Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert

You’ve eaten…maybe prayed…definitely loved. Now it’s time to get magical in some very practical ways.

Gilbert, Elizabeth. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015. Print.

Genre: nonfiction, creative inspiration

Summary: The sage and witty writer who brought you the worldwide bestseller, The Misadventures of a Messed-up Woman Traveling Through Three Countries in Three Months, All to Find the True Source of Joy (alternately and succinctly titled Eat, Pray, Love) returns to tell creative types and would-be creative types: own your soul and go make something today!

Critique: I will often recommend this as a craft book to writers, even though it does not tell them how to better hone the craft of writing. It will, however, help them craft a better soul more suited to the lifelong pursuit of writing!

While each “chapter” of this text is only a paragraph or three, the book feels densely packed with fresh perspectives on the value of and necessity for living creatively. For instance, Gilbert notes that as a species, humans took up art at least 40,000 years ago. Surprisingly, we only bothered with agriculture about 10,000 years ago. That means we found it more important to make attractive, superfluous items than to reliably feed ourselves!

Gilbert gives everyone a permission slip to be creative and express themselves. And I mean that literally and figuratively. She reminds readers to get off the tightrope slung between “I suck” and “I am greatest.” Stand firmer on the grounds of, “I am here.” That’s it. Neither bad, nor good. Just here. And while here, entitled to your own voice and vision.

She also surmises that if you feel the urge to create, but too often ignore it, then you’ll likely spend your time destroying something. A bank account, a relationship, or maybe your own self-esteem.

Just as in Eat, Pray, Love, readers will find here Gilbert’s signature style, which never strays far from nakedly honest, graciously humble, and fantastically witty. Her voice — whether on the page or recorded for audiobooks — is reassuring, kind, and invigorating. It’s a voice so comforting I’ve started using it whenever my negative, snitty inner critic begins to gabble on about what a joke I am. Before that crank gets on a roll, I remind myself that my inner critic is NOT my inner editor. My inner editor loves my work and it tells me (in Liz Gilbert’s charming, sparkling voice) how much it wants me to succeed!

So, is there a project you’re dodging? A dream you’ve harbored but never sailed on open waters? Maybe it’s time to stop making excuses and start making big magic.

Small Move, Big Change by Caroline Arnold

Did you set a resolution in January that has yet to pan out? Good news: you’re not alone. Great news: this book might help you get back on track.

Arnold, Caroline. Small Move, Big Change: Using Microresolutions to Transform Your Life Permanently. New York: Viking, 2014. Print.

Summary: Arnold unpacks a methodology for setting teeny-tiny goals with itsy-bitsy implementation plans. Given time (a few weeks), those bits and pieces accumulate and transform into the behemoth we all crave: change for the better.

Critique: According to Arnold, 88% of all Americans fail on their resolutions and goal-setting. Part of the problem roots in how we state our goals.

I want to get…(fill in the blank: a novel published, buff, more organized, etc.).

Or, I want to be…(again fill in: a writer, rich, tidy, etc).

In order to get or be anything, one must first do. So, to set an attainable goal, start by rewording it with what you can do.

The next trick requires an understanding of how the brain does things, which is primarily by habit. Habits, or auto-pilot behaviors, form because the brain prefers speed and efficiency. Technically, so do most of us. Do you really want to stop and think about how to tie your shoes or brush your teeth every.single.time as if it was the first time you ever tied your shoes or brushed your teeth? Who’s got time for that? Not you, says your brain, so the neurons carve out some deep, habitual grooves which lead to rapid-fire auto-actions. But if you want to be/get something new, you must develop new habits, which means you must fill in those deep grooves and carve new ones.

To work with the brain’s neuroplastic abilities — that is, its ability to constantly rewire — Arnold maps out cunning ways to introduce tiny behavioral changes, one or two at a time. And when she says tiny, she means TINY. Rather than tackle your diet by ransacking all the junk from your kitchen cabinets, simply identify one problem food or eating behavior and work with it.

Set a time for that new action to occur (every Wednesday at 9 o’clock, for example.) Allow that time to trigger the behavior so that, eventually, you do it without thinking. Thus, it becomes a habit. Or, pin the new behavior on to an already established habit (ex: I will always consult my *new* to-do list before I check email.) Dress your new behaviors in positive language. In other words, rather than obsesses over limits or restrictions (I CAN’T eat junk or candy), emphasize new permissions, privileges, and rewards (I CAN enjoy a healthy snack).

Writers who struggle to get in a bit of writing (especially on days when they actually have time for it but don’t seem to be able to make it happen) are sure to take away from this book many useful tips and tricks. Plus, it’s printed in a really big font, which means it is a quick read. Big font, small time, you might say.

“Lego” by Judit Klein.

