gail schimmel

The blog of writer Gail Schimmel: A bit of writing, a bit of parenting, a bit of thinking and some book reviews


The “Big Magic” of creativity

I have just read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic – a book about “creative living beyond fear”.

How I nearly didn’t read it

I nearly didn’t read it. I nearly didn’t read it for two reasons. The first is that my friend Vanessa had told me about the thing that she found the most compelling from Big Magic, which is that ideas are out there, looking for channels, and that we must make ourselves open to receive those ideas or they will move on to someone else. I didn’t like that notion one bit. I am not very mystical and I am not at all religious, and this struck me as very mystical and religious sort of thinking. Writers, I believe, work damn hard and really, that working hard is the pivot of creation. That sitting down every day and slogging at it, whether an idea lands on your shoulder or not. (As it turns out, Elizabeth Gilbert basically agrees with me on this.)

I also nearly didn’t read it because I did not like – or even finish – Eat, Pray, Love. I wasn’t sure if I could take more of Gilbert’s introspection.

But then I decided to read it

On the other hand, I passionately loved Gilbert’s Signature of All Things. I think it is a magnificent novel. If you scroll through the archives, you will find I even reviewed it – a thing I seldom get it together to do. The other reason that I decided to read it was that it was getting good reviews from other creative people. I am nothing, if not a sheep. So when Vanessa asked me what I wanted for my birthday, I asked her for Big Magic.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

It is full of different things

I think the magical thing about Big Magic (other than giving me a sudden need to use headings) is that it has lots of different but equally compelling ideas. And I think that depending on where our own personal struggle with creativity has been, we will find a particular idea more compelling. For Vanessa, the floating ideas were important. I grew to like them, but for me, there was a more important lesson (and many minor lessons that I will no doubt come back to).

Your creativity doesn’t have to be your day job

Gilbert basically says that it is unfair to place the burden of earning your crust on the shoulders of your creativity. She says it’s okay to have a day job.

For me, this is something I have struggled with as a writer who is actually a lawyer who is actually a writer.

My father was an artist. He did not have a day job. He did not understand people who had day jobs. It did not occur to him to have a day job. The closest he came to a day job was teaching a course in silkscreening and painting some paintings that he thought might have more mass appeal under nom-de-plume (or nom-de-brush). The fact that money was always an issue was not something that worried him. “We eat. Don’t we?” he said – because as a child of wartime Amsterdam he thought that this was a pretty great achievement in terms of comfort. Which it is, but mostly we ate because my mother had a job.

And then modern thinking on the subject says, “Follow Your North Star And The Money Will Follow”. And that has driven me mad. Should I stop lawyering to write full time, safe in the knowledge that the money will follow? Bearing in mind that the most I have ever made in one royalty check takes me a week of lawyering (part time) to make? Is it in fact my own fault that I don’t make more money from writing because I fail to “trust the process”? That’s what a lot of modern self help thinking is telling me.

Elizabeth Gilbert has given me permission to reject that for the crap it is. I like my comfortable lifestyle and I like sending our children to the best schools and until fate intervenes and makes my writing more lucrative, I will love my ability to earn my money alongside my need to create. And for that permission, and many others, I thank Ms Gilbert from the depth of my heart.

If you’re a bit creative – and we all are – have a read of this book. Probably my lesson is not yours. Probably yours is better. Open yourself up to it by giving Big Magic a read.





Reading – it’s not a competition

I have been playing with the idea of, this year, keeping track of what I read in some way. I thought of blogging a review of every book – but there are two problems with that – the first being that I don’t like giving negative reviews. Being a writer is hard and if someone hates my books, I would rather they shut up about it, so I do the same for others. Also, of I blog a review of every book I read, there’s going to be a lot of blog posts that say very little. Not sure how many times people want to read, “Oh that was a good book”.

On twitter, I came across a conversation about tracking reading. Some people use Goodreads, and some people keep a written list and some people use spread sheets. My gut reaction, which I tweeted, was that reading is for pleasure and it’s not a competition – so why track it? I mean after all, what are we going to do next? Keep a spread sheet of how often we had sex, in what position and how good it was? (Listen, if you already do this, you’ve got a problem, okay? Just quietly close this blog and make an appointment with a therapist. . .)

Then there’s the competitive thing. I am really, really competitive about reaching targets, so I would get all obsessed about numbers. I’d compete with myself (and according to twitter, other people do this too) and try to out-read previous months. And I would panic if I had a reading slump – although for a reading addict like me I think that it might actually be quite healthy to sometimes go a few days fully engaged in real life.

