Elizabeth Gilbert and the Martyr vs. the Trickster: Should We Suffer For Our Work?

When any person suffers, she is either improved or corrupted by it, depending on her understanding of suffering. If, on the other hand, the impossible were to occur, and a person never suffered, she would never improve, but increasingly decline in character. 

Elizabeth Gilbert didn’t become one of TIME Magazine’s top 100 most influential people without suffering. Starting out as a young journalist in New York City, Gilbert wrote short stories, waited tables, and wrote articles for publications such as the New York Times and GQ (in fact, one such article eventually inspired the premise for everyone’s favorite romcom, Coyote Ugly). Eventually, she published a short story collection, then a novel, then a non-fiction book – all before “hitting it big” with Eat, Pray Love. The basis of this wildly successful work? Overcoming suffering in the wake of a divorce. 

But I’m not sure Gilbert would agree that suffering can be productive, even necessary. As I listened to her latest podcast with guest Brene Brown and their discussion of the challenges that face those who pursue creativity, I was deeply appreciative of the wisdom they offered. 

However, one of Gilbert’s ideas gave me pause.

In her latest book, Big Magic, Gilbert introduces the following theory about suffering for one’s creativity:

We all have a bit of trickster in us, and we all have a bit of martyr in us (okay some of us have a lot of martyr in us), but at some point in your creative journey you will have to make a decision about which camp you wish to belong to, and therefore which parts of yourself to nourish, cultivate and bring into being. Choose carefully.”

The martyr she compares to the lion, with an “energy” that is “dark, solemn, macho, hierarchical, fundamentalist, austere, unforgiving and profoundly rigid.”

The trickster, on the other, hand, is likened to a monkey. A monkey’s energy can be described as “light, sly, transgender, transgressive, animist, seditious, primal, and endlessly shape-shifting.”

According to Gilbert, the trickster is the superior persona. Having seen so many creative souls beat themselves up over their art, Gilbert proposes that the only way out of the pain is to cheat life and smirk at the sufferers from the sidelines. Or, as Big Magic puts it, while the martyr “fights [an] unwinnable war”, the 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.” 

Photo creds:  Foter.com

Photo creds: Foter.com

I see a flaw in Gilbert’s construction, and that is the presumption that all pain is pointless. The above adjectives which are meant to describe “the lion-like sufferer” reveal a confused vision of the true martyr. This version of the creative person – which values higher principles over personal comfort – can be properly compared to the figure of the lion. In this way, the lion is courageous, fierce, decisive, and stalwart. But he is also gentle, loyal, steadfast, slow to anger, and just. Take for example the well known lion of modern literature, Aslan. If Aslan is “hierarchical”, it is only because he knows himself to be king. If he is “macho”, it is only because he is authentically masculine. 

Photo Creds:  Foter.com

Photo Creds: Foter.com

It seems to me that Gilbert is concerned not with the true martyr, but with the false martyr. It is not the inner lion that artists and writers should avoid, but the inner Eeyore.

Photo creds:  Foter.com

Photo creds: Foter.com

A.A. Milne’s farcical stuffed donkey, Eeyore, sees all circumstances as catastrophes, and brings upon himself a long string of misfortunes. He is so busy drowning in the hopelessness of things that he is unable to see past his own little tan nose. I’m sure Gilbert would agree that this is classic self-inflicted suffering, and it doesn’t do a lick of good – especially for creative work. 

The lion does not fall prey to this temptation. The lion calmly recognizes that the journey requires perseverance. More importantly, the lion does not fancy himself the only creature working through adversity. He does not bask in his own sorry state, but rather is grateful that his hardships are so easy to bear! His creative challenges do not make him “somber” or “unforgiving” like Eeyore. On the contrary, he joyfully welcomes difficulty, and empathizes with all the other animals who suffer just like him.

What does it profit a person to emulate the monkey? Where is the real goodness in mischief? In deception? In “endlessly shape-shifting”? The monkey avoids pain by never letting himself be truly known. But, the real beauty of creativity is not in obscuring our identity, but in discovering our identity in its most naked form. 

Look again at the image of C.S. Lewis’s Aslan, this time in the final installment of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last Battle. Here, the anti-Christ is represented by an ape, who tricks many creatures into worshiping him as Narnia nears the end of times. His accomplice? A weak-minded donkey, who lacks courage, decisiveness, loyalty, and a sense of self-worth. Against this dark backdrop comes Aslan, who leads the weary into the light. 

In Big Magic, Gilbert instructs our creative selves to choose carefully what personas to “nurture, cultivate, and bring into being.” This article ventures to amend our choices from two to three: lion, monkey, and donkey. That is, the true martyr, the trickster, and the false martyr. 

I choose to feed my inner Aslan, and I think Elizabeth Gilbert unwittingly does the same.