Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic”

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond FearBig Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There could not have been a better time to read Big Magic than in the fraught and anxious, giddy and surreal days before launching my first novel. Gilbert’s words soothed and grounded me, took me out of the uncomfortable, jangly headspace of self-promotion and back into the embrace of what it means to be a creative person, why I set forth on this path in the first place.


Fear is boring.

Yes. This. I spent forty-one years (okay, maybe thirty-five; for the first six I was blissfully unaware that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up) being afraid to pursue my dream of writing. What if I sucked? Then what dreams would be left to me? Finally, it was the fear of seeing my chances to live authentically running out that propelled me to try. Fear that I suck is still a demon on my shoulder, but I’ve learned to acknowledge that demon and move on, despite its claws digging in painfully. I could spend my time paralyzed by fear, or I could spend my time writing. My choice.


The notion that creativity is a magical, enchanting process may seem too woo hoo for some readers, perhaps many writers, but it resonated with this one. Yes, it is true. There is little that is magical about putting your butt in the chair, day after day, most particularly those days when you least want to write, and simply getting on with it. It is the only way to be productive, to finish what you have started: there is no glitter and spark to dogged determination.


And yet. The magic has twirled and sparkled in my own creative process. It doesn’t stay long, or it comes and goes, but when it flashes, I’m aware. The rest is on me, to do the hard work of turning inspiration into art, and then to find my audience. I don’t wait for the muse to guide me or put off writing until I feel inspired. But I work to be more open to and aware of the Divine Sparks, so when they occur, I can capture and hold them long enough to let them burn into my mind’s eye, etched until I have time and energy to return to their outlines.


I adored the anecdote about Gilbert and Ann Patchett exchanging ideas in the ether—it released me from the angst of recognizing my ideas in others’ work, of realizing that each idea has its time and will find its right and true voice.


You are not required to save the world with your creativity.


I will admit to feeling a certain . . . pressure, expectation, as a woman, as a woman over forty, to write Big Important Things. And I have done, in short stories, in essays; even in novels that appear commercial on the surface, the themes of grief, redemption, addiction, faith ground the narrative in larger, more universal contexts. But I resist writing to an agenda, I resist the notion that I must write to educate. There are times, yes, when I feel compelled to share lessons I’ve learned that may be of use to others. But I am a storyteller at heart. Really, what I want to achieve as a writer is pleasure. Enjoyment. Fulfillment. Mostly mine, if I’m honest.


About pursuing an advanced degree (i.e. The MFA). I get this question on occasion and now have an abridged answer that I can credit to Elizabeth Gilbert: Writers have it easy. The only education we need awaits us for free in a library or at moderate cost in a bookstore. Connections, networking, community, feedback, support—all can be obtained for free if a writer reaches out, both for support and to lift up others. MFAs can be lovely and advantageous, but *need* is not a reason to pursue one.


I’ve read a few reviews that scoff at Gilbert’s breathless enthusiasm, she who now perches comfortably on the pinnacle of artistic and financial freedom afforded her by the smash hit Eat, Pray, Love. As if commercial success somehow taints or diminishes or renders meaningless all the years of hard work she put in and rejection received before the runaway success of EPL. Whatever. Move along. We all enter this with our own advantages, disadvantages, lucky breaks and unfair blows. Acknowledge yours, celebrate, embrace or forgive them and stop wasting energy belittling or dismissing others who have achieved what you would like. Write.


There’s so much more. I need to reread Big Magic again in bits and pieces and perhaps return to this review and amend, change, modify, as I grow as a writer and my books grow up and away from me. For now, though, it is enough to have simply been allowed to return to what is important: that I write because I and the Universe have chosen it to be so. That’s enough.


Create whatever you want to create—and let it be stupendously imperfect, because it’s exceedingly likely that nobody will even notice.

And that’s awesome.

Yes. Yes it is.


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Keeping It Real: On Boudinot & NaNoWriMo

A few years ago, I signed up for guitar lessons. To learn my way around an acoustic was something I’d wanted for pretty much my whole life. I showed up to class every Monday evening and dutifully practiced every day. I loved it. I was awful, I knew it, and I didn’t care. The day I was able to strum Cat Stevens’ Wild World without hesitating over chord changes was one of the most gleeful of my life.


