On Being Gangster

“I believe that enjoying your work with all your heart is the only truly subversive position left to take as a creative person these days. It’s such a gangster move, because hardly anybody ever dares to speak of creative enjoyment aloud, for fear of not being taken seriously as an artist. So be the weirdo who dares to enjoy.” -Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

It seems like life this week is all about me being busted. Yesterday it was The Cherubs & my lack of grammar knowledge. This morning it’s the 101 ways I’ve forgotten to be (in the words of Elizabeth Gilbert) gangster.

It’s not so much a fear of not being taken seriously as an artist that gets me, because I’ve never  felt like an artist to begin with. I’m too…straightforward, perhaps. I file my taxes and show up places on time, and I have (in the words of Hermione Granger) the emotional range of a teaspoon. So the title “artist” has never fit.

But two other fears police my gangsterness, wrecking my ability to enjoy work: Fear of not being taken seriously as an author, and fear of not making life with Jesus look as…well, gangster as it is. Those run deep. They’ve grown an extravagant root system down into my psyche, keeping me numb & paralyzed.

The author fear insists that I have to at least pretend to be slaving away at some work in progress at all times. Even if it’s not going well. Even if I hate every word I write, even if my paragraphs don’t make sense. (Not in an overly self-critical way, but in an honest, “Wow, this is absolute nonsense” way that we artists like to pretend isn’t possible but totally is.)  This fear insists that if I don’t finish my long-suffering novel, or my stagnant book on praying for a husband, EVERYONE WILL HATE ME, AND I WILL HAVE FAILED AT LIFE. (Really, it says this. As if anyone will even care, let alone work up the energy to be pissed off about it.) And because I believe this fear time and time again, about once every other week I dutifully open those pitiful documents, toss in a few more words, then I give up and close my laptop, feeling like even more of a failure.

It’s awesome.

The fear of not being a good Public Christian is more insidious, because it has me coming and going. It suggests that I must produce multitudinous amounts of prose on living the excellent,  abundant (sometimes excruciating, but let’s not dwell too long on that whole “death before new life” thing) Jesus-ey existence, while distancing myself from the entirety of American Christian Culture and the multitudinous amounts of prose it produces that make people want to gag. The Bible says to “be in them not of them,” and too often for me this means striving to be among Christians (I mean, they’re my people) but really not at all like them. Nope. Way cooler, more laid back, not one little bit judgmental or frustrating, not wearing homemade dresses. (At least this last part is easy.)

All of this inner turmoil has been my normal for so long now, I can’t remember ever not feeling this way.

Then this weekend, Elizabeth Gilbert skipped through my world with her new book. I picked it up because I like her writing (I mean, she held my attention through a 600 page novel about a  COLLECTING MOSS. If that’s not talent, I don’t know what is). Most writing/creativity books say the same things – work every day, don’t judge your early drafts, persevere. I didn’t expect much new substance, just a pleasant delivery.

I was surprised.

First, let me say that her spiritual perspective is flat-out BANANAGRAMS. She believes that ideas are sentient beings waiting to be embodied, and that they fly around between us, searching for a home. (In my faith we call those things demons, but whatever.) I skimmed those pages.

What blew me out of the water was her her insistence that writing is fun. It’s this awesome thing we GET to do, and so we should do it all the time, with great delight. There should be GLEE. She insists that it’s totally worth it to sacrifice our serious reputations to regain some joy in putting words on the page and creating new worlds. We should write all sorts of silly things: novels and songs and blog posts and essays – whatever floats our boat. Find some other way to pay the bills, she says. I felt like a 10,000 lb. weight was lifted off my shoulders, and I was invited back into the life I lived before I became a Professional Christian Author (and stopped writing books because of the ridiculousness of trying to wrestle myself into such an ill-fitting garment.)

Throughout BIG MAGIC, I kept thinking, Here is a woman who spent YEARS with an imaginary character whose primary passion was collecting moss, just because it was fun. What must it feel like to feel that excited about a project everyone else thinks is insane? (Because I’ll admit, when the advance press about that novel came out, I was sure she’d gone well and truly round the bend.)

But the truth is, I know what that’s like. It’s how I wrote my first book.  And now, all these years later, Elizabeth Gilbert has challenged me to find that gangster place again.