On Sunday, December 2, my friend and I braved traffic on the 405 to make our way to UCLA’s Royce Hall. We sat in 20 minutes of traffic just to enter the parking garage and ran in 15 minutes late to an event we’d been looking forward to for months: “Elizabeth Gilbert & Cheryl Strayed in Conversation.” But as soon as we heard these two strong, honest women speaking, we realized we’d have gladly gone through a worse commute to get there.
Gilbert is best known for authoring the memoir Eat, Pray, Love (yes—the inspiration for the movie with Julia Roberts) and self-improvement book Big Magic. Strayed’s Wild, which details her solo journey along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), was notably made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. She also previously penned an advice column called “Dear Sugar”—whose articles were compiled into a book called Tiny Beautiful Things.
The event was structured like a fireside chat with each woman taking turns asking the other questions—followed by a Q&A session with the audience (the majority of whom were women). Since we’d taken our seats a little late, I missed how the conversation started, but it began for us as the two authors conversed about their similarities—even joking that they’d stolen the other’s ideas for their respective memoirs.
While noting that their personal journeys were unique, they both acknowledged where the similarities lay. “We’re two women who obeyed the magnet in the sky that said, ‘Go do this’,” said Gilbert.
“We’re two women who obeyed the magnet in the sky that said, ‘Go do this’.”
Strayed added, “The thread that connects our books is that, in our deepest suffering, we decided a journey would bring us back to ourselves.” The journeys refers to her 1,100-mile solo hike up the Pacific Coast and Gilbert’s exploration of Italy and India—which were each detailed in their memoirs and the movie versions of their stories.
“In our deepest suffering, we decided a journey would bring us back to ourselves.”
As for why their stories so frequently get put into the same “file”, Gilbert noted the lack of female “hero’s journeys” in the media. The hero’s journey, coined by mythologist Joseph Campbell, describes the journey a hero (mythological or real) will go through to achieve a feat. It typically consists of a call to adventure, followed by a series of challenges, and ending with a transformation and positive life changes.
Typically, a woman isn’t the hero in one of these epic journeys—rather, she’s a supporting player like a damsel in distress, prize to be won, or a source of temptation. Gilbert and Strayed needed to be their own heroes—to go on their own adventures, overcome their own challenges and transformations, and share their stories with the world.
As for other women who have undertaken or will undertake their own hero’s journeys, Gilbert hopes their stories will be told. “My hope is that that file gets bigger,” she said.
Pain and loss led both women to the journeys they’d later be known for. Strayed lost her mother and acknowledged that a relationship she was in needed to end. Gilbert realized that the get married/settle down/have kids path just wasn’t for her.
They weren’t living their truths and needed to get out of the dark places they’d ended up in. “Everything that wasn’t true had to be burned,” said Strayed. After her PCT trip, Strayed began writing and sharing her truth.
“A tribe of people were available to me simply by telling the truth of my life.”
“When I wrote the truth of that pain, suddenly, I was no longer alone,” she said. Others wrote to her and approached her, thanking her for putting their thoughts and feelings into words. “A tribe of people were available to me simply by telling the truth of my life.”
“The truth so much wants to be known,” added Gilbert.
It’s easy to see why the two writers are so frequently compared; yet, they’re so unique in their delivery, their personalities, and their life experiences. And though they’re compared, they’re not in competition with each other.
“I’m not competing against anyone for anything.”
When asked by an audience member how they navigated competition within their field, the two had mirroring responses. “I’m not competing against anyone for anything,” said Gilbert. “I couldn’t name a writer I’ve ever felt like I was competing against,” said Strayed.
They don’t aspire to be better than the other (or better than any other writers, for that matter) because “writing a better book” or “being better” in general just isn’t a thing. Instead, they’re both about supporting your peers’ successes, acknowledging what makes you different, and sharing your own damn truth.