But I quit those lessons after a couple months. The instructor. I think I was causing him actual physical pain. I was the only true beginner in a beginner’s class and everyone just blew right past me. So I shrugged, set the guitar aside, and decided that one day, I’d find someone who was interested in teaching someone like me—earnest, with short, stubby fingers.


Late February, the Seattle-based alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger printed a piece by author Ryan Boudinot, Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One, and the internet blew up, at least those bits writers pay attention to. Several brilliantly-worded rebuttals have been penned in the intervening days, and I’ll include links to a few of those at the end.


I could rant about Mr. Boudinot’s silly conjectures on the nature of talent, or the age one must begin writing in order to achieve “success”, or his revolting remark,“Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more.” (Yes. Yes, he did). Yet what upsets me most is the attitude of entitlement and exclusivity that pervades this piece, that the act of writing belongs only to the most gifted and Mr. Boudinot should not have had his time wasted by the hapless.


Mr. Boudinot does make some salient, if not terribly original, points: Writers must write a lot (and not make excuses why they cannot); they must read a lot; they must work very, very hard, and expect obscurity; they must write authentic prose; and the publishing industry is really different than it was several years ago. Boom. Now you know.


I trust most MFA faculty do what they should: instruct and guide, rather than smirk at and bemoan the talentless or anoint the rare “Real Deals”, as Mr. Boudinot refers to the handful of MFA students he taught over the years whose prose he could celebrate, rather than merely stomach. The profession of creative writing instruction is better for seeing the backside of Mr. Boudinot.


A few days after the Boudinot Debacle, another discussion unrolled in an online group of writers, this time about an interview with literary agent Chris Pariss-Lamb, The Art of Agenting, and his comment:


I frankly think that initiatives like National Novel Writing Month are insulting to real writers. We don’t have a National Heart Surgery Month, do we? …  I would argue that it takes as much time and work to perfect their craft, in addition to having talent to begin with that most people just don’t. What I really object to is this notion behind these initiatives that anyone can write a novel, and that it’s just a matter of making the time to do it. That’s just not true.


Okay. Here’s the thing. I agree 100 percent with this statement. Except when I don’t. I have never participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—the November event that encourages people to pen 50,000 words of a rough draft from November 1-30—and can’t see that I ever will. But does that mean I find it insulting (assuming of course that I’m a “real writer”)? Does that mean I have the right to pass judgment on how others find and express their writing voice? Was Jimmy Page pissed off that I was butchering Peter, Paul and Mary because my feeble attempts belittled his years of practice? Did I actually think what I was doing was easy, just because I had a guitar? Seriously?


NaNoWriMo might have as much to do with writing a novel as the Runner’s World Run-a-Mile-a-Day-for-30-Days challenge has to do with training for a marathon, but that’s not the point. The point of NaNoWriMo is to commit to the act of writing, perhaps giving a story a chance to take purchase in one’s otherwise-distracted mind and busy life. It is a celebration of effort, a jubilation of creation.


Critics contend NaNoWriMo gives the impression that writing a novel is easy, if you can just crank out 1,667 words a day. Of course, no one understands what it takes to write a novel if they haven’t put in the years of writing and revising and collecting rejections (the latter being an integral part of the writing process), and if the amazing happens—the book deal—all the work of revising and promotion that follow. But the Special Snowflake approach to writing—that no one really understands how hard it is unless they are the Real Deal or a Real Writer—oh, get over yourself.


Someone commented that we don’t want/need more people writing novels. Fie on that. We want more people writing, painting, plucking out terrible renditions of Somewhere Over the Rainbow on a guitar. We want more people thinking creatively, telling stories, dreaming. It’s the rare few who take it all the way past dream and hobby to send their work into the world, fewer still who find their way past the gatekeepers and into the realms of a profession. The “Real Deals” are those who show up to the page, day in and day out, despite lousy teachers and naysayers, despite the competition. The “Real Deals” make room at the table for all. Even those lumbering in with guitar cases in hand.

