How to Write Like Elizabeth Gilbert

I'm thinking too hard about this post already. Steady! Breathe! Okay.

What does it mean when I say that I want to write like Elizabeth Gilbert?

As a caveat, I should perhaps note that this is hardly the first time that I have taken another writer as my model. Indeed, one could easily chart my life as a writer as a series of efforts at awestruck imitation: Anne Frank, whom I took as my model when I was 12 or 13 and had just started keeping my diary; Anaïs Nin, another diarist, whom I idolized in my early years in graduate school, at least until I got to Henry and June; my graduate advisor, Caroline Walker Bynum, whom it is hardly a secret I worshiped and so desperately wanted to be (I wasn't alone); A.S. Byatt, whose descriptive prose is possibly the most exquisite thing ever written in English, even if I do find her characters somewhat depressing; Elaine Scarry, who somehow manages to write the most complicated philosophical arguments using extraordinarily plain vocabulary, while at the same time never giving a hint about where her ideas are coming from or whom else she has read; Barbara Newman, whose scholarship manages to be both beautifully written and impeccably grounded. If I could write like anyone else as a scholar right now, it would be she (hi, Barbara!).

So it really isn't as if I've been writing as Rachel Fulton all these years and now suddenly have lost my voice. Rather, Rachel Fulton (now, Rachel Fulton Brown) is an apprenticed amalgam of a number of influences, which, quite frankly, is probably as it should be. As Carla Speed McNeill put it in her inimitable dialogue, via the character of Jaeger, who is chastising Magri White for his angst over where he gets his ideas: "The solution to your problem is simple. Scared somebody will find out you get your best ideas from other people's work? That you're not the god of originality they say you are? Scared somebody'll find out you're a big fucking liar and a fake? Well, get this, fucktard. EVERYBODY FEELS THAT WAY." So, no, I'm not going to apologize for wanting to learn from Gilbert or trying to figure out how she does what she does so well. That is the way artists and writers and, yes, academics learn. So much, indeed, for our much vaunted "originality."

End of caveat.

Once again, Luo has put the dilemma that I am caught within particularly well: "I have been thinking that being a scholar, or more precisely an 'intellectual,' may be the most self-afflicting thing in the world. 'To be' a scholar is to step into an existential status, but the very act of intellectual reasoning must be a gaze from outside. So, 'being a scholar' seems by definition ironic, because it is stepping into an experience that always requires the the very act of stepping out." That's it: I'm sick of the irony. I'm sick of having to write as if everything I say, particularly about religion, particularly about Christianity and faith, has to have scare quotes around it, lest I suggest that there is somehow a content worth inhabiting in what I study as a scholar.

Luo suggests that all scholars face this dilemma, but I wonder. Certainly, the economists at my university are hardly shy about suggesting that what they study has real-world applications or that, heaven forbid, they might even be (gasp!) right. Likewise the researchers in medicine or business or law. Surely they don't expect to have to distance themselves from their own beliefs in order to be able to say something "scholarly." I am thinking here, for example, of yet another of my oh-so-famous colleagues, Martha Nussbaum (whose writing fascinates me, but is not something on which I'd really like to model my own): in the course of her career, she has gone from writing about such abstruse and "academic" problems as Aristotle and the motion of animals to making major claims about the way in which the greater part of humanity should live, hardly an ironic position to take, unless she's just pretending to believe in her philosophical arguments.

And yet, as an historian, worse, as an historian of religion, this is exactly what I am (I think) required to do: gaze only from the outside, never make a claim that what I am thinking about as a scholar might have any applicability to humanity generally or even to a small segment of humanity in the present-day (except with great caution and with due regard for the perils of anachronism). My colleague Constantin Fasolt would say this is as it should be: historians are the new priesthood, we protect modernity from the contamination of the past. That is, we ensure that no one feel constrained by tradition or required to behave or believe in any particular way simply because his or her ancestors did. Which is fine, as long as we realize that this was always the case with "tradition": "traditions" are not something that exist outside of ourselves, but only insofar as each of us individually chooses to reproduce them. Yes, of course, fighting our parents over how to celebrate Christmas or whether to go to church is painful, but it is not "tradition" that is constraining us. It is our feelings for our parents and our respect for what they believe.

