the wisest, who are quickest, you know, or most instinctively, able to put things into perspective, that takes away the urgency of the moment.  And there’re practices that you can do to get there, you know.  And those practices, you know, as my friend Richard from Texas always says, the shit works, you know, those practices work.  And people do it in different ways and they do it… they do it in different places.  But I think that the end result and desire was always the same, you want peace, you know, if not in the world, then, at least, within your own mind.  This is not to say that I glide to the world now on a sort of cushion of serenity at all times because I am, you know, exactly as capable of anybody else at experiencing road rage and sidewalk rage and customer service representative, putting you on hold rage, and all the other sorts of rages and jealousies and frustrations and self-pity.  I mean, all these things are not foreign to me, you know, but I’ve just… I don’t know.  It’s like there’s an engine that works within me, now, that much, much, much more efficiently processes all of that.  And I… You know, I’m believing now that that’s a direct result of the work that I did for a whole bunch of years, you know, trying to get to that place.  And when I find myself kind of spinning out of orbit, you know, there’s like a tether, you know, that I braided, you know, myself from my own beliefs and my own studies and this work, you know.  And that tether sort of pulls me back and reminds me, do you really want to go, you really want to make a big production out of this, or would it be better for you and everybody around you if you just found a way to accept what’s going on.  And that’s just made life very much more pleasant.  And I feel like my… You know, if I can define my spiritual practice today, it is the maintenance of that.  It is doing whatever is necessary to keep that healthy and to keep that system working.  And you have to be a little bit nimble and a little flexible to kind of figure out what each day requires in order to keep that going.  Question: What practices help you maintain spirituality?Gilber: I find, to be perfectly honest, a lot of it has to do with napping, you know.  I just think… You know, I’m alarmed by reports of how little sleep Americans are getting anymore.  You know, even in the last 10 years, people are getting, on average, you know, an hour to 2 hours less sleep a day.  It’s making people really frazzled and really fragile and I just… I kind of feel like, you know, if there’s a new religion that needs to be founded, it’s a religion about, like, naps.  You know, something happens when you take a nap.  You go into another state.  You know, your pulse goes down.  Your blood pressure goes down.  It’s a kind of meditation… kind of lose meditation.  And I do a lot of it.  It seems to help, seems to make me more pleasant for people around me.  I would prescribe it to anybody.  I think every nation that has any civility incorporates napping into their day in a kind of official way.  So… You know, rest, rest.  I say no to a lot of things that’s become a kind of active spiritual practice for me.  I turned down a lot of things, not just professional invitations but personal invitations and social invitations.  I think saying no is something we’re really bad at in this culture.  I spent years not saying no to anything because I was afraid that if I said no to people, they wouldn’t like me as much and they will be disappointed.  And I’ve learned in my old age that when you say no to people, they don’t like you as much and they’re disappointed.  Nonetheless, you know, there are times that it has to be done in order to protect whatever small sanctity of serenity you have build up in your life. It’s inhumane, the pace at which people live in this society.  And when I came back from traveling for “Eat, Pray, Love”, I was truly sort of jaw droppingly shocked to see it a new… from fresh eyes and to see the amount of stress and the amount of work that we have, somehow, decided is normal.  And it is so warped.  And, you know, fear is that we’ve exported that, you know, and we’re sort of exporting that idea all over the world all the time and sort of spreading it like a virus.  And it’s just… There is no… There is absolutely no way you can defend it as healthy, normal, safe, or wise.  And yet, it’s really hard to resist.  And you have to push really hard against it, you know.  And I don’t always succeed.  You know, I find myself at the end of my rope all the time, I’m like, how did I end up… how did I end up with a 14-hour day today, like… you know, how did I let that happen.  And so, there’s a sort of vigilance against that that I would really strongly argue as part of, like, the main spiritual practice in my life right now.Question: Why did you shift to writing from the female perspective?Gilbert:    It’s funny ‘cause I wrote for and about men for like a solid decade.  That’s pretty much all I did.  I think I had to work through some issues.  And also, fearful, always, of my own vulnerabilities.  I think I was intrinsically attracted to, like, flinty, macho people.  Wanting to be like that because it’s not, at all, how I am.  You know, I kind of magnetize toward people like that.  And I was interested in them and… You know, I wrote for SPIN for years and I wrote for GQ for years.  They’re both really male focused magazines.  And, you know, I wrote a book called the “Last American Man”, that was this big study of a woodsman.  And then, my novel “Stern Men” was about a girl but it was a girl in a very manly world, on who behaved in a very manly manner, and who was, herself, sort of tough and macho and flinty.  And then, after, really, a solid decade of doing nothing but kind of exhaustively examining masculinity from every possible angle to the point that I even did a story for GQ once where I became a man for a week, like inhabiting it in this really intense and direct way, you know, my life fell apart.  And I wrote my way through it with “Eat, Pray, Love”.  And then, the book came… this became this big phenomenon.  