Editor’s note: Every Friday, HLN brings you the "My First Time" series, which explores the first time your favorite celebrities did something significant or memorable (so get your mind out of the gutter!).
In this installment, award-winning author Elizabeth Gilbert -- whose newest tome, "The Signature of All Things," a novel about the need to understand the workings of the world, came out in October -- opens up about self-improvement, having to make a choice (between logic and religion, work and family), and what "having it all" means to her.
HLN: Religion and logic come together in your new book, “The Signature of All Things.” When did these two things cross in your own life for the first time?
Gilbert: Religion came before logic. I remember going to Sunday school as a child. It’s taken me years to recognize one of the essential things of this novel -- those two aspects are the pillars of our selfhood. The 19th century marks the first time they took a sharp divide in history. The evidence was starting to contradict the biblical story and posed grave questions -- which master should they worship? This book is about what a heartbreak it is to have to make that choice.
HLN: The main female character, Alma, gets saved by her work in this book. How do you think that concept reflects on the women of today?
Gilbert: Women have worked forever. Women are the workers of the world and always have been. The difference is now they’re working in professions. One of the things I set out to do is to write about a woman who adores her work, and that’s a story you don’t see very often told. I also felt very strongly against a woman whose life was rescued or ruined by a man. It seems those were the only endings they got. The most fascinating thing to me is resilience in the face of disappointment. Women overcome it and go on to live lives -- we’re not rescued by anyone or ruined by anyone in the end, we go on to live for our own purpose.
HLN: How do you feel about women having it all?
Gilbert: One simple answer is there are four kinds of women: Ones who choose family over work and are conflicted about it, ones who choose work over family and are conflicted about it, ones who have work and family and are conflicted, and then there are the mystics. They can be any one woman from the three categories, but they deafen themselves to all the chatter of what you’re supposed to be and how you’re supposed to live. [This woman] is following some deeply certain internal voice that belongs to her and instructs her. That’s something to aspire to. Am I supposed to have a family or work? Have I figured out a way to go to a quiet space to figure out my purpose and dedicate myself to it no matter what?
It’s difficult because we’re bombarded with messages and we compare our lives to others. Just when you try to feel comfortable, you second-guess your own looking at others’ choices. We live in a society that doesn’t make it easy for us to have children. We say women are equal, but we won’t give you child care or maternity leave. We have to be very gentle in ourselves -- it’s an experiment in history to have autonomous women. We’re still the pioneers of it.
HLN: Do you feel you’ve found your purpose and a way to make it work for you?
Gilbert: It works for me because the path that I was on wasn’t working for me. I wasn’t going to be of any benefit to anyone because I was so unhappy. That was largely because I was serving two masters: I was pursuing my passion as a writer and traveler, and I got married very young to a man who wanted to have a family. I kept trying to make it work, staying up nights, but I couldn’t figure out the equation. I had to be very honest with myself about my capacities. As you got older, you get more relaxed with the idea that you can’t do everything in one lifetime. It’s important to do what you love and what serves the people around you. I no longer think it’s important to check every box.
HLN: Your characters are always looking to improve themselves. Is that something you see in yourself as well?
Gilbert: I do. I have no embarrassment about the word self-improvement -- it’d be weird to subscribe to self-worsening -- so I sign on to it. Anything new-age and uplifting. I don’t see a conflict between that and thinking of myself as a feminist and an artist. I think my books will always be about that. They’ll never be about women who are weak.
HLN: What’s next for you? Perhaps another movie?
Gilbert: I’m on a mammoth book tour right now, but that’s a pleasure for me because I’ve come to be very fond of my readers. “Eat, Pray, Love” bound my readers and me together and I like to meet them. This book is in many ways different and I feel I have to explain it personally to people. And I love doing that.
A movie is being discussed, but it’s out of my hands. The story is very cinematic, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility, but I think I’m going to stick to fiction -- it was such a creative pleasure. I have an idea for another book, but it will be awhile before I have enough time to dedicate myself to it.