WRITING LIFE: The Magic of ‘Big Magic’ by Abby Norman

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I had a rather strange experience last week where, in the span of one day, three separate people recommended Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book to me. It wasn’t even a suggested reading type recommendation. It was a “stare deep in someone’s eyes and whisper, you have to read this book type recommendation.

I was hesitant because as I am myself in the throes of writing a book, my hours spent reading are devoted to the books I’m reading for research for said-book I’m writing. I’ve always been a voracious reader and I’ll read just about anything — but the concept of actually sitting down and reading for fun seems lightyears away from me at the moment.

Now, I know Stephen King once said something to the effect of, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write,” and I agree — but I’d wager that when he’s knee-deep in a manuscript he’s probably at least choosy about what he reads.

So, yes, the idea of reading Big Magic seemed frivolous. I also considered that perhaps it’s not the best time in my life to read a book like that. A book that’s supposed to invigorate my creative process (which, I can assure you, is already quite amped up). At 25, however, and working on my first book, I’m still discovering so much about my own creative process that I didn’t exactly want to absorb Gilbert’s.

Then the weekend rolled around and it was a gorgeous one — the first truly warm, promise-of-summer-weather in Maine this year — and I found myself shutting off my computer, putting my phone aside, and heading out to lounge on the porch. My brain needed to cool down and my ever-aching body wanted to warm-up.

Of course, nothing tops off an afternoon in the sun like a book, so I popped into the local bookseller and used the last of the week’s grocery budget to buy the book (being a writer is not a glamorous life, particularly not when you’re scrimping and saving your advance for the necessities of writing the book it’s paying for, thus forgetting that you, the writer, must eat).

Big Magic had a nice feel. You know what I mean? When you pick up a book and the cover is kind of smooth and tingly on your palms, and it’s just the right weight in your hands, and it fits into your bag without protest. Ill give it a chance, I thought, if anything because I liked how it feels to hold.

As I sat on the porch, soaking up the mid-morning sun, I was churning with anxiety about the book I’m writing. The (requisite, I imagine) infiltration of Imposter Syndrome had hit me full force. I was still working diligently on my manuscript, but those sneaking feelings — well, really, not so sneaking at all, more bombastic than most feelings — of Im a shit writer! had made their way into the foreground of my consciousness.

Maybe they never go away, I don’t know.

So I plunged into Gilbert’s tome on creativity — lighter fare, admittedly, than what I’d been reading for research, a gentle break from the suffering — and finished it more or less in an afternoon. As usual, I enjoyed Gilbert’s light, conversational style and always appreciate her thoughtful anecdotes. Mostly, though, I knew that there would be at least a few nuggets of wisdom that would pop out at me, only to return later on when I set back to work on my own project.

As promised, some of her ideas did sprout in my mind — and her ideas about ideas left me looking at my work as something distinctly separate from me. An exercise in objectivity that lightened me and in some way eased off the accelerator of anxiety.

“Ideas are driven by a single impulse,” Gilbert writes, “to be made manifest.”

As a memoirist, it’s not so much a single idea or infatuation that I’m chasing, but rather, the narrative of my life. Gilbert admits that when she wrote her most famous book, Eat, Pray, Love she didn’t write it to help people — she wrote it for herself.

That passage gave me permission to simply admit to what I’ve been doing since I could form language: experiencing life through the written word. I am one of those writers — one of those people — who does not know what she feels, or believes, or desires, until she’s written it down and read it back. Until I can scoop it all out, order it neatly, and then read it with a discerning eye, I know not what it is that swims inside of me day in and day out.

Perhaps it’s not as noble, doesn’t make for as nice of a pull-quote in an interview, for me to say that I’m really writing for myself — but it’s honest, and, as Gilbert points out, probably for the better. When you’ve written a book and put it out into the world, it ceases to be yours anyway. It becomes the reader’s. They are inside of it, inside of the husk of you. Though they are in your story they bring their own beliefs, feelings and baggage with them. They are in the story as themselves — not as you.

If I have, or ever will, write something that helps another human being it has far less to do with intentional writing as it does intentional living. Writers are, after all, just people. We’re always vivid, often terse and sometimes brave — but that’s not because we’re writers. It’s because we’re human.

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