Neil Gaiman’s answer to everything is, I gather: Make Good Art. An apparently simple instruction that has a lot of complex layers to it. Make good art… but how do you decide what’s good? Most creative people I know struggle with the tension between wanting to make what comes from your soul, and needing to do something that pays the bills. So often the things we could do for money are not the things we want to be doing, and the things we want to do are not always easily sold.
“Good art is entertaining” Ursula Le Guinn says. Good art reaches out to someone. I have no problem with anyone who wants to climb the ivory tower and make things purely for love, but if you go that way, there are consequences and there’s no point fretting over them. The accolades and respect we might feel we deserve does not always flow, not least because if you’re sat in the ivory tower, there’s every chance no one will know you exist, much less care about what you’ve made. If you want people to show up with praise and chequebooks, it is necessary to get them to give a shit.
“Do this commercial thing, and then you can do what you really want to.” I won’t name the guilty, but it’s a myth. Get a name for being commercially viable and it will not magically turn into love and trust to get your soul work out into the world. It may mean you can afford to work from the heart for a while, but you won’t be delivering what people expect and know you for, and they may not appreciate this, and that in turn, can hurt like hell.
There are no magic formulae to sort this one out, but the balance between being able to eat, and doing things that inspire you enough to keep wanting to do them, is at the core of making a creative life viable. To be good, it must not starve you, or break your mind irretrievably. To be good, it must at the very least be sustainable.
I’ve banged against this one repeatedly this year. I’ve seen people who are really focused on making it pay, and I know that all other issues aside, I can’t manage the output to pull that off. For an author, it means being able to put out a book every month or two, and I do not have the energy or the ambition to make that viable. I’ve seen the high art end, too, the folk who are not concerned so much about who their market is, and really feel they should not need to concern themselves with these things. Occasionally someone pulls that off and is successful, but mostly, it doesn’t work.
Being a Druid, I look for balance. I think there’s got to be some kind of middle way, making stuff that comes from the heart but that also reaches out to other people and engages them such that it is not unreasonable to ask for a few pounds here and there. It has to be a fair exchange, and therefore the art has to be good enough to be worth your pennies.
I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m heart-sore and struggling, but Mr Gaiman is right. There is nothing else for it. Make good art.