Book Review: Big Magic

I finished reading my fiftieth book of the year last night and it was a good one. In the most fitting and providential way, Big Magic came around at the same time as NaNoWriMo and it has served as my everyday source of nugget-sized encouragement to keep writing throughout the month. (I’m at 37,000+ words right now.)

Big Magic coverElizabeth Gilbert had this book on her brain for years, but it wasn’t until she finished The Signature of All Things that she felt ready and able to speak on behalf of creativity.

Normally, her work is heavily researched and quantified, but Big Magic is basically a personal letter to me (and other creatives) that reads something like, “Here’s what I know about creativity and fear after twenty-some years of writing and forty-some years living.”

Of course I loved every bit of it.

Though the books isn’t exclusively for writers, it’s definitely geared towards the right-brained mind. Artists, musicians, makers of anything, people who have untapped energy to DO SOMETHING but are afraid of failure. This designation – people who make stuff – casts a wide net though, because generations of people have been making things since the beginning of time. Creativity is why we still exist. People had ideas and then they had the courage to go public.

Part of the book gets personal with a collection of Liz’s own experience in publishing, prioritizing, and following curiosities down unforeseen roads to see where they lead. (They led to book ideas, by the way.) But there are also other accounts of exploring creativity, quotes by Picasso and John Lennon, anecdotes of roads other people traveled to reach their own level of personal success.

I’ll spare you the entire road map. Instead, I’ll share with you a few of my favorite parts and leave it there.

“I’ve watched far too many brilliant and gifted female creators say, “I am 99.8 percent qualified for this task, but until I master that last smidgen of quality, I will hold myself back, just to be on the safe side.” Now I cannot imagine where women ever got the idea that they must be perfect in order to be loved or successful. (Ha ha ha! Just kidding! I can totally imagine: We got it from every single message society has ever sent us! Thanks, all of human history!) But we women must break this habit in ourselves — and we are the only ones who can break it. We must understand that the drive for perfectionism is a corrosive waste of time, because nothing is ever beyond criticism. No matter how many hours you spend attempting to render something flawless, someone will always be able to find fault with it…. At some point, you really just have to finish your work and release it.”

“Maybe I won’t always be successful at my creativity, but the world won’t end because of that. Maybe I won’t always be able to make a living out of my writing, but that’s not the end of the world either, because there are lots of other ways to make a living besides writing books — and many of them are easier than writing books… So let’s try to wrap our minds around this reality: There’s probably never going to be any such thing in your life or mine as ‘an arts emergency.’ That being the case, why not make art?”

“The fun part is when you’re actually creating something wonderful, and everything’s going great, and everyone loves it, and you’re flying high. But such instances are rare. You don’t just get to leap from bright moment to bright moment. How you manage yourself between those bright moments, when things aren’t going so great, is a measure of how devoted you are to your vocation, and how equipped you are for the weird demands of creative living.”

And finally,

“Fierce trust asks you to stand strong with this truth: ‘You are worthy, dear one, regardless of the outcome. You will keep making your work, regardless of the outcome. You will keep sharing your work, regardless of the outcome. You were born to create, regardless of the outcome. You will never lose trust in the creative process, even when you don’t understand the outcome.’

There is a famous question that shows up, it seems, in every single self-help book ever written: ‘What would you do if you knew you could not fail?’ But I’ve always seen it differently. I think the fiercest question of all is this one: ‘What would  you do even if you knew that you might very well fail? What do you love doing so much that the words failure and success essentially become irrelevant?‘”

So there you go. Buy Big Magic here. 

Book Review: The Signature of All Things

I acquired this book in November 2013, so to read it so long after its release feels unsupportive of Liz Gilbert and lazy on my part. She’s an inspiring person, and especially since I met her the night I got the book, I should’ve given it better attention from the start.

But (this is a valid but), I was still in graduate school and wasn’t reading for pleasure at all. All of 2014 was about reading for school and writing my own novel, so I purposely didn’t read any fiction. When grad school ended in December 2014, I picked up the first book that I’d been anticipating to read for a couple of years, Ken Follett’s Edge of Eternity. I saved it for a post-graduation Christmas treat.

Do you ever save books for a special time? Because you know the book is going to be well above par, emotionally exhaustive, or – simply – you want to give it your full attention?

That’s how I felt about The Signature of All Things. I couldn’t just casually pick it up. I had to pick it up with some level of intention. I’m taking the same care with Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed. I have it, but the right time to read it hasn’t yet come along.

The Signature of All ThingsThe Signature of All Things spans the entire life of Alma Whitaker, the unattractive mannish daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia businessman who grew his fortune in the botanical market. We start in the late 1700’s by learning how Henry Whitaker birthed that fortune by swindling and storming about the world with a keen mind for import and export. The history of Henry Whitaker is primarily important because Alma is so much like her father, and that’s important because Alma is unlike anyone most of us know.

She is brilliant from birth and follows in the steps of her father by studying botany. It’s an unusual career for a woman of the 1800’s, but few questioned her passions because everyone knew she had the mind for it. She wasn’t lovable in the romantic way so no one expected her to take a husband and bear litters of children.

So she devotes her entire life to botany, specifically the study of mosses.

Let me stop here and say that SOAT is not as dull as it sounds. Plants? Moss? An entire life devoted to plants and moss? In the 1800s?

Yeah, so it’s not the most thrilling topic, BUT! It isn’t without event and emotion. We follow Alma throughout every messy stage of her life and awkwardness abounds in nearly every situation – mostly because Alma cannot figure out the intentions of others. Why is her adopted sister so vacant? Conversely, why is the neighbor girl so blissfully boisterous at every turn? Does her father actually love her, and better still, does her mother? Why is the Dutch nursemaid so harsh? And painfully, will she ever, EVER know the touch of a man?

