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What a Stonemason Can Teach Us About the Creative Process

Now that the New Year is upon us, I have made a commitment to my own work – to finishing the novel that I started under Lisa Cron’s Story Genius tutelage. I made a weak commitment at the end of 2015 and did not see it through so now I have to get serious. Towards that end, I did two things to make my vows stick:

1.)  I promised my agent I would get her 100 consecutive pages of the new book by February.

2.)  I promised my mastermind partner that I would post every day in our shared chat how many minutes a day I worked on the project.

In other words -- accountability squared. Nowhere to hide.

Why minutes per day and not pages?

Because creativity is not always about production, progress, or moving forward. Many times you have to go backwards to go forwards. Many times you have to throw out the last three weeks of work.  I wanted a process that honored this.

Also, sometimes I have only worked 6 or 8 or 14 minutes a day, and you can’t normally write a good page in that period of time. But you CAN organize files. You CAN scan a paragraph to see what it needs. You CAN think about a character, do a bit of research, evaluate how a scene is working, move a chunk from here to there.

It’s only day 15, but here’s the thing: minutes add up. Progress is absolutely being made. Pages are being generated, the story is being told. And the most important thing that has been generated is momentum. I’m doing it.  Yesterday, in fact, I came back three times to the project, for a total of about 90 minutes. I couldn’t stay away. I wanted more minutes.

I notice that a lot of writers who are new to the creative process feel a certain panic around how messy it is. A book that comes out seamless, chronological, neat and whole is a hot mess while it is being made – and oftentimes, the whole time is being made.

When I approach my project for my minutes per day, I feel the unsettledness of it in my stomach. I approach with a certain amount of worry – and even dread. Something has to be untangled and solved, and ugh, the only person who can do it is me.

But here’s another thing: the untangling is fun.  Putting your mind to the task is very satisfying.

I know that this is also true about all creative endeavors. It’s a large part of the reason people are drawn to make things.

I recently heard a riveting interview on NPR about Jamie Masefield, a renowned jazz mandolin player, who became certified as a drywall stonemason – a process that includes a 7-hour long test.

The finished walls are gorgeous – smooth, fluid, rhythmic, perfect in their organic-ness. (Take a peek at Jamie’s walls here.)

But the process? It literally starts with a pile of stones. Total chaos.

And while you are building, you have to both think fast and think about the long- term goal of making something as timeless as anything humans can make. “It takes creativity and discipline,” writes NPR correspondent Angela Evancie. And, I would add, a tolerance for chaos.

Masefield compares the work to playing jazz. Evancie writes:

“It's tempting to think that Masefield inhabits two totally different creative worlds. However, he says jazz and masonry have something fundamental in common, and points to a musical practice known as "playing changes.

`When we're playing changes, we're soloing over those harmonic changes in that particular tune — and so you're very quickly making decisions about what you're going to play," he says. "When I'm doing stonework, I often feel like we're in the midst of playing changes, because every stone you place needs some consideration. But you can't dwell on it all day long.’”

Jazz. Improvisation. Building a stone wall. Writing a novel or a memoir or a non-fiction book. It’s all fundamentally the same thing.

I have a pile of words. I have an infinite variety of ways I can put them together. I want to make something that has an impact, and that lasts. I can let that reality paralyze me, or I can move forward, one word at a time.

I thought I would share one stone that I put in place yesterday – the fruits of the luxurious 90 minutes I spent.

I started with this exchange between a woman whose lover lies dying and the nurse in the hospital ICU. The nurse asks if the woman is the patient’s wife.

“I’m a friend,” I said weakly.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”

The exchange did what I wanted it to do, which was establish that my character’s decision to not marry this man (and to protect herself from the pain of love) was now going to cost her – big time. But the more I read it, the more I felt that it was flat. It didn’t have any rhythm or beauty. It didn’t elevate the moment in any way. So I went back to it and added a phrase:

“I’m a friend,” I said weakly, feeling as though I could literally taste the inadequacy of the word.  
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”

But that addition only made me see that what I had here was an opportunity to let the reader into my character’s mind – to let the reader see what friend meant, what love meant, what this particular man meant. So I added to it:

“I’m a friend,” I said weakly, feeling as though I could literally taste the inadequacy of the word. A friend was someone you had lunch with every now and then, who you sent a birthday card to in the years you remembered, who you ran into at the gas station and asked how things were going and then drove away and forgot about until the next time. A friend was a nice addition to a life, but Henry was the center of mine.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”

