I have a less than secret love for hip-hop. I was in school during the East Coast West Coast rap feud, and I eventually went West Coast in it because I thought Puffy/Puff Daddy/P Diddy/ Penelope/P-whateveriddy was irritating, and I thought what he did to a Police song to “tribute” Biggie warranted him being exiled to a small Pacific atoll so he could think about what he’d done.
But my love for all things Dre, early Snoop and Death Row Tupac doesn’t mean I wasn’t aware of the Ten Crack Commandments. Now maybe it’s because I grew up very religious, but the idea of commandments always stuck out to me. In a world of such fluidity and turbulence, I’ve always been impressed that anyone can erect a set of concrete rules.
Writing and publishing is one of the most creative turbulent and dynamic industries I can think of, next to fashion. What’s popular is forever ephemeral, even if in some ways there are cycles as old things are made new again. And perish the thought that you’re wearing or crafting something out of style, although the hipster movement seems to keep everything around, either for irony or straight purposes.
So I spend a lot of time wondering if I can codify some concepts for creatives (alliteration!). Here’s what I have so far. My apologies to my religious friends, but I’m cribbing your format.
I. Your art is yours, not the audiences, not the critics.
Whenever you make stuff, whatever it is, whatever you write, or art, that’s yours. I don’t mean selling it, I don’t mean signing publishing deals, I mean the creative engine under it. You create what you create because it pleases YOU. Critics are always going to find something to pick at (because they’re critics), and audiences are far too tempermental, so there’s little sense in trying to satisfy the unknown demands of an unknown number of people. Create for yourself.
II. Never get high on the critics’ lines.
You’re never going to please everyone. Never ever. Someone’s going to complain about the presence or absence of a thing, or a word choice, or a description. They’ll trot out hypersensitivity and words like “problematic”, and maybe some people will even take the time to explain what they don’t like, or spend their time trying to make you feel guilty for liking whatever you like. Don’t buy into it. Don’t drink their Kool-Aid.
The world is big enough that people can all like different things, and even disagree about it. And not be wrong in the process.
III. There’s no reason you can’t talk about what you’re doing.
I’ve tried for years to understand why people don’t share their writing. They hide the fact that they do it. They hide what they write. They hide their progress. They hide their failures. The usual answers I hear range from “If I talk about it, people always want to butt in” to “if I talk about it, someone is going to steal it”. To first one: See Commandment one. To the second: Who? Who is going to steal it? The person you’re sharing it with? Why would you pick that person then? Can you find another person?
Talking about whatever you’re doing is a way to demystify and destagmatize the craft of writing and its practitioners. There isn’t a badge of shame to avoid because you’re writing something that will give someone else the vapors and cause them to blush at the church social. Being a creative doesn’t make you a pariah. Get out of the cave and share with the tribe.
IV. Communication is more than selling.
At my last check, I’m following 1889 people, and I’ve got 1444 followers on Twitter. I love Twitter. It suits my patience, my need for stimulation, and it requires concision. And while I’m not known for brevity, I’m pretty handy with effective word choice. So, I do a lot of tweeting. The frustrating thing for me is that not everyone uses social media as an avenue for communication. I suppose there aren’t any hard rules for usage, but I’m confident we’ve all seen messages like this:
Hi! Thanks for following me! Check out this link for more great information!
Sure, the length varies, and that link goes anywhere from a shopping cart to a blog with some annoying popup requiring you to give an email address, but the concept is the same. Social media is SOCIAL, If you just wanted to broadcast the opportunity for sales, you would just need some strong SEO and a visually appealing website. If you’re saying, “John, the point of social media is to bring customers to my platform” then I’m going to make an increasingly displeased series of faces at you until you go sit in the corner. Platforms are for Mario to jump on. People are not automatically customers. We’re people first, and we all deserve to be treated as people even if we’re not in the mood to fork over the cash to buy your stuff.
Communicating with people, true audience building, is about sharing your experience and listening to the experiences of those around you, so that you can take all this information and let it further evolve your life as it all moves forward towards the hot or cold death of the universe.
