Monday, May 25, 2020

Big Magic: a review

Another week, another book review. I'll say one thing for Covid-19 - it's been great for clearing my 'to read' stack. 

The entire premise of Big Magic, the eighth book by Elizabeth Gilbert (famed author of Eat, Pray, Love), is this: creating is scary. Do it anyway. 

Creating is a greatly varied and inherently human activity that we all do every day in some way - even if it's picking out an outfit. While Gilbert acknowledges that early on, she quickly focuses on writing, since that is her milieu, and on consciously and conscientiously choosing to create "to bring forth the treasures inside you." With occasional comments of "or painting, or dancing, or decorating bicycles," most of the examples Gilbert gives are of writers and writing and the writing life. The skills transfer. 

In one of my favourite examples, Gilbert describes being consumed by an idea, researching it vigorously, and then life getting in the way of her expressing that idea in a book. Having sat neglected several years, that idea made itself known to Ann Patchett (one of my all-time favourite novelists and a dear friend of Gilbert's), who had space in her life at the time to write the book - to get the inspiration out. Of course, to understand this example, you have to accept (and I do) Gilbert's vision of inspiration or ideas as free-spirited motes seeking a human partner to be made manifest in the world. Finding Gilbert unavailable to partner with at that time, the idea presented itself to Patchett. The way Gilbert tells the story is almost magical (hey, the book is called Big Magic after all), though she is very clear that magic and inspiration are nothing if you don't put in the time and effort. 

Another of  Gilbert's premises that really speaks to me is valuing curiosity over passion. I have often felt like there is something lacking in me because I don't have one big central driving passion. I have posted about it here several times, most explicitly when faced with the incredible (to me) passion of the man I loved. I enjoy writing, sure, but I also do it because it's easy for me. I equally enjoy singing, and being by the ocean, and chatting with my grandson (who pretty much ignores me right now, but give him time 💓). My point is, if there is anything I'm actually passionate about, it's curiosity. Passion is dark and stormy. Curiosity is a firefly. Passion is a mystery to me - uncatchable and sometimes destructive; curiosity is a life-long friend. Passion is sometimes threatening. Curiosity bring answers, and answers bring peace. When I can't find passion, I always have access to curiosity, which is currently lighting my path alongside a very captivating mote of inspiration. 

I've already posted last week that Gilbert recommends keeping your day job (or in my case getting a day job) and practising creativity daily. The first keeps creativity from crumbling under the weight of the electricity bill, the second makes a practitioner into a master. I may never write a best-seller and go on a nation-wide book promotion tour. Heck, I may not ever be paid to write again. But that's no reason not to write. Every day. Because it is a privilege to create, and playing with words makes me me. 

Reading Big Magic right now is timely for me. I like Gilbert's writing style - it's breezy and delightful. Her mojo might not be everyone's taste - there are certain people I can almost see rolling their eyes and muttering "get real." How very sad for them.

Some favourite motes of inspiration from the book:




Saturday, May 23, 2020

on making


I'm midway through reading Elizabeth Gilbert's book on creativity, Big Magic. Full review to come when I'm done, of course, but something I read tonight really struck me. 
picture of book Big Magic

Gilbert is talking about keeping your "day job" even when you start getting paid for your art, because it takes the pressure off creativity and inspiration. A chapter earlier she spoke about being devoted to your craft/art/chosen field of expression and creating every single day, which can be a challenge to do when you also have a day job, and presumably outside obligations of family, community, etc. 

In Love's Civil War Elizabeth Bowen never talks about working at her writing like a job, but that approach comes through in her letters, and sometimes in Charles Ritchie's diary entries complaining that she has work to do during his visits. 

The intersection of these two reads comes when Gilbert - giving examples of people working and making time/space for their art - writes, "People don't do this kind of thing because they have all kinds of extra time and energy for it; they do this kind of thing because their creativity matters to them enough that they are willing to make all kinds of extra sacrifices for it. Unless you come from landed gentry that's what everyone does." (First emphasis mine, later emphasis Gilbert's). 

The thing is, Elizabeth Bowen was, essentially, landed gentry. She inherited Bowen's Court - her family estate in Co. Cork - was raised alongside lords and ladies and Sackville-Wests, and she still struggled to live off her earnings as a writer. Her lifestyle wasn't exactly going to land her on People of Walmart, mind you, but she did whatever side writing she could - having a standing order for book reviews for magazines, teaching summer writing courses for adults, taking writer in residence gigs, and just barely being saved from writing a "gauche" interview with Princess Margaret about the princess' affair with Peter Townsend. Bowen was a well-known author of several novels, and she ground away at whatever paid writing she could get to keep body and soul together (eventually selling the family estate and taking up residence in an English cottage). I suppose real landed gentry would have an income from their estate, but my point remains (and this may be a news to no one but me):

1. Writing (or whatever form of creativity inspires and calls to you) must be given time and energy consistently over long periods of you're going to get any good at it. 

