To Swim is to Fly

Many years later, Cindi Peterson and her husband would buy up what remained of my father’s acreage when he died in considerable debt and my brother and I couldn’t afford to keep the farmland or the homestead that had been our family’s for three generations. The Peterson’s had tended the land for years and paid out a percentage to our family, and I now realize that must have been the little bit extra that kept us afloat, if afloat is what you call it. But when I was a little girl, Cindi Peterson tried with great tenderness and persistence to teach me to swim.

There are grainy 1970s photos of my brother and me at the Northwood swimming pool either before or after our swim lessons with Cindi. I was usually in the kiddie end, sitting on the shallow steps or holding onto the edge grinning up at my mother as she took pictures with our brownie camera. My brother was usually a bit deeper in, swimming away, but still looking at Mom, he and me still young enough to be playmates. Other pictures star Cindi. I say “star” because she had charisma, a certain 70s housewife cum pinup look that made you look.

I thought Cindi was a bombshell for all I knew about bombshells at that age. Perhaps I’d started watching Charlie’s Angels by that time so I thought Cindi had a kind of Minnesota farm version of the Farrah Fawcett brand. Except Cindi was large. Her arms and legs and torso were round but not at all flabby. Her bosom (because it seems completely accurate to describe her swell of breasts as a bosom) strained against the low curved neckline of her white swimsuit. And she was tan, the color of a gleaming chestnut-coated horse. The depth of her tan made the white of her swimsuit glow in the shimmering blue pool water, and her white blond hair, waved and feathered, sat atop her head like a dollop of whipped cream tops off a luscious dessert.

At least that’s how I remember Cindi. It sounds romantic, I know. But she was so very different from my mother. My mother who wore pantsuits and owned but didn’t wear a swimsuit. I had found it once in a hallway drawer where she kept table linens and embroidered handkerchiefs, the kinds of items you kept but never used. If I reach all the way back into my memory, or the memory that looking at old photographs imprint on us, I think she may have worn it once, at a lake, on a family vacation when us kids were very young? It was yellow and gold floral and made from a heavy, plastic-y fabric. I think it had a bit of a skirt. And even when I’d discovered it, in a drawer amid tablecloths and guest towels, it seemed to have no utility. I don’t remember her ever joining us to swim in the pool. My mother had had diabetes from a very young age, and was very careful about exposing her feet in sandals and never didn’t wear shoes, for fear of injury because she couldn’t feel her feet well. But I don’t think I remember her ever going fishing with us when we took those family vacations at Leech Lake either, siting in the boat as we threaded worms onto hooks and learned the difference between walleyes, northerns, and bullheads. While she never said she was afraid of the water, now I wonder why she herself didn’t teach us to swim.

That was left to Cindi, the neighbor lady who gave kids from the area lessons. I remember how she tried to coax me to trust the water. As with most things, my brother had no issues with swimming. He would soon pass the test that allowed him under the ropes and buoys and into the deep end. Soon some of the neighbor boys would come with us to the pool, and while my brother and his friends wrestled in the water like puppies, I laid my head back against Cindi’s bosom as her hands supported my hips to suspend my little body perpendicular to hers. But the minute she removed her hands, I went from being on top of the water one second to piking down in fear the next, wanting my feet touching the bottom of the pool. Or if the water was too deep, I flailed at her, grabbing at her taut, tan skin for purchase, holding her close. Floating was simply something I could not do. Cindi taught me a lot about the water the way any teacher starts with the ABCs — I learned how to blow bubbles, tread water, how to kick while holding onto the wall, and then how to use a kickboard and leave the wall behind. But she was never able to teach me how to use the water to suspend my body when she wasn’t there to assist.

I have never been afraid of the water, so those early lessons accomplished that at least. I’ve never not wanted to don my suit and jump in on a hot day. Or take a boat ride. I could jump off a dock at our cousin’s cabin, do a front flip at pool, and even perform a handstand of sorts, because those moves only required me to hold my breath a few seconds, mouth closed, nose pinched. But I could never just float. Or so what we called the American crawl well enough to pass the deep end test. And I certainly never got up the courage to dive in head first, or even jump off a diving board. Except that one time when I was a preteen and a camp counselor and the long line of kids standing on the ladder behind me forced me to jump and I still remember feeling like I would never rise to the surface.

Swimming is just the start of it, a thing I can almost do. I have never ice skated or ski-ed or even slid barefooted across a wet floor like my brother and his friends did when my mother washed the kitchen linoleum. Having to give up control or lacking faith in my body to react, to stabilize me when met with unpredictable physical influences of water or speed or slickness, has always been…an impossibility. There are other things I’ve always been afraid of. Heights is one. Bridges is another. Singing in front of a crowd, or anyone. Asking for want I need. Or what I want. Because I’m afraid the act of asking is the same as admitting weakness. And now that I’m older, middle-aged at best, I’ve grown afraid of my body in a different way. Once I was afraid my body would embarrass me, that it would get injured; now I’m afraid of how my body will communicate to me that I am dying, soon to be out of the time I need to stop being so afraid.

