Can you make art without passion? (An open letter to struggling authors)

Can you make art without passion? (An open letter to struggling authors)

A lot of authors – almost all I’ve talked to – are very cautious about the money. Several writers have told me they don’t want to make money with their writing, even after publishing several novels. They don’t want to make a living with their writing, because then it would be a job; if they were getting paid to do it, they might write what people like (commercial fiction).

They were dedicated to art as pure art. It made them happy. They believed that doing anything else would not make them happy (actually they believed they would be miserable).

Unbelievably, at the same time – since very few of them were making any money – there is a lot of lamentation that literary fiction doesn’t sell better. Authors complain that bookstores and publishers weren’t open to off-genre, literary fiction, or poetry. People want to learn about funding; they want a patron or Medici figure who will buy art without needing to make a profit; they want a no-strings supporter.

These are not publishing problems: this is a culture problem. To sell more literary fiction you would need millions of people who love and enjoy reading literary fiction. That’s a problem with education and society; probably not an easy fix for indie authors to tackle.

What can they tackle?

Here is my controversial assessment of the indie publishing world:

Every successful author says to treat writing as a business.

Every successful author says to find your readers and make them happy by writing books they love to read.

For me, writing is a fun but challenging task. It’s difficult. But it’s also enjoyable. It takes time and effort; it’s a skill that you can grow with practice, not just an innate gift.

CJ Lyons used an example at a talk recently of a “Wordsmith” being like a “Blacksmith”: we have a tool, we learn the trade, we make quality products – the better the quality, the more successful we will be.

If we were blacksmiths, we would probably split our time between crafting fancy swords that few people can afford – but we may sell one a year – or hundreds of cheap, crappy knives.

We need to make a living with the knives so we can focus on our passion, our fancy swords, in the hope someday some Lord may pass by and buy one.

A normal person may not enjoy making the knives as much, but would also understand making the knives gives him the freedom and resources to make the swords. If he refused to make knives because he refused to sully his gift by making mundane objects, we would think him silly. His family would hate him, he would be a dreamer, a loafer, an impractical idealist; surrounded by impractical swords that nobody can afford.

In the contemporary cult of passion, however, we support this kind of single-minded if misplaced belief in creative success. We like stories where a “blacksmith” lives in poverty for 5 years, even though he could make a good living, to make that one fancy sword – even if he died without anybody appreciating it, because the making of that sword was holy and special and his “true purpose” – his reverent production.

It’s a romantic idea. If it makes you happy to believe the world works that way, and the universe cringes when you do anything practical or mundane, then I can understand the refusal to entertain alternative paradigms of reality.

But here’s where it gets confusing to me: I have just about as much fun writing paranormal romance novels as I would have writing in other genres. People assume that’s me selling my soul and writing crap because it sells – it isn’t: that’s my fascination with supernatural realism, historical relics, and dissolute moral boundaries (where traditional “evil characters” are now sensitive, brooding heroes).

But if my books don’t sell at all, after I’ve tried publishing and marketing them, I’m totally open to trying other genres with a broader readership. I’m fine with trying out a sci-fi, or a historical romance, or a billionaire erotica. I probably wouldn’t be very good at a Western Saga since it’s not my background, but I could learn. If you know how to make knives, why not make spoons or forks as well? Why refuse to learn new skills just because you don’t enjoy it as much?

If you make money with your passion and what you enjoy writing, great. If you don’t, you can either:

1. Say it’s just a hobby and you don’t want to be a career writer – but keep your day job, which takes up most of your time.

2. Persevere, keep marketing, complain that nobody is supporting the arts (but realize you are writing books for you, because you enjoy it, not for other people – it’s a selfish use of your skill, not a gift to the world).

3. Try writing something that more people are going to like.

Most fiction is remarkably formulaic. Most genres can be templated. You can start with the basics of any genre but do it in your style, in a way that you enjoy, while making sure to satisfy readers of that genre.

If you need a more credible witness, 18th century poet Alexander Pope gave this advice on writing almost 200 years ago:

For the Fable… Take out of any old poem or history book, romance or legend, those parts of story which afford most scope for long descriptions. Put these pieces together, and throw all the adventures you fancy into one tale. Then take a hero you may choose for the sound of his name, and put him into the midst of these adventures. Take any remaining adventure of your former collection, in which you could no way involve your hero; or any unfortunate accident that was too good to be thrown away; and it will be of use applied to any other person, who may be lost and evaporate in the course of the work, without the least damage to the composition.

The view from the mountain

Creating art begins as a personal journey, and is rich with inherent rewards. But most artists find that it’s really fun, and they begrudge anything (like a ‘real’ job) that takes time away from their passion. Blake for example, had a patron and hated being forced to produce work for him.

“I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.”

