#BigMagic, Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Signature (2)Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best seller Eat Pray Love and more recently in 2013, the historical, botanical novel The Signature of All Things (reviewed here) has thought a lot about Creativity, so much so that she gave a TED Talk on the subject.

Tapping into one’s creative life can often be referred to as a sea of obstacles, fears, procrastinations and can tend to focus on what one lacks, rather than the small steps we can take in pursuit of it.

In Big Magic, Gilbert writes a lot about how we get in the way of our own creativity, covering a multitude of sins, some that we may find relevant, others not, depending where we are on the path to pursuing it.

The book is separated into six sections, Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust and Divinity where she discusses many aspects of e creative process, her own experiences and many anecdotes from well-known personalities.

One of the best is from Richard Ford, author of Canada (reviewed here); he gave this response to an audience member who recounted all the things that he and Ford had in common; age, background, themes, the fact they’d both been writing all their life.
The big difference being this person had never been published, they were heartbroken, a “spirit crushed by all the rejection and disappointment”. He added that he did not want to be told to persevere, that’s all he ever from anyone.

Ford told him he should quit.

The audience froze: What kind of encouragement was this?

Canada1Ford went on: “I say this to you only because writing is clearly bringing you no pleasure. It is only bringing you pain. our time on earth is short and should be enjoyed. You should leave this dream behind and go find something else to do with your life. Travel, take up new hobbies, spend time with your family and friends, relax. but don’t write anymore, because it’s obviously killing you.”

There was a long silence.

Then Ford smiled and added, almost as an afterthought:

“However, I will say this. If you happen to discover, after a few years away from writing, that you have found nothing that takes its place in your life – nothing that fascinates you, or moves you, or inspires you to the same degree that writing once did…well, then, sir, I’m afraid you will have no choice but to persevere.”

She writes about her theory that ideas are a separate entity to ourselves and if we do not pursue them when they come knocking in the form of inspiration, we risk them leaving us altogether and being passed on to someone else. it is a little like when the momentum and inspiration has left us, which can also happen if we put something’s aside for too long, it becomes difficult if not impossible to renter the zone to complete it.
She gives an example of a novel she was very passionate and inspired about, an Amazonian novel, which she mentioned to her friend Ann Patchett, who curious, as she was at the time writing a novel set in the same location, asked her what it was about.

042812_1839_StateofWond1.jpgGilbert gave her a brief outline and asked Patchett what her novel was about and she repeated almost word for word, the same idea – fitting into her theory that the idea had visited her and because she had put it aside for a couple of years, it left and was passed on to Patchett and became State of Wonder (reviewed here).

It’s necessary to read her quaint theories with an open mind, Big Magic itself is the label she applies to all those instances of coincidence, luck, the unexplained, it is a form of belief in universal guidance or positive thinking, one conveniently packaged as Big Magic and it is a helpful philosophy certainly.

Fortunately, we need not put all out faith in it, she pulls back on the inclination of some to advise us to seek out our passion, especially when many struggle to find or identify such a thing. She favours curiosity over passion.

Forget about passion, pursue curiosity. Curiosity is accessible to everyone, while passion can seem intimidating and out of reach.

‘…curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming and democratic entity…curiosity only ever asks one simple question of you:

“Is there anything you’re interested in?”

Anything?

Even a tiny bit?

No matter how mundane or small?

Curiosity is like a clue, you follow it, see where it takes you and continue along that train of thought or research. It may lead somewhere or nowhere, it doesn’t matter, momentum is what’s important. She gives the example of following an interest in gardening, that lead to researching and eventually writing that much inspired historical novel The Signature of All Things.

She also acknowledges that the necessity to achieving a creative life of note takes discipline, luck and talent and puts more faith in the former, than the latter.

She doesn’t regard herself as being endowed with greater than average talent, she is not a perfectionist – admitting to flaws in here work she knew were there, but that weren’t worth the effort to pursue in the grand scheme of things. An interesting observation, as one of those flaws was the one under-developed character in her last novel, something I noted in my review, that she admits beta readers warned her of, but that she deliberately did not pursue,in some cases the effort required to fix something is greater than the reward it will bring.

Overall, a fast, easy read, that can act as a reminders and a motivator to us in relation to any creative endeavour, it’s one of those books to be read with a filter, let some of it pass and take the gems for what they’re worth to you now.

“Possessing a creative mind is like having a border collie for a pet. it needs to work, or else it will cause you an outrageous amount of trouble. Give your mind a job to do, or else it will find a job to do, and you might not like the job it invents.”

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mslexia – for women who write

I’ve been subscribing to mslexia magazine for a few years now and since it is both a great stimulant to the writing process as well as an excellent source of reading recommendations and a directory of sorts, I thought I’d share a little about it.

Mostly I like it, because it doesn’t feel in any way elitist, this is a kind-hearted, generous resource, contributed to and read by ordinary women who like to write, including many who like me, don’t participate in this activity as a job, but manage to scribble away for a few hours each week – read this and you realise you are part of a large, like-minded community of women who believe in making the impossible possible.

It might be published in the United Kingdom, but it has a very international flavour and inclusive attitude, important when you live outside your country of birth and don’t write in the language of your country of residence and want to participate.

mslexia (ms = woman, lexia =words) is a quarterly publication with feature articles on some aspect of writing (and open to idea submissions), an interview with a published writer, featured short stories or poetry written to the issue theme, or winning entries from the regular competitions they run.

It was Issue 48 in Jan/Feb/Mar 2011 that introduced me to the writer Susan Hill, just as her short novel A Kind Man was being released and I’ve since read three more of her books.

