Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Elizabeth Gilbert: Living a Life Uncommon and Unashamed

I had the privilege of attending Elizabeth Gilbert's debut reading of her new book  September 21 at  Carnegie Music Hall. The exact title of it now escapes me, but it's something like "Committed: Making Peace with Marriage" where she explores the mysteries of just what marriage is and isn't. It's due in the bookstores in December . . . or is that when the film version of "Eat, Pray, Love," starring Julia Roberts is released?

My memory fails me. I should have written this down. The new book continues where she ended in
"EPL," in which  she chronicles her quest for spiritual healing and renewal through Italy, India and Indonesia after a divorce.

A woman whom I'd met through DivorceCare in Manhattan Kansas shortly after I moved there three years ago told me about "EPL." We didn't have a clue who Elizabeth Gilbert was, but nevertheless, I was persuaded, and the earth stopped in its rotation for almost five days as I cried, laughed and underlined and dogeared pages all the way through. I can't speak for any other readers, but it inspired me to rethink and form a new paradigm about God in my previously unsuccessful attempts at "finding Him."

Although it wasn't a full house, her first words expressed genuine surprise and sincere gratitude to an audience of 98 percent women for showing up. She told a story of someone very excited to meet a certain author. Gilbert assumed this reader meant herself. No, this reader was much more interested in Barbara Kingsolver. Gilbert then went on to tell a story about how she missed a flight to another speaking engagement even though she had arrived at the airport five hours early. She may not consider herself a stand-up comic, but she definitely had us roaring with laughter at her scatterbrained and disorganized state of mind on that particular day at the airport.

Not only is she a beautiful strawberry blonde who can make you feel like you're her best friend on the page, she's also a wonderfully eloquent reader and speaker. Even when she's got a head cold and apologetically popping cough drops  every few minutes, you just want to give her a hug. 

During the question portion, someone asked her if it was difficult to get so personal in "EPL."  Gilbert puzzled over this for a moment and then said,

"There's not one unspoken thought in my  head. If I ran into you at the drugstore, I'd tell you whatever medication I may be taking." As if it had never occurred to Gilbert to not write every detail and that's part of what makes her so endearing and likeable. She's an open book.

When asked to give advice on writing, Gilbert said, "Personalize an experience and then universalize it." Interesting. That's more or less exactly what my creative nonfiction professor was teaching us last week.

I couldn't wait in line for hours behind other fans for your autograph and to thank you, so I'll do it here. Thank you, Elizabeth, for offering me hope in the midst of my despair. Thank you for not missing your flight to Pittsburgh last night. Thank you for coming, despite your cold.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Defining Success: how and for whom?

I've spent the last few weeks trying to decide what I want to do with this blog to make it more interesting, and even profitable. I've made some changes to the layout. Eventually I'll post a photo and update my profile. But the puzzling question of how to make this blog different and unique from all the other thousands of blogs readers could spend 10 minutes reading is related to a major dilemma all writers face: how to find the balance between writing what I think is important and relevant and writing what I think will please readers.

What can I write about that hasn't already been done in other arenas by much more talented writers?  Originally I was going to focus on spiritual issues and issues of faith. That's hardly fresh or original. What my creative non-fiction professor would say is that the challenge is  not in coming up with an original idea, but in how you present it. That's why all 15 of us show up for three-hour creative non-fiction class every Monday night - because no of us knows the answer to that question yet.

Perhaps teachers struggle with similar issues. It's most often not what they are teaching, but in how they  present what they are teaching to make it engaging for all students, that is most challenging.  Both teachers and writers have an audience. Every student walks into the classroom with a different background and level of experience and expectation, much like the average reader.

Aren't teaching and writing both artforms? And aren't all artforms subjective? So just how does a writer and a teacher define success? What one reader hates another loves. What one student loves another hates. Unfortunately, our culture always defines success  by the Almighty Dollar and test scores. Assessing student progress using only test scores is like measuring the talent of a writer based only on book sales.

A teacher might define success as a student approaching them and telling them how much he or she learned in the class, even if test scores were consistently low. I would consider myself a successful writer if a reader approached me to tell me they felt less alone or more understood or made different choices in their value system after reading my work, even if I never made any money with the material. 

Perhaps the real question I struggle with is not so much the what and the how, but rather in harnessing the power.  Being bold about what I think is important, without worrying about being offensive. I've been given a love for words and a desire to use them, but how and for whom? Is writing about God uninteresting and irrelevant at the dawn of the 21st century compared to David Letterman's latest top ten list, the Emmy Awards or health care reform?  What should intelligent, inquiring minds be focusing on?