Thursday, October 22, 2015

Interview with Elizabeth Gilbert

For our guest post this week, enjoy this interview between the incomparable Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love and a new book on creativity, Big Magic, and Brooke Warner of SheWrites Press. Filled with her trademark wisdom, wit, and inspiring advice for writers, this interview with Liz is pure joy.  

This post is part of a series with Elizabeth Gilbert leading up to a SheWrites co-sponsored event with her: Writing, Truth and Community in Napa Valley on Nov. 7, 2015. 

In preparation for our upcoming Elizabeth Gilbert LIVE workshop event – Writing, Truth and Community in Napa Valley on Nov. 7 – I interviewed the always amazing Elizabeth Gilbert. Liz is best known for her best-selling memoir Eat, Pray, Love, which sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. She’s also the author of six other books including two novels, another memoir, a collection of short stories and a biography and now Big Magic, which is her first self-help book though you’d never know it.

This is just a small excerpt of what we talked about—and an example of the types of inspiring nuggets you'll get all day long at the Elizabeth Gilbert Live event in Napa this November.
Here's what Liz had to say about capturing the creativity in your own life and finding inspiration in everything.
BW: When and how did you become an ambassador for creativity?

LG: Accidentally. Like most interesting things in life, I’ve been engaged forever in my own mind with these questions, about how to live the most sane and generative and joyful possible relationship with creativity because of the work I’ve been doing my whole life. It took me a long time before I was willing to share with people some of the ways I believe creativity is engaged with us, much less with the ways we’ve engaged with it.

But then I gave a Ted Talk in 2009, that it ended up being watched by millions of people, where I basically did talk about genies and fairies and some of the more magical, mystical aspects of creativity, and people were so responsive to it. After that I felt like I had a sign around my neck that said, “Please come to me with your questions and anxieties about creativity,” because people started to bring me all their obstacles and issues and their curiosities, and so at some point it felt like the most efficient thing to do would be to sit down and put it all in one book and lay it out there, and if was useful to people they were welcome to make use to it, and if not, you know, as you were. No hard feelings!

BW: Do you have a preferred genre?

LG: The most difficult genre for me is writing novels, but it’s also the most rewarding. It’s difficult because you have to invent an entire world, but it’s also tremendously exciting because you get to invent an entire world. So you have a lot of pressure on yourself because you have to create a whole universe and make it sound plausible, but you also have all the power in that universe. I feel like I’m at the height of my power whenever I write fiction.

BW: What’s your advice to writers who want to cross genres?

LG: My advice is please, try to get out of your genre and out of your rut, and try to remember that there are so many different kinds of writing, but in the end it’s all the same—it’s all just storytelling.

BW: How did your Facebook community inspire your book?

LG: I can say that this book would not exist in this form without the engagement that I’ve had on that Facebook page over the last three or four years, without a doubt.

I’ve been thinking for over twelve years about writing a book about creativity and I’ve been holding back for a couple of reasons. One is that I think that I honestly didn’t feel that I quite had the authority yet. I needed to feel like I had a few more books under my belt, that I could really stand on my record. You know, if I was going to throw myself out there and say, I’m going to tell you how to do this thing, then I had to know that I was smoking what I was selling, basically. Right?

But the other thing that made me hesitate was I was unsure how to tell this story. When I talk about how all writing is storytelling, I didn’t know if I should write a heavily academic, heavily researched book about the neurobiology and the psychology of storytelling, and the history and the culture of creativity.
I didn’t know if I should write it as a series of interviews with artists I admired. I didn’t know I should travel all over the world and write about how different cultures view creativity. There’s so many ways that I could have written this book.

But after years of having conversations, literally every single day, on Facebook with people who kept coming to me with the same questions, with the same fears, with the same obstacles, I finally just realized, Oh, just write to them! Just write to them because you know how to talk to them. Use the voice you use on Facebook, and keep it very simple, and keep it anecdotal.

I love to say about Big Magic there’s not a single fact in there. I’ve always written really heavily researched books, but this book has no footnotes. It’s all from my own lived experience, from my personal encounters with creativity over the years. It’s all very conversational, and I think it would have been impossible for me to have stepped into that voice if I hadn’t been using that voice every single day on social media, so without a doubt, I think that community inspires me as much as I try and inspire them.

BW: What is one small thing that writers can do if they want to summon creative energy, particularly if they’re stuck?

LG: You know, one of the things that you hear people say a lot is, it’s almost a cliché, you’ll hear somebody say “I don’t have a creative bone in my body.” You’ve heard people say that, I’ve heard people say that.