In the latest edition there is a wonderful interview with Diana Athill, what an inspiring woman she is, winning the Costa biography award at 91 with her book Somewhere Towards the End and still writing from her North London residential retirement home.  She says it how it is and cites Jean Rhys’ for teaching her this, she mines her own experiences for a story, and cautions against being cruel to others, “you can be ruthless about yourself, but not when writing about friends” – you can read an extract from the interview here.

athill“I have never understood how many writers moan and groan about how awful writing is. Absolute nonsense.” Diana Athill

Recently, they have been conducting mini-surveys of readers which are then incorporated into the lead articles and some of the smaller snippets of information found throughout the magazine. It is extremely readable, which I put down to the fact that there is a reasonable portion of bite-sized articles, such as letters, extracts from posts, emails, tweets, along with fun and short, contemporary submissions from writers under the headings of rants, raves, a week of tweets, monologue, pen portrait, how I keep going, four lines that rhyme, a poetry or book review. Something for everyone.

Each quarter there is a themed New Writing section, always an excellent writing prompt whether you are interested to submit or not, short narrative or story up to 2,200 words, prose or sometimes poetry, the successful entries appearing in a future edition. I have seen many women being published for the first time through these exercises.

There is an annual poetry and short story competition and in 2012 there was a children’s novel competition for unpublished women novelists.

In addition to all the wonderful information it lays at your fingertips, one of the things I love the most are the short bio’s of contributors, here is one from the 2009 poetry competition in which Pat Simmon’s touching poem ‘Jack discovers impermanence’ was a winner:

PAT SIMMONS, 64, was head of communications for ‘Send a Cow’, an African agricultural organisation, but has since retired. The conviction that whatever she writes will be rubbish stilts her creative progress, but an encouraging family keep her inspired and motivated. Finding writing by hand shackling, she works directly onto her laptop, a practice to which she wishes to dedicate more time. She was Blagdon’s 2005 Apple Wassail Queen – your guess is as good as ours – and on a trip to Rwanda was re-christened Munyanika: ‘As valuable as a cow.’

It is available online, but this is one publication that I like to have the physical magazine to read, there are so many gems and I return to back issues often. Oh and lets not forget the back page, always a delight to conclude with, ‘the bedside table‘, introduces an artist, author, intellectual or well-known personality who shares what’s currently on their nightstand, like gossip for book-lovers.

The next deadline of 18 March 2013 is for Issue 58: The Women’s Short Story Competition for stories up to 2,200 words on any topic. There are prizes for 1st, 2nd and 3rd and three other finalists will also be published in that issue of Mslexia. You don’t have to be   a subscriber to enter, just a woman.  Stories are accepted from any nationality and country.

Happy Writing!

The Forest for the Trees – An Editor’s Advice

Reading books on writing is a little like panning for gold. Most of what we read washes away, some of it is interesting to consider but doesn’t necessarily gel and then occasionally we find a gem.

Unlike gold, one woman’s gem doesn’t necessarily guarantee universal approval and when I recall the books I thought were fantastic ten years ago, I realise now how far I have moved on, now those same inspirational pages from yesteryear elicit nothing more than nostalgic fondness, no longer capturing the thinking place I am at today.

I remember with absolute clarity coming across Dorothea Brande’s 1934 classic ‘Becoming a Writer’ during the period I enrolled in my first creative writing class with writers Maggie Hamand and Henrietta Soames at the Groucho Club in London and how it seemed to speak to me and contain all the questions and doubts I had at the time. There is definitely gold in this book for someone starting out on the writing path, though I have given my volume wings and allowed its pages an airing by passing it on rather than let it languish on the shelf unread.

‘The Forest for the Trees’ was recommended on writer Sandra Gulland’s blog and I’d just finished reading the Josephine Bonaparte trilogy, so I jumped in and bought it on impulse. Divided into two sections Writing and Publishing, is a little misleading, the first half reading more like a psychological analysis of writer behaviours, who are the ambivalent, the natural, the wicked child, the self-promoter, the neurotic or touching fire, along with numerous anecdotes to validate these suppositions. Whilst I have no doubt, the author has come across each of these stereotypes, I found the labelling patronising and found myself wondering about the hidden majority who don’t fit so clearly into these headings – or do I just need to get out more to meet these people? Tell me writers, do you identify with one of these labels?

The frequent references to Truman Capote created a distance that was difficult to bridge and too many of the examples seemed like exceptions; I admit I was searching for the paragraph that I could identify with, an example of someone who seemed like an ordinary person, the kind that might convince the reader that to write successfully and be published is possible. It’s the cult of the celebrity factor again, with hindsight one can look back and select anecdotes about writers who were the exception rather than the rule. Disillusioned, I blame my market research background where the anecdote has little credibility and witnessing the propensity of politicians and tabloids to use them in the place of verifiable evidence.

The main message in the second half was: be respectful and patient with your editor and publicist, they’re all juggling multiple balls, you don’t really understand what goes on behind the scenes, if you did, you’d leave us to get on with the job. This debate is likely to continue with the advent of electronic publishing and the industry having to redefine its role and prove its value, however I found this section more insightful and it did highlight many of the strengths and weaknesses of the publishing process.

If you are looking for a tongue in cheek attempt at writer’s psychological profiles, interesting and funny anecdotes and an inside look at one editor’s career path, then this will entertain. We can also learn much about the industry by keeping up with writer’s blogs and online communities, which without a doubt reflect the situation of writers today, whether persevering towards it or already succeeding to be published.