This morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration (in Philadelphia) I did a reading from the book Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert and reflected on how reading this book impacted my own creative process — in particular with Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage which I have fine tuned and am putting out into the world. To see the reading and the reflection on YouTube, click here. (You can also view the YouTube video at the bottom of this post. This was part of a larger service titled “Hope in the Dark.”
Reading from Big Magic, creative living beyond fear
by Elizabeth Gilbert
I think a lot of people quit pursuing creative lives because they’re scared of the word interesting. My favorite meditation teacher Pema Chodron, once said that the biggest problem she sees with people’s meditation is that they quit just when things are starting to get interesting. Which is to say, they quit as soon as things aren’t easy anymore, as soon as it gets painful, or boring, or agitating. They quit as soon as they see something in their minds that scares them or hurts them. So they miss the good part, the wild part, the transformative part — the part when you push past the difficulty and enter into some raw new unexplored universe within yourself.
And maybe it’s like that with every important aspect of your life. Whatever it is you are pursuing, whatever it is you are seeking, whatever it is you are creating, be careful not to quit to soon. As my friend Pastor Rob Bell warns: “Don’t rush through the experiences and circumstances that have the most capacity to transform you.”
Don’t let go of your courage the moment things stop being easy or rewarding.
Because that moment?
That’s the moment when interesting begins.
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you don’t bring forth what is within you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.” –Gospel of Thomas
Recently, I entered a new chapter of my life. I have just started taking notes for a new novel — a long term project — that involves research on a mythical creature and learning Classical Greek. Learning Classical Greek is a long-time goal of mine — spurred by a trip to Greece now almost twenty years ago. In Athens, I purchased a book of poetry by the classical Greek poet Sappho — “‘The Poetess?'” said the bookshop proprietor with raised eyebrows before he disappeared into the backroom of the bookshop. He came back with a slim volume that had contemporary Greek on one page and Classical Greek on the facing page. The book is still sitting on my bookshelf. It has been my lifelong goal to learn to read Sappho in the original. I figured I would wait a few years.
Then I read Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert, and was inspired to learn Classical Greek now. What was I waiting for? Learning a new language can inform my writing. Gilbert writes about the magic of creative writing — really of making any kind of art or change and the art of being in the world. In my experience of what she writes about — which is remarkably similar — I think of it as listening to the muse.
She also writes about the hard work of writing — which I was relieved to see because writing is hard work.
I heard a mainstream writer on the radio describe writing as the business of rejection. This is true. But as I tell my students, if they don’t put themselves out there, they don’t stand a chance. In other words, it’s over before it started. I also tell my students that writing and publishing are two different things — and by not getting them confused they will save themselves a lot of time, not to mention anguish.
When I first talked to Maria about today’s service, I told her about my day of throwing out query letters to literary agents into what feels like the abyss. When she suggested that I talk about this, at first I didn’t want to. When I see my students — many of them middle aged and older — getting excited about writing, when I see them actually writing and making sense of their worlds, I really dread telling them about the hard work of marketing their work. In fact, I often wait until the last class to talk about publishing.
But I realized that my faith in sending out query letters into the abyss does relate to today’s service and also to being a Unitarian Universalist. I have faith that something will happen. Marketing a novel may at times feel like putting a message in a bottle and casting it out to sea. But I have belief in myself and, more importantly, in my work.
Then I realized that something has already happened.
I wrote this novel that I fine tuned and am marketing — Art, a novel of revolution, love and marriage — based on the landscape of my adolescence — even though it is straight up fiction. The protagonist is based on someone I knew who rode a motorcycle and went to jail before the age of eighteen because she was convicted of drug dealing. It’s a long story but this landscape of gritty working class America is one that I fled from. I wrote the novel out of a feeling of regret — most likely a kind of survivor’s guilt.
Art is short for Artemis. In the novel, the story doesn’t end when Art goes to prison. She enters a vocational program and when she is released she becomes an auto mechanic. Then she re-unites with the love of her life, Linda, and thirty years later, when marriage equality is the law the land, they marry.
For me, writing fiction was a re-considering of the facts. And in doing so, I created hope.