I’ve been reading fiction since I was a child, from the Noddy books on through the Famous Five, Flowers in the Attic, Judy Blume, Stephen King, then on to Jeffery Deaver, Ruth Rendell, Minette Walters and Kate Atkinson. I had a strong Dick Francis phase in the middle and a serious Catherine Cookson obsession too. Crime, historical, romance, comedy, YA — any genre was good. But they were all works of fiction. To me, fiction has always been entertainment and, somehow, non-fiction always felt like homework.
People recommended all sorts of non-fiction but I always resisted, wanting instead to be swept away to an island or an attic or a wood. Then I picked up Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, and it all changed.
It’s non-fiction, but it’s full of stories — anecdotes about Gilbert’s life and career as a writer. It’s a book about creating generally, but as Gilbert herself is a writer (most famous for Eat, Pray, Love) the book lends itself particularly to the world of writing.
She talks about motivation: you are not required to save the world with your creativity, she says. Your art does not have to be ‘important’ — free yourself from this idea. She talks about originality versus authenticity: yes, the idea has been done — Shakespeare covered pretty much all the storylines — but that doesn’t matter as long as you’re authentic in your version. And she talks about perfectionism; how it disguises itself as a virtue and hampers the creative process.
One of the biggest takeaways for me was her three factors for success in creating: luck, talent and discipline. She points out that you can’t control luck, and while you can work on talent to an extent, innate talent is either there or it’s not. But discipline is the one thing we can control. And like anything in life, who doesn’t like that sense that we have some control? She says if you love writing (or creating) just keep doing it.
She talks about the myth of suffering for art — the idea that great art must be painful, that the creator must have gone through great pain. She encapsulates this wonderfully in a chapter about the trickster and the martyr. The martyr says “life is pain” while the trickster says “life is interesting”. The martyr says “through my torment, the truth shall be revealed” and the trickster says “I didn’t come here to suffer, pal”. The book is worth reading for the Martyr v Trickster chapter alone.
It’s a book that gives a creative boost, in a light, easy-to-read, humorous way, and has the potential to pull any aspiring creator out of a slump. A book I’ve marked and underlined and go back to, over and over. If you’re an aspiring writer or creator, it could change your life.
‘Hide and Seek’ by Andrea Mara (Bantam Press) is out now