He was pretty talented; but when he tried to have an exhibit in his brother in law’s store, nobody came, nobody bought, and the press mocked him. He never found success, though he made a decent wage for his craft. And I could argue that PARTLY why he’s so famous now, and so celebrated, is that his personal failure makes us cheer for him, because the lesson implies that even if we’re poor and unappreciated, it doesn’t mean our work isn’t actually great!

He focused only on production, the business of creating, but refused to consider anything else. I’m not saying don’t do that.

But do you want to do that?

Or would you rather quit your job, have no boss, wake up at 3pm and play video games, order pizza and maybe do a couple hours of writing in the evening listening to your favorite music?

All I’m saying is, and it took me a long time to recognize this – there’s an easier way… and it’s probably the only way, to actually achieve some kind of success with your creativity, no matter what you make. But it probably depends on having a purpose, finding an audience, and getting good enough (faster & better) at your craft so that you can continue making awesome things people love to pay for.

If you look at the careers of successful writers or artists, almost all of them follow this path:

1. They start with stuff they like, copying others, or experimenting.

2. They find a style or genre that gets a response.

3. They do A LOT more of the same thing, and it becomes their calling card.

Successful creative people find out what people like and they give them more of it. If they are doing something that nobody likes, they usually pivot and try something else.

Exceptions to this rule are rare.

Also, as creative people learn to make a living with their work, they figure out that they need to focus on things that take the least amount of time, but offer the greatest earning potential.

If you pick up almost any book on being a successful creative, you’ll find some inspirational quotes like “never give up” and also some meandering reflections on art and money that aren’t entirely clear – this is because the hard-core creative fanatics are skeptical and judgmental towards using creativity to make a living, so even when successful people admit, or recommend, that sometimes you need to do some things other people like to make money so you can focus on your passions that don’t make any money, artists get all riled up and plug their ears and cross their eyes.

Steven Pressfield’s philosophy in the War of Art is partly responsible – but in an interview with Jonathan Fields he admits that it’s not always black and white, and sometimes you do need to consider who is going to enjoy/use/care about what you spend all your time working on (mentioned in a book I was reading).

If you’re going to be doing anything with your life, there’s no time for doing something you hate. OK, fine, I totally accept that. That’s why I quit normal jobs like delivering pizza to start my own businesses.

But if you’re a writer, I don’t think you can “hate” writing in another genre that’s less comfortable. maybe it’s challenging at first. Maybe you don’t enjoy it quite as much. But you’re basically doing the same thing with your time; plotting, sitting down with a cup of coffee on a nice day, an making sympathetic characters that overcome challenging situations.

Purists will say that’s “selling out” or “selling their soul” – so they refuse to make commercial art and instead waste their time on a real job that pays the bills, as much as 8 hours a day, which is probably a thousand times more horrible to their creative spirit than trying to write in popular genres would be.

Consider Melville: He wrote the exotic, travel adventure books that people were hungry for to build a following. Sea voyages, cannibals, action…  he wrote stories he could sell because there was a demand for them, and he got popular, and made some money and connections. Then he wrote Moby Dick,  a strange, big book that most of his fans hated.

If he had started out with Moby Dick and refused to sully his art by writing commercial fiction, it is very likely that his major achievement – a pillar of Western literary fiction – would have been completely ignored. He never would have found a publisher, nobody would have bought it, he would have died in failure and anonymity.

So did Melville sell out? Or was he willing to do what it takes to make sure his art was well received? Are you better than Melville? Would you rather create pure art that nobody ever enjoys, because you never bothered to try and create art that people would appreciate?

Will you be happy dying and leaving the world a book that nobody knows about, because you finished your great artistic accomplishment, even if it’s a secret nobody knows about? Is that the ultimate purpose of your life? I don’t believe these private creative attempts should be considered art.

I think art matters. It makes a difference. It changes things. For that to happen, it has to be put in front of a lot of people, who have to recognize its value.

What’s more valuable: Passion or Skill?

What’s more important, passion or skill? I’m a cover designer. I’m both the best and the worst cover designer in the world. The best because, I’m pretty good at making beautiful covers that will sell your book. The worst, because I’m terribly slow and distracted by many other projects. Another cover designer recently told me I should be ashamed of myself, because I have clients that need to wait 3 months to get a book cover.

But if your goal is to get a great book cover, what’s more important to you? Somebody who loves designing covers, who enjoys and feels passionate about book cover design? Or the person who makes the best book cover? I love my job, but I don’t actually enjoy the process all that much. I’m sure there are other cover designers who enjoy it a lot more.

When you’re hiring someone, is passion or skill more important? I would argue that, even if I hated my job, and charge too much, and take 3 months to finish a cover, it’s still better to hire me than to hire someone quick and energetic and passionate, someone who listens to you and gives you lots of time and attention.

The other designer may make you happier, and put you at ease, and make you feel good. But readers don’t care about any of that stuff – the only question that matters is, will my cover sell more books than the other alternatives. If so, then you should hire me even if the process is frustrating and slow and I’m not passionate about the work.

Passion is not an indicator of skill.

