An Evening With Elizabeth Gilbert, part 2

Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to see Elizabeth Gilbert live in Wichita. I started looking at her words of wisdom in last week’s blog, but there was so much good stuff, I knew it would take at least two weeks to cover it all!

One thing I loved was that she took so many questions from the audience. Most of us, it seemed, were writers or artists of some sort, looking to get our creative mojo back – or wanting to figure out how to get it to visit for the first time. And that was at the heart of one of the questions that was asked:  If you don’t do your writing regularly, does it go away?

Well. You and I know that sometimes, that happens. This particular person had suffered some terrible setbacks, moved at least twice recently, and felt she had lost everything that tied her to her writing. She used to be able to sit for hours and let the words pour out of her, as if she was channeling rather than creating (OH, do I know what she’s talking about, and do I know the heartache when that stops!), and she wanted to know if, in fact, she would ever be able to write like that again. Liz’s response? “The work wants to be made, and it wants to be made through you. If you can’t believe that, then it will go away.” (Which is one of the things she talks about in her book Big Magic – the phenomenon of having an idea, and working on it, and then being unable to work on it for a long time and coming back to it and realizing that the idea has moved on.) “We get addicted to the past experiences, the rock star moments . . . but the real work is not at those moments. It’s when it’s boring, when you feel your faith shaking.”

That, Liz said, is the moment you must ask yourself one very important question:  Can your creativity trust you?

In Big Magic, Liz makes the point that the Latin word for genius doesn’t describe a person; it describes a force, a muse if you will; it describes something that visits a person, what she calls a ‘guardian deity.’ You don’t have genius; you have A genius. And that’s the heart of her next point to this audience member:  “Show your creativity that you’re still trustworthy. But it won’t believe you unless you dig in and do the hard work.” In other words, sometimes we have to sit down and write even when our genius isn’t there. All we can do is hope it’s hovering nearby, watching, judging. Finding us worthy. Finding us trustworthy again. You may think about this differently. For me genius = my characters. They need to know I’m here. They need to be able to trust me. Lately, they haven’t been able to do that.

Another point Liz made – which made all of us a bit sad, I admit – was this:  you shouldn’t just quit your day job and be creative. Because it usually doesn’t work out. “When someone says ‘I’m going to quit my day job and write a novel,’ I get hives! I didn’t quit MY day job until four novels in. Four novels. And that was Eat Pray freaking Love!” 

Why? In part – the money. But in part – “I made a commitment to my writing in my teens that I would not ask it to support me because I loved it too much and I didn’t want to wreck it.” That’s why, when Eat Pray Love was published, she was still working weekends at a flea market, among other jobs. 🙂

Yes, for those of us who dream of quitting jobs we hate and being able to sit at home and channel our characters, this was just so . . . depressing. Like many other authors, Liz suggested you get up earlier or go to bed later, or write on your lunch break. But when there’s just no time for that, what do you do?

She had an answer for that, too. And again, most of us didn’t want to hear it.

What in your life do you need to start saying NO to, to do things you WANT to do? What are you willing to give up to have what you keep saying you want?

For me, this was hard to hear. I feel like I’ve already given up so much, particularly in these last few months. I wake up some mornings and I’m not even sure I know myself anymore. I’ve given up virtually everything in order to do this job – this full-time job that I no longer want – and I feel like I’ve given up everything I am for it, too. I tell myself that I’ll write at night, or I’ll steal an hour a day at work – and I can’t. There’s too much to do at work, and by the time I get home, I’m too exhausted to think about writing. I want to write – but how do you push through the exhaustion and shove aside things that have to be done, in order to do it? I don’t know yet.

Is it easier for others, who have spouses who can take care of dinner and trash and whatnot, while you write? I seriously have no idea what else I can give up. The last few weeks, in fact, I’ve considered giving up EVERYTHING. Chucking it all in, clearing out my accounts, selling out, and moving far away to live in a cabin by a lake somewhere, where I can sleep and recharge and write and sit on a deck in the sunlight. Walking is one of my favorite things – it’s where I get some of my best ideas, and work through puzzles in my writing – but I can’t even do that anymore. There. Just. Isn’t. Time.

