Big Magic

One of my favourite outings is to take the kids to the local library. It only takes about half an hour, but I love everything about it: the way the library smells, the possibility of all those books on all those shelves, the lovely library man who lets Arthur stamp his books and the fact that when we get home with our seven new books, he’s entertained for ages. But the other day, during my daily 20 minutes to myself (literally: I have 20 minutes to myself each day, and the hour between 8 and 9pm with Mark) I took myself on a special treat and went to the library by myself. Solo! No toddler! No baby in the carrier! Just me and allll those books.

And I chose a few for myself. I’ve been reading voraciously since Ella arrived in September, because I’m sitting and breastfeeding so much, and I’m often so tired that I can’t do much else but lie down and read (before I fall asleep). It’s pretty much my only hobby right now, but it’s also my favourite thing to do, so that works out pretty well.

(Sidenote: a wise friend, Shawn, told me before we had kids that parenting burned life down to the essentials. You don’t have time for people and activities that you don’t really, really love, so you end up only spending time on friends and hobbies you’re passionate about. It’s so true – and actually quite awesome, if you think about it.)

So anyhoo, I was looking for a Siri Hustvedt novel, because What I Loved is quite possibly one of the most wonderful books I’ve ever read, and I saw a large print version of Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert’s guide to “creative living without fear”. Now I know, I know, Eat Pray Love is a contentious topic, and I must admit I didn’t love it at all. I thought she came across as whiney and self-involved and she sold the book before the trip so there was some huge pressure for her to find herself to tie things up nicely. But last year I listened to her Big Magic podcasts – on a recommendation from the Cup of Jo team – and they were lovely. She was lovely. Authentic and warm and humble and really just a joy to listen to. So when I saw the book standing there on display, I thought: aha! This is perfect timing. It’s nearly time to shrug off my 24/7 mom cloak to go back to work, maybe it’s time to remember what being creative feels like. In fact, that’s probably what got me to sit down and write this this morning, instead of scrolling through Instagram (my other favourite hobby: I follow a lot of nature people and it’s so great to get some snapshots of great beauty in the midst of the every day).

So the book is essentially a treatise to creative living in whatever form it comes to you. It’s not success or results oriented at all, it’s just about creating for the sheer joy of creating. Which is really all I’m doing here.

I’ve found it thought provoking both because she’s a writer and so am I, and she feels the burning need to write so she doesn’t go crazy. I don’t. Not at all. I need to journal when something is bothering me, and I find real happiness in writing like this – when I can just pour my thoughts onto the page – but I don’t have that, “I must create worlds on the page or my life doesn’t have meaning” feeling at all. It used to bother me, that I wrote a novel, Strange Nervous Laughter, and then didn’t really feel the need to write another one. It bothered me so much that I wrote another one, but it wasn’t very good (even to me). It was well written, because I know how to write, but it wasn’t filled with guts and passion because I got all that out in Strange Nervous Laughter. Honestly, it feels like a life goal fulfilled. But there’s such external pressure that if you’ve written a novel you need to write another one.

No thanks. Instead, I started a magazine, Sweet Life. An inspiring diabetes lifestyle magazine that many people have told me makes their life easier. How wonderful! I wrote a motivational book about living well with chronic illness (my old friend diabetes): How to Live a Happy Life (with a Chronic Illness) and it was an absolute delight to write. I woke up early and wrote, and it felt so good. I want to write a cookbook one day, with a food editor to help, of course. A travel book, perhaps? Definitely a children’s book. Maybe there will be other things I want to write, but I don’t feel a novel is one of them… Of course, life might surprise me, but I think my writing is a tool for creating the life I love, rather than the thing that defines my life. Does that make sense?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because Gilbert writes about how in her 20s she wrote every day and got rejected over and over and over again, and how she figured that was necessary to hone her craft. My story is totally different: I wrote the first draft of Strange Nervous Laughter in two weeks, worked on it a bit and sent it off to publishers, and got told how to improve it. Then I really got stuck in and worked hard on it for a few months, sent it off again and got a publisher. And then I edited with the publisher’s editor. It was a lot of work, but it came to me very easily and the whole thing probably took a year. I was twenty-five.

So when I read about Gilbert’s struggles and how Harper Lee (of Catcher in the Rye fame) didn’t publish anything until right before she died – and then it was a prequel to her masterwork – I thought, “Eek! Did I publish too soon? Have I been scared of not getting anything published since, which is why I didn’t write another novel?” (Let me be clear: I am in no way comparing Strange Nervous Laughter to Catcher in the Rye! I mean, it’s totally as important and groundbreaking, but, you know…)

I am happy to say that’s not why I haven’t published another novel. I haven’t published another novel because I don’t feel I have anything as epic to say right now, and there are so many unnecessary, mediocre novels in the world. I don’t want to add another one to the pile. I would rather read wonderful books, and write all kinds of wonderful things that aren’t novels. Maybe one day there’s another one in me, but I love that right now there is absolutely no pressure to be writing anything specific.

Of course, that’s also because of the aforementioned 20 minutes a day to myself. I wonder how Gilbert’s book would be different if she had two kids who demanded her time all day? I’d like to see a book of how to squeeze creativity into 20 minutes when your brain feels fried from momming so hard!

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