Justine Musk on Badassery, Identity, and Writing

The tagline of her popular blog reads “because you’re a creative badass.”

In a single post on creativity, she might draw from neurologic, evolutionary, psychological, and anthropologic principles.

She’s visited the Congo with Eve Ensler of The Vagina Monologues and to support Eve’s non-profit, V-Day, with its aim of ending violence against women, my guest plans to auction her Tesla Roadster.

She’s published three books (two dark fantasies, one YA supernatural thriller.) She mothers five boys, and when the stories about her divorce from PayPal founder, Elon Musk, were being inaccurately told by others, she routed the rumors in this piece.

Though our original plans were to connect for this coming month’s newsletter alone, what interviewer could practice restraint when faced with Justine Musk’s candor?

Jan: Welcome to WU, Justine! You have an old-soul quality to your blogging voice – the sense of one in touch with deep wisdom. Some gain this through surviving personal loss. Some seem born to it. Others seem to inherit it from their family along with the traits for curly hair and eye color. What’s true for you?

Justine: I have a sensitive, inquisitive nature and a tendency to read obsessively. And when you experience loss – and I have, most notably the death of my infant son when I was 29 – you either learn how to carry it, or it breaks you. Reading allows you to tap this ancient, collective mind, these patterns of deep wisdom, these strategies of meaning. I do think it’s my nature to go deeper than most people, which is just a reflection of how my mind works, or my need.

Has your Canadian birthright posed advantages or disadvantages in your writing?

I think it just is what it is. I left home and lived abroad and now I’m in Los Angeles, so I’ve always had a kind of outsider, ex-pat perspective. Plus I jumped class. At home everywhere and nowhere, that kind of thing. I like to watch. I like to analyze. I find life fascinating and adventurous. I see how similar we all are, and yet how separated, how isolated, perpetuating these misconceptions about each other. Maybe what’s Canadian is a kind of tact and humility, and a sense of humor that can be ironic and self-deprecating.

It’s not like Canadians ever grow up thinking we’re the center of the world. Our geographic location doesn’t allow that. Probably a good thing, for a writer.

I’m always interested in the chicken-egg nature of writing and self-actualization. How has blogging about identity, creativity, and authenticity changed you as an author? Has it affected your parenting?

Blogging helped me find myself as a writer. The more real I got online, the bigger the response, which means I also began to learn my audience. When you reveal yourself, your true audience reveals itself.

Blogging plugged me into the world. It’s made me think in terms of how I can best serve and illuminate the culture, create real soul-value for myself/my audience, instead of just book contracts, platform, readers, sales. It’s made me more giving, but also more ambitious.

It’s affected me as a parent in that, the more I confident I get about showing who I am, the more my children can know and connect with me, the more deeply authentic our relationships.

Now that you’re a parent of five boys, what will you bring differently to your fiction?

Having sons was one of the things that made me come out as a feminist. I began to understand how rigid gender roles and disdain for the feminine hurt boys as well as girls; that just because this is a man’s world doesn’t mean that boys and men don’t suffer for it. A boy has every right to be who he is without being shamed for it, without feeling like he has to hide or shut down parts of his identity. So I’ll be bringing into my fiction a much more nuanced sense of masculinity, since you can’t talk about one gender without talking about the other. It’s all connected. We’re all connected.

Here’s a question I’ve been dying to ask a feminist: Does the concept of slut-shaming carry over into what women are allowed to write or read?

I had a conversation with an author of popular paranormal romances who was arguing with her editor over what her protagonist was and was not “allowed” to do. I think there still is that attitude, at least in certain genres, that for a protagonist to be sympathetic, she has to be chaste or a serial monogamist.

We conflate female sexuality with morality; if she is promiscuous, she’s so immoral she’s not even human anymore. She’s trash. Throw her away. But slut-shaming happens for all sorts of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with sex. If a woman steps outside of what’s considered to be proper female behavior, if she’s the wrong class or the wrong ethnicity, if she’s a threat – she’s a slut. Women do this to each other, we police we each other, and I wish we would stop.

