Do you believe in magic?

big magic

At first, I thought Elizabeth Gilbert’s  latest, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear was only for writers and other artists. But as I read, I found it reminding me that we can all live creative lives. A creative life is simply one that isn’t satisfied with merely working to pay bills. Do you like to make stuff? Do you like to cook, sew, garden, decorate your home, play with model trains, build birdhouses? You are entitled to a creative life. Yes, you! Everyone is.

I’ve included just a few of the many passages I highlighted in bright pink.

Relax and work hard

Gilbert tells us not to worry about being good enough. If the work makes you happy, it doesn’t matter what others think. The work is what’s important.

“We are all just beginners here, and we shall all die beginners.”

“A good-enough novel violently written now is better than a perfect novel meticulously written never.”

“Perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat.”

Where ideas come from and where they go…

“I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form… Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner.”

Gilbert tells a great story about the novel she didn’t write. After getting an idea and starting a novel, some life-altering circumstances caused her to set it aside. Boxes and boxes of research sat idle for years. When her life settled down and she was able to start again, the idea had fled. She was simply no longer interested in it. Later, Gilbert discovered that that idea had flitted into Anne Patchett’s head and that she was now working on it. That idea turned into her book, State of Wonder. Clearly the lesson is, if you don’t do the work, the idea will find someone who will. Get cracking!state of wonder

Success and failure

 “You can measure your worth by your dedication to your path, not by your successes or failures.”

“Recognizing that people’s reactions don’t belong to you is the only sane way to create. If people enjoy what you’ve created, terrific. If people ignore what you’ve created, too bad. If people misunderstand what you’ve created, don’t sweat it. And what if people absolutely hate what you’ve created? What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest – as politely as you possibly can – that they go make their own fucking art. Then stubbornly continue making yours.”

Live beyond fear, not without it

Gilbert recognizes that a certain amount of fear is necessary for survival, that those without any fear tend to act like sociopaths or out-of-control toddlers. Not people we should emulate. How does she deal with fear? Here’s the letter she addressed to her fear before starting a new project, what she likens to a “road trip.”

“Dearest Fear: Creativity and I are about to go on a road trip together. I understand you’ll be joining us, because you always do. I acknowledge that you believe you have an important job to do in my life, and that you take your job seriously. Apparently your job is to induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting—and, may I say, you are superb at your job… But I will also be doing my job on this road trip, which is to work hard and stay focused. And Creativity will be doing its job, which is to remain stimulating and inspiring. There’s plenty of room in this vehicle for all of us, so make yourself at home, but understand this: Creativity and I are the only ones who will be making any decisions along the way…You’re allowed to have a seat, and you’re allowed to have a voice, but you are not allowed to have a vote…above all else, my dear old familiar friend, you are absolutely forbidden to drive.”

Finally…

Big Magic may be my new favorite graduation gift. In spite of the author’s magical thinking the book is loaded with very practical advice for how to live a creative, productive, and happy life. Furthermore, it’s delivered in a direct, cheerful, kind, generous, and encouraging voice. Gilbert values curiosity over passion. She argues against trying to make creativity pay one’s bills. She argues for keeping one’s day job, living frugally, and traveling. She also argues against going into debt to pay for advanced degrees. Pulitzer prizes don’t often go to folks with MFAs.

My advice? Treat yourself so some Big Magic and read this book.

 

 

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Love in the time of prejudice

lover1The Japanese Lover: A Novel

Fans of Isabel Allende will enjoy this sweeping story of forbidden love. Two women meet at Lark House, a retirement home in the San Francisco Bay area. Both are immigrants, but Alma was sent to the US during WWII by her Polish-Jewish parents to live with wealthy relatives. Irina is a young, frightened employee of Lark House from Moldova. Each has secrets that define them, their relationship to each other and to the rest of the large cast of characters here. Little by little, their secrets are revealed, making me turn pages long past my bedtime.
The overarching and lifelong secret love affair of Alma and the Japanese gardener, Ichimei, is set against the backdrop of nearly every twentieth century cultural and historic phenomena. The Holocaust. The internment of the Japanese-Americans in the US. Prejudice in all its forms. Aging and end-of-life issues. Love and sexuality. AIDS. All are explored with Allende’s trademark sensuous (often sensual) writing, not to mention her humanity and heart.