Above everything, I fear losing my characters and my books. But when you can’t spend time with them, what do you expect? Stephen King says it should take you 2-3 months to get a first draft down. Which makes sense; that shows your creativity that you’re serious. You can grab that idea and bring it from the ether and into the real world. But if you don’t do it in that time span, what does that mean? Is it going to get up and leave? Or can it hang on a bit, waiting?

I wish I knew.

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An Evening with Elizabeth Gilbert

This past Monday, I was lucky enough to see one of my favorite authors – Elizabeth Gilbert – live. Thank you, Watermark Books in Wichita! 🙂

I picked up a copy of Eat, Pray, Love this spring . . . and as I’ve said before, you have to be a certain point in your life to truly get this book, on the level it’s meant to be understood and contemplated. It saved me. I’m not really ‘there’ yet, but this book made me realize that you can have everything that everyone thinks you should have, and still be miserable – and that’s okay. I meant, it’s not okay to be miserable, but it’s okay to seek Something More, or Something Else. So when I heard that Watermark was hosting her in October, I bought my ticket the first day they went on sale.

This was a stop on Liz’s tour to promote her newest book, Big Magic. It’s about how to find creativity and make room for it in your life. I admit, I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I wanted to share with you some things Liz told us.

First:  she admitted that this book has been in her mind for twelve years. Twelve. Years. Why hadn’t she written it before now? Because, as she said, “I felt i needed to establish the chops, and make sure I had the authority to stand here . . . I needed a few more books under my belt first.” But she couldn’t stop thinking about it. At first, she thought it needed to be something grander, a huge volume about creativity based in neurobiology and science, so she bought lots and lots of books on the subject. And then one day . . . “I looked at all of those books on my shelf and decided I didn’t care! I needed to do creative work – a completely irrational thing to do.” And it was this thought that finally made her sit down at her desk and work.

Liz isn’t shy about pulling punches. In fact, that idea that creative people – whether we’re writers, photographers, artists, or whatever – engage in completely irrational behavior was a theme she returned to time and again that night. “I am going to take the single most precious thing in my possession – my time – this commodity that can never be restored – and I’m going to pour it into working on something that no one wants or needs or even asked for!” There are lots of things you could be doing with that time, so “why do we indulge in this completely irrational behavior?”

A question I think we all ask ourselves from time to time! Especially when the laundry is piling up and the cats want fed, and the kids have to go to soccer practice and dinner is going to be cold cereal again . . . why do we do it? What drives us to spending our time on our art, our writing, our whatever, when there is no guaranteed payout? When the only person who may ever see it is YOU?

For Liz, though, that’s not the question. For her the question is:  “Why – if you’re not doing your creative work – why aren’t you? What’s stopping you?” This was the question she posted on her Facebook page a year or so ago, and she got back tons of responses – fear after fear after fear. Fear of failure, of wasting time, of taking time away from family and other pursuits, of being told you’re not good enough. Fear of beginning. Fear of success. Fear of change. On and on. Sound familiar? It did to most of the audience, too.

Liz took many questions from the audience (so many that I was late to pick up my kittens from the babysitter, in fact!), and I want to share some of them with you:

The first came from a young lady who asked (and I’m paraphrasing here):  how do you choose from your many ideas which one you want to focus on?

Liz’s answer:  “Realize that they’re collaborators:  they want to be made, and I want to make stuff. BUT. I am the president of my creativity, and my ideas are my cabinet. Assert your presidency. There’s limited resources, and no one gets to have everything they want – even your ideas. Explain that to them. This book, for example (Big Magic) wanted to be made for twelve years. Every day, it spoke to me. And I kept sending it back, saying ‘Come to me when you’re fully formed. I have to spend time with other ideas who got their shit together and put together a proposal!'”

But she also said that once you commit to a project, you have to follow through. “I know what it’s like to be at the boring part of the project . . . and this lovely idea, this Jessica Rabbit-like idea, comes along to seduce you. Don’t let it happen.Say, ‘too bad. This is the idea I have a contract with. Finish things.”

