Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Fame, Fortune, and the Writing Life

Came across the following quote on another blog.

“Lifetimes seldom fill a hundred years
why suffer for profit and fame”

- Shih-Wu (1272-1352)

It instantly reminded me of a post Brad Warner made about six months ago, in which he says the following:

I have chosen to try to make my living through my art, to be a professional writer and to devote myself to that craft rather than doing it as a side business. I am also a Zen teacher, but that's something I do for the love of doing it rather than to make money. Yet I write to make money. I don't have any qualms about this fact and I have made it clear on numerous occasions.

In order to make your living as an artist you need to be famous. No two ways about it. In order to earn as much from any kind of artistic pursuit as even the lowest level worker in any office or factory you have to spend a whole bunch of time effort and energy on promotion. So, yes, I pursue fame. But I pursue it not for the sake of being famous, which is mainly a pain in the ass. I pursue fame for the sake of making it possible to earn a decent living as a professional artist. And, as I just said, this has involved taking a massive pay cut. If you're thinking of pursuing a career as a writer, do not do it for the cash.

As a writer who has made almost nothing financially on his writing (a single $5 check), I do sometimes wonder about these kinds of questions. I'd love to have much work out there, have a few books published and get read by some people. And I'm also the opposite from Brad in that I'm not a big self-promoter, nor do I have any interest in "pursuing fame." Nether approach seems very smart in the end, though, as far as I'm concerned. This pursuit of fame business seems fraught with pitfalls. On the other hand, simply having my writing land anonymously in slush pile after slush pile hasn't exactly produced much, other than a healthy collection of rejection letters. What's interesting is that the longer I have practiced Zen (and yoga), the less drive I have towards being a famous writer. It's not something I aspire to anymore.

And yet, maybe one can have the passion to write, be published and read - to be heard and maybe have some little impact on others through "word creativity" - without that passion being tied to fame and fortune. I do think it's possible. What I find so troubling about the pursuit of fame, as artist (I write and I take photos), is the blur of motivation. How can you remain sincere, honest, thoughtful, and truly open creatively when you are also trying to please people, piss people off, get certain people's attention, etc.? Maybe it's possible, but I highly doubt it.

But let's face it: Shih-Wu is also asking us with his quote: What are you going to do with this precious life which goes so quickly?

No matter what, if you loose sight of questions like this one, you're going to slide away from the heart of this life. And that, even if it's surrounded by piles of adoration and money, is very sad.


ZenDotStudio said...

This is a very interesting question to me, and a timely post, especially as we approach the holiday season and people are buying stuff. For artists it's can be a busy time. Do I stretch my energy to do a craft fair at a yoga centre that I only just learned of today. What am I chasing? What does it matter in the grand scheme of things? These are the questions I was considering before I read your post.

And yet there is the need to make a living. And if you choose to try and make your living in the arts you need to do some promotion and networking. You have to decide how to do that. You have to be careful not to sell your soul to Walmart for a few scheckels. You want to be able to look in the mirror in the morning and know that you have acted with some integrity and money is not your bottom line.

In the end I don't think you need to pursue "fame". You do what you love, keep your eye on the ball and for me the key in promotion is to do what I can and not regard it as a big deal. Just another day doing what I really love and parts of that are less interesting to me than others

It's like washing the dishes, or vacuuming or cleaning the toilet, you may not love it but it can be done with integrity and mindfulness and heck it needs to be done.

Great post Nathan and fabulous photo. Keep writing, keep submitting as you feel drawn to. That's what it's all about if that's your passion. It's about keeping on, keeping on.

Nathan said...

Hi Carole,

I've been learning how to promote, raise money, and talk about money in general through being on two non-profit boards. It's definitely helped me get over some of that "shyness/reluctance" when it comes to these issues.

"You want to be able to look in the mirror in the morning and know that you have acted with some integrity and money is not your bottom line." This seems important no matter what you're doing, but especially in the arts I think.

All of these questions keep me on my toes, which is probably a good thing.

Sara said...


Interesting article - especially that someone was thinking and writing about the issue of chasing fame in the 1200's! (So much for progress).

I had a wry smile on my face as I was reading becuase I do some artwork and just sold my first work on ebay this morning! It feels weird to know that something I've created will be hanging on someone's wall.

I can't say I made millions - but if I enjoyed creating it, and someone else enjoys the idea of putting on their wall, then that seems OK to me. I guess its always a matter of balance - not selling your soul to K-Mart, but not starving to death in a garrett either.