This was better. This was beginning to please me – but I saw opportunity for going deeper. How was this man the center of her life? How was love different than friendship? If I didn’t put it on the page, no one would know. I would be leaving the opportunity unused. So again I went in and added more:

 “I’m a friend,” I said weakly, feeling as though I could literally taste the inadequacy of the word. A friend was someone you had lunch with every now and then, who you sent a birthday card to in the years you remembered, who you ran into at the gas station and asked how things were going and then drove away and forgot about until the next time. A friend was a nice addition to a life, but Henry was the center of mine. Henry was the first person I wanted to tell good news and bad, the first person whose advice I sought out, the only person I could be with when I was furious or sick or elated. He was the only person I could travel with, the only one I could sit next to in silence while reading, the only one I ever wanted to go home with after a party, no matter how many beautiful, witty and clever people I’d spoken to that night. I hadn’t gone to the movies without Henry for 15 years, because he would laugh out loud while it was running, spend just the right amount of time analyzing it afterwards, and at night just before we fell asleep, he’d say something profound and moving about what the movie had taught him about life or love or guilt or regret.
“I’m sorry,” the nurse said, “We're going to have to ask you to leave.”

 

There are parts of that sentence that are clunky and can be made better, but I love where I got in the 90 minutes I spent on it. It feels effective. It feels solid.

At the end of his interview, Masefield beautifully explains the goal of such work:

"At the end of every day of doing stonework, I can look back and hopefully say, 'That looks good, and that's what we've done today, and that's going to last a really long time.' It's similar in music. If you're lucky enough to play some really great music one day, you can look back and say, 'Well, we've got that.' That's recorded, or the audience has heard that. Hopefully that's had an effect on them in some way that they're taking home with them.”

 

 

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Where Elizabeth Gilbert’s "Big Magic" Fits in the Universe of Books for Writers

I finished reading Big Magic, which I got last week at the Liz Gilbert extravaganza in Pasadena. Gilbert is a charming and generous writer, and she shares some fascinating stories about her famous and not-so-famous friends, as well as her own experiences being a creative soul.
 
My favorite story was the one she told about a story she wrote for GQ, and how at the 11th hour she was asked to ax it – really cut it down to nothing. She was given the choice to do that or have the story go back into the hopper, where stories often go to die. She chose to cut her precious words – and when the story appeared, an agent contacted her, and that’s how she landed the agent she’s had for 20 something years.
 
I was also intrigued by her claim that ideas are sentient and willful – that they want to be made manifest. This may seem like a wacky notion – but my father the environmentalist wrote a book called The Rights of Nature, and I have often heard him talk about the fact that rivers have desires and wills (they long to run to the sea, so far be it from me to refute it.
 
There are also some powerful lessons here for writers, including:
 

  • Fear is the most boring thing about you.
  • Fear is not going anywhere so you might as well learn to live – and create with it.
  • You are entitled to create.
  • Take delight in your creativity rather than ranting about what a bitch it is
  • Don’t get attached to the results – just keep creating
  • Take your work very seriously – and not seriously at all.

 
You may notice that these are not the most wildly original lessons – but so what. The way Gilbert tells them is very comforting and very encouraging and very charming, and writers need all the help they can get.
 
This led me to think – so who would most benefit from this book and when? Why, for example, might you read Big Magic instead of Bird by Bird or The War on Art? And that led me to think about some of the books I recommend the most, and turn to the most myself. And I began to imagine a kind of map or guide for when in the writing process you might turn to a particular book, and why. And so I made that map -- a six page infographic -- and am sharing it here with you today. 
 
 
Download the Writers’ Book Infographic HERE
Who doesn't love a good infographic?

 

Big Magic claimed the spot at the very beginning of the list. It’s a book I think I would recommend to someone just dipping their toes into the creative waters, or someone who needs to tread very lightly. Gilbert is not spineless – far from it. She’s got some tough love in these pages. But she is such a kind and good and gentle person that she delivers it in a palatable way that isn’t going to scare anyone off – well, unless they get weirded out by that willfull idea thing.

__________

To read the fifth draft editorial commentary on my first chapter of my new novel,  click HERE. You can follow along as I build this book, one edit at a time.... NOTE: When you land on the draft, you need to click OPEN in order to see the actual commentary, which appears in the margin.