So I’ve compromised in my own mind. I am going to try to be better about noting and sharing the good reads of my year as they happen – either here, or on The Good Book Appreciation Society over at Facebook, or on Twitter.

So I will quickly tell you that I read Diane Chamberlain’s Silent Sister yesterday and it was such a rollicking read that I finished it in the day. She is an under-rated writer here in SA and few people have heard of her. But her books are always gripping reads in the style of Jodi Piccoult. They are sometimes a bit predictable – none of the twists in Silent Sister caught me by surprise – but it’s so well written and well-paced that you don’t really mind. And she has a wonderful long list of books so once you discover her, you have a whole list of books to add to your To Be Read list. For me, she is the perfect anecdote to those days you need a good read that is not too taxing but is also not marshmallow for the brain. I will remember her as the answer in my reading slumps this year!

Do you keep track of your reading? And does it make you feel good, or does it make what should be a joy into yet another task?





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Scarred by Joanne Macgregor

A funny side effect of being a writer is making friends with other writers. It’s funny because now you have to read their work – and when you have become friends with them BEFORE you read their work, this can be nerve wracking. What if you HATE the writing of a beloved writer-friend?

So it was with some trepidation that I started reading Joanne Macgregor’s Young Adult novel, Scarred. Not only am I friends with Joanne, but I am also not a big fan of YA. This may be because my reading experience of the genre is narrow, and I have had some unlucky bad reads that put me off. So I started reading with some level of nervousness.

But Scarred gripped me from the word go. I basically read it overnight.

It is the story of Sloane Munster, a 17 year old girl who was badly scarred in a car accident. Sloane starts at a new school – only to discover that a boy she knew from “before” is at the school, and seems to be repulsed and angered by her scarred face.

Joanne is a psychologist, and this book is about people in challenging psychological states. As we unwrap the mystery of what happened to Sloane and the parallel mystery of why Luke hates her, we unravel the psychology of loss and blame. And there is nothing childish about the language or the story – the emotions and the plot are equally gripping for teens and adults.

I recommend this book to anyone wanting a quick, gripping read. But mostly. I recommend it to people with teens who are a bit reluctant to read. . . this book will catch them and hold them and they will be asking for more.

And I am asking for more too, please, Joanne.


A To Be Read List

In February 2014 I blogged a list of books that I had enjoyed recently. And I imagined doing it about every six months, just to keep you with a long To Be Read List.

Well here we are in July 2015, and I haven’t done that. So I am going to do you a list now, because people often ask me for book recommendations. It’s certainly not everything I have read since February 2014 – I read at least two books a week so that would be a looooooong list. And I only tell you about the good ones. So I am dividing this list, as before, into “Slightly lighter” and “Slightly heavier” – and reminding you again that this is a very fine line because I don’t read very, very light books, and I certainly don’t read very literary heavy books. Mostly, if I were you, I’d ignore the headings!!

There is no particular order because I will work off my kindle and then try to remember good book club reads.

A bit lighter

The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer (This is my most recent read – yes, yes, yes!)

The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell

The Girls – Lisa Jewell (anything by her is wonderful)

In the Unlikely Event – Judy Blume (and “Summer Sisters”)

That Girl from Nowhere – Dorothy Kroomson

This is Where I Leave You – Jonathan Tropper (new discovery, this author. I have read all his books now. All great)

The Last Road Trip – Gareth Crocker

Aren’t We Sisters? – Patricia Ferguson

Both Robert Galbraith’s – surprised how much I loved these.

First Frost – Sarah Addison Allen

Elizabeth is Missing – Emily Healey

The Photographer’s Wife – Nick Alexander

The Woman Who Stole My Life – Marian Keyes

Leaving Time – Jodi Piccoult

Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

Anything and everything by Liane Moriarty

Daughter – Jane Shemilt

The Silver Star – Jeannette Walls

Funny Girl – Nick Hornby

Time and Time Again – Ben Elton

A bit heavier

Sister Noon – Karen Joy Fowler

Our Souls at Night – Kent Haruf (you must read ALL his books)

Fourth of July Creek – Smith Henderson

The Life of a Banana – PP Wong

One Day – David Nicholls (And also “Us”)

Snakewoman of Little Egypt – Robert Hellenga (all his are good)

Villa America – Liza Klaussmann (and her first book – Tigers in Red Weather)

The Keeper – Marguerite Poland

Remember – these area ll books I loved. So let me know if you agree. Happy reading.