“To hell with facts! We need stories!”
― Ken Kesey

This has nothing to do with my blog post. I just love it. Chartres Cathedral © Julie Christine Johnson 2015

Timshel: The MFA Dilemma

“But the Hebrew word, timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.” John SteinbeckEast of Eden


I’m wrestling with a decision. What’s happened is a good thing. It’s an opportunity. I’m not kvetching. I’m kveln. But it presents a dilemma, nevertheless. Ponder with me.

In December 2012, I applied to an MFA in Creative Writing program in Seattle, a process I chronicled here: The Things That Come in Threes. I didn’t know we would be leaving Seattle three months later.

In March 2013, the week we moved, I received an acceptance to the program. Returning to the city in six months for a two-year MFA wasn’t feasible and I had to say no. But I was invited to resubmit the same application for consideration for this academic year, so I did. You never know, right?

My present circumstances are no more logistically nor financially amenable to an MFA than they were last year, so when the second acceptance came through, the no had already formed on my lips. But the ante was upped. The admission offer included a scholarship that covers half the tuition. Kveln for sure. But what’s Yiddish for, Ah Jeez. Now what do I do? 

A couple of weeks ago I spent an afternoon-evening on campus, meeting the other Fall 2014 admits, current MFA students and faculty, attending a class, and reminding myself why this seemed like such an amazing idea eighteen months ago. I walked away inspired and excited, but after the glow wore off, I was left wondering if it still is an amazing idea. Not just this program. The whole notion of an MFA in Creative Writing.

I’ve been a runner for about thirteen years. I was a late starter to the sport, certain I’d be lousy at it. Then in 2001, I walked a full marathon. Or set out to. I ended up running a fair bit of it, simply to be done with the damn thing. It was November, it was Seattle, it was cold and wet and dark. I lost a toenail. My thighs were tree trunks after months of tedious training. I thought, “Never again.” I started running instead.

And I got into it. Process and method float my boat, so I learned how to talk fartleks and negative splits and tapers. I plan my weeks around hill repeats, tempo, and long-distance days. I track the number of miles I put into my shoes and replace them on a regular and expensive basis. I own more running bras then the regular kind. I have a watch that cost about a third of a plane ticket to Europe.

And I raced. Mostly half-marathons, several 10ks, a smattering of 5ks, a couple of triathlons. Because that’s what legit runners do. Why else would you run if you weren’t in training for something—had some goal goading you on?

About three years ago, the injuries set in. Every single flipping time I trained for a race, I got hurt. And I’d race anyway. I’d have to take a few weeks or months off post-race to heal, then I’d start training for another event, wreck something, race, and start the whole stupid cycle all over again. I just couldn’t seem to turn off the inner competitor, the one who said, this is what runners DO. You make training plans, you study, do the work, stick with the plan, meet your goal.

I’ve amassed a collection of injury-recovery resources: a boot to stretch out my plantar fascia; another boot for metatarsal stress fractures; there’s a stack of PT exercises for a weak psoas and over-worked hip flexors; ice packs that conform to various parts of the body; a big foam roller for fussy IT bands; a bar that looks like one half of a set of nunchucks to roll over tight calves; custom orthotics for my high arches and to compensate for a left leg that is a blink shorter than the right.

Good God, the hell I’ve put my body through. Why don’t I just find a different sport?

Because I love to run. And most of the time over these past thirteen years, running has been incredibly good to me. I run because it’s what I do.

But I think I’m through with racing. I can’t seem to train without hurting myself.

Thinking about this MFA, any MFA, makes me feel like I’m staring at a marathon training plan. I want to do it so badly, my teeth hurt. I want it because I want it. I want the badge, the medal, the plaque, the 26.2 sticker on my rear bumper (hey, I should have one of those anyway!). I want the MFA to show I had the discipline and the cojones to get through training, all the way to the main event. But I don’t need an MFA to be a writer. Any more than I need a marathon finisher’s shirt to prove I’m an accomplished runner.

To be a runner, I need to run. Check. To be a writer, I need to write. Check. Check. To be an author, I need to publish. Check. Check. Check. To make a living at this, I need to get paid. Alas, No Check. Okay, one small check so far.

