On setting boundaries as a female writer

Advice from author Elizabeth Gilbert at the 2022 Bendigo Writers’ Festival

Are you a female writer who struggles to find time to write?

At the Bendigo Writers’ Festival this week, Eat Pray Love author Elizabeth Gilbert (interviewed from New York via zoom by Claire Flanagan-Smith)  spoke of her own struggle to break free of expectation in order to live a life that protects her health and creativity.  

The discussion was prompted by an audience question about whether women can “say ‘no’ too much”.

The answer, of course, was no. Women need to say no more often and set limits in order to protect their creative time.

“I have to be honest about my limitations ,” she said.

Her approach is to tell people, “I understand why you want that from me, but I can’t give you that right now.

 “I cannot prioritise what everyone wants me to prioritise and still hear the voice that only I can hear.”

It makes sense – to anyone without children or other dependents. As all mothers know, raising children is a creative project in itself. Personal creativity has to be fitted around that – or after.  

Gilbert has been frank about her own decision not to have children. In a 2014 interview with Oprah, she famously identified three types of women: “There are those born to be mothers; those born to be aunties, and there are women who shouldn’t be allowed within 10 feet of a child. And it’s very important you figure out which of those camps you belong in, because tragedy and sorrow results from ending up in the wrong category,” she warned.  (Gilbert belongs to the “auntie camp”, as does Oprah.)

My own view is that setting limits is difficult for most women, not because they aren’t assertive enough, but because they understand that behind the decision NOT to take responsibility for something or someone is the assumption that someone else WILL.

Setting personal limits means having the courage to accept the consequences if others don’t step up. Sadly, that cannot always be guaranteed.

Gilbert acknowledged that she spoke from a position of privilege: she has a room of her own, success, income and the solitude to allow the mystical collaborators, as she calls her muses, to visit whenever they choose.

But “privilege” these days is a loaded word that comes with the assumption of luck and the whiff of the undeserved.

As any writer knows, even when you are able to set limits, success still requires 10 per cent talent, 90 per cent hard work, and the courage to try – and fail.

Here’s some more great writing advice from Elizabeth Gilbert, as told to the eager audience at the Bendigo Writers’ Festival on Saturday 14 May 2022:

Find your sacred writing time

“Find what time of the day your brain works best. Mine is between 6am and 10am.

Find your sacred writing time and defend it with your life.”

Clarity is vital

 “I don’t want the writing to interfere with the work. When you open the book and read the first sentence. I want you to relax.”

Gilbert says that with Dickens, for example, the feeling is that the reader is in good hands and that they are going on a wonderful adventure together.

Know when to let the story take over

“My weakness, and the most difficult part, is figuring out what the book is about.”

For Gilbert, setting and time come first, followed by the who – or character.

She usually makes a detailed outline. Sometimes she uses notecards – and she can spend years on research.

But even a plotter can get to the point when the story has to take over.

“There are parts of the book you can’t know till you get there.”

Don’t worry about writer’s block

“The way it feels to me, is that creativity has sentience. They are living forms that circle the world looking for human collaborators to bring them into being. But that’s just the start. You have to show up and commit.”

But what happens when the mystical collaborators don’t show up?

Relax.

“In due time, you’ll be notified.”

Roe vs Wade: the battle to control women’s desire

Elizabeth Gilbert’s most recent book is At Home on the Range (2022), a cook book first published by her feisty great-grandmother Margaret Yardley Potter in 1947, and revived and celebrated by Gilbert.

But it was her 2019 book City of Girls, pictured below, that she spoke about at the festival. City of Girls is a novel “celebrating female desire – not just for sex but for life ” – championing the lives of a group of women in New York in the 1940s who, in the absence of the men who had been called to war, suddenly and briefly found themselves with jobs, income and personal autonomy.

The recent threat to Roe Vs. Wade in the USA was “a battle for control over women’s desire”, Gilbert said.


For more about Elizabeth Gilbert:

A day for mothers – not “special persons”

A celebration of mothers – not “special persons”.
Cover illustration: A Celebration of Babies, edited by Sally Emerson

On the second Sunday in May, the daycare centre that my 20-month-old grandson attends presented his mother with a card: Happy Special Person’s Day!

When the centre first invited her to attend a celebration of Special Person’s Day the previous week, she had assumed it was for people with special needs.

It hadn’t occurred to her that it meant mothers – or people performing a mothering role.

Such is the power of language to affirm or erase.

We in Australia learned this in 2017 from the campaign for marriage equality, which replaced the cruel and pejorative terms aimed at the LBGTIQA community with the words “equality” and “love is love”. 

As a result, people who had previously condemned same-sex marriage, now understood. In the acceptance of marriage equality something was gained. 

But in accepting Special Person’s Day instead of Mother’s Day, something is lost.