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What We Can Learn About Reader Engagement From Elizabeth Gilbert

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I had the privilege of hearing Elizabeth Gilbert speak in Pasadena last week at an event sponsored by Vroman’s bookstore. The talk was in celebration of the publication of Gilbert’s new book, Big Magic, which discusses the “attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives.” I’m halfway through the book and will be talking about its contents next week. This week, however, I want to talk about Liz Gilbert, the author who has figured out how to engage her readers.  It is not very likely that any of us are going to sell 10 million copies of our books, or to gleefully proclaim on Twitter that our book hit the New York Times bestseller list, but we can learn so much from watching someone at the top of their game.

So what is Liz Gilbert doing so well?  

1. She knows who her audience is

There were approximately 1,000 women at the event I attended, and perhaps two dozen men. By my estimation, there was no one in the room under the age of 25. When Gilbert gave a shout out to Vroman’s and mentioned how lucky Pasadena was to still have a fantastic independent bookstore, the crowd went wild. These are women who love their bookstore and love their community.

A 40-something woman seated in front of me was typical of the crowd: she clutched a well-worn and much-flagged copy of Eat, Pray, Love. I asked if I could take a picture of it, and she beamed.  I asked her how many times she’d read it. “Probably three times straight through,” she said, “But I constantly go back to refer to my favorite passages. It’s so inspiring.”

 

From the moment Gilbert began to speak, it was clear she knew exactly to whom she was speaking. It was, in a nutshell, this woman.

Gilbert would be the first to say that she didn’t set out to speak to this audience. Eat, Pray, Love was a book she says she had to write for herself in order to simply survive. She also says something similar about Big Magic. We all have reasons we are called to write the books we want to write – private, powerful reasons – and that is as it should be. That is the only reason to even consider doing this work.

But the minute you begin to imagine that you might want to share your book with readers, it pays to take even a few moments to consider who your audience might be. If the answer is vague and broad -- “everyone” or “women” or “moms” or “fantasy fiction fans,” picture a thousand people showing up to hear you speak. Who are they, really?

2. She has been engaging with these women in an intimate way for a long time.

One of the very first things Gilbert said in her talk was that she wanted to go on the road with Big Magic in order to meet all the women she had been talking to on Facebook. She has 1,367,505 people who follow her on Facebook.

In this little chat with Oprah, Gilbert confesses that the first thing she does each morning is go onto Twitter and Facebook and Instagram to interact with her followers.

Can we just think about that for a moment?

This is a woman who has something like 147 appearances planned all over the world in the next three months alone. This is a woman who recently sat for a photo shoot and an interview with People magazine, who spent two days signing 20,000 books in a warehouse in New Jersey. She could easily kick back and just watch the books fly off the shelf, but she doesn’t do that. She wants to interact with her readers, one on one, and she has found that social media is a fantastic way to do it. (See that Oprah clip again to hear her describe this.)

In a big lead up to the launch of Big Magic, Gilbert went one step further. She invited her followers to raise their hand if they wanted a little one-on-one creativity coaching from Liz herself. She selected a handful of these women and for six months, coached them through their paralysis and their doubt and their self loathing and they busy days so that they could experience creative breakthroughs. She called these women on the phone to coach them. She recorded the key calls in a podcast. Each episodes attracts in somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 or 80,000 fans.

Gilbert has, in other words, worked really hard to engage with her audience in meaningful ways. She understands that reading a book involves far more than just the moments you spend turning the pages. People take your ideas and bring them to life in their own heads. That’s the true magic of reading, after all.

What can you do to being to engage with your future readers in a meaningful way?

3. As a result of all that knowledge and interaction we were just talking about, she knows exactly what these women need.

It's not enough just to know who your audience is. Middle-aged, book-loving women from an affluent American town – that’s a good start but it’s still pretty vague. What Elizabeth Gilbert knows is how, exactly, these women are in pain.

They are in pain from things that didn’t go well in their life. They are in pain from marriages that didn’t work out, from dreams that died, from the dark nights of the soul they have suffered in terms of who they are and why they are here. Many of them have suffered from depression, which Gilbert writes about in Eat, Pray, Love.