The uphill climb: my route home, after running 13.1 © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

The uphill climb: my route home, after running 13.1 © Julie Christine Johnson 2014


There are many important and wonderful reasons writers seek MFAs. They are the same reasons that compelled me to apply to the program, that make my heart ache to say “Yes.” But for who this writer is now, none of the reasons is compelling enough to go into the kind of debt–even with a generous scholarship–that two years’ tuition and living part-time in Seattle would require. None is compelling enough to pull me from the pages that I’ve written, to defer me from my dream and determination to see my novels published.

Last Monday, I–like thousands of runners across the country–dedicated my day’s run to the Boston Marathon, to honor those killed and injured on April 15, 2013, and to support in spirit the runners setting out to fulfill a dream one year later. I intended to do my standard 5-6 miles. At some point, I decided to keep going. In the end, I ran 13.1. There was no finish line to cross, no shirt or medal to commemorate the effort, no bagels or banana or hot soup at the end. There was just my inner crazy person and my steady training to get me through a spontaneous half marathon on two cups of coffee.

I came home, propped up my weary legs, and I began to write. It was then I realized the same grit I’d used that morning to keep running was the same I’ve called upon to achieve my greatest dream–seeing my words reach a wider audience through publication. I’ve managed this far without the stamp of validation an MFA could give.

Let’s see how far my legs can carry me through the ultra-marathon I started when I wrote the first words of a novel. Now that I’ve got two behind me, I feel I’m just getting warmed up.

Hey, thanks for helping me get this sorted.  … Timshel. Thou Mayest. And Thou Mayest Not.

The Apprentice

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”—Ernest Hemingway

Word came during my last days in Seattle, when I was living out of a suitcase and tripping over rolls of paper towels and a growing pile of jetsam destined for Goodwill. After the initial indulgent Facebook “Guess What?! Squee!” post, I filed the warm glow. I didn’t have the emotional reserves to consider what the letter really meant. What it could mean. And how much it really hurt to say, “No. I can’t accept.”

So, I didn’t. Consider it, that is. I got through that final, wretched week, made the final, back-breaking part of the move, started one job, then another. I tumbled headlong for my funky little ville –  its sea breezes and sunrises over Mount Baker; the deer wandering on beaches, porpoises weaving in the bay, eagles floating just above Doug firs; those fine Friday nights sitting outside the Pourhouse, watching tipsy bocce ball matches and dogs chasing seagulls; walking my brief commute instead of timing a drive to avoid the inevitable Seattle snarls. In a few short weeks, it seemed as if I’d left the old life in the dust, with nary a glance in the rearview mirror.

Then the follow-up e-mail came. “We want you. We haven’t heard from you. Will you come?”

I recounted here the night in November when I battled rain, the nasty Mapquest Wench and my night-driving terrors to walk unfashionably late into an info session about a local university’s MFA in Creative Writing.

I wrote my personal essay. I cringed over my sample piece of writing. I fretted about the letters of recommendation, wondering if faculty from my Masters degree would remember me, nearly twenty years on (Lord, it’s happened. I’m middle-aged. It’s no longer “Oh, my 20th high school reunion is next year; it’s “I completed a Masters degree. Twenty years ago.).

But I got the darn thing in. Eleventh hour. End of January. My first – my only – MFA application.

I had it all planned out, in the unlikely event I was accepted. I’d cut back to three days of work during the academic terms. The tuition was shocking, but we’d just paid off the car. Spread out over two years, the tuition and fees could be easily managed, no need for a loan, Bob’s your uncle.

Then things got messy. Crappy, really. We decided it was time to go.

And they decided to admit me. With a scholarship.

There’s really no use in trying to make sense of why things happen the way they do. I stared at that letter, sitting between the rubble of an old life and hopes for the  new one. I may have laughed. I know I cried. I think I heard in the distance Blind Boy Fuller crooning and finger-picking, “I Got the First World Blues.”

I hoped someone would make the decision for me. Or that a shining light would beam down and show me the way to “Here’s What You Should Do.”

There was grace in the form of a deferment. Of all people, I know how life can change in a year’s time. Or in ten minutes.

