Oh how I used to despise the precious writer. You know the one I mean: the one who never speaks of her projects for fear of upsetting her own fragile self, the one who sighs with such depth, when asked who she is or what she does, that any further conversation is rendered impossible. You wouldn’t dare advise her on her craft; and she wouldn’t dare take your advice even should you be audacious enough to offer it.
I used to think that writing was more like running a campaign. You don’t keep your project secret; you keep it the opposite of secret. You talk about it until your throat goes dry; you solicit input and approach every interaction with an admirable but alarming earnestness.
I used to think that. Until recently. Until I slid, somehow, from the realm of the hobbyist writer into that of the professional writer, and started to work on something serious and long. Something that had been growing and changing for two years. So thrilled was I by its daily progress—much like a mother infatuated by her baby’s tiniest developments—that I felt compelled to report every thought I had on it to everybody I knew who would listen.
And then I found out something else: that everybody I knew who would listen, would also respond with opinions, and advice. Was it their own desire to be part of the creative process, to impact the project in some way? Were they trying to prevent me from straying into disastrous zones? Were they completely and utterly full of shit? I didn’t know; but I knew one thing: I was overwhelmed, and my energy was fading fast.
But surely it’s great to receive free advice?
You would think, wouldn’t you. You would even, if you were being charitable to the human race, hope. You would hope that the creative process be a collaborative, not a secretive, one. You would hope that every insight might bring us closer to a finished and powerful product.
It’s logical, that train of thought. It’s how politics works: candidates (the smart ones, anyway) hire pollsters to gather information, which is then, by the magic of analysis and luck, turned into advice, and used by spin doctors to shape and reshape the candidate’s image until he appeals to the greatest number of people possible. And when he’s managed to appeal to a majority, he wins the race.
The creative process is not, of course, about winning or losing, not in the same way that a political campaign is. There’s a very straightforward rule for running a political campaign, and if you’re only concerned with success (as opposed to ethics, or advancing a cause, or revising the sick system of electoral politics), it’s your mantra : win 51% of the votes. Simple.
It gets more complicated when it comes to composing a piece of music, or writing a book, or painting a picture. Nobody wins and nobody loses, even when the final product has been released to the world. Not as such. Still, the creative “wins” when his work is accepted in its field; he wins even bigger when that same work turns out to be a success. It isn’t a neat win, but in so far as it allows him to continue doing what he both enjoys and is good at, it’s a personal win. It’s what we all strive for.
So, if that’s true, why on earth shouldn’t I—why can’t I—, as a writer, do exactly what the pollsters and politicians do? Why can’t I aggregate all the responses to my work and use what my constituents (or my readers) say to craft the thing they are most likely to a) read and b) enjoy? After all, if I’m honest, as a writer, that’s what I want most in the world. I want people to read what I write and find that it impacts or affects them. That, if we’re using political terms, is my 51% of the vote.
Well, here’s why. Because my readers are not constituents. And if I treat them as such, I immediately lose that rare and balanced relationship between a creative and his consumers. My readers are human beings, each one completely independent from me. They do not need me, thankfully, to fix their broken healthcare system, or invade another country for them, or soothe their financial burns. They do not rely on me for anything which is fundamentally crucial; I’m not the protector of their liberty or the harbinger of their glory. I’m the person who entertains them, and, if I’m lucky, makes them think.
Therefore, it would be doing them a disservice to pander completely to their whims. If I write a book which is somehow, miraculously, exactly what each potential reader of mine wants to read, I fail. I lose. Because who does that challenge? Who does that entertain, who does that provoke? Nobody. The book which pleases everybody becomes stale upon conception; it’s a sterile, empty thing. It’s both worthless and ultimately harmful.
Just like the politician who pleases everybody. A true leader is not afraid to piss a few people off (see the current healthcare debate in the USA), because he knows that it is impossible to make every single one of his constituents happy without becoming something false. Surely it’s more important to advance a cause, or put forth an interesting idea, than to earn the approval of the entire room. This is not a campaign for prom queen, it is real life.
So there I was. Writing a book and feeling so insecure about the whole process that I not only craved but sought out every glimmer of advice-like stuff from everybody I’d ever known (or not known). And receiving more input than I knew what to do with. And tearing my hair out because I simply didn’t know how I could make the book fit both his idea of it and hers; how it could be two opposite things simultaneously whilst still maintaining its essence.
When I realized: I don’t have to listen to everybody. I don’t have to listen to anybody, if I don’t want to, but I think it would be stupid, shortsighted, and selfish to ignore the world around me. But mostly, I don’t have to listen to everything that everybody says. If Person A gives me one piece of good advice and one piece of bad advice, I don’t have to take both pieces, but neither do I have to ignore both pieces.
Oh. That’s your epiphany?
Yes. My epiphany is that I am my own politician, my own pollster, my own spin doctor, and my own constituency. And so are you, and so is she. The creative process seems easier than the political one, because it’s less definitive; actually, that lack of definition makes it vastly more complicated, and vastly more rewarding. What I’m saying to you in essence is this: creativity is not, nor should it ever be, secret or steadfast; but neither should it ever become so democratic that it loses all structure.
I can’t claim that I’ll get the balance right, on this or any other book, but I can claim that I’ll do my best, from here on out, to think of my project as something that has enough integrity of its own not to be moulded by the slightest wisp of advice, but enough malleability that it can be shifted, when needs be, without too much effort or emotional exhaustion.
And at the end? I can’t say with any certainty; but what I hope is that we’ll have something which pleases some, displeases others, but at least unites them all when they say that it is fully formed, it is well-thought out, it is, whether we like it or not, good at being what it is.