*Note: This was written a few weeks ago. I hadn’t posted it because I decided it didn’t really say anything. Then I had lunch with Iz, who is a kindred reader and writer. Our talk reinvigorated these thoughts I had. So this post is for you, Iz. Hope it inspires you!
A few things in the zeitgeist have been blowing around my mind, but they haven’t quite congealed themselves into anything yet. First, there is the Franzen frenzy and this article that was posted on the Huffington Post. I’ve been mulling over my thoughts and realized that I have no fight in this game. I loved The Corrections. I love Jodi Picoult. I don’t begrudge Franzen his good reviews and I don’t begrudge Picoult her right to say what she feels. I would gladly take either of their careers. What struck me more was the hostile reaction to Picoult and Weiner’s comments on the matter. The comments to the article on Huffington Post and the comments in reaction to this article , in which a female writer sniffs that Picoult and Weiner are just jealous because Franzen is a good writer and they are not. I don’t know where the hostility is coming from- is it because they are women, or because they are successful women or because they write what is considered “women’s fiction”? I have no idea. But as a aspiring writer, the hostile dismissal of both Picoult and Weiner’s work stopped me in my typing. If they are considered hacks, then what hope do I have?
As I have been mulling over this controversy, another juggernaut in the zeitgeist crashed into my Friday afternoon and momentarily chased away these thoughts. I went and saw “Eat Pray Love“.
I have not read the book. Well, in full disclosure, I tried to read the book. I couldn’t get past the first chapter. I like to think I’m open-minded enough that the massive popularity didn’t color my opinions. I have been known to not like something just because everyone else does, and I have been known to dig in my heels until I have to wave the white flag and admit, yes I did like The Life of Pi. I’m not sure the reason, but I couldn’t get through Ms. Gilbert’s breakdown on her bathroom floor. It wasn’t her honest questioning of her life and marriage, that I understand. I don’t mind dark. I think it was more her writing style. She just came across as so whiny and self-indulgent. Instead of sympathising with her during her darkest moments, I just wanted to slap her. Or tell her to get over herself. I think this is something to do with the writing. Whenever I mention this to people that love the book, I think they assume that as a happily married woman living in a big white house, that I am offended or threatened by a woman who admits that not only are these things not enough, but that they can be their own kind of prison. They defend her by telling me how courageous and life-affirming her decisions was. I agree. I just don’t think she did her job as a writer. If my (and admittedly many others besides me) reaction is to be taken out of the moment, to not hurt with her, to think about her writing and her motivations, then as a writer at least, she failed.
I had to work in the morning last Friday and was feeling filled up with stress and grumpiness and just the busyness of life. I hadn’t had my morning writing session and I was feeling uninspired. I haven’t been to a movie since Christmas and I love movies. I decided to take the rest of the afternoon and go to a movie. I picked Eat Pray Love because I was hoping to be inspired.
And I was. Julia Roberts was a good choice because she made an unlikable woman likable, which means the audience can stop focusing on whether or not they like the character and instead enjoy the story. And what a story it is. I do find it a little unbelievable how everything happened to her right when she needed it to, but other than that, it was a beautiful story. There were many moments that stood out to me, that made me wish I had a pen and paper handy, to write down my thoughts.
I’ve been thinking about what I could possibly say about Eat Pray Love that hasn’t been said before. I decided there wasn’t anything, so just chalked it up to a great movie experience.
Today though, I was bored at work and started surfing the internet. I decided to google Liz Gilbert because I was curious about her other writing work. And on her website was this absolute gem, that brought it all together for me. The fears of whether or not I will ever be good enough, both at the actual task of writing and for the writing community, as not one of their own. The worry about whether or not I have it in me to even finish a novel, and then to even sell it, and THEN to worry about whether or not it will be too popular or not literary enough or not thoughtful enough. And so on. So this is a lovely reminder, to just write. Believe in yourself. And then release it. Our only allegiance is to the words. What happens after that is out of our hands. So stop worrying and start writing. Enjoy!
Liz Gilbert on writing:
Sometimes people ask me for help or suggestions about how to write, or how to get published. Keeping in mind that this is all very ephemeral and personal, I will try to explain here everything that I believe about writing. I hope it is useful. It’s all I know.
I believe that – if you are serious about a life of writing, or indeed about any creative form of expression – that you should take on this work like a holy calling. I became a writer the way other people become monks or nuns. I made a vow to writing, very young. I became Bride-of-Writing. I was writing’s most devotional handmaiden. I built my entire life around writing. I didn’t know how else to do this. I didn’t know anyone who had ever become a writer. I had no, as they say, connections. I had no clues. I just began.
I took a few writing classes when I was at NYU, but, aside from an excellent workshop taught by Helen Schulman, I found that I didn’t really want to be practicing this work in a classroom. I wasn’t convinced that a workshop full of 13 other young writers trying to find their voices was the best place for me to find my voice. So I wrote on my own, as well. I showed my work to friends and family whose opinions I trusted. I was always writing, always showing. After I graduated from NYU, I decided not to pursue an MFA in creative writing. Instead, I created my own post-graduate writing program, which entailed several years spent traveling around the country and world, taking jobs at bars and restaurants and ranches, listening to how people spoke, collecting experiences and writing constantly. My life probably looked disordered to observers (not that anyone was observing it that closely) but my travels were a very deliberate effort to learn as much as I could about life, expressly so that I could write about it.
