Martyrs or tricksters: the truth about writing

Liz GilbertThis Easter weekend I have had my head completely rearranged about writing. I now can’t remember why I ordered Liz Gilbert’s brightly-coloured book Big Magic or what I was expecting from it when I did, but maybe some “eudaimon” was at work already – calling, enticing, leading, suggesting, poking at my unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the writing status quo in my own life.

Not many of us who write almost all the time dare to call ourselves “writers”. We wait until we’ve been published, critiqued and acclaimed and then we think about adopting that name. But then, a little later, we reason: “I don’t make a living this way, I still hold on to my job because I could never make money from my writing, so actually I really am not a real writer, not yet.” I have written my entire life – first as a child at school and play, then as a teenager and young adult who wanted to be a poet, then as a journalist, a subeditor, a commissioning editor and now as an academic researcher and teacher of writing to others. I write a blog about genres of writing, a strong interest now which I pursue with a passion that surprises me. Since 1981 have made my living from writing in multiple forms and clothed and fed myself and my family through it, and yet the question “Can I call myself a writer?” persists.

So why I am listening to Liz Gilbert, the author of the major bestseller, and film, Eat Pray Love? Well because she is also the author of The Signature of All Things (see previous post) which told me one important thing about her: she has in her heart the things I have in my heart – she is a kindred spirit. So I’m willing to trust her with my pain, stuckness, anxiety, fear, panic, dread. In fact Big Magic is so amazing in its insight and commitments I have already read two of its extraordinary stories to my students because I wanted the eudaimon of the book to touch them too. And I might even make this our textbook for next term because of what it’s already taught me.

Actually let’s think a little about that term “taught” – it’s not quite accurate of the experience I’ve had, “reminded” might be a little more so. Firstly, I’ve always known that I wouldn’t suffer for writing, I won’t sacrifice my life for it. There are too many things I love and want to be involved in to give any of them up for the demand of just writing. Secondly I know that I won’t go into isolation in order to do it, I love the dynamics of the group too much and I’m deeply attached to the ephemerality of conversation, chatter and gossip. Thirdly, I don’t believe in perfection, honing and crafting until my fingers bleed. Fourthly, I can’t be bothered chasing success, I don’t believe it comes with just hard work (although I believe hard work makes you luckier), I’ve read too much Bourdieu about cultural capital and field theory and am fairly convinced that elevation to the heights is a pretty cynical set of choices made by those with great symbolic power for particular purposes which coalesce on one person for a moment. Finally, I want to be happy, satisfied, content and love my life and give attention to all the bits I’ve collected in it to make it rich.

But I also want to write and resolve whether I actually am a writer. This bit makes me unhappy and frustrated and also makes me very, very happy and delighted when – as happened just the other day – a friend I haven’t talked to for a while phones me up to say she’s picked up my latest academic paper and has been exhilarated by its ideas and by the style of writing. Yesss! That’s why I do what I do: ideas and execution. And I don’t need the permission of a publisher, critic, editor, journal, scholarly community, discipline, mentor, authority, collaborator to do this and be this. I just need to do what I love, what drives me and forces me forward, and be what I am — a curious, interested person who turns this curiosity and questioning into ideas and insights in writing. Now that word is deliberate because in my present line of work – academic publishing – I am constantly under the disciplining eye of the critics who want my work to be high-stakes research – in other words results-oriented knowledge which “adds to the discipline”.

I resist and I give in. I take on projects I love and then I weigh the consequences and commit myself to those with points attached to them which are countable. I fight and I fret. And when I do, I don’t write, because I’m too frustrated to love it and be with it.

Big Magic croppedBig Magic and its demons

So to this lovely book full of yesses and warmth and generosity. Let’s start with Gilbert dealing with talent, worth and success:

Somebody said to me the other day, “You claim that we can all be creative, but aren’t there huge differences between people’s innate talents and abilities? Sure, we can all make some kind of art, but only a few of us can be great, right?”

I don’t know.

Honestly you guys, I don’t even really care.

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…

How do I know? How does anyone know? It’s all so wildly subjective, and, anyhow, life has surprised me too many times in this realm. On one hand, I’ve known brilliant people who have created absolutely nothing from their talents. On the other hand, there are people whom I once arrogantly dismissed who later staggered me with the gravity and beauty of their work. It has all humbled me far beyond the ability to judge anyone’s potential, or to rule anybody out (2015: 119-120).

Sooo with her on that. So let’s move on to that idea that some people are gifted in ways the rest of us aren’t with that thing called “genius”. Gilbert is most eloquent on this bad idea in her TED talk where she aligns it with the shift in the Enlightenment era to the human as the centre of all things. The Greeks and Romans thought of genius as an external entity that visited the artist rather than as a property of the artist themselves – so Gilbert says, the artist would have a genius (“eudaimon” in Greek) rather than be a genius. The shift is more than subtle, it has powerful connections to how in the last couple of centuries artists of all forms have come to be tortured by their art, to suffer immensely and to even martyr themselves for it. This is the high stakes of the high-art desire where the individual herself is on the line. Gilbert wants us to return to the earlier understanding which helps us recognize that if one is lucky enough to be visited by the eudaimon of creativity, inspiration, flow, fairy dust, one cannot totally own one’s achievements, and if one hasn’t been touched, one cannot totally own one’s failures. The eudaimon is nobody’s dog. But this way of seeing gives the necessary distance and shared responsibility that keeps a writer sane and continuing to work without writer’s block, devastation and despair.

