One of the challenges of the first class meeting in a semester is to talk about the work ahead of us in class, while also not fully discouraging students.
This is especially the case in a doctoral-level course where the expectation is to read more and integrate more ideas than in any other context to date. In our first session of this semester’s doctoral class, I pulled out the idea of martyrs vs. tricksters to explore our options as we approach the work.
This idea comes from Elizabeth Gilbert, which she wrote about in 2014 leading up to publication of her book on creativity, Big Magic.
There is another way to be creative that does not make a fetish out of suffering. There is an older way, a richer way, a more generative way — the way human beings had been making art for about 30,000 years, before Europeans started taking things all too seriously.
This is the path of playful collaboration with the mysteries of inspiration. This is the path that says you are neither the slave to your muse, nor its master — but that you are its partner, and that the two of you (artistic mystery and you) can delight in each other. This is the path that says creativity is a weird but never-boring dance, and that you are allowed to actually enjoy it regardless of how it turns out. This is the path that focuses more on the wonderful strangeness of the process and less on the result. This is the path that does not worship suffering and torment, and does not respect the reality police who say that life is nothing but a grim march of pain.
This is the path of the trickster, not the martyr. The trickster (represented forever in world mythology as the fox, the crow, the coyote, the monkey)sees through our delusions of seriousness and exposes the play underneath all our drama. The trickster says, "You are welcome to die for your cause if you really want to, but I'm not here to spend my life suffering."
Brene Brown on how switching to “trickster mode” helped her write a book:
I was like, Holy God, I am a martyr. I'm a creative martyr. I'm writing and I'd rather slit my wrists. I was just a creative martyr like, “this is hard and horrible.”
And I'm a storyteller. And I talk about connection, but I'm locked in a room in isolation. And this is, I mean, it was just for years, that was my modus operandi around around creativity.
Then I read your article, and I was like, I don't have a lot of patience for martyrdom. It's not part of the Texas DNA. And so I was almost sick of hearing myself complain about it.
And I was like, Okay, I summons the trickster.
And so what I did for Rising Strong is, because I'm a natural storyteller, and speaking and talking and storytelling, or verbally, are more of an oral storyteller first, and then a writer, because you got to get it in books.
So what I did is I invited some people who are very close to me, they're on my work team, I said, Can we go down to Galveston for a couple of long weekends, I'm gonna stand in front of you on the couch while you, you know, while you drink soda and eat tacos, and I'm going to tell all the stories that I want to tell in Rising Strong. And I'm going to have someone write it all down for me as I'm talking about it. And I'm going to use that as the foundation for the book.
And that’s what she did. She found a way to cut down on the activities that made her miserable—like staring at a computer screen all by herself—and instead increase the time she was in her element. She aligned her personality and best ways of being with her creative work so that it got done in the least painful, most enjoyable way possible.
What does this have to do with being a doctoral student? Like artists, writers and other creative pursuits, academia has its own version of an obsession with creative misery. Ours is an icon of the tormented student/professor/writer.
What I want students, as well as myself, to keep in focus is that
As we stay locked in this idea that creativity can only be born through suffering, sacrifice, pain, and torment, it will always be born through suffering, sacrifice, pain and torment. But when we open ourselves up to the idea that it can be done joyfully, collectively, lovingly forgivingly, then that's the work that you make. —Elizabeth Gilbert