Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls is both empowered and empowering—a story of 1940’s Manhattan, told by the funny, beguiling, and deeply human narrator, Vivian Morris. She arrives in New York, “When I was nineteen years old and an idiot,” she tells us, and immerses herself in the life of her aunt’s quirky theater company, sewing costumes by day and dazzling the nightlife scene with her friend Celia, an enchanting showgirl. Morris behaves in ways you’d expect to see only from a male character. Or in most novels, a woman conducting her life this way would end up dead under a train or otherwise ruined. But Vivian finds her way. Her depth of character emerges. And the love story that unfolds is one of the most unexpected and poignant I’ve ever read. It’s an irresistible, funny page-turner of a literary novel that left me sobbing at the end both times through.
Many of the qualities I love in this book are also in Liz Gilbert herself. Watching her interviews and social media presence, I find her brilliant, wise, empowered, funny, and a total bright light of a human. The variety of her published work is unusual; rather than following any particular style or marketing angle, she writes whatever project emerges as most meaningful and authentic to her. From Eat, Pray, Love to Big Magic to City of Girls and The Signature of All Things (which she says is her best book), she spans memoir, creative manual, and novels of markedly different styles and voices.
I love to hear her speak about her work. Her process as a writer mirrors her approach to life. At times, her advice is deeply practical and straightforward. For example, asked about advice for people (writers especially) working from home, trying to establish a solid routine, she said, “Make your bed and get dressed.” This was in a recent studio-visit interview with Suleika Jaouad. The conversation ranged from craft to more existential questions. Delving into the latter realm, Gilbert explained the life coach Martha Beck’s prescription for living a life of freedom and integrity: “You have to walk away from only two things in order to be free,” Gilbert said. “One, personal family trauma. Two, culture. Simple but not easy.” Not easy is right, but Gilbert seems to exemplify living one’s life this way, as much as a person could. She walks the path of healing and freedom, without letting our culture’s typical judgments constrain her.
“Look,” she said. “I’m a middle-aged woman, twice divorced, once widowed, childless, living alone in the middle of a pandemic. I am basically a cautionary tale. And I’m having a fucking ball.”
She deeply questions the idea that we can know what our purpose is, if we conceptualize purpose as being one life-long role. The pressure to find that role can be misguided and damaging. Instead she focuses on meaning. In other words, connecting with yourself and finding out what feels meaningful and fulfilling at any given stage in your life.
In the interview, she told a story about walking down the street and seeing a man on a ladder, working on something at the edge of a roof. The ladder was unstable, and Gilbert went over and held it for forty-five minutes, stabilizing it so he wouldn’t fall. He never knew she was there. Once he started to descend, she walked away. Maybe nothing bad would have happened, she said. Maybe holding the ladder made no difference. Or maybe it did. It’s possible she saved his life. There’s no way to know, but for those forty-five minutes, that felt like a meaningful thing to do. “Maybe that was the entire purpose of my life,” she said. She’ll never know. We cannot know. But she made the choice without considering what anyone else would think, or needing any credit. She just wanted to do what she did.
And for each book she’s written and each life choice she’s made in recent years, she has followed her inner guidance, connecting with her heart.
Gilbert said, “You cannot know what your purpose is, and so why not do what you want? The only thing stopping you is culture and family trauma.” In other words, find meaning in yourself, not in society’s expectations. And you have to heal to be able to connect with yourself deeply and let go of patterns that don’t serve you.
I resonate with this advice, partly because in order to make some of the biggest and most freeing choices in my life, I’ve had to both heal trauma and set aside any concerns about what people might think. Specifically, getting divorced comes with a certain amount of stigma. I stayed stuck for several years in an unhealthy situation, wanting badly for it to improve and taking that very seriously, and also feeling ashamed and not wanting to fully face the depth of the problems. Finally I realized my own happiness and wellbeing mattered a whole lot more than any appearance-type concerns. Yes, culture imposes judgments and expectations, and on women in certain particular ways. And also, in the end, people mostly care about their own lives. Whatever you’re doing, if you’re happy and fulfilled, you’ll attract your tribe.
Liz Gilbert, to me, exemplifies this way of being in the world. City of Girls feels empowering because Gilbert’s empowered voice shines through. The combination of psychological insight, delightful humor, vibrant and complex characters, poignant human connection, and a strong female lead make the book one I’ll come back to again and again. And Liz Gilbert herself, in everything she offers, is a source of inspiration for writing and life.
A couple of gems from LG’s Instagram: