Friday, February 9, 2018

My Big Opinion on "Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear" by Elizabeth Gilbert

I’m not a writer who needs to be encouraged to write. I don’t require someone to tell me to keep going at it. I don’t fear writing. I don’t question my right to write. I have to create; it’s not optional. I've been writing for over twenty years. Because sometime in my mid-twenties, I quietly decided I wanted to write novels, and write them exceedingly well. There has rarely been a week since then that I've not written, and usually it is a nightly occurrence. So, in reading through Elizabeth Gilbert’s book on creativity (let’s just say it: she wrote the book about writers, not the making of quilts or decoupage), the sections about getting over the fear of writing were yada-yada-yada to me. But the book is thoughtful, funny, and surprisingly down-to-Earth. Elizabeth snagged me with two lines of logic:  

Suffering does not add to your artistry. Martyrdom kills your creativity. 
Keep your day job. Your creativity doesn’t need the burden of being your bread.

It doesn’t need to be perfect. Just put it out there. 
The result is not that important; the process and what you gain from it are what is important.

I can see the points about avoiding drama, looking after your financial well-being, and not being a martyr. I learned all those points the hard way. I’m still learning them the hard way. But her ideas about perfectionism left a foul odor in my nostrils. Her thinking seems to be that we should lighten up, work hard at it, and then call it a day. If it succeeds, if it fails…who cares? As long as you’re devoted to the exquisite craft of writing and loving every minute of it, why hang your hat on an external outcome? Isn’t it more important to produce work than to produce perfection?

Well, why didn’t I like that? I will not knowingly put my name on something that is a slouchy, half-assed piece of fecal matter. I'm also an editor, in case you haven't guessed. And editors are genetically coded to perfect text. We are incapable of saying that mediocre will do. I am passionate about making writing the most amazing it can be, and that is what drives me. As Elizabeth points out, that kind of thinking can just as easily drive you insane. She is not a big fan of passion, though, and as a writer with longevity,  her words are allowed some weight here. She is a fan of curiosity, of following little wisps of interest that might unfurl into a fire. I understand her point to a degree…every day I collect little bits of conversations, mannerisms, watching what the people around me are doing. And those collected tid-bits usually end up in the writing, somewhere, somehow. But I will never, ever give up on making the story perfect.  

Another thing I pondered, in my boudoir of snarky thoughts, is this: It is all well and good for Elizabeth Gilbert to say that external validation shouldn’t drive you as a writer, that it doesn’t matter if you are ever published or not. She can say that because her efforts paid off in the end. She has six or so books published, one of which was a massive best-seller. But if she’d never gotten a book published? If she was in her fifties, still bar-tending, wondering if all those years of writing were worth it….would she really have such unshakable conviction that the creative life is its own reward? I wonder. Hey, maybe I’ll write a book about Elizabeth Gilbert’s alternate ending…what would’ve happened if she hadn’t eaten, loved, and prayed. No? Too harsh? 

All that said, Elizabeth’s writing about writing is really lovely and imaginative. She has such bright and whimsical ideas at times that I found myself shimmering in them. What if ideas are living entities that wait for you to notice them, take them in, and write them? If you don’t write the idea, will it travel to another writer and ask them? Can your writing love you back as much as you love it? Can you seduce inspiration by putting on a nice dress and making yourself magnetic? I really enjoyed these moments, as they are implicit permission to be wildly imaginative about the process of writing, not just the particulars of plot or character. The title itself, Big Magic, is something that I entirely agree with. Writing *is* magic, endlessly fascinating, and something that is the more precious and rich part of my life. A sacred part, if you will, a mystery…that’s what Elizabeth is getting at, the tending of the creative, magical soul within each of us. 

So, I recommend Big Magic to writers. It will make you think. It may give you courage. And if you take her advice to keep writing, consistently and with devotion, the book will be worth its weight in gold. 

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