Having read this book a couple of months ago, I can firmly attest that the processes seem to work. Breaking down my big, vaguely stated goals and working at them one action at a time was a bit like dumping out the Lego bin of my life’s dreams. But bit by bit, the pieces are fitting together and a strange new landscape…or, erm…a jet plane is beginning to take shape.

A Poetry Handbook by Mary Oliver

oliver_poetryhandbookMuch like a quark, this book is small yet packed with the powers to either grip or unravel the universe.

Oliver, Mary. A Poetry Handbook. New York: Harvest, 1994. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (craft book)

Summary: Winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, and all-around linguistic seductress Mary Oliver shares her insights on the nature and construct of poetry, language, and the communication that takes place beneath the words on the page.

Critique: Like her poetry, Oliver’s handbook is brief, to-the-point, and powerful. She gets right the to point and does not dilly-dally with a lot of rhetorical set-up or explanatory embellishments, as the typical poetry textbook or writing craft book might. Her examples are salient. The writing is unquestionably clear.

Writers equipped with this text will gain invaluable lessons including: the difference between a rock and stone as implied by their phonics rather than their geology; the Romeo and Juliet love affair that is the writing process, a drool-inducing analysis of Robert Frost’s poetry; the liquids and mutes of the English language and how they can combine effectively; and one of the clearest explanations I have ever found on poetic construction, from scansion to stresses, from meters to feet.

When the Sharks Gather

When the Sharks Gather: How Rituals Can Make Us Better Writers

Before I write, there’s this little thing that I do. Call it a ritual. I do it the same way every time. And according to neuroscience research, my little ritual is actually priming my brain to deliver a focused and confident writing session.

Here’s how it goes…

Everyday at 5:30 a.m., I zombie out of bed. I shuffle through the dark to the kitchen and switch on the electric teapot. I fill the pour-over with coffee and stack it atop my blue pot-bellied mug. As the water heats to life, I head to the living room to turn on the twinkle lights strung up since the holidays. Laptop boots. Notebooks and pens assemble. Coffee trickles into cup.

sharks-chocolate

“Chocolate” by John Loo. Image CC.

Lastly, I break off a nub of chocolate from the stash in my goody-drawer. I hold this nub lovingly and whisper to it a little prayer of sorts. Seems appropriate. Chocolate is, after all, theobroma, food of the gods. Muse munchums. To this heavenly food I give my thanks for its nourishment and my request to please nourish me now during my creative hijinx. I savor that nub of chocolate. Then I slide into my reclining wingback chair and set off on a two-hour writing jollification!

My writing sessions are intensely focused, fun, and productive.

But is that all really thanks to a superstitious pattern of actions? Francesca Gino and Michael Norton would answer yes. In a way-too short co-authored article in the Scientific American, the researchers explain that ritual work, whether or not they are rational or irrational. And they work even if you don’t believe in the efficacy of rituals.

In the Lab

“Crossed Fingers” by Evan-Amos. Image CC.

Gino and Norton conducted experiments where participants were given a task, but half of them first had to carry out a small, superstitious acts or rituals like crossing their fingers or touching a lucky talisman. The half that engaged in the ritual performed better overall on the task. They gave invested more effort, demonstrated enhanced confidence, and did better on future tasks that did not require a ritual. (Even participants who said before the experiment that they did not believe in rituals or superstitions performed better when they executed a ritualistic or superstitious behavior!)

And the results seem to be consistent around the world and across cultures. Hardly a surprise, considering how many rituals we see globally. Rituals seem to decorate the entire tapestry of human history. In the 1940s, anthropologists observed a ritualistic pattern in an indigenous tribal community in the South Pacific.Whenever the fisherman set out to fish in the calm lagoon, they just hopped into the water and fished. But whenever they set out to fish in the shark infested sea, they always performed a ritual to seek protection from the gods.

Whenever uncertainty or risk run high, we humans need a ritual.

The Royals celebrate after winning the 2015 #WorldSeries.

Royals celebrate their epic 2015 victory! From Arturo Pardavila III. Image CC.

Sports psychologists have seen and studied the ritual phenomenon for a long time. Michael Jordan always wore his North Carolina shorts under his Bulls uniform. Boston Red Sox third basemen Wade Boggs wrote the Hebrew word “chai” (living) in the dirt before each at bat. The entire Kansas City Royals team spritzed on some Victoria’s Secret perfume and listened to the same rap song before each game. Between every serve, Maria Sharipova does this seemingly anal five-count foot shuffle-shuffle-shuffle. The list goes on and on.

And did these athletes enjoy a better performance? Well, I’ll let you Wikipedia the results if you don’t already know.

Gray Matters
The real question is why? Why do rituals have this effect on us?

If you fMRI the brain while someone performs a ritual (praying, meditating, or some other ritualized action), what you will see is a deactivation of the parietal lobe, the area most associated with processing and sensory stimulus. Turning off your parietal lobe is like disconnecting from the world around you. Shutting off “reality.”

The next thing you’ll see is the frontal lobes fully activate. These lobes are involved in our ability to focus and concentrate.