It was probably 1981 or 82 when I had my first major surgery to correct a length discrepancy in my left leg compared to my right. Physical therapy wasn’t as accepted as necessary for healing that it is now, but my mother must have talked with Cindi and come to an agreement. By then, Cindi had an above-ground pool on their farm, their driveway about a 1/2 mile down the gravel road from our driveway. So I spent a couple of visits to Cindi’s pool, not swimming but walking slowly through the water, using its resistance to strengthen my weakened leg. But our relationship had changed. I was awkward around Cindi now, much like I had become awkward in so many situations. Despite an open invitation to use the pool any time after those first instructional visits, I didn’t go back.

Thirty years later, when we were preparing to sell my father’s farm, I still thought fondly of Cindi when I thought of her at all. I knew the rumors. People said she’d gotten nasty. That she dictated the terms of their family life and her husband was no more than a pawn to her demands. People said she carried around a shotgun, and sometimes, ironically, shot it at trespassing hunters. I seem to remember Cindi coming to my mother’s funeral when I was 12. And then my father’s — no, that seems impossible, but surely she would have? — about a decade ago. She must be, what, 70 by now? But Cindi with her white-blond hair and white-white suit and beautifully browned body is how I think of her, and I think of her often now because we take my son to the pool whenever we can. He loves the water. So when I get a whiff of that signature scent of chlorine and suntan lotion that makes you feel 6 year old again, I think of Cindi. And I bet all those rumors about her are untrue. She may have done all of those things, but those rumors have the scent of “who does that woman think she is?” rather than a woman gone rouge.

For years, I just let my husband, Mark, take our to the pool. But when he was a year or two old, I enrolled Noah is a baby class at the frigid pool of the neighborhood high school. It’s what you did when you wanted to be a good mother who could check off another line on the long list of things good mothers do. Teach your child early not to be afraid of the water. Babies, we were told, instinctively knew to hold their breath underwater. And Noah certainly did. The pool was so exciting for him. He held his breath; he kicked his legs. He splashed his hands against the surface of the water with an energy that he didn’t use for much else. He didn’t reach up to play with the tiny stuffed fish we hung from the handle of his car seat. Instead of stacking wooden blocks on the tray of his high chair, he just pushed the blocks off onto the floor. We already knew he had “low tone” — that’s what the internet called it when I searched for why he wasn’t able to hold his head up and balance on his little elbows like every baby did for their first mall photo shoot. The photographer had to roll a small washcloth under his chest to lift him up enough to look like he was looking toward the camera. And we knew he wasn’t meeting milestones. But some kids didn’t, I was told. And often baby boys didn’t. So I tried to be the kind of mother every other mother I knew tried to be: a good mother who put her worry aside and took her baby to the pool.

Soon Noah’s love of water — pool, bath water, play table, sprinkler, fountain, hose — irritated me. Not because I begrudged him his joy, but because it was a sign. Autistic children, children with a diagnosis, loved water. They loved water, they loved lights, they love to put toys in rows, they love to make things roll and fall. I watched Noah like a hawk. How many more signs would there be that there was something wrong with him? Every cute thing he did that someone might comment on, “Doesn’t he just love the water?” for example, made me sad. As the months went by and the other babies we knew added skill after skill, all anyone could really say about Noah was, “Doesn’t he just love the water?” One afternoon after our swim class, I was carrying Noah across the cement locker room floor after rinsing ourselves off under the showers, and I slipped. I fell awkwardly because I rearranged my body to protect his. We were both fine, but I hated slipping. I hated feeling out of control. And I hated that Noah had been in danger. It would be the last time I took Noah to the pool by myself, and Mark, who loves the water anyway, became the default swim parent.

Until Mark got leukemia, that is. During Mark’s initial treatment, there wasn’t much call to take Noah to the pool. Mark got sick in July that year, underwent numerous rounds of chemotherapy, and had his transplant six months later. Friends or sitters would take Noah, who was ten, to the wading pool while I was at work, but there wasn’t time to do much beyond holding our lives together that winter. One of the more terrible side effects for Mark of having leukemia and getting a life-saving stem cell transplant is that he has to continue, even in remission, even if he becomes technically cured, to try to lighten the burden on his immune system. With that consideration, Mark stopped teaching. And with that consideration, Mark had to stop swimming.

But that didn’t mean that good mothers don’t do the right thing, even if they hate swimming, so I once again enrolled Noah in swim classes. These classes were adaptive swim classes, and I had had ten years to get used to life, however reluctantly, with a special needs child. The woman who taught this class was large. Unlike Cindi (though her name was also Cindy), her skin sagged low off the bone, and her suit, a muddled floral top with a muddled purple skirt, amplified her pale skin in the pale light of the middle school pool. Because Cindy had other students, and Noah was unable to be safe in the water without assistance, I got in the water with him. And that was fine. He wore a safety belt and was buoyed by the water, and I had my feet on the ground. I could lead him through the exercises, Cindy showed to us while she worked with the other kids. But the other kids, they were skilled enough to practice by moving up and down the length of the pool no matter how slowly. Cindy wanted us to do the same. And so did Noah. And I … was too prideful to limit us only to where my toes touched. In five feet of water, my five foot three inch self could just keep my chin above the surface. Beyond that, I would not only have to guide Noah through his exercises, but at the same time, I would have to keep myself afloat.

