Elizabeth Gilbert wrote one of the most recognisable memoir titles of recent times, Eat, Pray, Love, in 2006. Its success was so unexpectedly enormous that Gilbert’s creativity was crushed under the expectation that her next book would be similarly chart-topping. Tim, our Deputy Editor, weighs up Gilbert’s advice on writing and beating crippling creative terror that she provides in her latest offering, Big Magic.
Books that aim to help you become a better writer are usually lumped together on bookshop shelves. But if you cast a scrutinising eye over the titles on this topic you’ll find that they fall into two broad subcategories. The first – my favourite – is the writing instruction manual that helps you master the fundamentals of constructing a clear, unambiguous sentence. Examples include The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and EB White, Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark, and my favourite – On Writing Well by William Zinsser. These books are practical and will help you trim the wordiness off your writing, refine your grammar and enhance the impact of your words.
The second type, however, is one that I regard with a degree of wariness. This type of writing primer addresses the psychological barriers that prevent people from writing – or writing as well as they would like. One of the most popular books of this type is Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, first published 30 years ago and which has sold over a million copies. But when Goldberg started talking about the importance of selecting a lovely notebook with a gorgeous colour and texture in which to write – or something along those lines – I realised that this was not the book for me. If Goldberg had spent more time on helping her readers to improve the aesthetics of their writing, and less on the aesthetics of their writing paraphernalia, I might have taken her seriously.
… the biggest obstacle that most writers face is fear.”
Big Magic falls into this second category. It won’t help you to construct more effective sentences, but it is extremely practical in that it focuses on how to deal with fear, an emotion that occasionally besets every writer who is concerned about the quality of their work. I’ve never read Eat, Pray, Love, the memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert that sold 10 million copies, but Gilbert clearly knows how to tap into the preoccupations of a large swathe of readers.
This latest book is ostensibly targeted at anyone who is trying to create something, whether it’s a piece of writing, a painting or whatever. But given that Gilbert is a writer, it’s going to be most relevant to writers. And probably the biggest obstacle that most writers face is fear: fear of not writing well enough, of being too old to write well, of being too young to write well, of not having the right kind of training or of not having enough talent. The list of fears – and the concomitant excuses to stop writing – is almost endless. You might think that Gilbert is so stratospherically successful that she wouldn’t know anything about harbouring fears about her writing. But she candidly outlines how, in her early life, she was riddled with an endless catalogue of anxieties – and not just about writing.
The fears that she discusses are those that most people who write have been afflicted by at one time or another. She discusses the tragedy of Harper Lee, author of the iconic To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee expressed her fear after the success of her blockbuster, wondering how she could ever surpass it. Gilbert says that Lee shouldn’t have bothered trying to outdo it and should have just kept on writing anything, whether it was a light romance, a police procedural or a children’s story. Gilbert points out that she herself will almost certainly never write another book that sells as well as Eat, Pray, Love (although The Signature of All Things has been pretty successful), but that realisation doesn’t bother her. She outlines how she came to reconcile herself with that fact and how it doesn’t deter her at all from continuing to write.
This book doesn’t promise to help you to eliminate your fears – which makes a refreshing change from the breathless hype that characterises most American self-help books – but it will help you to control your anxieties to the extent that you won’t be crippled by them and can get on with the task of creating.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert is published by Bloomsbury, rrp $19.99