A Good Trickster Move
I’m friends with Brené Brown, the author of Daring Greatly and other works on human vulnerability. Brené writes wonderful books, but they don’t come easily for her. She sweats and struggles and suffers throughout the writing process, and always has. But recently, I introduced Brené to this idea that creativity is for tricksters, not for martyrs. It was an idea she’d never heard before. (As Brené explains: “Hey, I come from a background in academia, which is deeply entrenched in martyrdom. As in: ’You must labor and suffer for years in solitude to produce work that only four people will ever read.’”)
But when Brené latched on to this idea of tricksterdom, she took a closer look at her own work habits and realized she’d been creating from far too dark and heavy a place within herself. She had already written several successful books, but all of them had been like a medieval road of trials for her—nothing but fear and anguish throughout the entire writing process. She’d never questioned any of this anguish, because she’d assumed it was all perfectly normal. After all, serious artists can only prove their merit through serious pain. Like so many creators before her, she had come to trust in that pain above all.
But when she tuned in to the possibility of writing from a place of trickster energy, she had a breakthrough. She realized that the act of writing itself was indeed genuinely difficult for her . . . but that storytelling was not. Brené is a captivating storyteller, and she loves public speaking. She’s a fourth-generation Texan who can string a tale like nobody’s business. She knew that when she spoke her ideas aloud, they flowed like a river. But when she tried to write those ideas down, they cramped up on her.
Then she figured out how to trick the process.
For her last book, Brené tried something new—a super-cunning trickster move of the highest order. She enlisted two trusted colleagues to join her at a beach house in Galveston to help her finish her book, which was under serious deadline.
She asked them to sit there on the couch and take detailed notes while she told them stories about the subject of her book. After each story, she would grab their notes, run into the other room, shut the door, and write down exactly what she had just told them, while they waited patiently in the living room. Thus, Brené was able to capture the natural tone of her own speaking voice on the page—much the way the poet Ruth Stone figured out how to capture poems as they moved through her. Then Brené would dash back into the living room and read aloud what she had just written. Her colleagues would help her to tease out the narrative even further, by asking her to explain herself with new anecdotes and stories, as again they took notes. And again Brené would grab those notes and go transcribe the stories.
By setting a trickster trap for her own storytelling, Brené figured out how to catch her own tiger by the tail.
Much laughter and absurdity were involved in this process. They were, after all, just three girlfriends alone at a beach house. There were taco runs and visits to the Gulf. They had a blast. This scene is pretty much the exact opposite of the stereotypical image of the tormented artist sweating it out all alone in his garret studio, but as Brené told me, “I’m done with all that. Never again will I write about the subject of human connection while suffering in isolation.” And her new trick worked like a charm. Never had Brené written faster, never had she written better, never had she written with such trust.
Mind you, this was not a book of comedy that she was writing, either. A lighthearted process does not necessarily need to result in a lighthearted product. Brené is a renowned sociologist who studies shame, after all. This was a book about vulnerability, failure, anxiety, despair, and hard-earned emotional resilience. Her book came out on the page just as deep and serious as it needed to be. It’s just that she had a good time writing it, because she finally figured out how to game the system. In so doing, she finally accessed her own abundant source of Big Magic.
That’s how a trickster gets the job done.