Time to set aside the cult of anguish and embrace the joy of creativity

2013_8.23_Maine view_cropWe always have the choice to choose joy and love over resentment and misery. I’ve had two great reminders of this recently. Michel Martin’s editorial on NPR makes the case for rejoicing rather than lamenting opportunities for activism. And Liz Gilbert, in Big Magic, echoes with her challenge to the cult of anguish that hangs over creativity. Martin asks why so many people who offer themselves up for leadership these days do it with an air of “Why me?” Then she holds up the example of inventors:

“When do you ever hear people say, ‘Why didn’t somebody else invent the airplane, the smart phone, solar panels, the tea infuser, for heaven’s sake, so I didn’t have to?’ We even have commercials featuring the tiny garages and attics where supposedly this inventing took place. We understand that discovery is a joy that can feel like a physical sensation.”

Under the tyranny of the Old Story of Separation, “No pain, no gain” is infused into everything we value most. War metaphors may be the currency of our culture, but I wonder if our allegiance to struggle and competitiveness is thinning what could be a much-needed flood of creativity into more of a trickle. Martin again:

“ . . . if those offering themselves for leadership are filled with the joy of offering the gifts they believe they have in the service of the country they say they love, why are so many so fiery mad, and not fiery glad? Why is it such a bitter cup? How would they sound if they saw making the country better as something they had the privilege to do, rather than something they had to do?”

I’m playing with piecing this perspective together with one of my favorite writers on the creative process. Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is a touchstone for me, but it does rely on battle metaphors. His premise is that the artist (read: anyone trying to solve a problem or make something new out of their imagination) is at war with the forces that want to prevent the new thing (song, poem, novel, dance, film, health care clinic, lasagne, Christmas tree ornament) from being created. He calls this force Resistance, and gives hard-won and very effective advice on how to deal with it.

Pressfield takes on the persona of an NFL coach or a drill sergeant when he says to never, never, never let Resistance win. The best way to do that is a) to be aware of Resistance’s many clever guises, b) know that the number one thing Resistance wants more than anything is to beat you and c) show up, every day, and do your work.

I credit Pressfield’s book with enabling me to write the first draft of my novel in one year, with very little idea what I was doing or where it was all leading. Along the way, I discovered that I am utterly in love with writing. My mantra, I will do what it takes, is still holding strong four years into it. Mysteriously, this project has been the least neurotic one I’ve ever engaged in. Sure, I had a lifetime of creative work in other media to draw from, but my typical experience as an architect was full of anxiety and frustration and “not good enough.”

The cult of anguish leads to such worries as this: If the artist doesn’t suffer, how can we be sure his work is any good? And, conversely, if the artist is enjoying herself, won’t the work be trivial? Gilbert answers with “stubborn joy,” a state of mind that beautifully captures the doggedness and also the delight of creative work. Your spark of inspiration dances with the blue-collar labor of seeing it through, even knowing there is no guarantee of brilliance or success by any measure. There is humility in showing up, day after day, in fair weather and foul, and doing the work. The artist as Cal Ripkin dancing with Tinkerbelle.

In The War of Art, Pressfield uses the metaphor of the warrior. I think he means “warrior” in a sense similar to Tibetan Buddhism, of personal discipline and honor. As long as it’s not taken too seriously, it works. Gilbert offers a delightful analogy of the Martyr and the Trickster that I can see bringing to bear on Pressfield’s Resistance. The Trickster is a playful anarchist who refuses to be pulled into, or down by, the Martyr’s deadly seriousness. In one of my favorite passages in Big Magic, Gilbert elaborates on the difference between them:

“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 shapeshifting. 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.’ Martyr always ends up dead in a heap of broken glory, while Trickster trots off to enjoy another day. Martyr equals Sir Thomas More. Trickster equals Bugs Bunny.”

In the first two sentences, Gilbert neatly characterizes the two cultural stories that we are caught between. The Old Stories throw off plenty of Martyr energy, while Trickster may well be the best guide and companion in the times ahead. Sure, I could be a martyr to my creative projects and fight Resistance head on with everything I’ve got. Or, I could play the Trickster and get Resistance running around in circles to the point of exhaustion. Hey, I’m not above winning. I just like to have fun while doing it.

4 thoughts on “Time to set aside the cult of anguish and embrace the joy of creativity

  1. I love this Julie. Best thing I ever did for myself was to trade in my Martyr hat for a Trickster hat. Our friend, Leah makes some delightful Trickster hats, too. 🙂

    • Yeah, I’m leaning that way myself. Although, I will admit, most of my life, I’ve been pretty annoyed by Tricksters. Something about their unpredictability makes me tense. . . .Or used to. I’m learning to be more curious and receptive.

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