2. Almost no one can live off the profits of writing (or painting, or sculpting or dancing, or blacksmithing) alone. That's no reason not to go on creating. 

The Money Tree: a review

I've read three of Chris Guillebeau's non-fiction books and liked them all. I was surprised to learn that his 5th book, The Money Tree, is a novel though it still addresses his favoured themes of life fulfillment through entrepreneurship and self-direction. Sadly, Guillebeau's open, easy, readable style, which I find so helpful in reading about personal finance and small business, doesn't really translate into a catchy novel. From the start The Money Tree reads like a pedantic life lesson for teens. 

The characters in The Money Tree lack depth or believability. The main character has $3,000 in his savings account, yet when something goes wrong at his apartment he sleeps in his car for several days. He's inept, the girlfriend is long-suffering, and the mentor is a cross between Buddha and Einstein, without much variation. And the speed with which the plot moves is similarly unbelievable. I won't give you examples as there's not enough plot to avoid spoilers, but several times I flipped back through to confirm that, sure enough, X just happened three days ago and now Y is happening - it's enough to give one the vapours.

If the story is just meant to be a delivery method for Guillebeau's lessons on life and finance, it fulfills that mission. The evening it took to read this book wasn't wasted as I gleaned a couple lessons I may use to supplement my income, and I was reminded of the incredible danger student loans pose, particularly in the US. But it sure wasn't a page turner.

Guillebeau is a fine writer or I wouldn't have read now four of his books. I can see recommeding this one to high school graduates and people beginning their college careers as both a cautionary tale and a guidebook. If you like great stories though, this isn't that. 

Friday, May 1, 2020

Love's Civil War: a review

Love's Civil War is an edited (by Victoria Glendinning) record of the 32-year affair between Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie and Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen. It comprises many of Bowen's letters to Ritchie and relevant entries from Ritchie's private diaries (Ritchie published four carefully and personally edited volumes of his diaries after retiring).

When Bowen and Ritchie met in 1941, she was an already famous writer living in an unconsummated (or at least "not fully consummated," whatever that means) but agreeable marriage. The six-years younger Ritchie was senior staff at the Canadian high commission in London, where he remained throughout World War 2. Their connection was immediate: the affair began days after they met and lasted until she died in 1973.

Over the course of the three decades, Ritchie rises through the ranks to become Canada's highest-ranking diplomat, instrumental in the creation of the United Nations Security Council and eventually serving as Ambassador to Germany, the United Nations, and the United States and High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. He marries a second-cousin he is fond of, "the female version of [him]self," mainly because he is urged to take a wife for the sake of his career. Sylvia, Mrs. Ritchie, is an interesting character we learn almost nothing about. Despite the obvious, he believes it was a mostly happy marriage.

Bowen suffers the whims of being in or out of popular taste, becomes a widow, and spends a lot of time at dinner parties with other people of her class who seem to have little to do and a lot of influence to do it. Eventually forced to sell her family estate in Ireland, Bowen complains about money as only someone who has never needed for anything can: while in a villa in Rome or jetting from London to New York. They are both somewhat brutal. Her only of others. He mostly towards the two of them.

Although Elizabeth Bowen is a novelist, essayist and short-story author, I find her contributions to the book dull. Obvious. Expected. Saccharine  Needy. Forgettable. - at least on the subject of them. Her sardonic insight into others is sometimes entertaining. On the other hand, in nearly every one of Charles's entries there is something painfully or embarrassingly familiar worth holding on to, or a hidden truth laid so brazenly bare as to be both recognizable and shocking.

Perhaps the difference is partly explained by the media used - Elizabeth is quoted through her letters to Charles and she adopts the most clichéd language of the love letter; Charles is writing diary entries for, one imagines, his eyes only - or at least for his eyes only until he is gone. He talks of destroying them all - the letters he received as well as diaries, though in the end they were mostly preserved - he mentions now and then destroying a letter from Bowen because is it 'unlike her' or unusually painful. Unfortunately, the bulk of the content comes from Bowen's letters.

I hardly know what to make of this book or the story it reveals. I've never been fond of infidelity as a trope for star-crossed lovers. I hated The Bridges of Madison County. When I watched Scandal, I never cheered for Olitz. So this book had a sort of strike against it from the beginning - I didn't root for them staying together. But it did fascinate on some level, mostly because of their status and social circles - they knew everybody in the literary and diplomatic worlds.