Much like when I was a child, I could manage to tread water for a short amount of time. And since, when staying in hotels or even going to the local pool with Mark and Noah, I had been very willing to get in the water, even doing a sort of dogpaddle/applebasket stroke that mimicked swimming, could take me from one side of a pool to the other, and most importantly, keep my head above the water. But problems arose as we moved into deeper water. The pool depth went to twelve feet, so getting to the five foot mark wasn’t even half way down to where Cindy laid out all of the practice gear like kickboards and tubes. Also, twelve feet was where Noah wanted to go too. Noah’s love of water had continued to grow as he did, and his very favorite thing to do is to jump off the side of a pool into deep water. He loves to feel the impact of the water, hold his breath until he comes to the surface. He practices holding his breath in the bathtub, able to push his face beneath the bubbles and hold it there for nearly 15 seconds. But what the hell was I going to do once I couldn’t touch the bottom of the pool? Keeping myself afloat was one thing, keeping Noah afloat so he didn’t have to hold his breath beyond 15 seconds.

We would stay near the side of the pool. I would be able to grab onto the edge with my left hand, while assisting Noah with my dominant right. If he started to swim too far away from me, I could grab onto his flotation belt and drag him back with me to the wall. It was inefficient, but we managed. It was exhausting, but at the end of every class I felt more deeply connected to Noah. I had helped him do something he loved, while we held on to each other doing it. Cindy was there to rescue us if I couldn’t manage, but I was managing. Eventually I began to take Noah to the recreational pools my myself. We rarely ranged beyond five feet, but that was deep enough for me help him get up out of the pool and jump back in. Over and over. Then we would ‘swim’ to the toddler depth and back, practicing what we learned from Cindy. A few times we pushed our limits, but the minute I felt unsafe, I would tense up, maybe swallow some water, and I simply became scared.

One of the ways I’ve learned to cope with my anxiety — an anxiety that I’ve described to my doctor, my therapist, my friends, as feeling like I’m in a closed room that is filling up with water, and there is only an inch or two between the surface of the water and the ceiling from which to draw a breath, and I’m so, so tired of trying –, whether that’s anxiety due to having a disabled child or simply being me with my brain in my body, is by being brave. Being scared comes naturally to me. I’ve been scared since I was a child. I was scared when I had surgery. I was scared of my body. I was scared when my mother got sick, I was scared of her body. I was scared when Noah started having seizures. I was scared of his body. (Let’s face it, I still am. At 14, his body is doing all sorts of crazy things I’m not convinced I signed up for; and at 48, my body is doing all sorts of crazy things that are at best a nuisance, and at worst, a reminder of my mortality. I have always been scared off all the things that could hurt us, internal or external. So now, within reason, I do things that scare me. I’m not talking about bungy jumping or even roller coaster riding. But I try to show up. I have tattooed “Be brave” on my forearm to keep me honest.

To confront my childhood fear of singing in public, I now give work speeches in front of groups. To work on my fear of failure and rejection, I submit my writing to magazines and agents. I have even cooperated with my fear of heights by taking a trapeze lesson. (I did it, and don’t ever need to do it again.) I recently declined a sunset flight in a two-seater airplane with my friend’s husband for a pilot, and the next day I regretted saying no. I can’t say for certain I would say yes should that opportunity be offered again, because I can’t imagine calling Mark and Noah and saying, just so you know, I’m taking a huge risk with my life and I apologize if I don’t come back. But I’m kind of proud of myself for even thinking I should have said yes.

And I can credit all sorts of things for why I am able now to take risks that, as a child, I shrank from. But I have Noah to thank for valuing bravery rather than prioritizing my fear. Every day that he had a seizure and we had to pick up the pieces of our lives and pretend we hadn’t just had a bomb set off in our home, I learned to be brave. Every doctor’s appointment when some test could tell us some very bad news about our son’s future, I had to be brave. Every time I had to hold him down for a procedure, I had to tuck my fear away. And when I think of this young man, now fourteen, with the cognitive and physical abilities of a toddler and confront the depth of my love for him but also my deep sadness over his unrealized potential — which is every.damn.day — I have to be brave. I owe my bravery to Noah, and I try to show up for him even when I want nothing more than to hide.

Which explains why, this past Fourth of July, I got it in my head that Noah and I should go tubing on his grandparent’s lake. Mark’s sister and her family kept their motorboat docked there and Noah’s cousin, just 6 months older than he, wanted to take a large inflatable “chair” out on the water. Despite Mark’s parents having lived on the lake for years now, we rarely went out on it, and we never swam in it. And that’s often a point of contention between Mark and I — Noah loves the water, so why can’t he swim in the lake? Of course, in my heart, I know why. Noah can hold his breath and such, but he also swallows a lot of water and doesn’t really recognize when something is dangerous, so he could step on a sharp rock, hit his head on the dock, eat lake weeds, what have you. But! In the name of bravery, and fairness, and not acquiescing — I said, Noah and I want to go tubing as well!

Tubing is a thing I have never done. Water skiing is a thing I have tried once as a kid, got dragged on my face after never truly standing up, and never tried again. Boats are fine for fishing out of, but I’ve never driven one so know little about the physics. I’m even a little awkward wiggling myself onto a circular floatie in order to just sit on one. But this big seated “tube” tied to the back of the boat? I’m sure we can do that. And, I think, everyone must have thought I knew what I was doing rather than just being brave, because no one gave us instructions and I assumed that being towed was just like floating on the water but at a faster clip.