And it’s not just the good stuff. Yes, sure, the good stuff when things are doing well is way more exciting and less heartbreaking to hear than the tales of insecurity, rejection, and disappointment, but as we’ll see in Commandment V, it’s not something to hide.
V. Share the good, share the bad, take them both and there you have … a theme song stuck in your head.
Your life, creative and otherwise, has good and bad moments. You totally find five bucks in your jeans. You forget why you walked into the kitchen. You spend a day writing a great chapter. You get told you have a terminal illness. It’s folly to think in that all-or-nothing way that you’re the only recipient of all the universe’s bad shit, because everyone else always seems to be talking about so many successes.
I see it all the time. So many people have great announcements of projects to do, projects completed, families starting, major undertakings succeeding, and big things on the horizon. And that announcement, while generating happiness, also brings in some envy (why and how are they doing these things and I’m not) and a sense of inadequacy (wait, they’re doing all that stuff, and all i have is this little stuff over here).
I don’t have a good answer for you. I don’t know how to make those feelings permanently vanish and never dog you again. The best I can tell you to do is that when you find yourself looking over the fence at someone’s far greener pasture, remember that while you’re seeing the verdant loam, what you’re not seeing at the roots and weeds. And because people aren’t likely to comfortably talk about the problems, it’s easy to look at your problems and compare them other peoples’ not-problems. Which isn’t ever going to be equitable. My illness, for instance, can’t be compared to someone’s announcement of a new job, because they’re not equivalent.
This is why I urge people to talk openly, bravely, even passionately about all the facets of what they’re doing. Is it going to drive people away? Maybe. Is it going to help someone feel better or maybe not alone? Maybe. Does that make it worth trying? Yes.
VI. Do not be afraid of the new.
I think we are all creatures of habit. We like to do the same things at roughly the same times over and over. We like to eat certain kinds of food, we like to read certain kinds of books. We wear clothes in some styles and not others. For me, that’s t-shirts, jeans and warm, soft fabrics. Maybe for you it’s something dressy. I like to watch far more Netflix that regular TV now, maybe you’re all about America’s Next Top Whomever. I prep for work this way, you do it that way.
At some point though, when we trace our way back, we didn’t always do those things. Someone had to introduce us to these ideas before we made them habits. It’s normal to be scared when you’re trying new things. There’s the fear that you’ll be judged, the fear that you’ll fail, the fear that you’ll succeed, the fear that you won’t be as good at it as you hoped, the fear that you’l be let down if it sucks, etc. Often, we let those fears stop us before we even begin. We see the fear first, we decide to not try in advance. For all the talk we do about something failing, it might also succeed!
New is not a synonym of bad or wrong. New is opportunity, it’s a shot to change circumstances. It’s worth taking.
VII. Treat yourself well.
We have a regrettable trend of glamorizing and sensationalizing things that don’t need it. We say that drinking and drugs make us better, freer, writers. We say that mental illnesses are acceptable fodder for inaccurate portrayals that reinforce stigma. We say that in order to be as good as other people, you have to be willing to cross a lot of uncomfortable boundaries to earn success. We give attention to murderers and demagogues in equal breath. We discard material that might be hard to learn or hard to accept in favor of lighter stuff that has no substance but looks pretty. In short, we glut ourselves at the buffet of easy choices, cowardice, closemindedness, apathy, laziness, and cruelty.
We could treat ourselves so much better. No, I don’t mean you need to start eating pesticide-free lawn clippings and drink a varieties of liquids extracted from berries and nuts you can’t spell. I mean taking the time to learn craft, make better choices about what material we read and watch, make time to talk to each other without looking down at cell phones or monitors. We could be honest with ourselves, even when it scares us, and make those passions of ours a priority, rather than the thing that fuels our complaints, inadequacy, or daydreams.
You deserve every bit of quality living. Even as a “struggling” artist, you deserve to be kind and even helpful to yourself. Get rest. Hydrate. Share life with friends. Eat a cookie now and then. Make yourself laugh. Feel good about the slow death of all life on the planet that we stupidly recognize as autumn. Do the stuff you like without fear that you’ll be ostracized for it. There are enough people in the world seemingly eager to chase people out on rails for what they say and do and believe, you don’t have to join that circus just to get on your own case.