In the same way, if you’re reading a novel, do you care how passionate the writer was about writing the book? Or how good the book is? Does being passionate about the craft of writing guarantee quality? Absolutely not – writing is mostly a learned skill, it’s about technique.

When you buy a book, you aren’t buying into the artist’s passion – you aren’t paying to support the author in their creative endeavors. it’s not a charity. You’re buying a product, and it better be good – if not, you’ll be unsatisfied and leave a negative review.

David Gaughran went through this process recently on his blog: David has a big platform, is a great writer, but isn’t seeing the return he wants to.

I decided to try sketching out a series that was a little more commercial but still satisfied me creatively. I don’t really mean that in an overly arty sense – it’s more that I can lose focus if I’m not engaged with the idea.

When I tell people my goal is to publish 100 books and make 10K a month in book sales, they think I’m crazy. After all, they’ve been writing fiction for years and years with little success. But very, very few writers have actually been doing it right: write a series in a popular genre, promote it the right way, and it will be nearly impossible to fail (unless you have absolute crap stories and horrible covers – my work may not be amazing but it will be at least above average for the genre).

I don’t have the same mental hangups that other authors do: I don’t need to get into the hot water slowly, giving up my artistic ideals one by one as I get used to the idea of writing commercial fiction. I want to write books that get read; that influence lots of people. I don’t think there’s a huge amount of difference between a literary fiction historical romance or a YA vampire teen trash fiction. It’s merely a different writing style, and I’m a competent enough writer to adopt the style my readers will enjoy. Am I selling out? 

A Concession

The topics I’ve been dealing with are worth consideration for all creatives at a certain point in their artistic journey, but they are hard to accept.

Here’s my theory:

In the beginning, when you don’t have the skills, practicing your craft is incredibly frustrating. It’s hard to find time. It’s crushing to realize your first attempts are childish and awful. It’s painful to rework, fix, rewrite, edit and try and organize your material. It takes years of work.

If you didn’t really believe in what your were work on, if this was just a job to make money, if you weren’t TOTALLY passionate about your project, you’d probably quite.

So for the first project, passion is necessary just to keep going. You need to belief in yourself. You need to believe that other people are going to like the finished project – even if that isn’t true (and if you found out too early that nobody was going to give a shit, you’d probably quit).

So it might be necessary for artists and authors to adopt the romantic, ideological fallacy of a creator working in isolation, with only a disembodied muse that whispers in his ear, to get through the thousands of hours of hard work that are needed to develop a passable skill set.

I’ve certainly done it, with both paintings and books that weren’t successful. Look at any overnight creative success and I’m sure they have their history of failure and aborted projects as well.

But after you’ve finished a few of those projects you passionately believed the universe was forcing you to create, you might realize,

Wait a minute, if the universe inspired me to create this, why doesn’t anybody want it?

And that’s when you’ll start to question this ideology. Is the universe inspiring everybody to follow their own heart’s desire, shut out the world, and not make anything of appreciable value? If so – what the hell is the point? Wouldn’t it make more sense to use our skills to make things other people are actually going to read/enjoy?

At this point you have two options, you can GIVE UP your beliefs about creativity (as I have done) and recognize that you don’t deserve to get paid just for being creative. You get paid for making things people are willing to pay for. And then you can either write what you enjoy the most and be poor and struggling, or you can write what other people like and make a lot of money (of course, ideally you’ll be one of those lucky ones who enjoys writing commercial fiction, like me).

OR you can maintain your beliefs but nevertheless slowly shift towards more popular considerations out of financial dire. In this case, you’ll probably feel guilty, hate yourself, hate the world for not supporting you, begrudge your success and be depressed. This is, exactly, what creative people are afraid of when they talk about “selling their soul” by writing creative fiction.

Because of their beliefs, writing commercial fiction feels like a loss, and they will be unhappy about it, even if it leads to success. But there is nothing, I counter, intrinsically ‘evil’ about writing fiction that more people enjoy.

It doesn’t have to be lower quality. You don’t have to change the style of your writing, your unique voice, your habits, your characters. All that you need to change in most cases is the setting, and you need to add dramatic tension, some plot development, and crises for the characters to over come (you have to hold readers’ attentions). If you write memoir or history or literary fiction that doesn’t have these elements, you are not holding the readers’ attention, and they have better things to do than read your book, which is why you need to beg and plead for people to read it. Why should they?

And I’m not even saying you need to quit writing what you enjoy, of course not! But what’s the harm in trying new things, in challenging yourself to grow as an author? Instead of spending all your time and resources trying to  market that first book – something every successful author will tell you not to do, but all authors keep doing anyway – why not spend a couple years and write a few more books? They get easier and faster.

If all this sounds like bullshit to you, it is probably because you’ve internalized the dogma of creativity that was invented in the modernist age and forgotten (or have yet to learn) what creativity meant for the thousands of years of human civilization before that.

If that’s the case, please read this post on Poesis:  the lost art of reverent production.

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