NYU Alumni Magazine Spring 2010


Back on the Horse

A once-prolific writer overcomes the cacophony of success

by Amy Rosenberg

In the title story of Elizabeth Gilbert’s short story collection, Pilgrims (Penguin), 19-year-old Martha Knox leaves her home in rural Pennsylvania and finds work as a ranch hand in Wyoming. She saves her money to buy a scrawny horse and, when a co-worker dares her to ride away to Mexico with him, she calls his bluff. She begins to ride off, until he awkwardly climbs onto the saddle with her and they both tumble to the ground. As they lie there, unhurt, he watches a shooting star fall across the sky. But Martha is undistracted. “If [she] saw this,” Gilbert writes, “it was only as she was reaching up already with one hand for her horse’s reins, and it wasn’t something she mentioned.”

The story may have autobiographical elements—like her protagonist, Gilbert (WSUC ’91) grew up on a Christmas tree farm, and she spent a year working on a ranch in Wyoming—but that final image says the most about her: a young woman reaching for the reins while everyone else is still catching their breath. That same unhesitating determination has carried Gilbert through the stages of her career. Or at least it did until she attempted to write her newest book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage (Viking Adult). When she sat down to compose this one, she had those familiar reins in hand. But then she looked at her 500-page draft and knew that there was a problem. “The voice didn’t sound like me,” she explains. “The voice didn’t sound like anybody.” And she had no idea how to fix it—how to “write naturally.”

Gilbert buried the manuscript in a drawer and asked her publisher for more time. She went to work in her tomato garden, digging in the dirt for a few months while she puzzled out what was stymieing her. She meditated for a long time before realizing the problem: For the first time in her life, she was trying to satisfy millions of readers.

Those throngs were the devoted fans of Eat, Pray, Love (Viking Adult), Gilbert’s memoir about a year she spent exploring cuisine in Italy, finding God in India, and seeking equilibrium in Indonesia after a devastating divorce. Though Gilbert had published three books before it (Pilgrims, a novel, and a biography), and though those books had won acclaim (a Pushcart Prize, two New York Times Notable Book designations, and nominations for the Pen/Hemingway, National Book, and National Book Critics Circle awards), it was Eat, Pray, Love that introduced her to the greater public. With 57 weeks at No. 1 on The New York Times paperback nonfiction best-seller list, translation into more than 30 languages, and international praise, the book made Gilbert famous in a way that she never anticipated.

Needless to say, she was happy about its reception, but she also found her popularity somewhat perplexing. After all, she had been writing stories steadily since high school, refusing to stop despite accumulating five years of magazine rejection slips. When she was finally published in the pages of Esquire, she landed an agent and a job as a journalist, but she thought she was launching a literary career that might appeal to a small circle of readers. As she embarked on Committed, with five million copies of Eat, Pray, Love in print, expectation reared its head for the first time. Gilbert knew her next book would be subjected to an avalanche of attention—“probably more than anything else I’ll ever write,” she says.

Committed truly deserves attention. It elegantly combines Gilbert’s personal story about her decision to remarry with an exploration of the history of marriage and the ideas that have shaped the institution. And it’s written with the same warm intimacy that drove the voice in Eat, Pray, Love, which is how she finally conquered the creative barrier that fame produced. “I discovered that the only way I could write again was to vastly limit, at least in my own imagination, the number of people I was writing for,” says Gilbert, ticking off the names of about 25 family members and friends who have offered her love and support and conversation “over many cups of tea and booze.” And then she let the conversation flow again—naturally.

photo © Laura Pedrick / The New York Times / Redux

Gilbert will be portrayed by Julia Roberts in the film adaptation of her wildly popular memoir, Eat, Pray, Love.

For the first time in her life, Gilbert was trying to satisfy millions of readers.