After stuffing ourselves into safety jackets, Noah and I got settled onto the tube. I noted that there were no seatbelts likes on a carnival ride. Which, of course. Being belted into something that could capsize would be a very bad idea. I found the handholds, so that reassured me. But Noah doesn’t have the strength or occupational skills to hold onto a handle, so much like during his swimming lessons I held onto the edge of the pool with one hand, and Noah’s flotation belt with the other, I grabbed a handhold with my right hand to stabalize us, and Noah’s safety vest with the other. The first slow lengths as the boat pulled away from the dock seemed to indicate this ride would be a pleasure cruise. But as my brother-in-law picked up speed, the “chair” began to tip backward. I was unaware that this was par for the course. That we couldn’t just toodle along on the water at a slightly quick pace but instead we had to pick up speed in order to even out the raft and regain a horizontal position on the surface of the water. But unlike at the pool, Noah’s weight, now around 100 lbs was not buoyed by the water, but instead being pushed and pulled by centrifugal force. And that’s not even considering how I needed to manage my own weight which as about twice his.

What seems critical now — now that we’ve survived this trip around the lake that I will never volunteer us for again — is an understanding of the handsignals. While my brother in law drove the boat, my sister in law kept an eye on Noah and me. But she was also, in addition to our safety, interested in us having a good time. And for most people, having a good time when being towed by a boat is to go fast. The handsignal to go faster is a thumbs up. I assumed a thumbs up was an agreement that we were, at the speed we were at, in the current situation which really felt like a bad situation by the time we were too far to turn back, doing ok. So every time she gave us a thumbs up, I gave her one back. Which translated into, doing well, but let’s crank it up a notch. The faster we went the tighter I held on. (Again, science isn’t really my thing, so probably if I had relaxed, we’d never have been at a risk for being thrown off, but I couldn’t tell my brain in it’s panicked state that.) The faster we went, the more upright we could sit, but the more Noah slid into me until I thought we might get pushed off the side when the boat turned. And despite my stubbornness, and my inability to admit when I’m out of my depth, I eventually let go of the handhold long enough to drag a finger across my neck giving my most clear handsignal that I was done that I could.

Obviously we made it back to the dock. Noah and I played in the water a bit before we all went up to the house to bathe. My right forearm was so sore I could barely flex my wrist. My abs were so tired from trying to stablize us my ribs ached. As we walked to the house, Mark helping Noah navigate the steps, I admitted to all of my misconceptions and fears. He said, “Yep, that’s how I felt too.” Incredulous, I asked, “What? You’ve taken Noah tubing before?” “Last summer,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t want to do it again.” And of course I was put out. “Why didn’t you warn me?” I wanted to ask. But we were on dry land, safe, Noah had had an experience, and…I had been brave.

***

Tonight at my swim lesson, my trainer, Melissa, taught me how to do the breast stroke. For the past two weeks since I’d transferred to this new gym and requested a swim coach, we’ve worked on the basics of breathing while doing the freestyle (aka, that old American crawl.) The coordination of all of the elements it takes to swim freestyle laps correctly is still many of hours of practice away. I get it but I’m also easily distracted and when my mind wanders, so does my technique, and I either lose my bearings or end up with a mouthful of water. The reality of swimming is and always will be — unless you pay attention, you can choke or flounder or even drown.

My form while doing the breast stroke is ridiculously awkward, and I have to be careful not to laugh so as not to get water up my nose. The frog legs and the arm pull and then the “glide” … well, it’s easy to get off the beat like when Baby is first learning the merengue with Johnny in Dirty Dancing and she keeps stepping on his foot. But when I hit a groove for maybe five to ten yards, the exhalation of the breath underwater comes naturally to me and I’m hopeful that with practice I can not only complete an entire length of the pool while doing the breast stroke, but do it gracefully. Swimming feels like dance when you are doing it right. It’s effortful yet liberating.

But there is something else about swimming that distinguishes it from other physical activities. It’s the buoyancy of the water and the way you can speed up if only you relax. It’s the balance between tension and release. The years, they have begun to weigh on me. And I get tired sometimes of holding up my head and trying to draw breath. But I have learned, or at least I am learning, acceptance. I cannot change who Noah is, and to needlessly bang my head against the wall of our reality is futile. I cannot change anything about the past that led us here. And accepting him isn’t capitulation as I feared for so long. It just means you direct your energies in the right place instead of wasting your effort. Swimming is about maximizing your movements and not doing more than you have to. The more you push, the more rigid your body, the more rushed your motions. You simply have to work with the water, not against it.

When I explained to Melissa why, at 48, I wanted to take swimming lessons, despite being a “recreational” swimmer, I told her the story of tubing earlier in the year. That’s just one of the reasons, but I had certainly wondered as we banked through a turn and I thought Noah might go sliding into the water that I wasn’t sure how I might help him as we waited in the water for rescue. I also told her how my husband can no longer swim with my son, but my son still loves the water no matter how big he gets, and he needs me swim with him, not hang onto the edge. And I explained, maybe not in so many words, but in words that reference fitness and weight loss and non-impact exercise being good for aging joints, that I want to be in better control over my body. I wanted to learn to trust it. I wanted to stop being afraid.