There was so much more, and I’ll cover that next week. But for now, think about those things. If you’re like me, some of these things were a revelation. How man of us get sidetracked by those alluring, sexy new ideas wearing three-piece suits and fedoras, looking a heck of a lot like Matt Bomer, when we’re stuck on a project that’s just sitting around in its boxer shorts, gut hanging out and beer in hand? Of COURSE we want the sexy idea! That’s how we get unfinished novels and started novels and how we never get published.

But I also loved her take on the ideas – because that’s how I sort of think about them, too. They’re not living, obviously, but they are real. They do invade our lives, whispering incessantly in our ears, keeping us up at night. How many of us have ideas that sound great, but in reality, we just know they’re not going anywhere? I’ll raise my hand! You’re in charge of your ideas.

Think about that this week, and next week – more from Liz Gilbert. 🙂

Photo Challenge: Extraordinary

I am extraordinarily exhausted.

For the past two weeks, I haven’t slept through the night. Instead, I’ve been getting up every two hours. For these two extraordinary little things:

babies 1I’ve raised many kittens in my time, but most of them have been at least 2-3 weeks old when I get them. But this time, a feral mama cat had a litter in my barn. When I found them, they were only a few hours old, scattered across the barn, freezing cold and weak from hunger. There were four, but I lost two the first weekend.

But these two have hung in there. Today, they are 16 days old. Meet Maximus Imperius (with the white) and Tiny.

Extraordinarily cute? Yes. Extraordinarily loud? YES.

Their eyes are finally starting to open. Before long, they’ll begin crawling with more purpose. Sleeping less. Of course, I won’t have to feed them quite so often, either! And I can sleep a bit more.

But there is something about those 4am feedings, when you pull them out of the box and they fight and struggle and finally latch on to the bottle and heave this tiny little kitten sigh of relief that one more time, they are being fed and cared for 12112280_644282879046646_2480474890822181157_n. . . you realize you’re the only thing standing between them and death. Literally. They are virtually blind and deaf, even at two weeks, though that will start to change over the next week. You hold them in your hand, watch those tiny front paws working furiously against the air as they nurse, watch those tiny ears working back and forth, their little eyes close in bliss . . .

It’s extraordinary.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/extraordinary/

Photo Challenge: Happy Place

About five miles from my house is a little road that goes to the north. Locals call it the “Dexter Shortcut,” because it’s the faster way to get to a tiny little town (if you’ve heard of Dexter, KS at all, it’s because that’s where helium was discovered!).

But it’s not Dexter I care about . . . no, as a dyed-in-the-wool gearhead, I love that bloody road.

It starts out slow, a few turns, some gentle downward trends. And then you top this hill . . . and it’s literally a roller coaster. Twists, sharp turns, hills. Trees. Usually, on one side of you, there’s nothing but straight up – and on the other side, nothing but straight down. It is the most fun you can have in a car in Kansas.

dexter road 1

But it’s also beautiful. You don’t need to drive it like I do. Sometimes, especially in the fall when the colors are turning, it’s a wonderful road to just meander down. And at every point, there are reminders of its history; there was an old railroad that ran from Dexter to another tiny, dying town called Silverdale (I live about a mile north of Silverdale), and every now and then, you can catch sight of the old trestles. The tracks have long since been torn out, but the bases remain.

trestle 2

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_photo_challenge/happy-place/

Existing in a Vacuum: A Rant About Literature Classes

I’m teaching a philosophy class this semester. First time. Nothing big, just a basic introduction course, but it’s been interesting and I LOVE the students. They are so curious, so questioning. They don’t hesitate to call ‘crap!’ on these philosophers!

But today we had a discussion that really broke my heart.

I’m a historian and a writer, above all else. (And, currently, a feeder of newborn kittens every two hours, but I digress.) So in philosophy, I love to go into the history of the times, so my students understand why these philosophers were thinking about certain things, what their inspirations were, even what they were railing against. So today, we finally got to the Existentialists – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, etc. – and I was able to talk about the tragedies of the Industrial Revolution and the horrors of World War I.

And I mentioned the literature of the time, too. How it was moving from the romanticism of Jane Austen, to the more rugged adventures of Mark Twain. That it was a reflection of the times (I forgot to mention Upton Sinclair, though!), I especially mentioned Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour.”