VIII. Remember there are multiple kinds of support
I suck at being taken care of. It makes me feel like a helpless child. It makes me feel weak. I don’t enjoy being coddled (see, I immediately call it being coddled, when all I’m picturing in my head is someone handing me a blanket). That’s just one kind of support. That’s the physical support we all need sometimes. But what about emotional? What about having people who listen? What about people who can celebrate successes? (If you want a central place for creative support, you might want to look here)
With so many people putting out material, using resources like crowdfunding and Patreon, it’s easy to see that support is financial first, before everything else. And yes, it’s great when you can support people making cool things and doing cool stuff, but cracking open your wallet and purse are not the only ways you can help people continue to do what they’re doing. Yes, it often gets framed that way because I have yet to figure out how to pay bills or cover expenses with love and patience, but that doesn’t discredit non-financial types of investment or support.
If you can’t spare the dollars, spread the word to your friends that there’s something they can check out. Take two seconds and write the creator a supportive note. Do what you can to strengthen those communal bonds, so that when roles reverse and you find yourself needing support, people know that they can reach back to you too.
IX. It’s not going to be perfect.
I don’t care what you’re doing. I don’t care what you’re mapping out right now. Doesn’t matter whatever it is. Doesn’t matter how ambitious or small it is. Whatever you’re doing, it’s not going to be perfect. Your draft will have typos. Your prototype might have squeaky parts. Your recipe might need an extra two minutes cooking time. Yes, eventually you can make a thing that exceeds every expectation, but nothing is perfect right off the bat.
So don’t hold yourself to the unrealistic impractical standard that it has to be. It’s not like there’s some rule we’ve all been trying to follow and fail that says we need to be perfect in our first attempts and drafts. That’s why revision and testing and second, fifth, tenth, two-millionth chances are things that exist.
Perfection is the refuge of the unrealistic and out of touch.
X. Don’t you dare give up.
Over the course of your creative lifespan, you’re going to face obstacles. You’re going to face rejections, critics, disinterested people who you just can’t persuade otherwise, people who want to tell you everything that’s always going to be wrong, people who want to mock you for even trying to make a thing, hard drive crashes, overbooked flights, financial insecurity, financial windfalls that you get a little too excited about, overcommitment, underemployment, frustration, deadlines, competition for limited opportunities, bad weather, illnesses, pets that demand attention when you could be making stuff, hunger, distractions, nagging spouses, children who just need to show you one more thing, legos to step on in the middle of the night, impatience, batteries that die just when you need them the most, cold streaks, hot streaks that die out too quickly, dayjob stress, anxiety, disappointment, tough choices, a lack of things to eat in the fridge despite having gone to the store two days ago, spotty internet connection, bills, phone calls that interrupt your workflow, fears, jealousies, petty people who want more attention so they can continue being victims, idiots, doubters, printers running out of paper, emails not getting read, dropped calls, stubbed toes, soreness, boredom, envy, anger, apathy, insufficient cookies, times where you forcibly have to wear pants, lacks of anything to say, confusion, brain freeze and about four trillion other things I can’t think of right this second. You’re going to face all those things, and you’re going to feel like you can’t keep going forward. Or that instead of walking a nice straight flat path forward, somehow there’s a whole mountain range in front of you. Covered in glass. With lava. And clowns. And you can’t find your shoes. And it’s snowing out.
Do not give up. Do not let the obstacles, no matter how numerous or sizeable, overcome that voice inside that tells you that holy shit, you are someone who makes stuff, and that stuff is good, and that people like that stuff. And you can do more stuff, new stuff, and even more people will dig it. You just have to try. You just have to put one word in front of the other, one brush to one canvas, one finger to one key, and just go do it.
You’re in charge of when you stop. You’re in charge of when you start. You’re in charge of what happens next. Always. Forever. Don’t you dare give up.
I’ll be back on Friday with Plot 201. See you then. Happy writing.