Charles at least has the decency to feel guilt and mixed emotions, especially because his marriage is, on balance, a happy one. Bowen (again, I think reflective of her circle) seems to think dalliances, trysts, and multiple marriages are no big thing, though it's clear her marriage is an arrangement. I was very confused by how much "a couple" they were within their circles, and even to Ritchie's family in Halifax. Bowen even visited at the Ritchie's home more than once when Sylvia was at home. His mother and Bowen kept frequent correspondence, and she visited his brother and sister-in-law without him more than once. And, it's hardly a passionate love story.

Despite all her whinging and pleading and following him around the globe (e.g. she takes a writing-in-residence semester at the University of Wisconsin primarily to be closer to him in New York City), the whole thing reads as somewhat dry and asexual. I wonder if that was Ritchie's selective saving of material, the work of the editors, or reflective of their reticence to put anything too damningly physical in writing (it can't be that though, since Ritchie writes about other lovers without the same filter).

Bowen, raised on an estate with friends and family of the same class, suffers from both classism and intellectual snobbery, not to mention anti-semitism. She's somewhat less offensive about people of colour, though I suspect that's because she rarely interacts with them. She also employs that irritating and pretentious practice of dropping French words and phrases into English sentences like Corabeth Godsey.

I'm interested to read some of Ritchie's professional diaries. I'm much less interested to read Bowen's novels, though in what she revealed of her life I did learn some things as an erstwhile writer: writing is real work that you set aside time for and treat like a job; even the very rich and somewhat successful have a hard time making ends meet just from earnings from their writings; fictionalising your own life is a valid basis for a novel; if you come from the landed gentry, you can spend a month or more in Rome doing research at a lovely hotel with a spacious corner room full of light.

I will hold on to this book, and perhaps look through it again in time - maybe to compare with Ritchie's public notes. I might recommend it, though I'm not sure to whom.

Some Charles quotes:

"... The affair threatens to develop into one of her long psychological novels in which I see myself smothered in love and then dissected at leisure. If I am not cruel now, she will be later."

"It would be shattering to quarrel with her. I have so much more respect for her than I have for myself."

"All of my love affairs have been floated on alcohol. If the rationing of wines and spirits becomes effective I shall become considerably less interesting as a lover."

(One discussing his annoyance at her devotion) "Any woman who kept me in a state of anxiety could keep me permanently. It's so simple, but none of them will."

"Would I ever have fallen for her if it hadn't been for her books? I very much doubt it. But now I can't separate her from her literary self."

"One of the luxuries of this love affair is the giddy feeling of being carried along on the tide of her imagination, being transmitted into literature; sitting for my portrait, or being swallowed alive?"

Monday, April 27, 2020

about those values

My mother, a number of ex-teachers and professors, a former boyfriend or two, and more than a couple former bosses will tell you that I don't really flourish in an environment of micro-management and close oversight. I balk at being told what to do, even if that thing is in my favour or something I want to do (sometimes even if I was already planning to do it).

There are two solutions: first, a little self-awareness goes a long way in doing things anyway. Second, creating structures that keep me accountable without too much ridigity keep me moving forward. I'm a pretty big fan of checklists, coloured spread-sheets, etc, but I have a long history of abandoning projects and commitments if something goes awry - dribbled paint in the powder room trying to create a feature wall? Stop work, you incompetent loser. Cheated on your diet? Eat all the things and pretend you're okay being fat. In modern business lingo, I have not always been agile. I have been brittle.

This year, before the whole world got sucked into an unplanned redesign, I started to take a deep dive (that has turned into a LONG soak) into the world of fulfillment, which lead me into the realms of character and ability, which lead me into really considering and clearly defining my values. It's been an interesting journey so far, and I'm considering what to do with all the information I've amassed. Today, however, is about what's keeping me moving forward, mostly because I have more questions than answers at this point.

Back to the point at hand and structures for fulfillment that aren't bossy schoolmarms: last week I had started a daily task list, but that felt SO uninspiring that I knew before I even started that I wouldn't want to stick to it. Since I already had a print out of my core values and what each value means to me, I decided to create a matching daily values check-in - and that does inspire me.

Now each day I can see which values I've taken action in, and at the end of each week I can see what's been neglected and where I might want to focus my attention. It's not necessary so much to practice every value every day, but handy to see where things might be out of balance. I have slipped both pages into glass-fronted picture frames that sit on my dresser, and I use whiteboard pens on the checklist, so I can wipe it off and start fresh each week.

I'll tell you in a month how that's going.
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