Now, let me be clear:  I don’t love all literature, and I don’t think all the literature we force down the throats of high school and college students today is worth the paper its printed on. If I ever get my hands on a TARDIS, the first thing I’m going to do is go back in time and shoot Flaubert before he has a chance to write Madame Bovary. I’ve never, ever wanted a character to die on page 1 as much as I wanted that self-centered, self-absorbed bitch to die!

Again, I digress. Suffice to say, there is literature we all could do without.

But what broke my heart was when I discussed “The Story of an Hour” and heard that my students a.) weren’t reading it in class, and b.) hated their literature classes. Hated their Comp 2 classes, in fact, because they are basically literature classes. And what they hated most was the stories the teacher had chosen.

No, I don’t like all literature. (See remarks on Madame Bovary, above.) I think there’s a lot more out there that could be explored, but isn’t, either because the teachers are too lazy to do the prep work, or because they just don’t like the stories. I hate that students aren’t allowed to ‘choose their own adventure’ when it comes to literature. I took a British Lit class once because I adore British Lit – but the stories the teacher chose were really, truly awful.

More importantly, though, what I always hated about my lit classes was the lack of history that went along with them.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2Here’s the thing:  nothing exists in a vacuum. Teaching is, and should be, a holistic experience. In Anthropology, we explore everything – history, colonization, artwork, marriage and family relations, religion, biology, forensic science, current events . . . and I do the same in my history classes. Because nothing exists in a vacuum.

PARTICULARLY LITERATURE!

Ever read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis? I have, and when it was presented to me, I had no clue how to interpret it (though I did despise Gregor’s family and sympathized with him greatly, which earned me the ire and mockery of my classmates). Now, I know far more about Kafka’s life, and the society in which he lived, and his influences, and I have a much better grasp on that story. But when I was younger? Nope. It’s really quite philosophical, in fact; really, it’s a discussion of Kafka’s own bleak outlook on life, that all humans are doomed to be alone, to always live as outcasts, never to be truly known by others. (And, apparently, also doomed to die with a rotting fruit stuck in our carapaces.) So if you thought it was just about a guy who turns into a bug, think again.

Let me go back to “The Story of an Hour.” If you’ve never read it, here’s a link:  http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/webtexts/hour/

This is a story about a woman who has been under the thumb of her husband for her entire married life. Maybe he was abusive; maybe he wasn’t; Chopin lets us draw our own conclusions there. But once she this woman realizes he is dead, she also realizes one critical fact:  she’s free.

I talk about this story in my US History classes, when we look at the Victorian Era. This story was published in 1894 – twenty five years before women had the right to vote! Chopin was a voice crying out for women’s liberation before the term had ever been coined. She urged women to fight for their rights and their independence, every bit as much as Jefferson, et.al., urged the American colonies to rebel against the shackles of Britain (their words; I’m a Loyalist, myself!). But unless you know about the Victorian Era, the ‘cult of domesticity’ that kept upper-class women busy with silly affairs of the home, and the wrath and ridicule that women who dared step out of their sphere of influence endured – then how can you fully grasp what this story’s about?

Fact:  You can’t.

Every single time I put this story in its proper historical context in my courses, I see the light dawning on students’ faces. Hear the words. “Oh! THAT’S what it means! We read it in Lit, but I had no idea what it meant.”

Good grief, Charlie Brown. How can you pretend to teach Siegfried Sassoon, Kate Chopin, Anna Sewell, Rudyard Kipling  – any of the 19th century writers – without putting their works into context? How??????? How can you sit there and preach to the students what they should and shouldn’t “get” out of these stories and novels, and not give them the tools to understand them?

Fact:  You can’t.

No one would dare try to teach the Declaration of Independence, or Common Sense, or “Vindication of the Rights of Women” without historical context. So why do it for literature? These are historical documents, too! No, when they were written, the authors didn’t consider them to be historical. But they are. They are microcosms of 19th century life – the mannerisms, clothing, hair styles, society and social hierarchy, politics, humor, even the jobs and modes of transportation, are all there.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. Not you. Not me. Not literature.

So please, lit instructors:  give it context, and make it interesting.

And if you can’t – maybe you need to hand the reins over to someone who can.