Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic

bigmagicI am a fully paid-up card-carrying fan of Elizabeth Gilbert, but there is often a moment at the start of her books where I feel like I might have sat next to the wrong person on the overnight bus and will live to regret it. Big Magic was no different as Gilbert begins it in kooky, mystical mode with injunctions to find my inner treasure and believe in the big magic of creativity. It felt at first like the quinetessence of self-help with a big dose of my daily horoscope.

I have read a lot of books about creativity, finding it a fascinating topic, and many books about the lives of authors. The relentless, upbeat positivity of Gilbert’s prose was initially a little grating. I couldn’t help but remember the story about Hans Christian Andersen, when he was visiting Charles Dickens and overstaying his welcome by about two months. Dickens came home one day and said to the kids, where’s Hans? And they said, he’s outside, face down on the grass sobbing because he got a bad review.

I remember poor old Hermann Hesse, champion hypochondriac of the early 20th century who, during WW1, wrote a very mild little article about how nice peace might be, only to find himself facing widespread condemnation for his unpatriotic attitude and blackballed by all the booksellers in Germany.

I remember Dodie Smith, who reluctantly agreed to spend the duration of the Second World War in America because her husband really badly wanted to go, and when they finally returned twenty years later everything Dodie feared had come to pass: she was completely out of touch with the London theatre scene and never staged another successful play (after an unparalleled five in a row before the outbreak of war).

When I read about these authors I admit I was comforted by them; they felt like my tribe. I cherished the idea that you might suck at life but create wonderful things nevertheless. And I thought that creativity was not an easy road to choose, that it was full of pitholes and that inevitably, you might end up alongside Hans Christian Andersen, face down on the lawn and weeping.

Well, Elizabeth Gilbert is having none of that. Creativity isn’t necessarily an easy choice, she agrees, but it’s the most interesting thing you’ll do and it’s open to each and every one of us. Her perspective is tailored to encourage everyone just to have a jolly good go at it, regardless of the outcome. All you need for creative living on her terms is courage, enchantment, permission, persistence and trust. Each of these qualities heads up a chunk of her text, and each is explored with her customary kindness and wisdom and lots of really good anecdotes.

I particularly enjoyed the story she tells about a novel she so nearly wrote concerning the Brazilian rain forest. Years later, when that book had withered away to nothing, she met and befriended Ann Patchett, who was astonished to hear about Elizabeth’s near-miss and confessed she was writing the exact same story that Elizabeth had passed over. It became State of Wonder and won Patchett the (then) Orange prize for fiction. Gilbert points out that she could have been downcast or upset by this turn of affairs, she could have decided that the universe was against her. Instead, she felt a little miracle had happened and that she was absolutely right to turn up at her desk every day waiting for inspiration. Because ideas really do come knocking with some insistence, and they’ll move on if you can’t bring them to fruition quickly enough.

Gilbert’s premise is that the world of creativity is a very strange one and it functions by unusual laws. You might work for years without recognition, or watch less gifted people pick up all the awards. It isn’t a clear meritocracy, and you can’t control the outcome. She tells a story I loved about asking her new husband, Felipe, if he minded her writing about him in a little thing called Eat, Pray, Love she was working on. Well, he said, what was at stake? And she laughed and said, nothing at all, no one ever reads my books. In a way, that’s why Gilbert is a very good person to be writing this guide. She’s had one massive bestseller and five other books, and she says she could not tell you what was different; it’s purely about chance.

She is actually very good on overcoming one’s fears and giving oneself permission even to try (‘Speak to your darkest and most negative interior voices the way a hostage negotiator speaks to a violent psychopath: calmly but firmly. Most of all, never back down.’) And on dismissing the reception, good, bad and ugly, that results from taking the plunge and putting stuff out there (‘I can only be in charge of producing the work itself. That’s a hard enough job. I refuse to take on additional jobs, such as trying to police what anybody thinks about my work once it leaves my desk.’) She is also against perfectionism, even if this leads her into a slightly eyebrow-raising anecdote about letting The Signature of All Things out into the world imperfect, because it was good enough.