To my surprise, the backstroke is the easiest of the swim strokes I’m learning, or re-learning. (The butterfly isn’t great on the shoulders at our age, Melissa tells me.) And it’s when I first launch back and float a few lengths of my body, before I begin to windmill my arms over my head and my feet flutterkick, that I began to think about Cindi and those days in the sun at the Northwood pool, my head leaning back against her shoulder, my back supported by her front, and her strong body smelling of cocoa butter gliding us as one along the water. In those seconds before she would let go of me and hope I could hold the position, I could believe I would one day learn to float. Over 40 years later, I no longer pike down into the water. I no longer fear I’ll fall. It helps, of course, that the lap pool only goes to 5 feet, so I’m never in danger of not being able to touch the ground. But I find I don’t want to feel the rough bottom of the pool beneath my feet. Actually, I find I don’t need to.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

This review and reflection originally appeared on my company’s In the Books site. This is an edited version. Go there to read this one in full, or for more of my awesome colleagues’ reviews.


Just because creativity is mystical doesn’t mean it shouldn’t also be demystified—especially if it means liberating artists from the confines of their own grandiosity, panic, and ego.

Here is the question that I think anyone who creates has had to come to terms with at some point in their lives: What is at stake?

For some people the answer is easy: Nothing. They create, put that creation out into the world without obsessing over it for too long, and the response to their creation matters not one whit. If people don’t like it, so be it. They simply feel the need to put their creation into the world, and they’ve succeeded just by doing so. (Cheers to those people!) For others, the answer is also easy: Everything. These are the people who create obsessively, or avoid creating obsessively, but ultimately the response to their creation is, again, unimportant. To them, the process is what’s important. (Response be damned!)

For most everyone else, the answer is complicated, and their relationship to their own creativity (or perceived lack thereof) is ambivalent at best. But Elizabeth Gilbert, in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear tells us there is nothing at stake unless you choose not to create, robbing yourself and the world of that which you would create. And no, she’s not going to let you get away with claiming that you just aren’t creative, because she believes that creativity is part of every person’s DNA.

If you’re alive, you’re a creative person. You and I and everyone you know are descended from tens of thousands of years of makers. Decorators, tinkerers, storytellers, dancers, explorers, fiddlers, drummers, builders, growers, problem-solvers, and embellishers—these are our common ancestors.

What is important about the above quotation is that being creative doesn’t have to be about writing stories, or painting pictures, or making birdhouses, or designing t-shirts. Creativity is also about styling your hair and choosing your tie. It’s about throw pillows and selfies. It’s about building a deer blind, it’s about making your own curtains, it’s about singing at the stoplight, its about helping your kids learn how to count using buttons and bobby pins. Because all of those things are creations. The act of making, in whatever small way, will help you access the hidden creative in you.

The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The courage to go on that hunt in the first place—that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one.

While I consider myself creative, my life doesn’t really feel enchanted by the process of creating. I struggle with fear on both sides of the creative gulf: I fear the results of the hard work itself will not meet my own expectations, and I fear that my hard work will not be received in a way that meets my own expectations. That fear gets in the way of my ability to create without (self)judgment. Gilbert reveals the key to resolving the fear—that shiny object—our inner magpie can’t help but find distracting: “I’m talking about living a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” So if there isn’t anything at stake in the act of creating besides satisfying curiosity? If you simply create (or make, if that’s a more comfortable word for you to embrace) because you do, because you want to see what you can make, then you have no expectations and failure becomes a nonstarter. Fear, to paraphrase Gilbert, will still come along for the ride, but it doesn’t get to drive.

***

I don’t consider myself to be a name-dropper—largely because I am too introverted to know my neighbors, let alone famous people—but I have met Elizabeth Gilbert several times. Now, before I get ahead of myself, I want to be clear: Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t know me at all. But she lives in the same town as my good friend, we have been to Gilbert’s import warehouse several times during which I have been introduced and reintroduced to Gilbert, and I wear a scarf that I bought there often during winter. I even have a picture of Gilbert when she graciously joined a commemorative group photo of my friends during our first visit. As one-sided as our acquaintance is, here is what I can tell you about “Liz” Gilbert: she likes my friend, whom I love very much, so she has good taste. And, more importantly, each time I have met her, she has been warm, friendly, accommodating, and completely… normal. Sure, she was portrayed by Julia Roberts in the movie based on her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, and she has traveled to exotic places and taken risks many of us only dream of taking, and she runs her own import shop, and she is considered to be one of Oprah Winfrey’s circle of influencers, but that’s not the person I met, however briefly. And it isn’t the person I think of when I read her work or wear that scarf.

The reason I am mentioning my passing acquaintance with Gilbert isn’t to say I have an “in” when it comes to interpreting her work, but to explain why I’ve felt compelled to read an inordinate amount about her work over the past, say, 7 years, and in doing so how I’ve been fascinated with how she and her work is perceived in a way that only someone we’ve met, no matter how briefly, bubbles up in our interests again and again. I’ve found myself—somewhat surprisingly because Eat, Pray, Love wasn’t a transformative read for me like it was for some people—in the position of Gilbert-defender.

