At the Intersection of Art and Commerce

Posted by on Sep 23, 2013 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

-by Christine Hale

Generations of writers have arrived at this crossroads. Agents, editors, mentors, or peers sagely instruct them, Keep at least one eye on the market.  Know what sells.  These days that seasoned wisdom comes with a corollary: Do everything you can to build your brand.

This is not bad advice.  But it is one-size-fits-all advice.  There are writers, young and not-so-young, who are good at brand-building.  Some of them enjoy doing so.  Those with this sensibility and this talent will build a brand, create saleable product, and may experience commercial success.  Those who don’t build brands, those who can only craft something beautiful or powerful for the pure psychic pleasure of doing so, some of these people will also achieve commercial success.  The odds, I’m pretty sure, are higher for the first group.  The odds of burnout are perhaps higher, too.  But isn’t burnout worth it if success–which in this culture at this time is almost always measured by some combination of revenue generated and celebrity achieved–is what you want and need?

Years and years ago when not everyone had an MBA, I earned one.  And I went to work for Wall Street.  Not because I loved money or investing but because I wanted financial security, lots of cool new things I saw in magazines and on TV, and success no one could argue with.  I lasted about five years.

When I quit, I thought of myself as a wimp and a failure.  I couldn’t take the heat.  I didn’t measure up. Plenty of people around me reinforced that judgment.  The process of overcoming this negative take on my true nature took a long time.

That process took the form of a Buddhist practice. A discipline that required me to sit down, literally, and practice patience at achieving nothing visible to others nor measurable by me. Reining in my affection for shiny, new stuff turned out to be relatively easy. This is not to say I’ve become an ascetic, but I am okay now with not being able to afford things that would be nice to have; in my family of origin there was always enough but only sometimes something extra. My wish for financial security–the desire to never worry if there will be enough to cover the bills next month or next year–has been thornier to deal with but I have learned, by necessity, and long practice, some patience with my anxiety about money and some trust in my ability and my husband’s ability to generate just enough just in time.  But that wish for inarguable, conferred-from-the-outside success, that’s provided plenty of grist for the mill of contemplation.   Who am I, really, when the question is “success,” and what do I have to offer? And how am I equipped, by sensibility and talent, to offer it?

For someone attempting to be a Buddhist–i.e., “awake”: undeluded and altruistic–creative writing has seemed to me an especially troublesome predilection.  The thousands of hours I’ve given it have earned me no livelihood and consumed time and energy I could have given my children, my community, or employers.  Like most writers, I’ve been called selfish and impractical by strangers and those I love.  I’ve been told pointblank I lack ambition.  It’s been underlined for me that some writers make lots of money so why can’t I just write the way they write? If my failure to do so is not the result of plain laziness or stupidity then some kind of stubborn attachment to my own preferences must be getting in the way of my commercial success.  In words borrowed from my pragmatic, southern Appalachian upbringing, I might be just “no-account.”

Over the eighteen years I’ve had a Buddhist practice, I have given up creative writing three times, each time for good.  I took up Buddhism in midlife for reasons having to do way more with drama in my personal life than in my writing life but I soon came to a crossroads: the inner commitment to a diligent practice of sitting in meditation versus the outer necessity of sitting at the desk to write stories while jumping up frequently to raise children and earn a living. I aspired to be practical and unselfish: Awake.  And since earning a living and raising the children were my non-negotiable circumstances, and what I was learning about myself and life from sitting gave me peace and helped me deal better with the non-negotiable stuff, it sure looked like the obvious candidate for lay-off was writing.  After all, I sure wasn’t succeeding with that.

The first time I quit writing, I was entering a thirty-day Buddhist retreat, made possible by a temporary full time teaching job I hoped would become permanent.   With a good salary and full benefits on the autumn horizon, I’d use the summer to really buckle down to a focused, uninterrupted practice of patience, perseverance, and insight meditation. I aspired to eradicate all my attachments–but especially the one that tied me to writing.  Once the full-time job began in the fall, I’d have no time to write anyway.