She is so plant-oriented that it isn’t until the fourth quarter of her life that she sees people for the rich role they played in her story. Additionally, it isn’t until the fourth quarter that all thing converge – the Earth, the past and present, humanity, and struggle, and her place in all of it. Furthermore, where is God?

I’m not trying to be vague, but I feel that if I get too descriptive I won’t be able to stop. The narrative is absolutely beautiful. Beauty-full. I mean, GOOD GRACIOUS she is such a good writer! I’m not even envious because Liz Gilbert and I are different planes and creative jealousy is unbecoming anyway. Her level of research must have been exhaustive because historical events and the timing of discovery merge seamlessly. I fully believe that Alma Whitaker existed. It would break my heart to learn she didn’t.

Not everyone has loved this book and for understandable reasons. For all the lovely words and beautiful places Gilbert takes us to, we are talking moss, aren’t we? There’s a lot of physical descriptions to muddle through, and though some bits were more lengthy than others (I’m talking about you, Tahiti), it didn’t feel overly tedious. One could say there were slow parts, but the only section that felt like it could be trimmed was Alma’s prolonged year in Tahiti, and even then, I wasn’t bothered entirely by it. I knew we were nearing the end of the story and things would wrap up soon.

In short, I loved the story. I love its depiction of a nineteenth century female scientist who did not settle but instead immersed herself in the passion that grabbed her. I loved her excursions and her hypotheses and how she never fully gave up on herself. Alma shows us that even into the last stage of life, we still have potential. We still have something to give and we definitely still have something to learn.

To be reminded of those things, it was worth the long journey.

Buy The Signature of All Things here. 

Meeting Liz Gilbert

I know I said my presence online would be minimum this month, but y’all, let me tell you. This blog post is worth it.

It was Girls Weekend, so Lesli, Susan, and I were doing our usual thing. We eat, we talk, we have coffee, we talk some more. Sometime around 2 a.m. we realize that we’re not 25 years old anymore and our bodies cannot handle such late hours. The whole thing begins again for one more day and then we don’t see each other for several months.

On the rare occasion, we’ll go to an event, a museum, or a movie, and Saturday night was one of those times. Elizabeth Gilbert was coming to Knoxville to read an excerpt from her new book, The Signature of All Things, and discuss writing/creativity/life with the audience. (She is best known for the wildly popular and inspiring memoir Eat, Pray, Love.) The three of us were giddy with excitement to hear whatever batch of wisdom Liz would have for us. All attendees received a signed copy of SOAT, and I took notes on the inside cover page of mine.

An Evening with Elizabeth Gilber

She was as ever bit as brilliant as I knew she’d be. Clever, witty, eager to share with the audience what she had learned over the years of being an aspiring writer. Write every day, so that when you don’t write for a couple of days you know that something is missing. 


The evening concluded too soon and I held back tears as she graciously thanked Knoxville for the warm reception. (Liz isn’t unfamiliar with Knoxville. She taught creative writing for one semester at the University of Tennessee in 2005, immediately after her year-long sojourn that eventually became Eat, Pray, Love.)  Audience members were invited to have their books personalized in the lobby, and I swear every single person did just that. The line was painfully long but we stood in it anyway. My moment with Liz Gilbert was less than 10 seconds; I didn’t even speak to her. Both Susan and Lesli  had more courage and swapped polite conversation, but I said nothing. If I had opened my mouth, I would’ve said too much and started crying. I might have even crawled in her lap. (In hindsight, she probably would’ve listened to my drivel patiently because she is too kind to do anything else.)

camera_20131102210432927As a whole, the night was perfect.

But it wasn’t over.

The girls and I walked to  Coffee & Chocolate for a treat. Conversation floated from our favorite bits of Liz’s talk to other unrelated things. We had been there nearly an hour when I casually glanced at the small group of ladies standing at the register. There was Liz, ordering a steamed milk and talking with three women who were obviously as inspired as we had been. That’s her, I mouthed to Susan and Lesli. That’s Elizabeth Gilbert!

My eyes bulged. I said all sorts of profanity and Susan stripped off her cardigan. (Because clearly that’s what you do when you find Liz Gilbert standing five feet away from you ordering a steamed milk. You strip and cuss.)

I said more profanity and pulled out my phone. Despite the cardiac arrest I was clearly experiencing, I was going to be bold and ask her for a picture. Susan, minus her cardigan, grabbed her phone too and stood next to me and waited for just the right moment to interject. (Lesli, at nearly 32 weeks pregnant, stayed calm.)

From the depth of my gut, I squeaked out, “Um, excuse me? Can we have a picture with you?”

Liz turned a kind, smiling face our way and said, “Absolutely! Come on!”

camera_20131102215355185Y’all, seriously. SERIOUSLY. I might be smiling all calm and cool in this photo, but I was on the verge of vomiting all over the floor from nerves. What a crazy, amazing, once-in-a-lifetime moment this was for me, for us, for three women who dearly love reading, love writing, love learning from other smart, strong women who have important things to say. Again, I barely spoke to her because I would’ve lost all self-restraint. Instead, I said, “Tonight was wonderful. Thank you very much.”

My cup runneth over.

This morning, as I add to the novel I started four days ago, I’m meditating on these words from Saturday night: Your story chose you and needs to be told through you. Meeting Elizabeth Gilbert was exactly the gift I needed in this year, in this month, in this season of molding my words into fiction. None of this was by chance, for I am too smart to consider it as such.  All of Saturday night was on purpose.

“Destiny, I feel, is also a relationship – a play between divine grace and willful self-effort.” – Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love