I always ask people to take that sentence, I don’t have a creative bone in my body, and to take the word “creative” out and to replace it with the word “curious,” and then to see how totally wrong and bizarre that sounds. Nobody would ever walk around saying I don’t have a curious bone in my body.

If you’re living a life where you allow yourself to engage in a daily manner with your curiosity, then you will start very soon to be living your creative life, and it’s your obligation, I think, to pay attention to your curiosity, and to ask yourself every day what you’re interested in.

That’s the juice right there, and I think the mistakes that people often make about creativity and inspiration is that they’re all waiting for the lightning bolt and for the big dramatic vocation, the calling, you know, the tower of flame in the desert, the passion, and that’s not what a creative life is.

A creative life is more of a scavenger hunt, following a trail of breadcrumbs, than it is lightning in a bottle. So the trick in this is to respect your curiosity and to follow it and then to trust it, and to see where it leads. I can guarantee you’re going to live a much more expanded, much more interesting, much more engaged, and much less depressed life.

Friday, October 16, 2015

For our guest blog post this week, we are delighted to feature a Q&A with novelist, memoirist, and MFA faculty member Rita Ciresi.  A gifted writer and exceptional teacher, Rita teaches Mentorship Lab I, II, and III, working closely with small groups of students to help them find their voice and make their language sing.  Here she shares with Sandy Chmiel her thoughts on writing, teaching, and the special way her Italian heritage informs her writing.  

Q & A with MFA faculty member Rita Ciresi

You write both fiction and nonfiction.  Do you prefer one more than the other?  If so, in what way?

Each has its own challenges and rewards, and puts me in an entirely different headspace.  When I'm writing fiction, I feel as if I'm in a dream world of my own making.  And since I'm starting from scratch--with just a snippet of dialogue or a shadow of a character—every small detail needs to gestate a while before it gets born on the page.  With creative nonfiction, I'm mostly writing from personal experience, and so the characters, dialogue, plot line, etc. are already there.  I can just spill out the material, then restructure and revise over and over again.

Do you find it more challenging to work with students in an online-only format rather than in a traditional classroom setting?  Is it difficult to make connections with your online students?

Years ago, before sophisticated delivery platforms such as Blackboard and Canvas were available to faculty, I taught a distance-learning course for a well-known national writing organization.  The communication I had with my students was through the U.S. mail and (for those who had the technology), email on those old-fashioned amber computer screens (Yes!  Remember them?).  At that time I had my doubts about whether or not I could communicate effectively with my students.  But I soon discovered that after the first trade of letters or emails, I grew extremely close to my students--in fact, maybe even closer than I could face to face, as we were trading and critiquing memoirs and personal essays in which the writer revealed quite a bit about him/herself.   Now, in the Bay Path MFA in Creative Nonfiction program, we can use all of the technology at our disposal to grow closer as a class—VoiceThread, Canvas, Google docs all help us to get to know one another with lightning speed.  But I think the essential nature of what we're studying--creative nonfiction--is the key to our getting to know one another quickly.  Many of the students in the Bay Path program are writing memoir, and our subject matter often demands that we lay it all out on the line right away.  I might argue that creative nonfiction is almost better discussed and critiqued in a platform such as Canvas—as students might be more willing to take risks and open up in the online environment.   

 How do you assess/evaluate your online students?

Students come to our program with different skill sets and specific goals.  Our focus on revision and improvement allows for student success across the board.   

Which part of the Mentorship Lab courses do you most enjoy?

I love it all--but what I most value is the sense of community we have in the Bay Path program.  

What kinds of books do you read in your spare time? Do you have a favorite author?

Although I love to get lost in the drama of a novel, the older I get, the more I want to learn about something new when I sit down to read.  So I read mostly nonfiction--memoirs, collections of personal essays, and history written for a popular audience.  I have a strong interest in medical narratives, written from the point of view of patients, physicians, nurses, and caregivers.  Please join me on, where I chronicle my reading loves (and sometimes my dislikes!)  

What, besides writing, are you passionate about?

Yoga, reading, and walking on the beach.  

You often draw upon your Italian-American heritage.  Have you ever lived in or visited Italy?  

Although I've never been to Sicily, where my father was born, nor have I visited the hometown of my maternal grandparents, I've had the pleasure of visiting Italy as a tourist six or seven times and was lucky enough to be a visiting writer at the American Academy in Rome some years back.  Italy is a beautiful country and has a rich and interesting culture.   There's a big difference, however, between being "Italian" and "Italian American”—and this is subject matter that I've explored in both my fiction and nonfiction.  

Is there anything else you would like to share?

I'm proud to be part of the inaugural faculty of the Bay Path program and value the relationships I've forged with my colleagues and students.