By the end of the retreat, I’d certainly had my patience and my perseverance tested (this is a long story, told in my memoir In Your Line of Sight: A Reconciliation). Partly as a result of that testing, I left retreat with a few insights about myself and the world and one of them had to do with my writing. It was no flash of enlightenment.  It was a palm-slapping-the-forehead duh moment.  My new job in academia required me to write–the publish-or-perish thing.  If I wanted to succeed in the job and have any chance of making it permanent, I’d have to write and write well.  And publish.

So, that retreat carried me full circle by a winding path.  I ended up where I started, only with more clarity and less delusion: I am a writer so I write.  I went back to writing. Plenty of patience was required to generate eight or more complete drafts of a novel and plenty more perseverance  was necessary through the several years and hundreds of rejections it took me to find a publisher.  While all that was happening, the permanent teaching job did not materialize and I went back to making my living piecemeal. Part-time, temporary teaching and editing.  Lots of financial insecurity and only the most modest success, as measured by others.

My jobs still require me to write and try to publish. And my jobs constantly bring me into contact with so many people’s writing, and their desires to publish, and in some cases their thirst for success on the terms offered by commerce.  I am constantly in contact, then, with the suffering occasioned by people’s struggle at the crossroads.  And, yes, my word choice, “suffering,” is very deliberate.  Some writers–not all writers, but many writers at some point in their writing lives–writhe in excruciating pain, torn apart at the intersection of art and commerce.  Some writers actually die from their failure to “succeed.”  Sometimes they only bleed out psychologically, becoming sad, bitter, and hardened.

Robert Johnson, iconic Delta blues guitarist, famously made a pact with the devil at a crossroads.  His soul in exchange for what would turn out to be a very short life of musical virtuosity, a little money, a lot of women, and lasting fame. (He is said to have died from poisoning, by a jealous woman or an enraged man, at the age of twenty-seven). Of course, “crossroads” as archetype of the dark power of fateful choice predates the bluesman’s story.

My point here is that the stakes are high.  It’s very hard to succeed commercially as a writer, and the inner and outer pressures to do so may never have been greater.  Fewer and fewer publishing venues pay for creative writing, and those that have promotion budgets typically provide them only to writers already successful at generating book sales. More and more writers find the onus for a launching and maintaining a writing career placed almost wholly on the writer her/himself.   Those who find this daunting may get from those who embrace it some version of this message:  Those who can, will sell.  Those who can’t, flee the marketplace and defend their failure to sell as the price of “making art.”

In urging writers to look closely at how they, personally, define “success,” I’m not a making a moral argument.  I’m talking about self-care, for writers.  I am urging each of us, including me, to recognize at each turn and each intersection in the long and winding road what one is capable of and what one has to offer. I’ve come to understand that I am, as writer, someone willing and able and excited to utter what Natalie Goldberg calls in Writing Down the Bones “the holy yes” to what I observe in the world.  I find my writer self resonating to the image of “a bell awakened,” found in Brenda Miller’s and Holly Hughes’ The Pen and the Bell, where writing is spiritual practice, “a rich, active form of paying attention to the self and the world.”

I’m not recommending Buddhist practice to all writers.  Nor am I suggesting that writing should be inherently spiritual for all writers.  Neither Buddhism nor spiritual practice of any sort suits everyone. After all, the Buddha himself is said to have taught 84,000 ways to reach enlightenment, out of compassion for different beings’ different sensibilities and talents.

But any writer might borrow a little from Buddhist wisdom.  When you suffer from “failure” or from “success,” ask yourself: Do I see clearly who I am, what I want, and what it may cost me to take that road?

Christine Hale‘s prose has appeared in Arts & Letters, Sow Palm, Apalachee Review, and The Sun.Her debut novel Basil’s Dream (Livingston Press 2009) received honorable mention in the 2010 Library of Virginia Literary Awards. A fellow of MacDowell, Ucross, Hedgebrook, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Ms. Hale been a finalist for the Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers and the Rona Jaffee Foundation Writers’ Award. She teaches in the Antioch University-Los Angeles Low-Residency MFA Program as well as the Great Smokies Writing Program in Asheville, NC. She has just completed a memoir, In Your Line of Sight, a finalist for the 2013 Autumn House Creative Nonfiction Prize.

1 Comment

  1. I like this very much–the authenticity, the substance, the style.

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