Finally, you’ll also see the amygdala go into hyperdrive. This area of the brain is thought to be the center of our primal emotions: fear, joy, panic, relaxation. A hyperactive amygdala is not necessarily a condition you want to provoke in the body. See Norman Doidge’s new book, The Brain’s Way of Healing, for some pretty disturbing disorders (rife with panic attacks) linked to an inflamed amygdala. But in the case of rituals, the amygdala’s inflammation produces more joyful and relaxed emotions, leaving fear and panic in the backseat.

And with your brain operating in this manner, what you get is that intensely revved up flow state that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified in the brains of the world top athletes, artists, and business leaders. You know this state of mind if you’ve ever gotten so wrapped up in a task that the external world just peeled away and it was impossible to tell if a minute spanned an hour or an hour spanned a millisecond.

Ritual or Habitual?
But herein lies the rub: to get your brain into this altered state, you have to perform a ritual, and not just some rutted habit. On the surface, rituals and habits seem almost identical. They are both sequenced or patterned behaviors that recur in the same way. The difference between rituals and habits boils down to intent. You do a ritual in order to achieve a particular outcome: hit the ball out of the park, sink fifty three-pointers, ace every serve, win the World Series or write one helluva good novel!

If we look back on my morning ablutions, my trek around the house switching on appliances and making the coffee is a habit. I do it the same way because it turned out to be the most efficient system, not because I think it will make me a better writer. Breaking off the chocolate, whispering my little prayer, and savoring the chocolate? That is definitely a ritual because I certainly duplicate that pattern of actions with a desired outcome in mind. Besides being the food of gods, chocolate has also been shown to relax the brain and promote creativity. So it’s basically my vitamin-W (vitamin Write).

sharks-jambigenie

Jambi the Genie from Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

Yes, I know it’s Dumbo’s feather. I don’t technically need it. I already have the ability to go sit down for two hours and knock out a couple thousand words. But diving into a writing project is not that different from plunging into shark infested waters. And if doing a little ritual is going to help me maneuver with poise among a bloodthirsty flock of sharp-toothed torpedoes, well then…mekalekahi-mekahini-ho!

The best part about this research on rituals is that you can truly tailor-make your own ritual. So long as you do it with a desired outcome in mind, it does not matter what actions go into your ritual. Cross your heart. Light a candle. Whisper a chant. Turn in circles three times and bark like a dog. Anything goes!

So what is your ritual (or should I say writual)? What do you do when the sharks begin to circle?

For further reading:

How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation by Andrew Newberg

The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity by Norman Doidge

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

sharks

The Goshawk by T. H. White

goshawkWhite, T. H. The Goshawk. 1951. Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audio, 2015. CD.

Genre: nonfiction/nature memoir

Summary: White chronicles his misadventures and many mishaps in an attempt to tame a goshawk. He knows only what he has learned from old books. Nonetheless, he is driven by his love of the medieval and ancient cultures who reserved the designation of “gentleman” for the men who mastered the mighty raptors. Using only kindness and persistence, White proceeds to deprive the bird of sleep for up to nine days. But whatever the bird endures, so too must the falconer, or ostringer. Man and bird wear each other down, but in their delirium, they might just learn to communicate, confess, and conspire as equals–or die trying!

Critique: White is best known for his Arthurian sequence, The Once and Future King. His finesse as a craftsman of lush worlds and compelling characters shines in this work of nonfiction. Structurally, White divvies the tale by days of the week, as if falconry was one of the most mundane weekly activities. Something you or I might pencil into our day runners or tap into our Google calendars. The result is a successful dismantling of the wall that might otherwise divide the modern reader from the ancient sport.

The accounts of man and bird are a mix of funny, insightful, tragic, and absurd. The willful, fierce, and stubborn hawk, lovingly named Gos, quickly intoxicates White. He alternately admires and pities the feral freedom embodied in this creature’s every behavior, expression, and gesture. But something tantalizingly vibrant and ultimately doomed lurks within the potential partnership between man and bird of prey.

On its surface, this text of reluctant animal/man friendship reads much like the classic boy/beast stories such as White Fang and Old Yeller. But, deep in its subaceous layers resides the ultimate writer’s craft book. Move over, Anne Lamott! White has a literal bird-by-bird approach that is just the theriac a writer needs to undertake the dangerous task that is writing.

Like falconry, writing bids us to tame a wild thing: the imagination! It is risky and you can bet on many sleepless nights, plenty of repeated failures, and some bloodshed. Sometimes, a partnership emerges and the writer yawps with success. Other times, the jesses break and the beast flaps away into the dark forest, leaving the writer crouched and weeping. Either way, the writer–like the falconer–must choose to respond with genteel kindness, compassion, and tenacity. Or else forever earn the impermeable hatred of the mythical creature uniquely capable of plucking out the stories hiding in the tall grasses.