And suddenly, I started hearing myself refer to as a chic lit author which was…  was really strange after a decade of, like, really putting in the hour to write about men and think about men and… Back in my 20s, people use to say that I wrote like a man, which I took as a compliment.  And now, I’m often referred to as a chic lit writer which I… I’m not even completely certain I know what that means except that I’m pretty certain it is never intended as a compliment, you know.  And I… I think it’s strange.  I think it’s curious, this whole idea of, like, gender based writing.  And I also… I have to say, the whole chic lit thing bugs me because, you know, in our culture at this moment in time, it is women who read.  And pretty much exclusively, it is women who read.  And there is this kind of denigration of women’s reading which is a pity because they’re the ones holding that whole custom up right now.  So it’s odd.  And my next book, which is a memoir and a kind of meditation on the subject of marriage is definitely sort of… You know, I definitely had female readers in mind when I was writing it so I don’t think that chic lit label is going to go away anytime soon.  But I don’t know if… I don’t know if there’s such a thing as gender neutral writing, gender neutral thinking, or… I don’t know.  I’m really interested in questions that most of my female friends are really interested in right now.  That’s kind of where I’m at, at the moment.  I might go back to writing about cowboys at some point in the future but I don’t really think so.  I’m not sure what the next thing will be but this is where I am now.Question: Do women have more spiritual work to do than men?Gilbert:    Yeah.  Women have special work to do at this point in time.  It’s a really interesting moment in history to have decided to be a woman.  It’s… You know, we have… I feel like any women of our generation… And by our generation, I mean, anybody who is born in the last 100 years, basically.  I think this era of women have become sort of hamsters in a great unprecedented social experiment, which is what happens if you give women a little bit of power, what happens if you give them autonomy, what happens if you give them control over the reproduction, and what happens if you give them earnings, what happens if you give them options, you know.  That social experiment has never been played out before.  And, so we’re kind of… I really do feel like we’re all sort of hamsters in this maze, this big sociological test that’s going on and all of us are sort of figuring out how to do it as we go.  Because we don’t have centuries and centuries and millennia and millennia of role models for how you do this, you know.  We don’t have centuries of epics that are written about how you do this.  You know, we don’t have Odysseus.  We have, you know, Penelope and the big weaving and unweaving and weaving and unweaving scene that just gets repeated and repeated and repeated, that doesn’t really… you know, it’s not really relevant anymore to most of our lives.  And so, we’re all kind of charting our own mythologies as we go.  And one of these great things that I heard once about this was Martha Beck, said that she feels like she’s met only 4 kinds of women in her life recently.  And its women who… The first kind is women who decided to have a family instead of having a career and who feel conflicted about that choice.  And then, there are women who decided to have a career instead of having a family and who feel conflicted about that choice.  And then, there are the women who decided to have a family and a career who feel really, really conflicted about that choice.  And then, there are the mystics.  And that’s the fourth sort of strange category.  And she defines the mystics as a woman from any one of those other 3 categories who has somehow been able to kind of drawn out or, like, drum out all of the other distractions and all of the other options and she’s chosen her life, being guided by some sort of deeply honest, interior voice.  And she has made all sorts of peace with what she’s doing.  And that is who she is and she’s certain of it.  And I would argue that any area that demands that people have to essentially become mystics in order to find peace and happiness is a real tough time in which to live.  Because in other areas and other societies, you didn’t necessarily have to be a mystic in order to be a content person, you know.  A path was laid out for you, that said, this is what a good woman is, you know.  And you went and you did those things and you did them well and you could rest at night, you know, with a certain amount of peace, knowing that you were a good woman.  We don’t have that consensus anymore, about what constitutes a good woman, what constitutes a woman’s life well-led.  I think men, to a certain extent these days, are also struggling with these questions but not nearly to the extent that women are.  I mean, I remember being 18 years old in college and sitting up for hours and hours and weeks and weeks on end with my fellow 18 year old and trying to figure out what we were going to do in terms of when we’re going to have kids and who’s going to raise them and how are we going to have careers, and what if we went to graduate school and what if want to do… you know.  And I got to say, our 18 year old male peers, I don’t think they were over in the dorm room, like, next door having that conversation, you know.  I think they, maybe, joined that conversation after their first kid was born, when they were 36, you know.  But I’m not sure they were worrying about that the whole time.  So it’s hard, you know.  And I’m not the first person to have said that, you know.  But I think, maybe, again, going back to why “Eat, Pray, Love” sort of struck a nerve with people, it’s like I kind of inserted my own version of how to figure out that into people’s conversations.  But it’s a conversation that’s been going on for a really long time.  That it’s not nearly over.Question: Is it possible to balance friendship and romance?Gilbert:    It’s so easy to find the balance between yourself and your partner.  No, I’m kidding.  It’s not.  It’s not at all.  