At the same time, promiscuity is often taken as a sign of a tough-chick, badass liberated female. So if you’re promiscuous, but you’re sleeping with vampires or men who kill vampires or whatever, it’s probably okay. It’s a different kind of fantasy, but it’s not about sensuality or connection or romance — it’s about power.

What are the risks if an author buys the character-as-role-model belief? How might an author protect their creative badass while working to market concerns?

For a character to be compelling they usually have to have certain qualities – courage, leadership, integrity, passion, the ability to grow, the ability to care about something other than themselves – and they usually have to be excellent at what they do. Otherwise they couldn’t move the plot forward and we wouldn’t root for them. But characters also have to have flaws. They have to have issues. We want and need to see them overcome their inner demons. That’s what fiction’s all about.

I think if an artist writes the truth as she understands it; is true to the character and, just as importantly, honestly renders the context, the time and place and circumstances, the consequences; if she writes with wisdom and compassion; then we’re good. That’s all we can ask.

You have heroes you’ve gained through biographies, but in your real life, who do you most admire and why? Who are your models of ferocity?

Margaret Atwood. Joyce Carol Oates. Twyla Tharp. Oprah. Arianna Huffington. Nan Goldin. Martha Stewart. Russell Simmons. They’ve all built something remarkable, whether it’s a body of work or an empire, that seems remarkably true to who they are. They have a distinct point of view. Most of them came from humble beginnings. They invented themselves, they brought themselves into being, they didn’t let anyone or anything dictate who they could be (or, in the case of Atwood and Oates, what they should or should not write about as ‘women authors’). I love that.

If one was looking for primers on creative-badassery, what five books or resources would you most recommend?

UNCERTAINTY — Jonathan Fields

THE ACCIDENTAL CREATIVE — Todd Henry

ACCIDENTAL GENIUS — Mark Levy

FASCINATE — Sally Hogshead

BRAINSTORM — Eric Maisel

and as a bonus, for women: THE PRINCESSA by Harriet Rubin

Is it possible for someone who has never been popular or particularly vocal in their real life to be ferocious in their writing life and online persona? Or do people fundamentally remain the same, and is their task, then, to carve a niche that respects their core strengths?

I don’t think in terms of ‘online persona’, just about expressing your ideas the best you can, in your most natural voice, in a way that creates value for others. The most charismatic online personalities aren’t necessarily the loudest – Chris Guillebeau  as an example is thoughtful, soft-spoken – but convey a distinct sense of who they truly are. Social media is a way to create a multi-platform story of you, that draws in others who see themselves reflected in what you say and do. That’s what resonates.

I think it’s wise to figure out your strengths – in writing, social media, life in general – and keep building on them, leaning into them. You have to be willing to explore, to make mistakes, to reframe failure as a vital part of learning. You have to be willing to ‘go there’.

Unboxeders, if you’d like to learn more about Justine’s suggestions on how to “go there,” please join us for exclusive content in this month’s Writer Unboxed newsletter.

Comments are absolutely welcome below, but to see more of Justine’s work, please find her on Facebook and Twitter. Or check out her website where Justine chronicles progress on The Decadents, her edgy, psychological thriller. 

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About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.

Comments

  1. says

    Yay for feminists! (Aka humanists. Because women’s issues are human rights issues, as I argued in a recent post: http://kristanhoffman.com/2012/03/12/half-the-sky-and-a-call-to-action/)

    Love the interview, and love what I’ve read of Justine’s blog. “Slut-shaming” is definitely an issue that still needs work (as one recent political scandal has reminded us) and something I have in mind to tackle in my writing.

    Totally agree with Justine’s message about being “real” with one’s online prescence. We ARE all connected, and its being genuine that allows us to see and strengthen those bonds.

