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.

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. 🙂