There may be many special people in a child’s life: aunts, uncles, teachers, carers, mentors, but they are not always mothers.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a mother may be defined as “the female parent of a human being; a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth; (also, in extended use) a woman who undertakes the  responsibilities of a parent towards a child, esp. a stepmother”.

As the dictionary notes, there are many different types of mothers – birth or biological mothers, surrogate mothers, foster mothers and adoptive mothers – who all share the profound, life giving and life-changing experience of mothering.

The word “mother” describes not just a person but an experience.  A mother is not just a special person, she is someone who mothers.

Regardless of how one comes to motherhood, it is a title that is earned – and hard won –  just as the day named in honour of mothers was hard won. It took its founder Anna Jarvis years to win recognition for a national holiday honouring the sacrifice of mothers for their children and more years to fight the commercialisation that resulted.

As the best-selling novel The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams so eloquently reminds us, women’s experiences have historically been denied in so many ways, and often with words.

Perhaps it was not the intention of my grandson’s daycare centre to take away that power, but in the desire to be inclusive, we must take care not to erase the experiences of those who have already historically been excluded in so many ways.

Flowers and cards are lovely, but words are powerful and when they are used to affirm and empower they are the greatest gift of all.

Small independent theatre – the keeper of dreams

Carolyn Bock, as Catherine, in the e-baby 2015 premiere at Chapel Off Chapel, with direction and dramaturgy by Anna McCrossin-Owen.

The sum was 314 pounds – 314 pounds of hope.

That was the modest distribution sum I received this quarter from publishing and licensing agent David Waters at Stagescripts in London, which licences my play e-baby for productions in Europe and the USA.

It was a delightful surprise. I had thought that Talking Horse Productions the small production company in Columbia, Missouri, which had applied to produce e-baby during Covid-19, had been defeated by the virus.

But no, Talking Horse (https://www.talkinghorseproductions.org/ – like many small independent theatre companies – remains optimistic, if not for 2021, then later.

So does Les Antonietes Teatre in Barcelona, Spain (http://www.lesantonietesteatre.com/).  Les Antoinetes has secured the rights to e-baby for five years in the hope that it may be produced post Covid. Their plan is to translate the play into Catalan and tour the Catalan territories. If that’s successful, it will be translated into Spanish for further productions.

A production of Uked! – The first play-along ukulele musical, which is licensed with David Spicer Productions, was also planned by Libretto Productions in New Zealand this year, but cancelled.

While Covid-19 has decimated the theatre industry, it has been surprising and gratifying to find that these small independent companies – often with no government support – are still working valiantly towards the future.

This is often the only way that the work of independent playwrights like me can be seen.

I produced e-baby myself in 2015, and Uked! – The first play-along ukulele musical in 2019, as well as numerous small plays in the past decade, so I know how challenging producing can be in the best of times.

I’m also grateful to Stagescripts and small independent publishing and licensing companies like them, as well as Australian Plays Transform, who have struggled on despite lack of income.

It’s great to see main stage companies in Australia getting back on their feet, using their creative skills to develop work despite Covid restrictions, and I’m excited to attend their shows.

But it’s community theatre that gave me my start and independent theatre that is keeping me going.

So this is a shout out to encourage all theatre lovers to support their local independent and community theatre companies during this difficult period by attending shows and donating where possible.

It is often the smaller companies who take the risk to produce new work, showcasing stories that are not always championed by main stage producers.

As Adam Brietzke, Artistic Director at Talking Horse said: “It’s a tough time for all involved in art. We’re all in this together.”

Mr Goh and Sonja make film debut in Singapore

Pathey Nimidam 2020, available for viewing from November 20-29 at Singapore’s Esplanade Theatre. Ticket link below.

Change Shift, the little Tamil play with a big message, makes its film debut at Pathey Nimidam at Singapore’s Esplanade Theatre

Mr Goh, the inimitable Singapore taxi uncle (played by Drake Lim), and his ever-patient passenger Sonja, (Hasisha Nazir) make their film debut at Singapore’s Esplanade Theatre from November 20-29, in my little play Change Shift, as part of the annual Pathey Nimidam Tamil 10-minute play festival.

Change Shift, which featured in the festival in 2017, has been revived for this special Covid-19 edition of the festival, beautifully filmed by K. Rajagopal.

Nine plays will be presented at the festival, which celebrates the Tamil language and culture, a vibrant part of Singapore’s diverse population. The plays are all in Tamil but have English sur-titles.

Change Shift is the story of Sonja, who on a rainy Friday in Singapore is desperate to get to the Indian High Commission to collect her passport to get to Nadu the next morning for her wedding. Sounds simple, until she meets the inimitable taxi uncle, Mr Goh, who has a mission of his own. Ammu Thomas features as the unsuspecting Indian High Commission official, also called Ammu.

