Writing advice from Elizabeth Gilbert

Many people know Elizabeth Gilbert from the fame of Eat, Pray, Love and many more know her for the many other books she has written, or podcasts she has been on. She seems (from afar) like a kind, thoughtful, and good person.

For me, the book that was most useful to my writing and creative practice was her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear which is a sort of manifesto and tribute to the creative life, and offering to you as the creative all in one. It’s a great book, especially if you want to pursue creativity (in whatever form) but have something holding you back.

Since it is a Monday – a day for many of us where our ‘real life’ responsibilities can feel particularly present with us at the creative table, possibly even oppressively so – I would like to offer you some advice from this book that you may need.

Are you considering becoming a creative person? Too late, you already are one. To even call somebody “a creative person” is almost laughably redundant; creativity is the hallmark of our species. We have the senses for it; we have the curiosity for it; we ave the opposable thumbs for it; we have the rhythm for it; we have the language and the excitement and the innate connection to divinity for it.

If you are alive, you’re a creative person.

[…]

The guardians of high culture will try to convince you that the arts belong only to a chosen few, but they are wrong and they are also annoying. We are all the chosen few.

From Elizabeth Gilbert – Big Magic. Page 89.

Writing advice from Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott’s bird by bird: some instructions on writing and life is one of those books you finish and release a deep sigh of wellbeing. It makes it all seem possible. It was given to me as a gift by some in-laws and it has been a great book to dip in and out of over the years. Here’s one example of why.

Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft […] perfectionism will ruin your writing, blocking inventiveness and playfulness and life force (these are words we are allowed to use in California). Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground – you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it’s going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, of suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move.

From Anne Lamott – bird by bird. Page 28 and 29.

Writing advice from … (a series)

I love buying books about writing. It makes me feel as if I am a real writer and makes me pay attention to the books I read in a different way.

But, many of these books contain the disappointing news that this act of buying books about writing, an act I take great pleasure in, is not really how you become a better writer. You can only be a writer if you write, these writers say. Still, if I hadn’t bought the book, maybe I wouldn’t believe them.

If you, like me, feel that reading what other people think about writing is helpful to your own writing, you might enjoy the series I’ll be posting over the next few days (or weeks, let’s see).

Today’s advice from Ann Schuster, from her book ‘to the islands: a creative writing workbook’ which I purchased last week from a fantastic local second hand bookstore in Cape Town, Blank Books.

Every writer I’ve ever worked with, myself included, has expressed a wish that they could write more regularly, more easily, more creatively, more authentically, with more flow, and enjoy it more. We are talking about that mysterious thing called the creative process. There are many theories of creativity, and many approaches to ‘learning’ creative writing. The approach that underpins this workbook is inspired by practice. It is based on the idea that what writers need most is to write. Writers find their feet by writing. They tune their voices by writing. To write frequently and with abandon allows you to explore the palettes and scenery of your creative universe.

Anne Schuster – to the islands: a creative writing workbook

Writing While Feminist – a writing prompt series.

At the start of the COVID19 lock down I saw a lot of people saying that they were going to use this time to GET SHIT DONE. Hm, I thought, not me. I feel like I need a nap. Nap I have done, dear reader. Many a nap has been had.

But I have also been writing.

In 2019, I completed what I’m pretty sure will be my first of many times reading The Artists Way – an incredible book on creativity and living a creative life written by Julia Cameron. One of the things that I have found so helpful from that project was the morning pages. Cameron encourages you to write at least three pages in a journal every day as a practice, much like people who practice meditation. The aim of this writing isn’t to produce a masterpiece, or even to write anything useful. It’s more of a place to connect with yourself, to get those strange thoughts that exist in our head out on the page, and to make some space in your mind for the creativity to fit into.

I’ve kept with the morning pages since I started the Artists Way on 1 November 2019. I have quite a few notebooks now filled with almost entirely random writing. This writing has helped me stay in touch with what is really going on in my head for the past seven months, to pay better attention to the world around me, and also to generate some great ideas for writing.

