I have a thing for tricksters. Which is totally a post for another day, but the Cliff Notes is that tricksters = YAY. I’m also hippy-ish enough that when things show up repeatedly in my life, I pay attention. I’ve learned over the years that ignoring those repeating symbols tends to ramp up their attention seeking, the way that the ‘check engine’ light flashes a while before the engine dies, or catches fire, or leaves you stranded in the most inconvenient, embarrassing place possible.
I choose not to get bitch-slapped with the cosmic salmon of doom, thanks muchly.
Tricksters? They keep showing up. Even if you ignore their resurgence in pop culture, they just keep showing up in the peripheries of my life lately. Conversations, articles I read, the description of my wand in Pottermore, books I’m reading that have nothing whatsoever to do with mythology or archetypes- they’re freakin’ everywhere. So imagine my surprise when they showed up in Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Big Magic.
I’m not Gilbert’s target audience. I spent a good deal of time with an eyebrow raised in silent mockery, truth be told. I’m really not good with stories about people who were born with their shit together, and I barely tolerate well-meaning mother-henning from the wonderful woman who birthed me. Clearly, not the target audience. It’s not a bad book, by any means. It makes a lot of really good points without sounding like there’s a thesaurus crammed somewhere uncomfortable, which is always nice. If you’re down with helpful, motherly advice, it’s probably a book to add to the must read pile. It’s just… not really my scene.
But damned if her talk about tricksters vs martyrs didn’t stop me in my mocking little tracks.
A lot of us fall into the trap of art as completely serious. We martyr ourselves with our art regularly. We will nail ourselves to the cross of our artistry at the slightest sign of inspiration, and let’s be honest, it’s hard to type with your hands nailed to bits of timber. To be an artist with a martyr mindset means giving everything to the pursuit of art, regardless of the consequences. To do anything less is an insult to the muse, and the long, noble tradition of alcoholics and addicts who somehow managed to create something through their favoured haze. It’s not enough to burn the candle at both ends, you need to throw the whole thing into a bonfire.
Even scarier: in the Catholic tradition, martyrs are religious souls forced to choose between their faith and the laws of the land/some big bad demanding they jump over to the latest religion. More often than not, they suffer, and they die harsh deaths in the name of keeping the faith. Like, stabbed to death, off with her head type deaths. Why are we trying to emulate that?
Martyrs are all about the stubborn faith that is all-in on a cause, no matter the consequences. They’re all about suffering for that thing they love above all else- usually God. Which is impressive, don’t get me wrong, and totally Gryffindor, but I’m not a fan of the ‘suffer for the cause’ mentality. And yet, it’s a big part of our ideas around art. Suffer for your art is far too common an ideology. We hold up suffering as a positive far too often in the creative industries. We believe that the absolute last moment is where the inspiration and creative gold resides, even when it means wearing ourselves ragged and causing ourselves pain and chaos. We believe in that wide-eyed terror of never being enough, of the fear that stepping back and stepping away makes us less worthy than if we burn out trying to get something done. Even I, someone who was rolling her eyes at martyrdom way back in Sunday School, place more faith in people who have struggled for their understanding of creativity than in people like Elizabeth Gilbert, who haven’t had that struggle.
Hi there, hypocrisy.
But tricksters? Tricksters see the black and white, roll their eyes, and pointedly jump into the grey area. Tricksters aren’t about self-denial and suffering, they’re about making life into a game, and figuring out how to win it. No such thing as an unwinnable situation if you’re prepared to game the system to make it go your way.
Tricksters are committed to their given cause, too. Just not to the point of getting themselves hurt or killed for it. They’re guerrilla warfare rather than sword fights at dawn, because the only real way to fight the good (or fun) fight is to not be dead, burned out, or a sobbing wreck under the bed.
Elizabeth Gilbert had a lot to say on the subject, but this was my favourite part:
The trickster is obviously a charming and subversive figure. But for me, the most wonderful thing about a trickster is that he trusts. It may seen counter-intuitive to suggest this, because he can seem so slippery and shady, but the trickster is full of trust. He trusts himself, obviously. He trusts his own cunning, his right to be here, his own ability to land on his feet in any situation. To a certain extent, he also trusts other people (in that he trusts them to be marks for his shrewdness). But mostly, the trickster trusts the universe. He trusts in its chaotic, lawless, ever-fascinating ways— and for this reason, he does not suffer from undue anxiety. He trusts that the universe is in constant play, and specifically, that it wants to play with him.
… the trickster (in all his cleverness) understands the one great cosmic truth that the martyr (in all his seriousness) can never grasp: It’s all just a game. (Gilbert 2015, 224-5)
If it’s all just a game, then creativity is a game with our own creative selves (also known as the muses, the universe, the higher self, or whatever other term you want to go with). And if we’re playing against ourselves here, there’s no reason to make it a blood sport, and no reason we should feel like we’re losing.
As a concept, you’ve gotta admit it’s got a certain style. And it sounds so much more fun than proving your dedication by ruining your health, sanity, or relationships.
It also reminds me of one of my most beloved tricksters, Bill Hicks, and his most famous quote:
The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real, because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around. It has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly coloured, and it’s very loud, and it’s fun… for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, “Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.”
And we… kill those people. “Shut him up! I’ve got a lot invested in this ride. Shut him up! Look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real!” It’s just a ride, but we always kill the good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And we let the demons run amok. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love see all of us as one.
Both martyrs and tricksters are all about choices, but the energy they bring to a situation is vastly different. One brings a stubborn refusal to consider other options, for good or bad. One brings a two-fingered salute and a decision to see what happens when you add something new to the situation. Sometimes, it’s Fred and George Weasley fighting Professor Umbridge with pranks. Sometimes, it’s Hermione leading Umbridge into the forest to be terrorised by the centaurs and Grawp. And sometimes it’s Supernatural’s Loki and the Tuesdays eternal required to prove a point.
It’s not always kind. It’s not always pretty. But it’s damn effective. And really, there’s nothing pretty or kind, or particularly effective about emotional burn out, or self-abuse in the name of art. Why not let it be fun, instead?
So today, instead of staring down my draft and turning ‘this bit needs work’ into ‘I’m a barely literate hack who should be thrown from the creativity club’, I’m going to remember that I’m in a battle of wills against this story, and given it’s a construct of my own mind, I’m 100% guaranteed a win.
It begs the question: how can you add more fun, playfulness, or trickster vibes to your creativity today?