Here there be dragons

dragon mapI do not write for a select minority, which means nothing to me, nor for that adulated platonic entity known as “The Masses.” Both are abstractions, so dear to the demagogue, I disbelieve in. I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time.
Jorge Luis Borges, author’s note to “The Book of Sand”

Writers, artists, inventors, scientists – we all start out as beginners, amateurs, doing what we do because we love doing it so much. If we are writers we send friends copies of our little essays or books; if we are artists we give them pictures for Christmas; if we are inventors or scientists we dream that our little discovery or gizmo will benefit the world. In other words, we start ‘doing’ because we are ‘in love’ by which I mean we are creating in a state of love.

Eventually, the time may be months or years, we start to think about extending our reach, spreading our message, expanding our circle to include more than friends and acquaintances. We measure how many followers the blog has, wonder if we can sell our creative work in a gallery or bookstore, debate whether we should get a patent or partner and start a company. We enter another territory.

None of these things are wrong in themselves but they are like the big blank areas seen on old seafaring maps that read in spidery script, “Here there be dragons.” If we are not careful and alert, we can move from action taken in love to action taken by ego, from action born in creativity to action designed to please others.

In fact, it is almost inevitable that we go into this unknown territory and get lost – at least for a while. It is a very heady sensation to know that something you have done is liked by others – the more the better. And it is normal to want to continue that love affair with the greater public – nothing is sweeter than appreciation. But it is a dangerous affair in which compromises are expected.

One day you may find yourself deciding to write about something that will attract more readers or support a popular viewpoint. Your art may start reflecting the critics’ perspective rather than your own. Your inventions may be designed to please stockholders and bottom lines.

If this is where the detour ended, it might be acceptable to cater to your audiences, but more likely than not, those compromises usually twist or end your originality. The creative muse does not operate from the back seat but must drive herself. I often hear artists, in particular, talk about the muse as a woman and say that she is a hard mistress.

I believe that is true. To really access the creative well, nothing must stand in the way – not audiences, or demographics, or market trends, or stock offerings. Creative people may be criticized for being self-centered or ego-driven, of caring for more about their art form than their families, and to a certain extent that can be true – but it is the nature and the price of the gift.

I think Borges’ words are a good reminder to keep our priorities straight. We must forget our audiences, fame, money and acknowledgement for all of these things can easily pass away leaving us empty and broken. Instead we should spend our creative currency in pleasing ourselves, our friends and easing the passing of time.


12 thoughts on “Here there be dragons

    1. Hmmm. I am less concerned about ownership after the fact than the creative intention before the fact. While many writers, for instance, can be successful and popular by writing to the market demand, I think the more that consideration is important during the creative phase, the less likely original work will result. I suspect that market driven writing often results in formulaic genre work – not that there is anything the matter with that, it is just less likely to be original, energetic, (dare I say) sublime.


      1. And Barthes would argue, I’m sure, that the creative intention itself is diminished in relevance.

        I pay heed to the arguments which say that distinguishing between ‘literary’ or ‘serious’ fiction and ‘popular’ fiction sets up a meaningless barrier. I feel we should avoid using the word ‘formulaic’ as a literary put-down, as even the most original writings can conform to literary metanarratives.


      2. You bring up many interesting points. Intention, whether in the creative realm or in everyday actions, to my mind is critical and the determining factor of execution. I have no problem with formulaic or writing to genre, or using that blueprint as a basis for writing; and I there is nothing wrong in having something you write gaining popular acceptance. But I think there is a difference between writing as a market-centered activity/goal, and writing in response to a more non-personal self-expression. To my mind it hinges on the intention in the writing of it. Many serious or literary works bore me while genre mystery stories are enjoyable – there is no value judgment at work here. To write to make money is no better or worse than to write for self-expression – the intention is just different.


      3. I wonder what will have happened to our intentions in a thousand years’ time? I often speculate about the value which a future archaeologist would put on our various and varied works of literature if he/she found them. It sobers me to think of the fleeting nature of my own intentions compared to the potential longevity of my product…


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