Patience gets us nowhere fast: wearing a trickster hat
I recently came to realize that I have always had more than a normal tendency to think like a martyr. Maybe it’s because of my borderline workaholic behavior, but at difficult or disappointing times, I have been known to slip into thought patterns like: “it's not fair, I worked so hard and I must be the only person who has insomnia before concerts” or “ life isn’t fair in general, maybe that’s just the way it’s going to be always…” etc etc. Blah blah. Sound familiar? A lot of creative people I know fall into these thought traps which easily spiral out of control, ruining our ability to have joy in the artistic process.
In artistic training (and most other training), we are taught that if we have patience and work hard, we will achieve what we want. Isn’t that the American dream? Impatience is frowned upon, and we need to earn our accomplishments. My whole life I have held that belief and have been that kind of steady, motivated kind of person. Dutiful in my work, good at following directions, willing to keep going no matter what happens. That’s all been fine until it becomes prescriptive, until it becomes only about the work for work's sake, until it opens the door to martyrdom when things don’t pan out.
Last month I came upon a new way of addressing creativity in Elizabeth Gilbert’s inspiring 2015 book, “Big Ideas: Creative Living Beyond Fear.” In one section she presents the difference between a martyr and a trickster. In her description, the martyr energy is “dark, hierarchical, fundamentalist…rigid.” The trickster energy is “light, sly, transgressive…shape-shifting.” If we are martyrs, life is hard; if we are tricksters, life is opportunity.
In looking back on moments of the trickster vs. martyr in my life, I found that I still recall the trickster moments with absolute clarity and pride. Example: learning Dutilleux quartet while an Artist Diploma student with a 3-month-old baby, doing most of my work through score study on the A train down to Juilliard. That piece remains in hyper-realistic detail in my memory even though I wasn't able to physically practice it very much. On the flip side, the most intense martyr moments (i.e. refusing to touch my violin for a good three weeks after playing a “terrible” performance) are fuzzy and take up a dark, uncomfortable space in my memory.
Lately I have found applying the persona of the trickster to be revelatory in my violin practicing. I have literally been imagining myself putting on a trickster hat when I practice, asking the questions: what can I do to make this more 1. Fun, 2. Easy, 3. Different from what I was doing before, 4. Different from what I’m supposed to be doing? Maybe I’ve always had enough trickster in me to balance out the rule-follower, but calling upon it is liberating and fun. In my practicing it could translate into something as small as committing to a daring fingering way up on the G string, or making a drawing of a challenging passage to understand it in a different light. It could also be as radical as my quartet adopting an organizational system from software developers, becoming much more productive while cutting out 30% of rehearsal time (more on that in future posts).
Being a trickster pushes up against the idea of patience as something that is preferred. Yes, persistence and patience are cornerstones of an artistic career, but so are quick thinking/acting and taking risks. Maybe the thing we want to achieve is actually only a 5-minute creative brainstorm away instead of 2 years away through careful practicing. Thinking like a trickster also immediately gives confidence and artistic ownership; it is the path towards discovering personal artistry.
(In the book “Trickster Makes This World,” writer Lewis Hyde chronicles the fascinating importance of trickster characters like the Greek god Hermes and the composer John Cage. These tricksters are the “boundary crossers” and also the crucial instigators of creativity.)
“Patience Gets Us Nowhere Fast" by Capital Cities captivated me from the first listen because I’m not used to patience as having negative connotations. The band sings “I want it all and nothing less, I want it all, I want the best for you (us)…Patience. Patience gets us nowhere fast.” In their view, why delay something that is so right, and so right there (love, in this case)? Maybe if we as artists wear the trickster hat we can have it all ways: the trickster comes in at just the right (or wrong) time to subvert the patient artist, to bring out that desperately-needed, transgressive and creative voice.