How do I know she knows this? The Gilbert event was billed as a reading followed by a Q&A. Gilbert gave a little chatty introduction of perhaps 7 minutes. Then she read a lovely passage from her book – a chunk of perhaps 12 pages that took perhaps 20 minutes. It was a fantastic reading but I was sitting there thinking – Seriously, Elizabeth Gilbert is going to talk for 7 minutes, read for 20, take a few Q&AS (“Where do you get your ideas?” “How is Philipe?” ) and go home? We drove an hour and paid $30 for this?  I was thinking it was a little stingy, to be honest.

But man was I wrong. The Q&A was unlike anything I have ever seen. People scrambled to line up at the two microphones to ask their questions. They trembled when they spoke, they cried, they sniffled, they confessed, they asked for Gilbert’s help and her blessing. They went so deep so fast, and Gilbert stood there and lifted them up, and got right down into their pain, and healed them.

It was, in one sense, kind of strange. This was no author we had come to see. This was a guru – and it’s just strange how our culture elevates some people into this realm.

That being said, it was a dazzling performance – one obviously honed over many, many appearances. One given by someone who knows precisely what really matters to these women.

On the interview Gilbert gave with Marie Forleo a few weeks ago, she spoke about being horribly nervous before her talk to 20,000 Oprah fans, and how she yanked herself out of her nervous state. She told herself something about the people who had come to hear her:

“They don’t need your fear, because they have their own…They don’t need your insecurity. They have it covered. They don’t need your sense of low self worth. They don’t need your insecurity…. [They need] dignity and composure and grace and female autonomy.”

Ha! That is about as not-vague as one could get. That is a person who understands her audience’s pain.

As luck would have it, the woman sitting in front of me with the dog-earred book was one of about a dozen audience members who had an opportunity to ask her question. She trembled when she spoke. She was so nervous she could barely get her words out. When she was finished with her exchange with Gilbert, she sat back down in her chair awash in awe and gratitude and what I imagine she might have described as the magic of the universe.

I am no longer a church-goer, but I grew up going to church and singing in the choir. I know many of the stories – and the story that came crashing into my mind was the one about the woman who felt she only had to touch the hem of Jesus’ garments in order to be healed.

My guess is that Gilbert knows this how she makes women feel. It would be pretty hard to miss it.

What do your readers need? Where is their pain? What is your book doing to give it to them? Again, this is not the place to start a creative project, but it’s a potent question to ask so that you can be sure you are, in the end, giving them something.

4. She is generous with her time and her wisdom

Gilbert was incredibly generous with everyone who stood in line to ask their deeply personal questions. She had enormous empathy for them. One woman told a story about an ex-husband who tore up her passport to prevent her from going to hear Gilbert speak, and Gilbert patiently listened and then boomed into the microphone, “MOTHERFUCKER!” It was as if she wanted to go after this loser personally.

Another woman cried and cried about her battle with depression and Gilbert spoke to her about what to do as if there was no one else in the room.

Another woman wept as she confessed her inability to write the book she was burning to write. Gilbert gave her a homework assignment – to work through The Artists’ Way – as if this woman was going to actually turn it in for a grade.

Gilbert gave these women her time, her heart, her spirit.  She absolutely was not dialing it in. When she couldn’t answer a question, she humbly said, “I don’t know. I simply just don’t know the answer to what you should do about that.”

In other words, she deeply cares about these people. She actually cares about them. You could feel it. It’s the kind of thing you can’t fake.

It can be powerful to think about how you can be generous, too. What can you give your readers to help them where they hurt?

5. She understands her limits

One of the most moving parts of the evening, for me, was at the end when Gilbert explained that she wasn’t going to be signing individual books (they were pre-signed in that warehouse in New Jersey) and she wasn’t going to sit for photos with everyone after the talk. She had come to realize that if she was going to go on the road to engage with her audience, she had to preserve her energy, her health and her sanity. She had to draw a line somewhere, and that was where she decided to draw the line.

I loved this, because we all have to know our limits. If you can’t stand Facebook, don’t use Facebook as a way to engage your readers. If you are terrified of public speaking, don’t have speaking be a cornerstone of your marketing plan. Find a way to engage your readers in a way that works for you.

Of all the extraordinary things that Elizabeth Gilbert does, that, to me, is the most powerful. She knows her strengths as a writer and as a public figure. She also knows her weaknesses. She can give, but only so much.

What about you?  What strengths do you have that you can leverage? What weaknesses would it be wise to admit?

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