An artist friend suggested I read Steal Like an Artist. I respect her a bunch, bc as an artist she walks the talk … or the walk … I can never recall. No matter how you say it, that’s what she does. (That’s one reason I own two T-shirts she designed.) And so I bought the book.
Just 28 pages into it, I write the title to this blog, penned outta frustration that’s been building for a while. It’s not so much a compositional call to arms as a statement of fact:
I write. So (with a tip of the hat to Immanuel Kant), therefore I am.
Your words vs. my words
As professional writers (well, creatives of any color, really), we’re tasked with using what are inherently our words for someone else’s benefit. That someone else can be another soul or a soulless organization. And in that process, there’s a transmutation, wherein what originates within us as professional writers changes into what fits the other’s needs.
It’s nothing new. Even Michelangelo had his patrons, right? Norman Mailer wrote about Monroe “because [people would buy it]” as I understand it.
I think that we, as writers, lose a bit of our souls in the process regardless. Editing is a separate process, mind you, one that’s honorable IMHO (and not just because I can’t seem to pry that editorial hat off my noggin).
What I’m taking issue with is the act of writing for others at our own creative expense.
When we do, we’re subject to their whims, opinions, tastes – and that has nothing to do with our own inclinations or our better judgement as writers. But, hey, they’re footing the bill and helping make sure our rents or mortgages are paid monthly on time.
So we have to bend. That’s part of the game.
But don’t break
If it gets to be too much, then you have decisions to make.
Let’s say you’re a freelancer. You’ve gathered (through trusting yourself and selling your worth to others) a number of clients that, pieced together, can support you. As such, you’re freer to say fuck it, or more pointedly, fuck you, and walk.
It’s all on you, so you’ll then have to lean more heavily on other clients or patrons. Or perhaps hustle to replace the one you just dis/mis/ed. The decision to jettison the client is binary: do it or don’t. Simple. You just have to make the call.
But say you’re employed full time. Salaried. Benefits. Vacation. 401 … ok? Hook, line and sinker. You’re all in – and don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty sweet as long as ocean’s not too choppy.
In this case, the degree of your bend is arguably more obtuse than the freelancer’s. As you increase the bend, however, you feel it more acutely.
Be willing to take a stand.
The decision in that case is one of either giving in to the ever-present, sometimes-regretted impulse to say fuck it, or, lacking that, deciding to acquiesce.
Poor vs. proud
Why do the latter? Making the mortgage is pretty sweet. And as a former manager (and fellow freelancer) on a contract job once quipped in a feigned cavalier tone, “Being poor sucks.”
I’ll offer a third option, one which I’m leaning into, drawn into perhaps, as a way of creative self-preservation: Do good … enough.
I’ll be damned, but “Be boring” is one of 10 missives that fellow scribbler Austin Kleon, the author of the above book that somehow kicked off this anything-but-pity-party post, suggests. I’ll get to that chapter soon enough, but here’s what I think he’ll suggest:
Do good … enough.
Deja vous, right? Right.
If you’re boring, you’re not being creative. Either that or people simply don’t get what you’re giving. You’re so deep that it appears simplistic on the surface. (That’s a blog for another time.)
But let’s say that honestly … you’re boring — on purpose. Boring affords you something invaluable: a creativity surplus. It’s there to use for you, not others.
Say you do good enough for a client. They’re happy; they’ve gotten a writing product that they’re happy with. You’re happy; you’ve satisfied your client AND more importantly you’ve not expended your creativity when it wasn’t needed.
So you got this creativity surplus. What do you do with it? Easy – use it for yourself. For your stuff. For clients that recognize it … and appreciate it. Damn straight.
Acme & Co. wants pablum? Publish it, baby. Preserve your purple prose for something else, something more worth your while.
Write good. Save the great writing for those who recognize it.