What if no one wants my art? What if no one reads my writing?
I’m writing this from a beach resort in the Algarve where I have been taking the opportunity to do some thinking about longer range goals. There are things on my bucket list which are calling to me and I keep slapping them down.
“Not now,” I say. “I’m too busy.”
“Not now,” I say. “Later, much later, when I’m retired and don’t have the day job restrictions.”
“Not now,” I say. “Better to concentrate on doing more of what you know works.”
What I actually mean, I have come to understand, after much journaling and much staring out to sea thinking, is, “What if I make this art and no one wants it? What if I write these books and no one reads them?”
At first those were crippling questions because the only answer I could hear buzzing in my head was “Then you wasted all that time. All that effort will have been worthless.” Then, after yet more journaling, more wave watching and not an insignificant consumption of virgin mojitos, I understood: assuming no-one will take a second look is actually the best state in which to make art.
Assume that no one will ever hang your art. No one will ever read your book. Embrace that. Then create anyway. Because then you are making your art and spinning your tales just for yourself. There will be no holding back for fear of offending your mother or the conservative elements of your art circle. There will be no morphing your product to fit the imagined vagaries of the current market. There will be no writing what you think readers of Eat Pray Love want more of. No second guessing the art show juror. No crushing your soul to paint beach scenes for tourists. No holding back. No repressing instinct for a formula set by the author of the latest how-to blog ( who you will note, has never written anything except a well read blog on how to write a well read blog).
What there will be is exuberance. Expression. Experimentation. There will be bravery in your secret drawings, daring in your private sentences. You will write what you want to read, paint what you want to see. And in so doing you will create – cannot help but create – products that are of you. Only of you. Totally, utterly of you. You won’t care about opinions and rules. You will throw convention to the wind. And in so doing, you will find that elusive thing – your voice. You will make art that is fresh and unique. You will write sentences that resonate with truth. Which, as it happens, is exactly what is more likely to appeal to other people.
We have made the mistake in this day and age of conflating the act of creation with the act of selling. We anticipate how to do the latter before we start to do the former. Which is the wrong way around. ( Unless we are in the business of manufacture rather than creation). How can we know the market for a piece of art when, even as we stand open and willing at a blank canvas we have no idea what may come out of us if we get out of our own way? How can we write for the best seller list when our future readers don’t know yet that they want our book because they’ve never seen anything like it before? Doing only more of what other people have already more authentically done is doing ourselves a disservice.
The true value of a work is not in the sale price of the canvas. It is not in the quantity of the people who read it. It is in the quality of influence it exerts in the world. One person truly inspired by an image on my blog is better, in my book, than one hundred sold, but never really noticed, mass-ordered prints hung on the walls of cheap hotel rooms. One person reading and rereading my words or acting differently because of them, is preferable to a thousand broken-backed, suntan lotion-stained airport paperbacks tossed unremembered beside beach loungers.
But wait! If no-one at all reads your book, if not a single viewer admires your art, is it then worthless for lack of influence? That depends on you. Did you cherish the process? Did you thrill in the flow and challenge of writing it? Did you learn, about your art, about yourself, about the world? Did you finish and punch the air with achievement and want to start another? If so, you have created not only the art, the book, but also its worth. If others add more worth by their embrace of your endeavours, that is a bonus. But if it was worth it to you, for the sheer joy of the process, it is by definition not worthless.
It is true that I am busy and that now is not the ideal time, that I have other things on my plate. But those are reasons to move slowly, to envisage a long term project, to plan to work in tiny steps. They are not reasons to prevent me acting as if no one will ever see what I do. And so tomorrow, with my new found understanding, I shall sit in the sun and I shall, simply, begin.