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    • says

      Thank you Kristan! And I hear you on humanism. I can’t figure out how I feel about that word — I like that it includes both genders, but it’s problematic for the same reason — when girls’ rights and women’s rights aren’t foregrounded, they tend to get overshadowed by the boys and men. There’s an argument that ‘human rights’ has a way of turning into ‘male rights’ (or else we wouldn’t have needed something like feminism in the first place). I know many men tend to tune out when they hear women talking to or about women, but I also don’t believe we should cater to or be accomodating of that kind of disinterest/disdain — and those probably aren’t the men we should be talking to anyway.

      Btw, I loved the book HALF THE SKY, it was awesome.

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  2. says

    “So I’ll be bringing into my fiction a much more nuanced sense of masculinity, since you can’t talk about one gender without talking about the other. It’s all connected. We’re all connected.”

    My writing journey has come to be so much about this. I discovered early on that the deepening relationships between the genders–beyond the romantic or sexual–offers so much more freedom to explore that nuanced sense of masculinity Justine refers to.

    This interview is chock-full of special moments, Jan and Justine. Thanks to both of you. Can’t wait for the newsletter!

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    • says

      Yes, I’m glad to see some acknowledgement that even though our society can be unjustifiably rough on girls, no one’s throwing down rose petals for boys to walk through life on. It may be a man’s world–but what if you’re not the kind of man whose world it’s supposed to be?

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      • says

        I agree, Dave. I’ve often said the world is very hard on sensitive males, and that’s just what I’ve observed from the vantage point of being their daughter, sister, and mother. I haven’t had to walk in those size 12-13W shoes.

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  3. says

    Great questions as always, Jan. Justine, I’ve been reading your blog for quite a long time, and it always gives me something to think about for days after. In a time when women seem, politically at least, to be under attack, it’s refreshing and encouraging to hear your voice.

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  4. says

    This was a wonderful conversation to read. I’ll be checking out those titles relating to “Creative Badassery”–thanks!

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  5. says

    I’ve been reading Justine’s blog for a while now, too. She is *thee* blogger I seek out when I want to simultaneously scream “I am woman, hear me roar!” and “Somebody please help me, I have no idea what I’m doing!” Reading her posts always bring me back to what’s important in life, who the true me is, and how to move forward with the creativity I’m trying to express. What a thrill to see her here… I loved this interview!

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  6. says

    I am a huge fan of Justine Musk and her blog, and I didn’t even realize we were both ex-pat Canadians. Her blog is so often the fire under my feet, the prod in the back to be and to write authentically and courageously. I was so excited to see this interview. Thank you, Writer Unboxed!

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  7. says

    >When you reveal yourself, your true audience reveals itself.

    Yes.

    > Women do this to each other, we police we each other, and I wish we would stop.

    Yes.

    > gender roles and disdain for the feminine hurt boys as well as girls…just because this is a man’s world doesn’t mean that boys and men don’t suffer for it.

    Yes.

    > They have a distinct point of view. Most of them came from humble beginnings. They invented themselves…

    Yes.

    > …expressing your ideas the best you can, in your most natural voice, in a way that creates value for others.

    Yes.

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Where in Canada, Justine?

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    • says

      From Peterborough, Ontario, not far outside Toronto. Went to university in Kingston (another Ontario town).

      Thank you for being my yes-man today. :) It’s appreciated!

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  8. Gracie says

    I think if an artist writes the truth as she understands it; is true to the character and, just as importantly, honestly renders the context, the time and place and circumstances, the consequences..

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  9. says

    What a powerful interview, Jan! Justine sounds so introspective and authentic I will certainly be heading over to her blog next to see what else she has to say.

    And also, curiously, I felt I learned more about Jan, the interviewer, from the questions you asked. Very illuminating!

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  10. says

    Wonderful interview, Justine and Jan. Loved so much about it, especially this:

    You have to be willing to explore, to make mistakes, to reframe failure as a vital part of learning.