This reminded me of another book on creativity I read by the social scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (I’m typing that once and never again, okay?). His thesis is that something can only be deemed creative by the experts in the field, not by the person doing the creating, which probably works for science but is a real dog’s dinner in the arts where no one ever agrees on these things. He also says that only time can tell – what might seem creative at first turns out not to be creative if opinion decides against it in later years. Which means poor old Swedenborg, for instance – ridiculed in his native Sweden, a hit a century later in Europe and now more or less sunk into obscurity – was creative posthumously for a hundred or so discountable years. It’s madness, right? Though if we accept that Gilbert’s Big Magic is a strange beast indeed, it does seem to be the case that we don’t know what we are creating and we don’t know what ‘perfect’ looks like. Certainly down here at amoeba level, the posts I slave over for this blog get the smallest amount of traffic, and those I toss out simply because I have to put something up can sometimes attract lots of comments and likes.

So Gilbert, as ever, won me around to her way of thinking, which is that if you’re going to try and be creative, you do it only ever because the process is fun. And the more you can get your head around the obstacles and problems that befall you, the more fun you can have. We all use delusions to make sense of what we do, she argues, isn’t it best to have life-enhancing, sensible ones? In the end I couldn’t imagine anyone reading this book and not feeling heartened, encouraged and braced for the challenges ahead. Though I can’t quite get out of my mind an image of Filipe holding the telephone receiver and calling, ‘Liz, I’ve got Hans Christian Anderson on the phone and he says he’s still feeling miserable. Will you come and talk to him?’

Magnificent Seven

Yes, issue no. 7 of Shiny New Books is now live!

SNB-logoI’ve got a huge BookBuzz section somehow – not entirely sure how! – so do go and check out our latest pick for the Book Club, our lastest Eds Discuss and all the lovely interviews and features from our talented contributors.

As ever, there are lots of reviews of fiction, non-fiction and reprints. I think my personal favourites of the novels I read this time were, in fact, three historical novels (inevitably, after criticising historical fiction here a few months back, that sound you hear is me chomping on my own words): Belonging by Umi Sinha, A Want of Kindness by Joanne Limburg and Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Devereux.

Well, you don’t need me to tell you how to navigate the site! Hopefully there will be something there for everyone.

My Experience Is Not Your Experience

I walk into the supermarket. I know exactly where I’m going. I head to the shelves of books for sale and start flicking through them, trying to ignore the glare of the neon lights that fills my peripheral vision. And as I flick through I come to a conclusion: they all sound exactly the same. I call it the deadpan first person present. You know what I mean. Short sentences. The occasional long lyrical one thrown in to prove the author can do it. It’s pitifully easy to write. And quick to read. And I absolutely loathe it.

Gah! Yuck! Awful! Where on earth has it come from and why has it taken over mass market fiction so completely? This year I’ve had a lot of this sort of contemporary fiction sent to me and I’ve found myself increasingly unable to read it. It puts my teeth on edge, like vinyl wallpaper and crepe dress fabric. It’s a very particular and personal response, though, as I’ve never come across anyone else expressing the reservations I feel. After a lot of thought, I realise that what I dislike is the lack of musicality in language like this; which essentially means no affect to the words – no deep-rooted emotion. Oh it says a lot of stuff, and often it’s used in thrillers to talk endlessly about the crisis the female protagonist is going through, but it’s language which is dead behind the eyes.

Well, for me it is. As I was thinking about why I disliked it so, I realised that the world has changed enormously when it comes to reader response. When I read up about it in college, it was stuck in the realm of theory, because no one really knew what readers en masse thought. Nowadays, with millions of blogs and sites like Goodreads we’re awash with the opinions of readers of every shape and size. And what becomes clear is how bizarrely picky we are.

Not long ago, I was at an author event where Sophie Hannah was speaking. She told us about a reader who had come up to her and tackled her about a detail of one of her books. In it, the protagonist had driven a car three weeks after a caesarian section. Given that no one could possibly drive for at least six weeks after such an operation, the woman said, it had put her right off the book. Oh, Sophie Hannah had replied, really? I drove two weeks after mine.

