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Nilanjana S Roy: Practical magic

This happened at a residency for writers and artists. At dinner, I said something that was so profoundly wise about writing that everybody agreed - yes, yes, that was how it had been for them, but how did I find just the right words?

I had to confess: they weren't my words, they were from Steven Pressfield's 2002 self-help-for-writers classic, The War of Art.

There was a short, excruciating pause. I wondered if I had broken the secret rule that says writers must be cynical souls, marinated in irony, basted in despair, who will be defenestrated if they admit to reading books on the immense pleasures of making stuff up for a living.

Then someone said, "The War of Art! It's awesome." And someone else talked about how you should read Anne Lamott on the good writing days, Marcus Aurelius when you have writer's block, and I relaxed.

The next day, one of the artists - a genuine artist, someone who'd been making brilliant, meaningful work for decades while I'd only started making amateur stabs at fiction - joined me for a walk. "So," he said, "is it true that you read inspirational books on creativity? On meditation, maybe on wabi-sabi, on happiness?"


"Yes," I said, miserable again. Clearly this was something real artists would never do. I was to be excommunicated, after all. My artist friend said, in a conspiratorial whisper, "So do I!!" And we discussed inspirational books in the hushed tones of perverts bringing out their stacks of unspeakable bullfrog-fetishism.

My friend declared that everything that sparked the imagination was eligible: biographies, classic self-help, but also books on nature, science (Darwin's diaries, for example), studies of creativity such as Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi's Flow but also food memoirs, all of the world of art writing bar the pretentious criticism. But only a few memoirs on writing were useful to the beginner. These included books by Anne Lamott, Ann Patchett, Ray Bradbury, Steven Pressfield, Stephen King - a truly motley crew.

So I approached Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear (Bloomsbury), with cautious enthusiasm. I like Ms Gilbert's warm, friendly intelligence, but hoped this would not be just a repackaging of her TED talk on genius. And I wondered whether Ms Gilbert - in a relatively privileged position as a white American, often discussed with jealousy after the success of Eat, Pray, Love - would have much to say to readers and aspiring writers in the Indian subcontinent.

She does, and not just to writers: Ms Gilbert's insights apply to anyone who wants to lead a creative life. I say this nervously, aware that we're in the middle of the boom in creativity books, which follows on the boom in happiness books, and that this golden period in history has unaccountably failed to put an end to dengue, or internet trolls. Perhaps living creatively will go the way of artisanal everything, and yet there will still be people doing it, before and after the booms have passed.

It is those people who should read Big Magic for its core principles. One, get over your fear - Ms Gilbert lists about 27 excellent reasons for being afraid, and one for not creating a life around your fears: fear is the least original, most mundane of emotions. (Do not build your entire identity around the most boring instinct you possess.) Two, there is no need to live like a Tormented Artist, in thrall to your demons, complaining about the torture of having to make art. For this, a heartfelt prayer of thanks: I privately believe that suffering is an overrated part of the writing life, and it is always good to think that there is no ration card for creative rewards.

One of her beliefs is controversial: that ideas are big magic, there is an inexhaustible source of them, and they don't originate with the artist - they arrive from elsewhere and will go to someone else if you can't use them.

But every writer worth her salt knows this in her bones. The poet Anne Carson said, of one of her more famous lines, "I remember that sentence driving at me in the dark like a glacier. I felt like a ship going toward the South Pole and then all of a sudden a glacier comes zooming out of the dark." Ideas are mysterious; the writer's job is to keep the door open, make the tea, welcome the right one when it decides to walk in.

The practical advice Ms Gilbert shares in Big Magic is devoted to this part of the process - don't assume that an expensive education is necessary, work for the writing and not for the pay-off, quit complaining and try enjoying your creativity instead. It is clear that she is writing for the American or Western writer when she says lightly that the most they will risk is failure, not being shot at, not being targetted; this is, sadly, not true for bloggers in Bangladesh, rationalists in India, writers and literary curators in Pakistan.

It may be too much to ask Ms Gilbert to transcend her own experience and tell writers who come from more turbulent parts of the world what they should write about or how to stay alive both literally and creatively speaking.

And yet, Big Magic is immensely useful, even radical in its determined insistence that your work should bring you and others joy. Before she wrote Eat, Pray, Love, Ms Gilbert had written a novel, a short story collection, a biography - all praised, none of them successful enough to allow her to quit her day job. So much of her overnight success turns out to have been years of hard work. I like her all the more for not insisting that it was hard: she loved doing it, and she persuades you that this is how it should be.



Email: nilanjanasroy@gmail.com

First Published: Mon, September 28 2015. 21:42 IST
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