    And this:

    Social media is a way to create a multi-platform story of you…

    What a great way to look at it. Thanks for being with us today!

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    • says

      Thank you! I was impressed and delighted by Jan’s questions. They made me think about what it is that I think, if you know what I mean. She can interview me anytime. :)

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  11. says

    Oh, how I love you! I first learned about you from your Marie Claire article, so when I found your blog through Write to Done I almost lost my breath. I subscribed immediately. :)

    I totally agree with you in terms of being willing to ‘go there.’ For me, I’ve been much stronger with my online persona than my offline, but I’m now finding the two are beginning to meet in the middle. My online self is who I know I am, and now I’m starting to carry that out in my every day living.

    I live in Muskoka, an area that’s quite the tourist attraction, and feel somewhat disconnected from my surroundings. Where I live is essentially a playground, a tourist destination focused on the external, so who I am vs where I live has caused who I am to end up shoved in a closet. Not intentionally of course, I’m totally comfortable with who I am, but because very few have ever understood my highly sensitive self, I downplay to make them feel more comfortable.

    Since I started my platform, and I’m starting to find my “people”, I feel more fulfilled with showing who I am no matter who it might intimidate or who I might lose. I’m different, and screw those who can’t deal with it, because I feel I have something of importance to do. :)

    You’re so right about building on who you are. Building my platform has been much more theraputic (and much cheaper, lol!), than any shrink’s couch. ;)

    You rock!

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    • says

      Thank you, that means SO MUCH…Wow, Krissy, I can relate to pretty much all of your comment….One of the most liberating lessons of my life was when I finally realized, and accepted, that you don’t need everybody to like you. You don’t need to charm everybody or try to argue them around to your point of view. One of the great things about finding and talking to your right people is that you also start realizing who your wrong people are, which makes it a lot easier to walk away from conversations that would otherwise waste your time and hurt your feelings. It was a lesson in marketing + branding that turned into a big life lesson that I wished I’d learned a long time ago….Best of luck with your writing, your platform, your journey, hope to see you on the blog. :)

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  12. says

    Glad you’re enjoying the interview, all, and that you’ve found some take-home points. I know I did!

    I can’t help but note the passionless crowd here, though. @Donald Maass and @Krissy Brady, I’m worried about you in particular. ;)

    @Deborah, oh dear, was my earnestness showing?

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      • says

        Don, my apologies for posting an ambivalent tweet in your name! I think I need to add a disclaimer to all my bios: prone to irony and teasing. I hope others understood the intent.

        I loved your enthusiasm, happen to agree with all the pull quotes with which you identified.

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  13. says

    Before I turned to writing as a career, I danced with Twyla Tharp. She was constantly reinventing herself, sometimes before our eyes, and consequently we reinvented too. It’s really the only way to achieve yourself.
    Thanks for both the questions and the responses.

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  14. says

    You’re right Justine, it’s a different view from up here in Canada. Thanks for a thoughtful post about so many things I find interesting. I’ll be checking out your site and FB page. Krissy, I’m from Toronto, the city every other Canadian loves to hate! So I get what you say about the place influencing the person.

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  15. says

    I had a great opportunity to moderate Justine on a panel a few years ago, and I am going to vouch that she is a true badass. But like she said in this post, you don’t have to be the most outspoken or the toughest to say worthwhile things that people want to hear, and you don’t have to change your online persona and take on a role that is not you. People crave authenticity. Let yourself shine through, and people will come eventually. (Slowly for me, because I’m not all that outspoken, but it’s happening! And for real, if I can sorta-kinda do it, anyone can.)

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  16. says

    Two women that hold nothing back. Jan and Justine I loved this interview. I have learned so much from– mostly women– bloggers who speak to reader. I think the old adage ‘The Truth Will Set You Free’ is so true in blogging and writing.

    Until you learn about yourself– your limits and dreams– it hard to write a book that readers will cling to.

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