Why, for Pete’s sake, would Elizabeth Gilbert need me to advocate for her? Well, she doesn’t (and I’ll get to that), but I find myself, more often than not when Elizabeth Gilbert comes up in conversation, even in our book-loving company, saying something to the effect: Elizabeth Gilbert isn’t Eat, Pray, Love. Or at least, she isn’t only Eat, Pray, Love. And she certainly isn’t what everyone thinks of Eat, Pray, Love, especially when its popularity soared and her life, as described in the book, became scrutinized and criticized as the story of “white American privilege appropriating foreign cultures” or a narcissistic ode to “First World Female Discontent.” Over the years, mention of Eat, Pray, Love, like so many other good things that receive backlash due to hyper-fandom, has taken its beatings, and as a nonfiction writer myself, I feel rather passionately about defending other writers who, through memoir, are telling a specific narrative and making choices about what parts of themselves they choose to share in that particularly storyline. The very thing that makes a memoir or personal essay good is the craft, and for any story to be good, the story has to be focused.

So, anyone who thinks they know the nonfiction writer really only knows the story she is choosing to tell. And Elizabeth Gilbert’s story about searching for herself via her travels to Italy, India, and Indonesia is effective for the very reason that she isn’t trying to tell a number of other stories about herself as well. No doubt Elizabeth Gilbert is many selves—including an effective, entertaining, and impassioned pursuer of a creative life, for herself and for us, with a deliberately stern opinion of criticism.

Imagine if I’d tried to create a definition of myself based on any of these reactions. I didn’t try. And that’s the only reason Eat, Pray, Love didn’t throw me off my path as a writer—because of my deep and lifelong conviction that the results of my work don’t have much to do with me. I can only be in charge of producing the work itself. That’s a hard enough job. I refuse to take on additional jobs, such as trying to police what anybody thinks about my work once it leaves my desk.

***

If I’m looking for enlightenment in regards to my own creative process, then the above quote is it. I’ve struggled with my preoccupation with the response to my creative work most of my life. In fact, my desire to control other people’s reaction to my work has hurt my productivity significantly for nearly 30 years. But still, I wonder how this is supposed to work. I mean, as a writer, I want to create something that is meant to communicate my inner self (whether it is my emotional self or my intellectual self) to an audience. And when I get a response that is out of line with that desire, then how is that not failure? How do I not fear that end result and allow it to ride roughshod over my willingness to broadcast my work? (Right now, I’m thinking: why do I insist on messing up a perfectly good book review with my own narcissistic navel-gazing? I mean, what will people think!?!) I mean, what’s NOT to dread about sharing our art? Isn’t that the whole point of being a tortured artist?

Well, Gilbert’s greater philosophy of Big Magic solves this question for us: “A different way is to cooperate fully, humbly, and joyfully with inspiration.” Let’s let her lovely and entertaining writing fill us in even more on how a change of perspective can change our relationship with our creative selves:

Inspiration, like any notion of the divine, settles onto us only when we are open to it. Inspiration is beyond our control, so we must stop trying so hard to wrangle it, to wrestle it into submission. Inspiration is not ours to own. Such thinking comes from a wretched allegiance to the notion of scarcity—from the belief that the world is a place of dearth, and that there will never be enough of anything to go around.

Some people may assume Gilbert is telling us to get down on our knees to pray or to cross our legs to meditate in hopes that inspiration will visit us. And while belief is a big part of Big Magic—she has a spiritual, even paranormal kind of relationship with creativity—Gilbert is clear: you must do the work. If you do the work, even the hard stuff that is not inspired, or is a struggle, or is a mess, eventually inspiration will descend, an idea will take root, and the work will take flight. But that ONLY happens when you put your nose to the grindstone.

Hoping for inspiration is hopeless; waiting for the good idea will leave you waiting a good long time. Walking toward inspiration through hard work is the only way you’ll get close to the thing. But what happens if no one else approves of what you do? What if no one likes it? And is that truly fear of failure, or is it hubris? Gilbert doesn’t grant much quarter to either of those factors, because, she believes, creativity isn’t something that can be judged, by yourself or others. Essentially, if creativity is in our DNA, if we are creative, like it or not, there is no failure, there is no flattery, there is no fraternity; there is only fulfillment of your fate.

Look a little further back in your family’s history. Look at your grandparents: Odds are pretty good they were makers. No? Not yet? Keep looking back then. Go back further still. Look at your great-grandparents. Look at your ancestors. Go back far enough and you will find people who were not consumers, people who were not sitting around passively waiting for stuff to happen to them. You will find people who spent their lives making things. This is where you come from. This is where we all come from.

So really, none of us has anything invested in any kind of notion of success when it comes to our creativity. To bastardize Descartes (as so many have): I am, so I create. Instead of protecting our egos by keeping our art or our expression of our creative selves to ourselves, Gilbert encourages us to tap into a sense of creative entitlement. Because we are born creative, we have a right to create.

[C]reative entitlement simply means believing that you are actually allowed to be here, and that—merely by being here—you are allowed to have a voice and a vision of your own.

Since I was very young, I have kept a journal. When I was a little older, about 15, I started writing stories. And I was relentless. Granted they were a teenager’s version of Harlequin romances (if only I’d thought to add vampires in 1986!), but I wrote, by hand, on lined paper, a lot. In part, to escape what I regarded as the dreariness of growing up, often alone, on a farm and going to school in a small town; in part because life had already physically and emotionally beaten me up a bit, and the only way it made any sense was to write about it or write myself out of it. The only person who read my stories was my best friend, and luckily she and I were of like tastes (i.e., my writing was great). But my teachers knew I wanted to be a writer, and I still remember those moments of being validated, whether via a gold star, or a comment like the one I received from my English teacher in response to the serious, unsmiling me in my senior pictures: “There you look like Sally the Writer.” (One of the greatest compliments I’d received in my short life.) I considered not going to college in order to start my Writing Life immediately, but I wasn’t brave enough to strike out on my own, so I followed that best friend to college and I believe it was the most important choice I’ve ever made. In Big Magic, Gilbert is suspect of going to school to learn creativity, but for me, I learned at school the kind of writer I wanted to become: a respected one. Which, I suppose, was a double-edged sword. I wanted to be published.