Acceptance into a Creative Writing MFA program felt like finding the Golden Ticket in a Willy Wonka chocolate bar. I’d get to see the inside of that mysterious house on the hill. I’d be an invited guest, learn all the secrets and emerge a changed writer. A real writer. Right?


About a mile from my house is Fort Worden State Park. If the film An Officer and a Gentleman appears in your pop culture lexicon, then you’ve seen Fort Worden. As well as the Port Townsend Paper Mill. And the inside of Room 10 at the Tides Motel. I’ve stayed in that room. Don’t you. Trust me on this one.

The Tides Motel: Room 10

The Tides Motel: Room 10

Fort Worden – besides being a sublime place to run, to picnic, beachcomb, catch some astonishing views – is home to many arts and crafts endeavors, including Copper Canyon Press and the Port Townsend School of Woodworking. It also houses Centrum, one of the Pacific Northwest’s premier arts organizations. Centrum’s Jazz and Blues, Fiddle and Chamber Music festivals are world-renowned, as are its dance programs. Were I an artist afloat, I’d sure as heck want to land a residency there. It is the temple around which this Mecca for creative souls is built. At least I already live here. Which is so very near to there.

And for two weeks each summer, Centrum hosts the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference. You can opt to spend your mornings in a Master Class with a Famous Writer or Poet and afternoons attending your choice of workshops; or you can attend the afternoon workshops only. Lunch and evening lectures are free. One week or two, depending upon your budget. And your courage.

Of course I planned on signing up for the conference. I can WALK there, for Pete’s sake.

But I kept putting it off. The folder sat on my desk for weeks. I started then cancelled my on-line registration twice. Not because of the money. Or the dodgy state of the job. Or thoughts that I should be busy finding another (pretty much worked through that one. “No” is the approach du jour). I couldn’t decide if I wanted to do a morning Master Class and if I did, which one? With Famous Author or the guy I hadn’t heard of? Or maybe not Master Class, but just the afternoon workshops? One or two weeks of afternoons only? Or one full week with Master Class and afternoons? Or?

I’m not an indecisive person. I brook no dithering. So, what’s the problem here, Julie? Sign up, already.

I realized by clicking “Confirm” on the registration form, I was making a statement about myself, identifying myself as a writer in a forum populated by published authors, some of whom make a living with their scribbles. I’d be expected, you know, to write. Intimidation and insecurity kept my finger hovering, wavering and finally, withdrawing from that final click.

But hey, wait. I’m published! Somebody wanted me badly enough for their MFA program, they offered me what funding they could. And neither one of those has anything to do with being a writer. The only rules, qualifications, expectations are those I’d saddled myself with.

I hit “Confirm” yesterday.

Much to my relief disappointment expectation, my dithering netted me a spot on the Wait List for Master Class with Famous Writer. I’m Lucky Wait List Contestant #3. Not so bad, really. And if a spot doesn’t open up, well then. It’s two weeks of afternoon workshops for me.

Of course I’m going. It’s what I came here to do.


View from Fort Worden, Port Townsend, WA

Next year will be what it will. Next month is spoken for.











PS I’m trying out this new contact form thing. I’m not sure why or how it’s different than “Leave A Reply” Let’s see what happens…

The Things That Come In Threes

1) I fear driving at night. Sweaty palms, racing heart, clenched stomach fear. I’m not a fan of driving in general; how I managed four years as a study abroad road warrior cruising the freeways of northern and southern California, Colorado, Washington, Arizona and several states that start with an “I” in search of institutions of higher education – all in the days before GPS and the Mapquest Lady – baffles me. Who was that intrepid chick in the rented Ford Focus, clutching printed Google driving directions to the steering wheel, hopping across the Bay Bridge en route from the Academy of Art in San Francisco to Cal-Berkeley? That’s right. Yo.