To give you a taste, here’s what Alma’s husband says about their unusual but tender marriage:

“There are always some necessary lies and omissions, just as there are truths it’s better to keep quiet about.”

Alma says this about her beloved Ichimei:

“Love and desire for him scorched her skin; she wanted to stretch her hands out across the table and touch him, draw closer, bury her nose in his neck and confirm it still smelled of earth and herbs…”

And here’s what Ichimei says about dying:

“If I were going to die in the next three days, what would I do during that time? Nothing! I would empty myself of everything but love.”

In the end, this is a sweet, sad, passionate love story–a romance–between two people who couldn’t be together in this world. It left me hoping that they would be able to find and love each other in the next.

 

 

Eleanor Roosevelt’s crowded marriage

loving eleanorFranklin, Eleanor, Sara, Lucy, Earl, Missy, Lorena, Daisy, and Joe. This was a very crowded and complicated marriage. FDR and ER were neither exclusive nor stingy with their affections. And then there was his mother, Sara. Franklin and Eleanor’s story and its accompanying scandals reminded me of another power couple that occupied the White House and our collective consciousness half a century later, Bill and Hillary.

Loving Eleanor by Susan Wittig Albert is a well-researched, but fictional memoir of Lorena Hickok, a noted journalist who became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Very close. Three thousand revealing and personal letters between the two, that had been archived it the FDR Library, were unsealed ten years after Hickok’s death in 1968. They have provided much source material for both biographers and this fictionalized narrative. They leave little doubt as to the nature of their relationship, at least for a time.

lorena hickok
Lorena Hickok, aka “Hick,” tells this story.

But let’s back up a bit. Before FDR was elected President, Eleanor feared disappearing into his shadow. Remember, this was a time when women in general and First Ladies in particular occupied strictly defined roles. It was during the first presidential campaign that Hickok penned a series of articles about “The Reluctant First Lady,” highlighting ER’s concerns, her interests, and the projects that she desperately wanted to continue. It was “Hick” who encouraged Eleanor to find ways to change the role of First Lady into one in which she could thrive and find fulfillment. ER began holding weekly press conferences with female journalists, writing the widely syndicated “My Day” newspaper column, and shedding light on a host of women’s issues.

While FDR had several well-documented affairs, he was somewhat vindictive when it came to Eleanor’s dalliances. Earl Miller, ER’s hunky body-guard was bought (and married) off. Hick was reassigned to a traveling job during the Depression that kept her out of Washington D.C. And Joe Lash, a younger political activist and journalist beau was sent to the Pacific during WWII. Albert calls this FDR’s “left hook.”

The Roosevelts are of course, larger than life and endlessly fascinating. I’ve read Lucy by Ellen Feldman, about Eleanor’s former secretary who had a decades-long affair with FDR and who was with him when he died at Warm Springs. And I’ve seen the amusing Bill Murray movie, “Hyde Park on Hudson,” which focused on FDR’s relationship with his distant cousin, Daisy. The Ken Burns PBS documentary about the Roosevelts added to my picture of this influential family. However, this book has piqued my curiosity and put more books onto my always growing to-read list, including historian Blanche Wiesen Cook’s authoritative three volumes about Eleanor and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about the couple. Then there are ER’s own books.

More than anything though, this book illustrates once again, that no one can really know what goes on in inside a marriage or the human heart. The power struggles and compromises that go on behind closed doors even–or especially–in the most public of couples, remain hidden from view. In addition, no matter how we may idolize and deify them, these icons are still quite human, with all the accompanying wants, needs, desires, and limitations. Knowing their struggles and private demons, especially when set against the times in which they lived, makes me appreciate them more and softens my heart. After all, who am I to judge?