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Reading the Bailey’s Prize List

I have a love/hate relationship with longlists for book prizes. On one hand, I like reading according to some sort of programme and having a clear idea of what I should read next. (Unlike many people, I read too fast to accumulate a long To Be Read list.) But the problem with longlists is that I am basically the kiss of death for the potential prize winner. If I can love the book, the writer won’t win. If I quite liked the book, the writer won’t win. If I hated the book, or better yet, could not finish it, that’s the winner. Let me be clear – this is a reflection on my inferior intellect – not on the books or the prizes. If I don’t like the book, you are probably cleverer than me, and might get it.

So. The Bailey’s Prize Longlist. We won’t get into the politics of this prize, okay? I am not really clear on what I think about that – I can see both sides. If you have no idea what I am talking about, I’m sure google will help you out. When it comes to the books, on the whole, I like the Bailey’s choice more than most, but if I remember correctly the winner last year was the ONE I couldn’t read.

Now lets look at this year – you will find the longlist here:

So far, I have read or tried a number this year – mostly without realising that they were on the list. Here are my thoughts so far.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey is just simply amazing – an exploration of Alzheimers that takes you right into the mind of the sufferer so incredibly cleverly. I loved this book, so it won’t win.

The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neil. I loved the beginning of this book about dysfunctional twins (what’s not to love) but it slightly lost pace for me in the middle. Still, I would recommend it, so it probably won’t win.

Ali Smith’s How To Be Both has a great chance because I couldn’t get into it. At all. I also couldn’t get into Ann Tyler’s A Spool of Blue thread but I love her writing so I think this might have been a timing thing, and I plan to try again.

The Paying Guest by Sarah Waters is fabulous – I actually hate historical novels on the most part, but often it is the exceptions that prove the rule. This book is filled with historical and personal interest, and an insight into the politics of gay women at a particular point in history. Loved – so it has no chance.

And the one that I read recently is PP Wong’s The Life of a Banana – the story of a Chinese girl who is born and bred in England. When her beloved mother dies, she enters a life of unknown luxury, but also unknown discrimination. This book is such a perfect coming-of-age novel that you could read it again and again. I would give this one the prize (so far). But it’s not me who decides.

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The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

This fantasy tale about amnesiac Arthurian knights and a couple in search of their son would not be my usual choice of book. But I will read anything that Kazuo Ishiguro writes. I would read his shopping list. I would read his descriptions of his bowel movements. You get the picture. I even read his huge book The Unconsoled without understanding the plot for more than 5 out of 50 pages. But he writes so beautifully that I don’t care. And most of the time I can follow him beautifully and his plots are as good as his writing.

As I said, this is not my usual genre, but I imagine that it follows many of the conventions of the genre. I loved the characters and was intrigued by the main characters – Axl and Beatrice – and their memory loss. When they encounter Sir Gawain on their quest to find their son, we realise that Axl may be more than a doddering old man. There are knights and dragons and crazy monks and a battle and a poisoned goat. I read it – gripped – to the end.

It is not my favourite Ishiguro (Remains of the Day still gets that prize) but he never fails to deliver. And as I read, I remembered a childhood obsession with King Arthur and Merlin, and was briefly taken back to that time.

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What Should I Read?

When I started this blog I meant to write a review of every book that I read and enjoyed, which would have given you a really nice set of reviews and me a very busy blog. What happens in reality is that I finish a book and then start a new one and then forget the old one, or think that I’ll review them later or together or who-knows-what-I-think.

So this is not a book review – this is a list of books from about the last year (I finished The Newlyweds yesterday) that I have REALLY loved. There are others that I have forgotten (I am working off my kindle list so the books I read through bookclub will probably not be remembered) and there are lots of books that were “okay”.

I’m dividing the list into two – although they are so close it is hard to distinguish – but there is a slightly more literary list, and a slightly lighter list. But nothing that I love is unbearably literary, and while I enjoy some light, light reads, the real light-weight books are unlikely to make my really loved list.

A bit more literary list, or heavier subject matter:
The Invention of Wings – Sue Monk Kidd
The Valley of Amazement – Amy Tan
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
We Are Water – Wally Lamb
Five Star Billionaire – Tash Aw
A Fraction of the Whole – Steve Toltz
Maya’s Notebook – Isabel Allende
Big Brother – Lionel Shriver
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
The Last Runaway – Tracy Chevalier

Slightly lighter list:The Newlyweds – Nell Freudenberger
The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
The Flavours of Love – Dorothy Koomson
Tigers in Red Weather – Liza Klaussman
Heartbreak Hotel – Deborah Moggach
The Interestings – Meg Wollitzer
Where’d You Go Bernadette – Maria Semple
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman – Eve Harris
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls – Anton Disclafani
May We Be Forgiven – A M Homes
Sisterland – Curtis Sittenfeld
The Fever Tree – Jennifer McVeigh
Instructions for a Heatwave – Maggie O’Farrell