Screwing my courage to the sticking place, I registered for an evening information session about an MFA in Creative Writing offered by a local university. It was the last session before the early February application due date. The session was held way the crap north of Seattle, in the suburban hinterlands beyond the tip of Lake Washington. At night. You got that part, right? Rain showers. I gave myself an hour to get there. I’d planned for rush hour traffic, but silly me, I forget that Seattle drivers are touchingly unaccustomed to driving in the rain. Because, you know, it’s such a RARE occurrence here. I also hadn’t planned for the thirty-seven Metro buses which apparently had the same destination as mine. The drivers took great glee in pulling out in front of me at every opportunity, then stopping. The confused and snotty Mapquest Babe took equal pleasure in shouting from my iPhone: “Make a slight left onto Lake City Boulevard. NOW!” I could hear the smirk in her voice as she occasionally muttered “Recalculating.” Ironic Bitch.

I don’t do “Late.” Teutonic blood runs thick in my veins. I do “Early” and “Stinkeye at people who can’t organize themselves to be on time, the fools.” By the time my trembling hands turned the steering wheel into a parking space, I was fifteen minutes into stinkeye territory. Then I realized I had the correct general location, but the wrong end. Back into the car, I flipped a U-turn (and a finger at Mapquest Bimbo), found where I thought I should be, had a minute of indecision whether to pay for parking, got the parking spot number wrong (it was dark, it was raining), finally got the pass attached to my window… Christ, I am so late. Then I pulled a Quasimodo limp-run up a hill and three flights of stairs. Did I mention I’d run a half-marathon on Sunday, in total pain, on a bum right leg? No? Well, it hurts to walk. Hurrying brings tears. At this point it was closing in on 30 minutes past the hour. Perhaps there would be enough people there that if I did happen to apply to the program, my crashingly late entrance wouldn’t be remembered.

Two women were seated at the tables arranged in a square in the large art studio: the academic director of the MFA and the program’s administrative manager. Just waiting. On me.

Forty-five minutes later I floated out of the building while visions of sugar-plum seminars and symposia danced in my head. The drive home was peaceful; I sang along to The Head and the Heart. I knew my route home, so I muffled the Mapquest Wench. Even the rain eased to a sparkling mizzle.

In the cold light of the following day I knew the whole proposition was folly. What the heck would I do with an MFA? Provided I could pay the tuition. Provided I had more than a snowball’s chance in hell of being admitted.

2) I swam that afternoon. Sitting in the parking lot of the Queen Anne Aquatic Center, smelling like chlorine and hair conditioner, I checked e-mail. There, in the little inbox displayed on my phone’s screen, was a subject line which read “Your fiction submission.”  Great. Rejection. Bring it on. I’m curating a personal collection.

The opening word of the message’s body was “Congratulations.” People. Who needs the winning Powerball Lottery ticket when they have a publication acceptance from a national literary magazine?  I write because I don’t know what else to do with stories that press at my heart. But I submit my writing because I believe as Priscilla Long does: the story is not finished until you have attempted to share it with the world.

3) Saturday I attended the semi-annual Write-O-Rama at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House. This is a day-long series of writing workshops with super-serious writerly themes like Genre Variant: Essays & Found Material and less serious but equally compelling topics such as Build a Killer Author Platform. You listen, discuss and write in hour-long blasts that challenge, engage, terrify and inspire. Most sessions have one or several periods when attendees write to a prompt(s) and opportunities to read their work to the class. This was my fourth Write-O-Rama in two years and I think I might be getting somewhere with output and courage.

I have never written easily on demand. I freeze, my mind a sheet as white as my face. Spontaneity is not my strong suit. Remember that Teutonic blood? Deliberative, thy name is Julie. Yet, because I’m now in the habit of timed, non-stop writing every morning on my manuscript, either freely – to work on a scene, or to a prompt  – to generate new material, I found the challenge of writing in the fast and furious atmosphere of Write-O-Rama playful instead of Purgatory. I could write without lifting my pen to stare into space or to run a thick line through the drivel I’d just penned. No, I wrote with confidence and purpose, accepting the silliness and magic that is birthed in the pressure cooker of a group write. I even sucked it up and read a few pieces aloud. I’m sure my voice trembled and my face flushed, but who cares? My street cred was tucked away in my bag, on my phone, where an e-mail read “Congratulations.”

That MFA? The classes are held at night.

The Things That Come In Threes.