Sure, I’d always wanted to be published, but now I had expectations. I wanted to be published in literary magazines, in anthologies, in collections, and of course, in my own books. Problem was: I couldn’t get down with the rejection part. Just one rejection indicated to me that my writing wasn’t yet good enough; not that I should have faith, as Gilbert believes, that my work would eventually find its rightful place in the world. Full stop.

So I opted for self-protection. I wouldn’t submit my work until it was good enough to be accepted. (Right: how on earth can you know your work is good enough to be accepted unless you send it somewhere? But I wasn’t thinking about that.) I expected perfection from myself. And I expected others to consider my work perfect for their specific purposes. I would write the perfect piece, pick the perfect outlet through which it should be published, and there would be no rejection. My commitment for actually doing the work waned, because who needs that kind of pressure each time you sit down to write? I became dependent on external affirmation to drive me, so obviously external criticism—”Your piece is not right for us at the current time”—stalled my efforts.

So let’s jump to the middle of the story: I stopped writing and I got a job. Luckily, I got a job that required me to write. I started reviewing business books and writing marketing copy, and figured it was enough. I’d become a writer—a professional writer—just like I’d always wanted, right? And a side effect of when your job is to write, and you’re on a schedule and someone is expecting you to generate words, you stop caring about perfection. Yes, you’re still trying to craft the best piece you can, but you aren’t waiting. You aren’t talking yourself out of doing the work. And since we didn’t accept comments on our book reviews, and all I really needed to do was press “publish” on our website in order to be published, I didn’t have to deal with rejection. Win-win for all of us, right? Except I still wanted what I wanted. I wanted to be published and read by the literati. I wanted my own work to make the cut. I wanted to be judged and come out the winner. And most of all, I wanted it to be my story, my style, my thoughts, my internal self, my experiences put in print, because I truly believed that I was a writer. That’s what I wanted, and yet I remained afraid to pursue a sort of multi-layered creative life that included both the professional and the personal.

I cannot even be bothered to think about the difference between high art and low art. I will fall asleep with my face in my dinner plate if someone starts discoursing to me about the academic distinction between true mastery and mere craft. I certainly don’t ever want to confidently announce that this person is destined to become an important artist, while that person should give it up.

But then life happened. In my case, since I had never birthed the Great American Novel/Novella/Collection, etc., and my job at that time had become somewhat rote, I decided to have a baby. The clock, it seemed to be ticking, and clearly I needed to devote my energies to creating something, and that something would be a child. (Funny how these decisions work: Gilbert set off on her exploration of self after deciding she did not want to have a child, while having a child has set me off on a parallel but very different journey.) I’d never been particularly kid or family-centric, but I figured I’d regret not having children more than I’d regret having them. It was the right choice at the right time. Of course, you don’t always get what you want, and my child was born with a neurological disorder, cause unknown, that is the root cause of his global developmental delays. For the past 10 years, I’ve been living a life I’d never have chosen for myself, because I would never have chosen this path for him. For the past 10 years, I’ve been trying to write my way through this uncharted territory, particularly the hard stuff, particularly the ugly stuff. For the most part, I wrote for myself. But being a writer still means wanting to be read. And while I shared some of my work with friends, and at times I’ve tried to craft that writing into something with a through line, and less often worked on a formal proposal for the kind of book my writing could become, the slightest hint of resistance or critique or even distaste (not everyone is comfortable with the confessional) made me retreat right back into my shell. Those 400 pages of writing? On a zip drive.

Until, life happened again. My husband was diagnosed with leukemia and, around the same time, I read Brene Brown’s Rising Strong. Completely unrelated, but the confluence of these events, my husband’s illness (and again, my need to write my way through it) and Brown’s message about vulnerability and bravery, made me realize that I finally didn’t give a damn about failing anymore. Brown writes: “Failure can become nourishment if we are willing to get curious, show up vulnerable and human, and put rising strong into practice.” And I decided to embrace the practice, or as Gilbert would say, “do the work,” and stop wanting something from my writing. Sure, I wanted to communicate with other people via my writing, and I still believed that living a writing life (i.e. a creative life) also included making my work public, but I no longer needed affirmation. I just needed to become a “maker” instead of worrying about being an “artist.”

The art—or rather, any external praise for my work as art—didn’t matter; the creative outlet did. The process did. No, the incarnation did. For the nth time in my life, I started a blog, but this time, I didn’t take it down one week or one month after beginning it. I didn’t pressure myself to craft my work, or to mimic other successful blogs, or engage with a readership, or post on other blogs in hopes of building up my stats. Instead, I just hit the “publish” button and put my creative work on the screen. This process has reinvigorated my love of writing that my previous perfectionism and preoccupation with the end result had smothered. It’s all out there for people to see if they want to see it, in whatever form—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, short form, prose poem, lyrical essay, rough draft, memoir, hybrid—my idea is inspired to take. Because it is the doing that matters. And in doing, not every piece I write or revise is going to be good or going to be “enough,” but occasionally I’ll bump right into [my version of] perfection without having tortured my way through the process or denied myself the moment it takes flight.

