Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Elizabeth Gilbert On Creative Fear

First, I want to send a hearty congratulations to my fellow Mainer, Elizabeth Strout, who has just won the Pulitzer Prize for her collection of short stories, entitled OLIVE KITTERIDGE. This brings our state's grand total of Pulitzer Prize winners to around four or five. Not bad for a small, rural state.

My dear friend Bonnie sent me this link to a video of Elizabeth Gilbert (the author of the wildly successful EAT, PRAY, LOVE) talking about creativity and fear. She also addresses the problems related to writing a follow-up to a huge bestseller, which made me think back to the old Lee vs. Patterson debate. The video is about 20 minutes long and I highly recommend you take a look.

Friday, April 17, 2009

For Word Nerds

In this chilly little part of the world, spring has finally arrived. The crocuses are in bloom and the winter blues have melted with the snow. Time for yard work, digging in the garden, and finding creative inspiration in nature. I've found tiny leaves of rhubarb unfurling in my patch, and a tuft of chives in the herb garden. All that potential energy is so exciting--like when a story is burning inside you but you have yet to sit down and write the first word. Anything feels possible.

Speaking of writing...yesterday was the 50th anniversary of that ubiquitous grammar manual, Strunk & White's THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE. Author Marc Acito pays a hilarious tribute to the book on NPR's All Things Considered, which you can listen to here.

Enjoy the weekend.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

American Idol Redux (Or, How Not to Get a Big Head)

Here I am, blogging about American Idol again. I can’t help it. There’s so much the show has to teach us about being artists—maybe I should do a whole series of posts on what we can learn from watching this bit of reality fluff.

Last time, I wrote about how important it is to learn how to handle criticism well. The focus was mainly on negative criticism, but as I’ve been watching the show this season, it’s occurred to me that we need to talk about handling praise, too.

If you’ve ever watched the show, you’ll know that when a contestant stands before the judges after his performance, one of two things will happen: he’ll be praised or criticized. If he’s praised, the contestant will often sigh with relief, throw this head back, and close his eyes as if to say, I’m good, I’m really good—even Simon thinks so! The crowd will cheer, affirming that this praise is the gospel truth. If he’s criticized, he’ll make excuses, become defensive, or declare it is “simply the judges’ opinion” and the crowd will boo. Apparently, if the comments are negative, they can’t be true.

Where does this attitude that praise is always true and criticism isn’t come from? As I mentioned before, automatically dismissing negative criticism is harmful to artists, who should always be striving to improve their craft. What may be even more harmful, though, is believing every nice thing said about you.

Now, I’m all for self-confidence—you can’t send your art into the world without having true faith in yourself—but I am against believing your own hype. Everyone in the entertainment industry, from movie producers to publishers, is always on the lookout for the next BIG thing. They want it so badly that when they find a project they really love, they hype it to the high heavens, sometimes forgetting that there is a person attached to this project who might be getting their hopes up.

This happens to new writers all the time. You sell your book to a publishing house and suddenly your agent and your editor are telling you about all the important people who loved your book. They tell you about the movie scouts who called. They tell you about the foreign publishers who are lined up to buy it and all the marketing campaigns that are planned. There is loose talk about trips, tours, TV shows. Oprah. Awards. Soon, the reviews come in and you’re compared to Mark Twain or Charles Dickens.

And it this point it would be so, so easy to sit back and think “I’ve made it.” For a few, this will be the case. For most, it won’t. And while your agent and editor were genuine in their excitement, neither one has the power to control the market nor the ability to know just what will strike a chord with the reading public. Sadly, if you’ve bought into all the grand predictions and none of them pan out, you’ll end up feeling like a failure, when you’re nothing of the sort.

Or maybe all the predictions hold true and you become a superstar. Wonderful. But be on guard—the moment you begin to believe the hype, you’ll be in danger of becoming complacent and your work will suffer.

A few years ago I had the terrific opportunity to sign copies of my book at Book Expo America. I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to be sitting only a few booths away from people I’ve long admired—Michael Cunningham, Spike Lee, Bill Maher. There were posters and stacks of post cards with the cover of my book on them and a long line of people who wanted to get a copy. I did a reading, a phone interview, met some of my foreign publishers. At night I collapsed in my hotel room overlooking Central Park and in the morning I woke up to room service. I was in heaven.

But after a few days, I have to say that I was starting to get a little sick of myself. All that praise and special attention was addictive, but it was also beginning to ring a little hollow. And here I was, just a first-time novelist. I could only imagine what it felt like to be a true celebrity, when people licked your boots all day, every day.

At the end of my trip, at a special dinner thrown by my publisher, I asked my college mentor, Richard Russo, how he handled praise. He’s certainly had his share, especially after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his novel EMPIRE FALLS. In answer to my question, he pointed to his wife, saying that she helped keep him steady. He also said that no matter who you are, there will inevitably come a time when people won’t talk about you anymore—or at least not as much as they did—and if you aren’t secure in yourself, you risk falling apart.

It seems to me that when it comes to praise and criticism, it’s important to keep a certain baseline of confidence that holds steady in the face of scathing reviews or spectacular praise. Any comment thrown your way should be received with proper perspective and a little distance. Remember that the work is being judged, not you. Your value as a person has nothing to do with your level of fame or talent, and cannot be altered even if you become a giant success or spectacular failure.