Elizabeth Gilbert on Her New Fan-Written Essay Collection – And Why 'Eat, Pray, Love' Is Not an 'Elitist Fantasy'

"I'm constantly saying to people, 'Don't do what I did – ask what I asked,' " Elizabeth Gilbert says of her Eat, Pray, Love journey

Photo: Design: Ben Denzer and Helen Yentus; Photo: Lesley Unruh; Cake decoration: Empire Cake

Elizabeth Gilbert‘s fans have helped answer a question a decade in the making for the author of the beloved bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love – why did this book touch so many lives?

In honor of the memoir’s 10-year anniversary, the author invited readers to share short essays about their life-changing, Eat, Pray, Love-inspired adventures. The result, a new anthology called Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It, reduced Gilbert to tears.

“I was thrilled to finally have in my own mind an answer to the question that I’ve been trying to answer for 10 years – why Eat, Pray, Love was such a success,” Gilbert, 46, tells PEOPLE.

“I just sat for a day and read the essays and I was in tears. To sit down and just read story after story after story – you start to see what connects all those stories and what connected them to my story. It was really touching and a really powerful experience for me.”

The essay collection, due out March 29 and curated from nearly 2,000 submissions, includes true stories from readers who, inspired by Eat, Pray, Love, conquered crippling fears, left their old lives behind to chase their dreams, or came to terms with heartbreaking losses.

“The common thread through them all is that it seems like there’s a hinge moment, a pivotal moment where somebody realizes, ‘Maybe my life doesn’t have to look like that,’ ” Gilbert says. “It’s incredible to me how deeply we can get into the wrong situation and how much we can, in a weird way, relax into the wrong situation for such a long time before we get that realization that, ‘Wait a minute, I have agency. I might be able to shift this story, I might be able to leave this job, to get out of this toxic relationship, I might be able to move to a different city.’ If I could be a part of that realization for people, what an amazing thing.”

Gilbert says her favorite stories in the collection are those by writers whose journeys deviated from her own. Like the woman who read Eat, Pray, Love and realized she actually hated traveling, but had felt compelled to do so because she came from a family of globetrotters.

“I get more excited when people find their own truth than when they imitate my journey. I’ve met people who say, ‘After I read your book, I went to Naples and had that same pizza.’ And part of me goes, ‘Cool, I’m glad, everybody should have that pizza, it was amazing pizza’ – but that’s not really what my story was about.”

“I’m constantly saying to people, ‘Don’t do what I did – ask what I asked.’ The questions that I asked myself: What do you really want? What’s your purpose? What brings your soul to life? What makes you feel like you’re not just a meat puppet? What do you want to do with your one wild and wonderful life?”

In Gilbert’s mind, the collection – which features women and men from all walks of life who have joined her in “voting against a life of quiet desperation” – also shows once and for all that Eat, Pray, Love is not the “elitist fantasy” some critics have made it out to be.

“Sometimes I see people review it and they say, ‘Well, it’s just such a fantasy, the idea of throwing away your life and going and traveling.’ And I think, ‘But it wasn’t a fantasy – I did it,’ ” she says with a laugh. “And it took me three years to get to a place where I could do it. And it was done deliberately with a plan, and it was done out of reverence for my life. These things can be done.”

The proof is in the pizza.

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