When I’m writing one of the hardest things for me is to get started. I do all sorts of things to avoid it. Even cleaning. I mean – come on people. Cleaning. What the actual f am I doing? I’m not alone in my avoidance of the one thing that truly always makes me happy to do. Lots of writers face this affliction.

Most of the writing courses I’ve participated in encourage you to generate some prompts so that the first bit of writing is easier. Sometimes this means underlining something you’ve written in the past, and using that to start a new piece of writing (thanks to the workshops run by Rahla Xenopolous, and by Chantal Stewart and Maire Fisher for this helpful idea). Others encourage you to choose a theme and write a little bit each day on that. Others like the Life Righting Collective courses help you to tap into your real life and to use those experiences to write. With the Isolation Journals Suleika Jaouad has got a bunch of incredible creatives and thinkers to send suggestions for a journal entry each day. All of these have helped to get me to sit down and shut up and think on the page.

The lock down also meant that a project I’m very proud of – Living While Feminist – was published into what felt like a bit of a void. But we banded together and produced a podcast that includes excerpts from the writers. And we had a small virtual zoom party together which was a wonderful experience. But I’m not done celebrating this book.

So, I thought, why not combine the tips and tricks that I’ve learned from the writing courses I’ve done with the brains and creative genius of the incredible writers from Living While Feminist, Feminism Is, and the broader writing community, to bring you some Writing While Feminist writing prompts for as long as we can keep it going. So, starting on 18 June 2020, we began with the first prompt, Courage.

I hope you’ll join in, and I hope it helps you get some writing done. Looking forward to seeing you on Instagram and to receiving your prompts there. Happy writing!

If the present changes the past, what do we do with the future?

I’ve never before begun a decade with a sense that one has just ended.

As 2019 ticked down to a close I felt like I’d finished a book, and was putting it down lightly on the table, both pleased and relieved to be done, marvelling at what had gone on and how everyone had survived.

I saw a lot of lists online where people recounted how their lives had changed in the poorly named ’10s’ and so I know this feeling wasn’t mine alone.

For me, the sense of time passing is linked to the happenings of the last ten years, where my friends and I became official grown ups, had real heartbreaks and real love, did things like get degrees, start families, married and divorced, started careers and made choices that would shape our future. ‘It’s because we’re old now’ was said by more than one person, more than once.

Now that we’re here, in the pleasingly named 20s, what meaning do we make of what has happened and where do we take it? What do we do with all this time?

I recently read a selection of T.S. Eliot’s writing. In one of the essays (written more than 100 years ago) titled ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, he wrote about the magic that is creating a piece of art, and the transformation of time and perspective that occurs each time. The present influences the past as much as the past transforms the present.

He writes,

“…what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which proceeded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them … Whoever has approved this idea of order, … will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.”

T.S. Eliot, Tradition and the Individual Talent, 1917

So, it is in life, where we start a new decade knowing that each thing we do each day of this decade will affect how the previous one feels, is experienced, and what it means and meant.

The significance of today might, in a few days or months or years, become insignificant, or, the meaning of a moment could be amplified and change our lives. So, what do we do with this new decade, this new future and past that we were given two days ago (or today, or just now)?

Neil Gaiman had some advice a few years back that felt just right.

“I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.
Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.
So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.
Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.
Make your mistakes, next year and forever.”

Neil Gaiman, My New Year Wish, 2011

Like this one, the next decade will have good days and bad ones, discovery and loss, creation and destruction, weather, love and pain, family (chosen or inherited), old and new friends, kindness and cruelty, choices. What this all means is up to us.

Ten years from now I hope to look back with the same sense of awe at life and the living of it, and laugh at the unreliability of certainty and the certainty of unpredictability.

Somewhere in all of it we’ll make our way. Good luck.