The play is directed once again by well-known actor, comedian and director Susie Penrice Tyrie, who has lived in Singapore for many years and is also a member and founder of Wag the Dog Theatre.

Susie and I met through The Stage Club, when I first arrived in Singapore in 2012, and collaborated on many projects until I returned home to Melbourne in 2012 after six years as an expat.

It is a privilege to be included in the festival again. I’m thrilled that it was filmed, so I can see it in these Covid-19 travel-restricted times.

Book now for a taste of the wonderfully diverse and fascinating theatre culture in Singapore.

Please note: The ticket price is for all plays in the festival, which are presented one after the other in the same space.

The highly sensitive world of playwriting

How does the modern playwright juggle the demand for diversity and specificity with the nature of creativity?

Imagine you are writing a book. Imagine that this book must include the word “fire” or “environment”.

Imagine that the characters must be under 18, or perhaps over 50, or must belong to a particular ethnic group, or have a particular sexual preference or gender. 

Imagine that you cannot write about anything that you have not directly experienced yourself.

If you come from a disadvantaged group, there are opportunities to submit your work in that category, but anyone else who merely identifies with that group can also submit in that category, which means that you are once again competing in the general market.

Your book can be no more than a certain number of pages, and you cannot submit it for publishing or reading if someone has already read it, or if the people in your area have read it.

Welcome to the crazy world of the 21st century playwright.

Playwriting – if you want to get produced – has become strangely prescriptive, beyond the normal restrictions of budget, taste, and size and nature of the theatre, which are restrictive enough.

A browse through the popular website Play Submissions Helper, which lists opportunities from all over the world, is a case in point. 

Mostly these theatres do not accept plays that have already been produced, which means that if anyone else has seen it, it cannot be seen again – which is akin to saying that a library only wants books that no one has read. 

The reason for this, of course is the modern idea that every play a company produces must be a World Premiere, and anything that has already been seen and reviewed is off limits – even, in some cases, if it’s a 10-minute play and they don’t pay the playwright.

There are also limitations on themes and geography, as well as identity. 

Producers want plays with the theme “The Camp Out”, or with Jewish content, or by people who’ve served in the military, or by writers from only a certain geographic area, or with the theme “retrospect” or “Missouri” or “Among the trees” or “forgiveness and retribution” or by writers who are 12 to 18 years old and writing about “heroes and monsters”.

Or the play must include “a take-out container” as a prop, LBGTQ characters or themes, or be by people of Middle Eastern descent.

Or it must showcase “Sapphic super-heroines”, or be by women of colour or transgender women, or those with a feminist perspective, or it must “highlight intergenerational relationships” or be by “female identifying or non-binary writers”. 

Or it must include “50 per cent characters that are female identifying”, or must take place in a gas station, or feature the theme “science fiction summer” or “holiday”, or it must be inspired by H. P Lovecraft and his work, or with the theme “myths and legends”, or be by writers “age 12 or under” (how many six –year-olds are writing plays?)

I didn’t make these up. These are the real demands of real theatres around the world today.

I realise that one reason for this is that these theatres are targeting specific audiences or that they are trying to encourage diversity in the writers and actors they employ and the stories they tell.

But where does that leave the playwright?

Of course, this complaint sounds very un-PC.  But do not mistake personal frustration for a lack of generosity to those who have been historically locked out of the writing world. As an old, disabled woman myself, I understand the need for more diversity in theatre, and for stories that reflect society in general, not just an elite few.

The problem is that this policy misunderstands why people write. We write because we have something to say and are compelled to say it, in whatever form it takes. Therefore being told what we must write, and how we must write it, runs counter to how creativity works.

Few playwrights have in their drawer, at the ready, a play about these very prescriptive issues. The notion that we might suddenly write a play to fit these requirements and deadlines is a strange misunderstanding of the playwriting process. It can take years to gestate a play, and certainly months, if not years, to write it.

Some of these restrictions are for a purpose. The producers want to promote something with the play, or to encourage a certain attitude, or idea, or to shock people out of complacency into awareness. Fair enough. But that’s not playwriting: that’s public relations.

It seems playwriting these days has become a tool for the correction of society’s ills. This is a noble cause.  The best theatre can make people laugh, cry and think, so it’s understandable that some producers think it, therefore, MUST make people laugh, cry and think a certain way.

It is ironic that in attempting to do so, producers are promoting another type of homogeneity. Demanding that writers write about certain things, and banning them from writing about others, is a type of censorship that should be abhorred not promoted.

But when it is done in the name of victimhood, it is difficult to criticise without looking as if you are hurting those who are already hurting.

I don’t know how other playwrights cope with these restrictions.  For me, playwriting is such hard work that I cannot do that hard work unless I am compelled by the topic and the characters and story.

For me, it simply can’t be prescribed, even for a very good reason.

Are you a playwright? What’s your view?