Tristram Shandy Chimes In - Persistence

Big magic: creative living beyond fear - Elizabeth Gilbert 2015

Tristram Shandy Chimes In

Also, try to present yourself to your creativity as if you are sexy—as if you are somebody worth spending time with. I’ve always taken delight on this point from the novel Tristram Shandy, written by Laurence Sterne, eighteenth-century British essayist, novelist, and general man about town. In the novel, Tristram presents what I see as a marvelous cure for writer’s block—to dress up in his finest regalia and act all princely, thus attracting ideas and inspiration to his side on account of his fabulous ensemble.

Specifically, here’s what Tristram claims he would do when he was feeling “stupid” and blocked, and when his thoughts would “rise heavy and pass gummous through [his] pen.” Instead of sitting there in a funk, staring hopelessly at the empty page, he would leap from the chair, get a fresh razor, and give himself a nice clean shave. (“How Homer could write with so long a beard I don’t know.”) After that, he would engage in this elaborate transformation: “I change my shirt—put on a better coat—send for my last wig—put my topaz ring upon my finger; and in a word, dress myself from one end to the other of me, after my best fashion.”

Thus decked out to the nines, Tristram would strut around the room, presenting himself to the universe of creativity as appealingly as possible—looking every inch like a dashing suitor and a confident fellow. A charming trick, but best of all, it actually worked. As he explained: “A man cannot dress, but his ideas get cloth’d at the same time; and if he dresses like a gentleman, every one of them stands presented to his imagination.”

I suggest that you try this trick at home.

I’ve done this myself sometimes, when I’m feeling particularly sluggish and useless, and when I feel like my creativity is hiding from me. I’ll go look at myself in the mirror and say firmly, “Why wouldn’t creativity hide from you, Gilbert? Look at yourself!”

Then I clean myself up. I take that goddamn scrunchie out of my greasy hair. I get out of those stale pajamas and take a shower. I shave—not my beard, but at least my legs. I put on some decent clothes. I brush my teeth, I wash my face. I put on lipstick—and I never wear lipstick. I clear my desk of its clutter, throw open a window, and maybe even light a scented candle. I might even put on perfume, for God’s sake. I don’t even put on perfume to go out to dinner, but I will put on perfume in an attempt to seduce creativity back to my side. (Coco Chanel: “A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future.”)

I always try to remind myself that I am having an affair with my creativity, and I make an effort to present myself to inspiration like somebody you might actually want to have an affair with—not like someone who’s been wearing her husband’s underwear around the house all week because she has totally given up. I put myself together from head to toe (“from one end to the other of me,” in Tristram Shandy’s words) and then I get back to my task. It works every time. Honest to God, if I had a freshly powdered eighteenth-century wig like Tristram’s, I would wear it sometimes.

“Fake it till you make it” is the trick.

“Dress for the novel you want to write” is another way of saying it.

Seduce the Big Magic and it will always come back to you—the same way a raven is captivated by a shiny, spinning thing.