the art of becoming your own rebellion
“The serpent was the best thing that ever happened to Eve.” — Danielle LaPorte
What kind of novel could Eve have written before she had the good sense to bite into the apple and get out into the world?
A young woman described the memoir she wanted to write.
The story gripped me: a bright and talented child struggling to assert herself against narcissistic parents and become the master of her own identity. Except every few minutes this writer would backtrack and say how her parents weren’t actually that bad, they had a lot of good qualities, she was grateful for the life they had given her…
When she talked like this, her body language became stiff and awkward, her voice a bit robotic.
It was like she was flipping between two personalities: the good daughter she had been trained to be, and the deeper, authentic self that was trying to break through.
The rebel daughter. The so-called ‘bad’ girl.
I heard myself say, “You need to write like the bad girl.”
If she could find a way to tell about her fight for the right to her own personhood — instead of being an extension of her parents — she could claim the truth of her life and herself. She would offer up a valuable story that could even guide others in similar situations.
If she wrote as the good daughter, I couldn’t help thinking, she was doomed.
I like bad girls.
I’m not talking about Paris or Lindsey or Britney: they’re too lost or damaged or attention-seeking. They want you to love them, or at least look at them, which to them is the same thing.
A true bad girl, to paraphrase Coco Chanel (who was wicked bad herself), has some style. She doesn’t give a damn. And by that I mean: she believes in her right to authentic self-expression, even when – or especially when – it cuts against the grain of a society that would have her be someone, something else. She holds to a bold point of view with such conviction that, over time, the world is forced to adjust to her instead of the other way round. She co-creates reality.
One of my favorite quotes is from Twyla Tharp. In her book THE CREATIVE HABIT, she talks about her decision to become a dancer and choreographer.
She says, “I became my own rebellion.”
I would turn this phrase over in my mind, thinking that it sounded good, but what did it mean, exactly? Why did it appeal to me so much, and seem necessary to anyone who wanted to be an artist (or entrepreneur or hacker or any other thing that demands stepping off the beaten path)?
Probably because of this: the statement is rooted in such spirit and defiance. It’s not just a challenge to the conventional ways of living, the accepted wisdom, the status quo, the established Establishment, etcetera…but a challenge to the self.
We are all born into ways of thinking that we take for granted. We are raised within certain belief systems. We take the dominating voices of the adults around us and internalize them until those perceptions of us become what we are to ourselves.
But when you become your own rebellion you start to question all of that.
And if you’ve been raised to be the good daughter (or the good son), you maybe start to think that what is ‘bad’ is in many ways ‘good’ and what is ‘good’…might be killing you slowly.
A good girl (or boy) does not defy.
She pleases. She listens. She serves. She supports.
She makes no demands. She has no natural sense of entitlement.
She doesn’t say anything that might offend, or make you dislike her.
She has some spirit, sure, but it’s contained. She is ‘fiesty’.
Which is just another quality that makes her so adorable.
And if she doesn’t have anything nice to say, she won’t say much at all.
This could be a problem if you want to be a creative.
When I read Elaine Showalter’s A JURY OF HER PEERS: AMERICAN WOMEN WRITERS FROM ANNE BRADSTREET TO ANNIE PROULX I was struck by all the stories — so frequent they became a kind of motif or refrain — of women writers who flourished intellectually as children (usually due to progressive fathers who believed in female education). They nutured artistic ambitions as outsized as any male’s, and achieved as adults the first golden apples of success — only to have those dreams choked off as soon as they inconvenienced their husbands and families, or endured the censure of a society that labeled them crazy, unfeminine, destructive, dangerous.
If they survived those hurdles, they were defeated by the sheer exhaustion of childrearing and housekeeping.
The great female writers who are studied in college classrooms today were spinsters (Jane Austen) or recluses (Emily Dickenson) or fallen women (Edith Wharton, who divorced her husband and wrote frankly about divorce in an age when ‘divorce’ was taboo, or George Eliot, who fell in love with a married man and shacked up with him to the horror and condemnation of her culture, or George Sand, who carried on affairs with men and women and disguised herself as a man in order to go to the places where women weren’t allowed).
To develop their potential and realize their ambitions, they had to find some way to escape the constrictions of a society that refused to allow women the ability that every artist needs and most men take for granted: the ability to be selfish.
Call a man ‘selfish’ and chances are he’ll shrug his shoulders; call a woman ‘selfish’ and she’ll feel so shamed and cut to the core she’ll twist herself inside out to prove otherwise.
But to be selfish means to be concerned with one’s own interests , at least when the word applies to men. When the word applies to women, it seems to be synonymous with narcissistic. And this, of course, is bullshit. You can be concerned with your own interests, including your deep-seated need to make meaning from the materials of yourself and your life, to take part in the artistic traditions and contribute to the culture (and maybe, just maybe, even change the culture, at least in some small way) and still love and be good to your partner, your children, your colleagues and friends.
And to be a writer, or any artist, is to be inherently selfish. You must claim time for yourself, away from family and friends and jobs and so-called productive activity. You must claim that your art is important because it is important to you. You must make it a priority even though years will pass before you achieve anything that other people might recognize as ‘success’, assuming you achieve it at all.
You must allow yourself the dreamtime, the mental wandering, the internal stillness in which you can become acquainted with your inner voice and allow it to guide you. You must shut out the outside voices that tell you to zig when you know you must zag. You must figure out how to feel and think your way forward, into your work and into your life.
You must claim your right to knowledge, including self-knowledge, and experience, because what can any artist be without them?
If Adam had plucked the apple, he would have been a hero.
Instead it fell to Eve, one of the original Bad Girls. She had the artist’s drive for exploration, knowledge and experience.
The need to create isn’t about the desire to find meaning in the world, but to make meaning. If you have it, you know it; it’s lived inside you from a young age and will never leave. It will continue to call and nag and eat away at your soul until you start to do something about it. To deny it, to allow others to deny it, is to kill off a part of your personhood.
To paraphrase a popular saying: good girls stay in the garden.
Bad girls, on the other hand, get the world.