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Justine Musk on Badassery, Identity, and Writing

[1]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 [2], 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 [3].

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



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 [4]  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 [5].

Comments are absolutely welcome below, but to see more of Justine’s work, please find her on Facebook [6] and Twitter [7]. Or check out her website [8] where Justine chronicles progress on The Decadents, her edgy, psychological thriller. 

About Jan O'Hara [9]

A former family physician and academic, Jan O'Hara [10] (she/her) left the world of medicine behind to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. She writes love stories that zoom from wackadoodle to heartfelt in six seconds flat: (Opposite of Frozen [11]; Cold and Hottie [12]; Desperate Times, Desperate Pleasures [13]). She also contributed to Author in Progress, a Writer's Digest Book edited by Therese Walsh.