If I ever visit Goodreads, it fills me with terror for the human race, for much the same sort of reaction. I remember reading a review of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Sisterland on it. The reviewer had had a complete tantrum over the fact that a character engaged in a sexual act fervently wishes her partner would hurry up. Whoever would do such a thing? the reader fumed. How impossibly rude! She had hated the book after that, given up on it and put it aside as a badly written novel. It was an extraordinary response in many ways, not least because the character in the book is committing adultery at the time, and whilst she enters into it willingly, she is assailed by guilt as the scene progresses. All the context for this event had been removed when the reader read the passage; some idiosyncratic trigger had been sprung and irrational but powerful feelings had taken over.

I think to some degree or other, no reader can really escape this sort of reaction. It’s very human – and equally human to blame the book rather than our own crazy emotions. The greatest incidence of such trigger responses seems to be around this issue of likable or sympathetic characters. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read reviews that bewail ‘horrible’ people in books that haven’t struck me as horrible in the least. And I’ve read enough books myself with characters endlessly justifying their behaviors (which annoys me) or responding in ways I think are odd, to know I do the same thing.

What it boils down to is, I think, that understanding my experience is not your experience remains one of the hardest laws of reality that we ever have to get our heads around, right up there with getting the fact that people can only give love in their own fashion, not in the way we might want to receive it. When characters in books react in ways that are alien to us, or in ways we think are wrong, or in ways that awaken old memories of hurts and slights, or in ways that are simply not borne out by our own experience, we become distanced from them. They are – quite literally – not sympathetic any more.

Margaret Heffernan in her brilliant book Wilful Blindness, goes deep into the psychological research around this desire for the familiar. We marry people who are like us, we are friends with people who are like us, we search out views and opinions that confirm our own. And mostly, we hate to think this might be true. ‘Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently,’ she writes. In one experiment, subjects were led to believe that they shared a birthday with Rasputin, and subsequently they ‘were far more lenient in judging the mad monk than those who had nothing in common with him.’ Trivialities matter. Since 1998, over 4.5 million people have taken Implicit Association Tests that measure bias, and especially the sort of bias we aren’t conscious of having, the kind that makes white doctors friendlier towards white patients than black ones. No point in being complacent – more than 80 percent of us are biased against the elderly. Nobody comes out of this particularly well, even if, as Heffernan insists, we all want very earnestly not to feel these ways.

Well, our book reviews are pretty clear that we are all full of foibles and prejudices, and that we are pretty hard on fictional characters who don’t match up to the internal yardstick. It’s an intriguing thought that books give us one representation of human nature, and book reviews give us another, more revealing, one. Reading is a trick way of looking into a mirror, because we read in the most private part of our minds, well away from witnesses and onlookers. Stories tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the lives in their pages. And what does my own irrational dislike of some innocent writing style say? I’m not entirely sure. But I do know I still have residual fear towards people whose emotions I can’t read, or who are saying one thing while feeling another. I love reading because stories do go beneath the surface, on the whole, they do show you the whole picture. I think I’m irritated beyond all proportion by stories that don’t have emotional depth, while this currently fashionable style is a way of depicting women in crisis who don’t make the reader feel like they’re ‘whining’ or ‘moaning’, which gets a very bad press. But that’s only my reading of the situation… and we all know that’s just personal.

Today Is Extra Shiny!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245I’m particularly excited by today’s Extra Shiny because my section, BookBuzz, is full of all sorts of new and thrilling things.

There’s the discussion for our book club on Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests

There’s an announcement of a poetry competition we’re holding.

There’s brand new YA special features.

There’s an interview with one of the judges on the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize panel.

And Annabel has given us a new links page.

I don’t think I’ve ever had so much new stuff happening all at once! I think I’m going to lie down in a darkened room for a while, if you don’t mind…but you go on over and have a look.