Back around the age of 19, I had started sending my short stories out for publication. My goal was to publish something (anything, anywhere) before I died. I collected only massive piles of rejection notes for years. I cannot explain exactly why I had the confidence to be sending off my short stories at the age of 19 to, say, The New Yorker, or why it did not destroy me when I was inevitably rejected. I sort of figured I’d be rejected. But I also thought: “Hey – somebody has to write all those stories: why not me?” I didn’t love being rejected, but my expectations were low and my patience was high. (Again – the goal was to get published before death. And I was young and healthy.) It has never been easy for me to understand why people work so hard to create something beautiful, but then refuse to share it with anyone, for fear of criticism. Wasn’t that the point of the creation – to communicate something to the world? So PUT IT OUT THERE. Send your work off to editors and agents as much as possible, show it to your neighbors, plaster it on the walls of the bus stops – just don’t sit on your work and suffocate it. At least try. And when the powers-that-be send you back your manuscript (and they will), take a deep breath and try again. I often hear people say, “I’m not good enough yet to be published.” That’s quite possible. Probable, even. All I’m saying is: Let someone else decide that. Magazines, editors, agents – they all employ young people making $22,000 a year whose job it is to read through piles of manuscripts and send you back letters telling you that you aren’t good enough yet: LET THEM DO IT. Don’t pre-reject yourself. That’s their job, not yours. Your job is only to write your heart out, and let destiny take care of the rest.
As for discipline – it’s important, but sort of over-rated. The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you. You will make vows: “I’m going to write for an hour every day,” and then you won’t do it. You will think: “I suck, I’m such a failure. I’m washed-up.” Continuing to write after that heartache of disappointment doesn’t take only discipline, but also self-forgiveness (which comes from a place of kind and encouraging and motherly love). The other thing to realize is that all writers think they suck. When I was writing “Eat, Pray, Love”, I had just as a strong a mantra of THIS SUCKS ringing through my head as anyone does when they write anything. But I had a clarion moment of truth during the process of that book. One day, when I was agonizing over how utterly bad my writing felt, I realized: “That’s actually not my problem.” The point I realized was this – I never promised the universe that I would write brilliantly; I only promised the universe that I would write. So I put my head down and sweated through it, as per my vows.
I have a friend who’s an Italian filmmaker of great artistic sensibility. After years of struggling to get his films made, he sent an anguished letter to his hero, the brilliant (and perhaps half-insane) German filmmaker Werner Herzog. My friend complained about how difficult it is these days to be an independent filmmaker, how hard it is to find government arts grants, how the audiences have all been ruined by Hollywood and how the world has lost its taste…etc, etc. Herzog wrote back a personal letter to my friend that essentially ran along these lines: “Quit your complaining. It’s not the world’s fault that you wanted to be an artist. It’s not the world’s job to enjoy the films you make, and it’s certainly not the world’s obligation to pay for your dreams. Nobody wants to hear it. Steal a camera if you have to, but stop whining and get back to work.” I repeat those words back to myself whenever I start to feel resentful, entitled, competitive or unappreciated with regard to my writing: “It’s not the world’s fault that you want to be an artist…now get back to work.” Always, at the end of the day, the important thing is only and always that: Get back to work. This is a path for the courageous and the faithful. You must find another reason to work, other than the desire for success or recognition. It must come from another place.
Here’s another thing to consider. If you always wanted to write, and now you are A Certain Age, and you never got around to it, and you think it’s too late…do please think again. I watched Julia Glass win the National Book Award for her first novel, “The Three Junes”, which she began writing in her late 30’s. I listened to her give her moving acceptance speech, in which she told how she used to lie awake at night, tormented as she worked on her book, asking herself, “Who do you think you are, trying to write a first novel at your age?” But she wrote it. And as she held up her National Book Award, she said, “This is for all the late-bloomers in the world.” Writing is not like dancing or modeling; it’s not something where – if you missed it by age 19 – you’re finished. It’s never too late. Your writing will only get better as you get older and wiser. If you write something beautiful and important, and the right person somehow discovers it, they will clear room for you on the bookshelves of the world – at any age. At least try.
There are heaps of books out there on How To Get Published. Often people find the information in these books contradictory. My feeling is — of COURSE the information is contradictory. Because, frankly, nobody knows anything. Nobody can tell you how to succeed at writing (even if they write a book called “How To Succeed At Writing”) because there is no WAY; there are, instead, many ways. Everyone I know who managed to become a writer did it differently – sometimes radically differently. Try all the ways, I guess. Becoming a published writer is sort of like trying to find a cheap apartment in New York City: it’s impossible. And yet…every single day, somebody manages to find a cheap apartment in New York City. I can’t tell you how to do it. I’m still not even entirely sure how I did it. I can only tell you – through my own example – that it can be done. I once found a cheap apartment in Manhattan. And I also became a writer.
In the end, I love this work. I have always loved this work. My suggestion is that you start with the love and then work very hard and try to let go of the results. Cast out your will, and then cut the line. Please try, also, not to go totally freaking insane in the process. Insanity is a very tempting path for artists, but we don’t need any more of that in the world at the moment, so please resist your call to insanity. We need more creation, not more destruction. We need our artists more than ever, and we need them to be stable, steadfast, honorable and brave – they are our soldiers, our hope. If you decide to write, then you must do it, as Balzac said, “like a miner buried under a fallen roof.” Become a knight, a force of diligence and faith. I don’t know how else to do it except that way. As the great poet Jack Gilbert said once to young writer, when she asked him for advice about her own poems: “Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say YES.”
Thank you, Liz Gilbert!