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Working from Within

Lemoille Canyon, Nevada. Credit: P. Pettit
I learned this from Robert McKee. A hack, he says, is a writer who second-guesses his audience. When the hack sits down to work, he doesn't ask himself what's in his own heart. He asks what the market is looking for. The hack condescends to his audience. He thinks he's superior to them. The truth is, he's scared of them or, more accurately, scared of being authentic in front of them, scared of writing what he really feels or believes, what he himself thinks is interesting. He's afraid it won't sell. So he tries to anticipate what the market (a telling word) wants, then gives it to them.
- Steven Pressfield, "The War of Art"

This essay by Steven Pressfield, from his interesting nonfiction book "The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles," delves into one of the trickier sand-traps for any writer attempting to make his or her way creatively in the writing profession. When the writer begins to look outside himself, to think hierarchically, that is about success and achievement, the rankings of others, the effect of his work not its authenticity, he is no longer working organically. He has lost touch with his ability to be genuine, to work as Pressfield calls it, "territorially."

Why not keep a firm eye on the market as you write, the trends in sales, the "likes" of everyone from agents to critics? Because to do so takes the writer out of that inward untempered mindset that produces powerful, authentic work. Writing to hit a trend, influence a sale, or deliver a predictable "hit," drops the writer into an uncertain anxiety - straight into the commercial realm of the hack. The hack doesn't have a true personal commitment to his or her work. The hack doesn't work from an unstoppable faith or passion in his or her idea. And while the hack may produce work that sells, it is destined to never be fully satisfying. It is not the truly original creative work only he or she is capable of.

Without a doubt, Pressfield is right. Yet. Does the writer not need to make a living, and aren't writers in everything from television to book adaptations working within market trends and demands? Yes. I think it is wise to know where in the business you want to be and what you're willing to risk. I also think it's possible to write for the market (e.g. produce commissioned freelance work) and go home at night and tune in to the great masterpiece in your mind, typing away on your laptop late into the wee hours. Most of us do this. Split ourselves between bread and butter work and what we're deeply passionate about. We take care of the bills with writing that pays those bills.

I met with my tax accountant recently, and the subject of the amount of years a writer can lose money at the "business" of writing came up. There is a set period of losses that are tolerable before "self-employed writing" falls from a business to a hobby in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service. Our commercial outlook as a nation is oriented to bottom-line profit, and the concept of working on pure speculation - your opus may or may not ever find a market home - is neither encouraged or valued by society. Van Gogh painted masterpiece after masterpiece yet never found a buyer during his lifetime. What did his accountant advise him? We can guess.

The hack is therefore a practical artist. But inevitably, the question must be confronted: Is the work is to make authentic art or make art that sells? While not necessarily at odds, usually art must come first to be original and distinct. The writer must work territorially, as Pressfield put it. That is, from within. And all the success to follow will then be long-lasting and meaningful.

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