Just say what you want to say, then, and say it with all your heart.

And that, I believe, is what Elizabeth Gilbert is trying to convey in her theory of Big Magic. If you sit down at the computer and type the words, it isn’t all going to be glorious or glorified. But inspiration will come and find you if you sit there long enough. (Please feel free to extrapolate that to any creative activity you engage in: Gilbert’s example as she tours to support this book? Karaoke!)

Most of my writing life consists of nothing more than unglamorous, disciplined labor. I sit at my desk and I work like a farmer, and that’s how it gets done. Most of it is not fairy dust in the least.

Which is why fear is such a nonstarter for Gilbert, and she says, for you too. Leading a creative life isn’t about the drugs you take, the sleep you miss, the money you make, the tools you use, or the sacrifices you make. It’s about doing what you are doing when you make anything. How easy is that? If you tend a garden, you live a creative life. If you build a dog house, you are living a creative life. If you turn up the volume on the stereo and dance while you clean the house, you’re living a creative life. You are embodying and communicating that which inspires you. If you want more of it? If you wish to make it a practice and access those good feelings regularly, do more of it. Rent a plot of land and go hog-wild with your seeds and your dreams of starting your own salsa-making start-up; once you’ve mastered the dog house, maybe it’s time to buy more wood and build your own garage; Sign up for dance classes at your local studio, and who knows, maybe you’ll fall back in love with tap dancing in the way you’d loved it as a child. Gilbert reassures us that it is actually that simple.

That’s all. That’s what I call creative living. And while the paths and outcomes of creative living will vary wildly from person to person, I can guarantee you this: A creative life is an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life, and a hell of a lot more interesting life. Living in this manner—continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you—is a fine art, in and of itself.

So, to be ready for it, get yourself primed, welcome the idea, do the work, keep at even the uninspired stuff, keep at the stuff that garners you no affirmation or applause. And, ignore that voice that is editing you. Rethink the way you think about possibly failure, or even real failure.

No shame no despair—just a sense that it’s all very interesting. Like: Isn’t it funny how sometimes things work and other times they don’t? Sometimes I think that the difference between a tormented creative life and a tranquil creative life is nothing more than the difference between the word awful and the word interesting.

Right now, I love writing more than I have in a very long time, in the midst of the most chaotic time in my life. Why? Because the stakes have changed for me.

Perhaps I love it as much and as freely as I did when I was writing those terribly unoriginal full-of-teenage-angst romances when I was 15. And I don’t need to set a mood (or go all La Boheme, as Gilbert calls it) with isolation, booze, candle-light and mood-music to do it. (Not always true: as I write this, I’m listening to Deva Premal’s Dakshina because it seems fitting to fostering thoughts on creativity inspired by a woman who studied in India and imports Buddhas.) Instead, when my kid has gone to sleep, or maybe when I wake early and cannot sleep, I write something. And then I read it a couple times, fix a few things here and there, then decide whether it is worth putting up on my site, or whether it needs to simmer a bit longer as a draft, or whether it might never see the light of day because it wasn’t the right idea or execution to begin with. It matters because the writing is important to me; it doesn’t matter because the response is not as important to me.

But isn’t being creative supposed to be more painful or at least painstaking than this? I mean, I have suffered over my writing (or rather, loving writing, but hating revising because it felt like I was overworking the clay) for years! I have started any number of blogs. I have applied for residencies. I have attended workshops and writing festivals. I have tried to shape my writing into short story collections, into novels, into memoir. I have tried, tried, tried, thinking that someday everything would come together and make a cohesive thing, and only then, only when that thing was just right and everyone who read it would see that it was ready for birth, only then could I release it because it was finally finished. Totally wrong-headed thinking, says Gilbert.

Your creative work is not your baby; if anything, you are its baby. Everything I have written has brought me into being. Every project has matured me in a different way.

As cliche as it sounds, my husband’s illness has made me fully embrace that control is a facade and life is too short to worry about getting approval from some unknown critic. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in quality, or that I don’t want my writing to find a mate in the ether that is communion between two people, one who needs to say something and one who needs to hear it. And I’m certainly not claiming genius, perfection, or even proficiency. But what I have to say needs to be said before anyone can hear it. And maybe I need to say it in order to be able to say the next thing that needs to be said and so on and so forth. And maybe one of those things will be written just right, or maybe it won’t, but I’m thinking that the act of doing trumps a life of hesitation.

You do not need anybody’s permission to live a creative life.

As I write this, I’m feeling a little surprised in myself. I have, for many years, beaten myself up for my fear of failure. I’ve imagined myself as becoming one of the courageous, or at least one of the care-less, who writes for writing’s sake, and bombards publishers, agents, and editors with work until someone recognizes the brilliance. I’ve considered myself as having failed my dream because I am not that person. But applying Gilbert’s philosophy of creative living, I see that over the past 10 years I’ve been doing the work. I’ve been writing regularly for my company, and I’ve been writing regularly for my sanity. But I wasn’t ready to let go of my fear or my need for control until my husband’s illness convinced me that being vulnerable on the page isn’t much compared to being vulnerable in love and in life. Putting words on the page and clicking publish isn’t life or death. But it is living.