In addition to acknowledging that the brilliance is most often on the outside and therefore beyond control, Gilbert suggests that a writer become a trickster instead of a martyr – give up the pain, sacrifice, anguish and bad habits of alcoholism, drug addiction and nastiness to one’s loved ones, she advises.

What’s the difference between a martyr and a trickster you ask?
Here’s a quick primer.
Martyr energy is dark, solemn, macho, hierarchical, fundamentalist, austere, unforgiving, and profoundly rigid.
Trickster energy is light, sly, transgender, transgressive, animist, seditious, primal, and endlessly shape-shifting.
Martyr says: “I will sacrifice everything to fight this unwinnable war, even if it means  being crushed to death under a wheel of torment.”
Trickster says: “Okay, you enjoy that! As for me, I’ll be over here in this corner,        running a successful little black market operation on the side of your unwinnable    war.”
Martyr says: “Life is pain.”
Trickster says: “Life is interesting.”
Martyr says: “The system is rigged against all that is good and sacred.”
Trickster says: “There is no system, everything is good, and nothing is sacred.”
Martyr says: “Nobody will ever understand me.”
Trickster says: “Pick a card, any card!”
Martyr says: “The world can never be solved.”
Trickster says: “Perhaps not… but it can be gamed.”
Martyr says: “Through my torment, the truth shall be revealed.”
Trickster says: “I didn’t come here to suffer, pal.”
Martyr says: “Death before dishonor!”
Trickster says: “Let’s make a deal.” (222-223)

The trick is? Treat the work lightly, don’t take it too seriously, play with it. When it becomes a matter of life and death, then it fails to be as serious and important as it needs to be in the world, all because the writer took herself and her pain too seriously.

Another trick

Swop passion for curiosity. Again, when things get tough, forsake the high-stakes option for the low-stakes one which might be more effective when you’re stuck. Curiosity has the advantage of being almost always available to a writer because all it requires is the tiniest amount of interest or attention capture. Gilbert describes how she came to write The Signature of All Things when there was nothing on the horizon calling to be written and lots of schadenfreude about how she could never repeat the success of Eat Pray Love:

I asked myself, Is there anything you’re interested in right now, Liz?

Even a tiny bit?
No matter how mundane or small?
It turned out there was gardening. (240)

And then there was an actual garden, with real plants and a curiosity which lead to research about where the plants came from, which lead to more research about Dutch traders and the British colonial system and a woman who was an expert in mosses and then three years later a book of extraordinary richness.

Work and ideas and love

Gilbert does believe that writing is a vocation and that a writer must show up and work. Whether the magic of inspiration will happen is unpredictable but it most certainly won’t without the work. But what Gilbert is absolutely sure about is that ideas are everywhere and want to be realized and that they can only be made manifest in a partnership with a human being. This could be the whoo whoo part of the book but it absolutely makes sense to me because this is the way I have come to operate in the world. Ideas are abundant, they come and they come and they come. But only when you believe how abundant they are. (I knew a designer with enormous flair who was told by a colleague that his ideas were being poached. His response: Let them have those ideas, there are plenty more where those came from!) You can say Yes to them and you can say No (and sometimes you should say No). But if you keep saying no, they’ll stop bothering you and go away and you don’t want that reputation getting around the ideas community. There are three amazing stories about the arrival of ideas in this book (the first involving Gilbert who kept an idea waiting so long that it went to Ann Pratchett instead, the second involving a poet who caught a poem by its tail because it was in such a hurry to be written and the third involving the musician Tom Waits who often had to talk sternly to a song holding up an album – read them, they’re marvelous in the true sense of the word) but the point is that stress and angst and torment don’t really produce good ideas, in fact cheerful hopefulness seems to be the far better route to take.

And that leads me to love. Gilbert asks a very interesting question about loving one’s work. Of course, even when it frustrates, most writers love and are invested in what they do. But then she asks: does the work love you back? The answer is usually no and given with surprise – why would or should the work love the writer? It’s a thing without feelings. But oh no, says Gilbert, it’s a relationship. Few writers believe their love is reciprocated. Why not? It’s that martyr for the cause talking again. Of course the work loves you back, of course the eudaimon wants to play and touch you, of course the idea wants to be made manifest in the form you give it!

From the very first unnumbered page of the book:

Q: What is creativity?
A: The relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration.

Wit and wisdom

So if I take Liz Gilbert seriously what will I do next?

  1. Say loudly, firmly, unapologetically: I’m a writer.
  2. Admit I’m in a lifelong relationship with my work. Love the work, enjoy being loved by the work.
  3. Insist (most of all to myself) that whatever I do write for pay (those necessary journal articles) I write, ie: I craft as a writer. I don’t just write up research and pour it into a pre-existing formula for pernickety journal reviewers who’ve wouldn’t recognize a eudaimon if it bit them in the bum. (So resist when I need to, rewrite when I need to, don’t let the eudaimon-less-ness get inside my head.)
  4. Recognise that because I like different types of writing that I will be diversifying and that I might as well get used to saying: I am a poet, I am a short story writer, I am a nonfiction long-form writer, I am a blog writer.
  5. Let the work loose in the world to do what it may or may not do.
  6. Get back to writing.

Big Magic in conclusion



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