Elizabeth Gilbert begins her blockbuster 2006 tale, “Eat, Pray, Love” wailing on the bathroom floor, in midst of “a hopeless and life-threatening despair.”
She’s made terrible mistakes. She doesn’t want the house she’s just bought. She doesn’t want to be married. And then things get worse. (Divorce, acrimony, financial ruin, etc.)
Somehow Gilbert, the writer, takes this situation and turns it into gold, negotiating a book deal that will send her around the world to the capitals of food, love and spirit. The memoir she writes of these adventures eventually sells 12 million copies and is turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts.
Most improbably, the despondent woman on the bathroom floor becomes a spiritual guide for a generation of women, showing them how to find peace, affection and gusto in life. Gilbert the writer becomes Gilbert the guru.
It is this Gilbert who will speak at the Attune wellness event Nov. 8-11 at Serenbe, a Fulton County community just south of Atlanta.
Though Gilbert continues to write novels, her career subsequent to “Eat, Pray, Love” is also equal parts teacher. She remains in demand as a guide to happiness, a role that was reinforced by a super-popular TED talk she gave in 2010 about creativity.
“I can say I have dipped my toe into the wellness well,” said Gilbert, 50, in a phone conversation earlier this year from her New York City home, just before the release of her newest novel, “City of Girls.”
Jenny Emblom Castro, founder of Living Wholly, has produced many wellness events in California; Attune will be her first in Georgia. She said Gilbert is right for Attune, because of her ability to connect with people from different age groups, and she’s right for Georgia because she’s not too quirky for the South.
“You can ask anyone from all ages, from millennials to my mom’s age, who’s almost 70, and they know Elizabeth Gilbert,” she said. “I grew up in Alabama, and I know my audience doesn’t want to bring in anybody who’s too out there.”
Does Gilbert see herself as a spiritual leader?
“I think if you call yourself a spiritual leader,” said Gilbert, “it’s like saying you’re really good at sex, or you’re a great friend. Other people get to say that about you. You don’t get to say that about yourself, unless you have a real problem.”
On the other hand, Gilbert feels obliged to help people find their way around the pitfalls of modern life, if she can, because she’s dealt with all the same problems.
“It’s quite a full-time job keeping myself sane,” she said. “I spend a lot of energy on it.”
The writer first made her mark as a magazine freelancer with a knack for adventure. She profiled a Serbian war criminal, a modern-day Kit Carson, a country music prodigy. Her portrait of a table-dancing bar in the East Village became the movie “Coyote Ugly.”
But much of what she will speak about at Serenbe comes from her 2015 book, “Big Magic,” an extended look at our society’s poisonous myths about creativity and suffering.
Creativity does not come from anguish, she writes. It’s as natural as breathing, and if we’re willing to do the work to be prepared when a good idea comes along, then the good idea will lift its share of the load.
Such activity is a good tonic for the human species. “I think people are healthier when they’re making something,” she said. “In the most cosmic way, when you’re creating, you get to be in alignment with capital ‘C’ creativity.”
She continues: “If we can argue that the universe wants anything, it wants to create. It never stops. And if you are doing that in a small ‘c’ level, you’re in alignment; you’re in the stream of what’s going on. That’s why it feels so good. When you stop being a creator and just become a consumer — I don’t think that is natural or healthy.”
Part of the success of “Eat, Pray, Love” came from the license it gives its female readers to enjoy themselves fully in the sensual world. Gilbert’s own love life, which she candidly shares on social media, serves as an example. For 10 years she stayed married to the handsome Brazilian lover (José Nunes) she met at the end of that book, before declaring her love for her female friend, former punk rocker Rayya Elias.
The two shared a commitment ceremony just months before Elias died of pancreatic and liver cancer. This spring Gilbert revealed her newest love, a male this time, British photographer Simon MacArthur, and, in an Instagram post, she advised others who were mourning the loss of a loved one not to deny themselves new love.
“Do not let your gorgeous loyalty to the deceased stop you from experiencing the marvels and terrors of your short, mortal, precious life,” she wrote. “It’s OK to live, and to love.”
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