On Magic (& writing)
This year, I’ll show up and let magic do the work. Or okay — maybe half of it.
I did not read “Eat Pray Love” — it seemed like a story I wouldn’t enjoy — so I would like to disagree with the people who told Elizabeth Gilbert, in so many ways, that her best work was already behind her after that book became a bestseller.
I’d like to point you instead to the Elizabeth Gilbert book that did speak to me: Yes, it was one that came after “Eat Pray Love.” It’s also my first book this 2017: Big Magic.
I do not come from a family of writers; my family is made up of engineers and scientists. Both my parents were engineers — my mother was into chemistry, while my father was a pilot with an engineering background. Both my siblings are science-inclined, with science-backed diplomas, and a common science high school background. Which leaves me, of course — Catholic-schooled through high school, I held a Journalism diploma at the end of it all. As the eldest child, I followed no one’s path, not even my parents’, it seemed.
Though my parents weren’t writers, they were both raised by teachers. All my grandparents were, in some form, educators — my mother’s father was a Physical Education teacher, and we took special delight in dusting off his old baseball bats and mitts in their old house during summers. Both my grandmothers were teachers, too. My mother’s mother, for instance, had an awesome book collection. Rummaging through her library, I was introduced to Greek and Roman mythology when I found a really old hardbound book about it. (Just how old? It had a faint “P5.00” note scribbled on the top right corner of its very first page — in pencil! Was this supposed to be its price tag?! FIVE PESOS! HARDBOUND!)
I was reminded of my family tree while reading Big Magic, where Gilbert discusses at some point the notion that one needs “permission” to lead a creative life.
“I think it was my parents’ example of quietly impudent self-assertion that gave me the idea that I could be a writer, or at least that I could go out there and try,” she writes. “I never recall my parents expressing any worry whatsoever at my dream of becoming a writer.”
“You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life.”
“Look at your ancestors. Look at the ones who were immigrants, or slaves, or soldiers, or farmers, or sailors, or the original people who watched the ships arrive with the strangers onboard. Go back far enough and you will find people who were not consumers, people who were not sitting around passively waiting for stuff to happen to them. You will find people who spent their lives making things.
“This is where you come from. This is where we all come from.”
I love the point she makes thereafter, where she says that the earliest recognizable evidence of human art predates the earliest recognizable indications of human attempts at agriculture, which meant that at some point in our evolution, we humans thought making art was more important than learning to feed ourselves on the regular. Isn’t that amazing?
Big Magic came to me at a crucial time. When you’re married to an artist, these sorts of books are par for the course, but when you’re in journalism, “magic” and “writing” seem to be two very separate concepts that are very, very hard to see together. Times like these, it can get very difficult to see “magic” in what we do in journalism, where “ugly truths” are far more common.
And so I let the book stay on the shelf unread for a handful of months, only to pick it up first thing after I quit journalism. I wanted to reframe my attitude toward writing; I wanted to see “magic” in the words, again.
One of the most striking things about the book that I took note of is a reframing of the “creator-muse” relationship into a healthier, more manageable one:
“You can believe that you are neither a slave to inspiration nor its master, but something far more interesting — its partner.”
This was an important reframing, because it clarifies to me what inspiration isn’t: Not an enemy to be conquered on the battlefield, nor a wild beast in the living room to be tamed, nor a capricious entity to be pleased with offerings on a shrine.
It is a partner — something to work with. Not something we want to defeat (like enemies) or are afraid of (like wild beasts) or have a vague distaste for (like capricious entities). And that’s something that’s easier to wrap my head around. If you ask me, this is a far more reasonable personification of such an elusive concept.
In her TED Talk, which has been listed as among the most popular ones, Gilbert describes a conversation between her and inspiration during one of her more desperate moments while writing “Eat Pray Love” — she was practically talking to an empty corner and asking for help.
“… I just lifted my face up from the manuscript and I directed my comments to an empty corner of the room. And I said aloud, “Listen you, thing, you and I both know that if this book isn’t brilliant that is not entirely my fault, right? Because you can see that I am putting everything I have into this, I don’t have any more than this. If you want it to be better, you’ve got to show up and do your part of the deal. But if you don’t do that, you know what, the hell with it. I’m going to keep writing anyway because that’s my job. And I would please like the record to reflect today that I showed up for my part of the job.”
That last bit is so important, because it reminds me that the first step to succeed at anything is to show up.
Truth be told, I know I haven’t been showing up where my creative writing endeavors have been concerned, and this means that I can’t whine at my muse for the lack of publication-worthy materials simply because I haven’t been showing up for my part of the job.
And yes, that sucks, but yes, I hope this is about to change.
A s a consequence of my recent career move, I have been asked more often lately why I was leaving, and to keep things short, I just say I’m off to a new adventure. But what does this adventure mean? For one, I hope to write more about topics that nourish me, and less about things that deplete me. And yes, someday, maybe — a book. Who knows, maybe magic would even come to me and write half of it. Or maybe I would be talking to empty room corners more often than expected. I don’t know. I guess, there is indeed only one way to find out.