Which is, perhaps, the very problem that I am facing now. I don't want to upset or offend people with what I say, but it is a practical and persistent peril, given the subject that I teach. Heaven forbid (quite literally) that I profess in the classroom or in my academic work that Christianity gives a true account of reality. Imagine trying to teach, I don't know, law or biology this way. "No, Billy, the Constitution is not the actual basis for our government, we are just reading this document as if it were." "No, Ellie, cells don't really make up our bodies; we are just pretending that they do for the sake of argument." Okay, so some science does depend on positing such unprovable hypotheticals, but nobody gets offended if one pretends that high-energy particles behave in such-and-such a way. Or do they? And I thought I was going to be writing about the problem of voice and whether I use the first-person pronoun singular.

Something that Elizabeth Gilbert does that I would like to feel able to do is bring real, living people into her narrative. Perhaps I should. Strangers to whom I describe my work often ask whether, in studying prayer, I talk with people now who observe such practices. But wouldn't that make me an anthropologist, rather than an historian? Not that being an anthropologist would necessarily be a bad thing, but neither would it solve the problem of scholarly irony. If anything, anthropologists are habitually even more ironic than historians in their accounts of other people's beliefs. Shoot, the anthropologists wrote the book on ironic detachment (at least, I'm pretty sure they did; it might have been a medieval historian): "Describe others' beliefs as if they were true, but never yourself 'go native,' or you'll lose your scholarly credibility."

So what do I mean when I say that I would like to write like Elizabeth Gilbert? For starters, I think I mean that I would like my writing to be as vivid and engaging as hers most certainly is. She is truly a gifted storyteller, bringing experiences and conversations to life in a way that novelists typically do, while at the same time making sure that the characters (a.k.a. real people) in her stories appear as real people, not caricatures set up to make this or that point. Historians (unless they are emulating Thucydides) typically refrain from putting words in our characters' (a.k.a historical subjects') mouths. If they didn't write it down, we can't say they said it. Which rather limits our ability to describe their everyday conversations. But what if I actually interviewed people about, say, their experiences of prayer? Couldn't I write about that conversationally?

But it's not just people Gilbert interviewed that she includes in her stories; it's also her family and friends. I'm not sure my family and friends are up for becoming characters in anybody's story, much less Fencing Bear's. The point is, Gilbert writes about her interactions with other people. What she says is not, as is so much of what I've written about here, confined more or less to her own head and whatever reading she's done. Lucky her, she's an extrovert. She makes friends easily, pretty much with everybody she interviews (e.g "my friend the Hmong grandmother," whom she knew for about half-a-day). Which means that she is never simply interviewing people for information, as might a scholar. She is trying to learn who they are and to make herself, if only momentarily, significant in their lives ("become friends"). Is that what I want? Simply not to feel so alone? No, I'm an introvert. I like living in my own head (for the most part). I get not energized, but stressed by having to interact with others. Yet another reason to be an historian rather than an anthropologist, I suppose.

I'm dancing around the question here, too nervous to tackle the thing that is really cathecting me. Elizabeth Gilbert gets to be funny and conversational. She doesn't have to footnote anything, although she is very good about crediting the scholars whom she has read. Above all, she gets to write about what she thinks and feels and believes. But, then, of course, so do I as Fencing Bear, if not as Prof. Fulton Brown. But why not? Now I sound like one of my students, begging to be allowed to say what I want to say when (as I always tell my students) nobody's stopping me. Except, ironically enough, my respect for tradition. My respect for my "field" and for the way other scholars have written about the subjects that I want to explore. Plus, of course, the problem of peer review: other scholars really have tried to silence me, make me take certain claims out of my exposition, told me "you can't say this or that" as an historian, insisted that I make my engagement less personal.