You know, “Eat, Pray, Love” ends on a very romantic note because it ends within the first two months of a very romantic relationship, right?  And so, for me, now, I’m 5 years into that relationship so it’s always sort of funny to me when people come up and they’re… and they still have… just finish the book and they still have this very starry-eyed idea like, oh lovely, you found this very romantic relationship, you know.  And that very romantic relationship has now evolved into a marriage, you know, which, like, everybody else’s marriage, is complex.  And, you know, it’s much richer than the romantic relationship in the first two months was.  But I… I should’ve share to people that, you know, was actually evolved into an actual real partnership now.  And, you know, I think that some people were really delighted by the ending of that because it gave them hope for romance, which we all hold dear in our hearts.  I think some people were agitated by the end of that book because they felt like it sent a message that… you know.  And therefore, the ending is that you have to find a guy and you have to, you know, you have to be loved in this certain way.  And, you know, the story was told in a way that it was told simply because that’s what happened, you know.  What happened was that I did happen to meet somebody who is really lovely and I wanted to pursue that.  I think… You know, I… You know, somebody said, “Well, do you think the message is that you need… you know, that you need love?”  And I was like, “Well, I think the message is that you need healthy love, you know.  And if you can find that or something that’s as close to that as you possible can, that’s, you know, by all means, that’s something that you should feel entitled to look for, Question: What are your thoughts on marriage?Gilbert: A lot of these questions… I’ve been thinking about it a lot and working on it a lot ‘cause my next book is all about marriage, which is, of course, you know, marriage is kind of the antithesis to romance in a way.  And I ended up having to get married because the Homeland Security department got involved and actually chucked my sweetheart out of the country.  And the only way I could get him back was to marry him.  And I have, you know, for reasons I probably don’t have to go into, really ambivalent feelings about the whole institution of marriage.  And so, again, because I have a lot of time on my hands because I’m a writer, I could spend, you know, 2 years doing nothing but reading books about the history of marriage and sort of trying to wrap my mind around ideas about marriage.  And… I wouldn’t say that I’m an expert on it but I would say that it becomes clearer to me, the more I read about it, why it is so very, very confusing for people to try to figure out the balance in their lives and between self and other… And again, this isn’t a particularly easy time to be trying to figure that out because those roles have opened up.  And men and women can be all sorts of different things in each other’s lives than they could be in more traditional and rigorous societies.  The stakes are huge because our expectations for happiness are huge.  But the opportunities are also really vast because we have a lot of options and organizing our lives by our own terms.  So again, welcome to modern life. I also just think… I don’t know.  There comes a certain point in your life… I mean, one thing that’s been really interesting to me about doing all this research about marriage is just realizing how the expectations that we have burdened in this institution with, at this point in history, are staggeringly huge.  You know, on every generation since the 1700s in Western culture has just heaped another layer of expectation on what they want out of this relationship called marriage.  And it is so out of scale right now.  And, you know, there were some survey that… Back in the 1920s, there was a survey that asked college women what they wanted in a partner and they listed all these virtues, you know, reliability, honesty, decency, morality, you know.  And somewhere down around 6 or 7 on the list came love and passion.  These things showed up sort of low on the list.  Prudence was sort up high, you know.  And then, in the 1970s, they ask those questions again to women and, you know, the very first thing on the list is, like, love, you know, love and connection and intimacy and then, you know, the other stuff they weren’t really paying very much attention to.  And now, it’s even worse ‘cause they ask this question and they say they want a man who will inspire them everyday.  Like, I think that’s a lot, you know.  Like… You know, or to be asked, you know, to want to… to expect that the person in your life, should sort of almost in this divine way, every single day, inspire you.  It’s a huge thing to want somebody to be.  And, you know, it’s a huge thing to have somebody want from you, you know.  I’m only capable of inspiring people, like, every 3rd Wednesday, you know.  Like, the rest of the time, I’m just trying to, like, find my, you know, keys.  You know… I mean, it’s… It’s hard.  And so, you know… Well, I would never sit down with a young woman and say to her, lower your expectations as a piece of advice for life.  I think it’s been really sanity inducing in me, just after doing all this research about marriage to realize.  For better or worse, my expectations are really big, you know, and do with that what you wish, you know.  But that’s a good piece of information to know.  Because we shouldn’t walk around, thinking that this is how people have always thought about marriage or that this is what people have always expected out of their marriages.  And… You know, I’m not quite sure how you resolve that but it’s just a piece of information I didn’t have before, that I have it now.  And it somehow changes things.  When inevitable disappointments or frustrations arise, I just think, what would a 17th century wife think about this, you know… you know, what did my great grandmother think about this.  There’s… It’s just… It’s helpful.  Question: How have your thoughts on sexuality changed?Gilbert:    Well… I mean, I think like a lot of women when I was younger.  