So why don't I just sod the scholars and write for somebody else? You, my blog readers, for instance. Because...I'm afraid? Okay, of what? I'm afraid that I don't have the intellect or insight or wisdom to make claims about what is good for anybody else, never mind the whole of humanity (as Prof. Nussbaum seems to be able to do). I'm afraid I don't have the intellect or insight or talent to make beautiful engaging prose (like A.S. Byatt). I'm afraid I don't have the intellect or insight or stamina to craft structures of understanding as Elaine Scarry might. I'm afraid that I don't know the material of my own field well enough to describe it as well as Barbara Newman does. I'm afraid that even after decades of trying to imitate her, I don't have the ability to put my finger on the big questions in the way that Caroline Bynum consistently does. I'm afraid that my life will never be exciting enough to make it worth writing about, as Anaïs Nin made sure that hers was. I'm afraid to be as open about my experiences as Elizabeth Gilbert has been; plus, even if I were, I very much doubt whether I would be able to write about them with as much insight and generosity and compassion as Gilbert.

Or is it just that I'm lazy and looking for an easy way out? Gilbert notes in Committed her surprise at the reception of Eat, Pray, Love: "...people ask me all the time now whether I saw any of this coming. They want to know if, as I was writing Eat, Pray, Love, I had somehow anticipated how big it would become. No. There was no way in the world I could possibly have predicted or planned for such an overwhelming response. If anything," and here's where I really need to listen carefully, "I'd been hoping as I wrote the book that I'd be forgiven for writing a memoir at all." Like Prof. Fulton Brown, Gilbert had readers expecting her to write something else, in her case, "tough-minded stories about manly men doing manly things," not "a rather emotional first-person chronicle about a divorced woman's quest for psychospiritual healing. I hoped," she confesses, "they would be generous understand that I had needed to write that book for my own personal reasons, and maybe everyone would let it slide, and then we could all move on."

The lesson here? Clearly, write what is crying out to be written, and don't worry about pleasing everyone. So what is it that I need to write, other than--clearly, because I keep coming back to it--this blog? That's really where I'm stuck. Everything that I can think of writing, even in a not-so-academic-mode-as-before, feels contrived. Not what I really most need to write. Nothing is as pressing as the things that I explore here, although I can think of things that I would like to write. A meditation on the psalter of the Virgin Mary, for example. Or a memoir of my experiences learning to fence. Maybe something about the lessons that one can learn from playing with one's dog. Or a translation of John of Garland's Epithalamium beate Marie virgine, with commentary and appropriate aesthetic response. So why don't I just pick a project and start? Because all of these projects feel fake, something one might pitch to an editor, too tidy, too pre-packaged, too dull. Whereas, with the blog, I never know quite where it's going to take me, which I like.

One of the things that struck me in reading Committed this weekend was how immediate Gilbert was able to make her dilemma about marriage, when in fact, by the time she was writing, she was already married and settled in her new home. Historian that I am, I don't like revisiting old arguments that I've had with myself very much; I much prefer to be writing from where I am now. My husband has observed this in me: once I've solved a problem for myself, it's boring. I want to move on. I can rethink how I got to this or that conclusion, but the urgency is missing if it's not the problem with which I am wrestling now. Give me a problem, and I will wrestle with it indefinitely (more or less), read whole shelves of books on the question and write lots of blog posts,
until I have come to what feels like some understanding of it. But once I have thought it through, particularly if I have thought it through in writing, I am, as Fasolt suggests history enables us to be, free of it.

Which is why blogging is so great: I come to the page (or, as it were, the screen) with something that is bothering me and then write until it lets go, at which point, I post, now free to be able to go obsess about something else. Yes, I do read over my posts for typos and infelicities of style, but I don't have to rewrite them. Indeed, the etiquette of blogging would insist that I don't. Am I, therefore, doomed by my temperament to produce nothing but ephemera? No, no, that can't be right. And yet, how else do I reproduce this feeling of urgency in order to write something more sustained? (Without, that is, the pressure of writing for tenure, clearly a boon for someone like me.) Ha. I want to be Tolkien, rewriting until the thing is perfect, but I'm actually more like Lewis, who basically never even proofread and barely ever rewrote.

Good. I've learned something here. Now how on earth do I take this insight and turn it into something more like a book?


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