I don’t think I was so much concerned with being objectified.  I think I was kind of wishing I would be a little bit more objectified.  You know, I’d always been the smart girl and the bookish girl.  And I… You know, there was a certain sort of sexual attention that I was longing for.  And I was… I was wishing that I could generate… And then, I was always really happy to get and always really happy to pursue whether or not it benefited me to be out, chasing that in a certain way.  Well, I was going to say it’s up for debate but it’s not.  It actually… Actually, it was not beneficial to be giving so much attention to that.  I was a boy crazy kid and I wanted a lot, you know.  I’m a very excitable person and I’m a very passionate person.  And, you know, just in the same way that as a writer, I wanted to kind of go and roll around in the world and experience it in really huge ways.  I mean, I had a big hungry heart that wanted to know love and infatuation and to disappear into the other end, you know.  I mean, everything that you could do to try to do that, I did, you know.  And the results were fairly predictable.  You know, it’s like a lot of messes, you know, a lot of just really messy experimentation with intimacy, a lot of, like, throwing… impaling myself on people on really unhealthy ways, a lot of carelessness toward people and other really unhealthy ways.  It’s just a… It was just a big, flat, hot mess, you know.  But, I guess, I had to go through that, you know, as many of us do and kind of, you know, see that all out to its natural conclusion and then, take a lot of time to be alone, you know.  It’s interesting ‘cause therapists always say that they have 2 kinds of patients.  The ones that need to be, like, screwed in a little tighter and the ones that need to be loosened up, you know.  And I was definitely one who needs to be screwed a little tighter, you know.  I know that, like, that other people’s psychological problems, that they’re too withholding and mine was, you know, kind of the opposite.  I had to sort of narrow my margins in order to become sane.  And a lot of that, for me, came just from spending a lot of time by myself, which I never done before ‘cause I was always seeking that reflection in the other person.  And… You know, I have a really pretty good relationship now.  And, you know, I sleep with one eye open when it comes to love because I’ve made such huge mistakes and I’ve been punished for those mistakes.  So, I think, when you’ve been through a divorce as crappy as my divorce and when you’ve been through, you know, breakups as bad as my breakup, you’re always a little… you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop a little bit.  Like, when is this… You know, is this really… is this real ‘cause this is pretty good but, you know, how long is this going to last.  But I also… I don’t know.  I try not to walk around, calling trouble’s name.  You know, if things are going well, I try to be happy to just let that be well and recognize that if trouble wants to find you, it knows where you live and it will come and knock on your door.  But I don’t go looking for it very much anymore.  Question: What is the best advice you ever received?Gilbert:    The best advice I ever gotten came from my mom.  And interestingly enough, I don’t think she ever gave it to me directly.  I just remember hearing it from her in another context.  My mom, in the 1970s, worked as a nurse at Planned Parenthood.  And she was really on the frontlines of the whole women’s reproduction kind of debate, the beginnings of access to birth control and the beginnings of the idea that people should be taught about their bodies.  You know, it was a really controversial and heated moment in time.  And she was right there, in the middle of it.  And it meant a lot to her, it meant a lot to her for a lot of reasons.  But probably, foremost, of which was that she had grown up in this farming community in Minnesota where she had watched as, every year, one 16 year old after another got pregnant and it was a scandal, you know.  And every single time, it was a scandal as though it had never happened before much less 6 times in the last year.  And every single time, the girl’s life was ruined unless the boy married her and the boy’s virtue is never questioned.  And there were all sort of… There were just all sorts of wrongness about it.  And she watched her aunts and her mother having more children than they could manage.  And, you know, there was just a lot about it that was really important to her.  And she told me once that… You know, she use to council on girls and women who were coming to plan parenthood with really big decisions to make.  And she said to me once that… it was so daunting because, you know, they wanted advice and it was their lives and it was their bodies and she said that she would tell them, “Please do me this great service and please do me this great favor and please do yourself this great favor.  And try to remember, 10 years from now, when you’re second guessing this decision that you made, that you made the very best decision that you could make on this day with the information that you had today.  As the years go by, you’ll have more information and you might wish that you had done things differently.  But just don’t forget that on the day that you had to make the choice you didn’t know and you only knew what you have now.  Don’t abuse yourself later for what you didn’t know now.”  And it just strikes me so compassionate.  And it’s such an easy thing to forget because if you’re like me, you spend a lot of your life in sort of retrospective regret for things that you wish you had known at the time.  We can be cruel to ourselves in that way.  And it’s a lot of wisdom to expect that 10 years ago, we should’ve known what we know now.  That’s an unreasonable thing to ask.  So that will be the best advice I ever got.  Just remember, when you’re in the course of a difficult decision or when you look back on that difficult decision in decades to follow, that you made the best choice you could, given what you had.