Why writers need integrity
Part 1: creating, not catering
Creative life is a privilege. Recently, I read a manifesto for the creative life that disgusted me. It oozed advantage and entitlement.
Life is simple? Not for those whose homes have burnt in bush fires due to ecological degradation. Not for single parents working two or three minimum wage jobs. Not for refugees. Not even for those who have secure homes and a decent income but who are also full-time carers or struggling with chronic illness. For many people, simply figuring out the logistics of day-to-day life is a massive creative project in itself.
Those of us who create full time or have lives that don’t suck the marrow out of us, enjoy immense privilege. And we therefore carry a responsibility to create with integrity.
Creation over production
In one of his many poignant letters to his brother, Van Gogh notes how overlooked an artist can be:
Someone has a great fire in his soul and nobody ever comes to warm themselves at it, and passers-by see nothing but a little smoke at the top of the chimney.
In such a climate, it’s so much easier to give in to the fads of ‘what’s in’ or to produce pulp that doesn’t make demands of the viewer or reader. The poets Robert and Elizabeth Browning were painfully aware of this. Whilst Elizabeth’s risk-taking and unconventional approach did find admiration, Robert’s poetry was either dismissed or ignored. But neither of them wrote for approval. And Elizabeth was appalled that:
That such a poet [as Tennyson] should submit blindly to the suggestions of his critics… is much as if Babbage were to take my opinion and undo his calculating machine by it.
Creative vision is so easily diluted by the, often understandable, desire for plaudits and prestige. But once an artist or writer makes fame and/or money the goal, rather than something that may or may not happen, the more and more the paymasters will assume the right to tell the creator what to produce. Fame or income that comes along as a by-product is one thing, but courting it by producing to order takes away artistic control and the joy of creating.
Readers over critics
All artists need feedback. It’s good to push our boundaries and improve our craft. We write to communicate and to improve how we communicate involves being responsive to readers, being willing to take advice while honing our distinctive voices. We should hope to develop confidence in our writing rather than blind pride. And so we work with trusted readers or mentors to stretch ourselves. But this is very different than contorting what we write to fit the marketplace. And particularly when the market is likely to move on to the next fad before we’ve even finished trying to follow the last trend.
The eminently self-confident Walt Whitman wrote that:
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood.
after experiencing everything from bland dismissal to fierce hatred towards his publication of Leaves of Grass.
This didn’t mean he refused to listen to anyone. He also wrote:
Have you not learn’d great lessons from those who reject you, and brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt, or dispute the passage with you?
Rather it meant that he knew when to hold to his own voice and integrity. He had no time for professional critics who existed only to take others apart. And he is joined by many artists and writers who don’t read professional critics, not from over-sensitivity or hubris, but because it’s such an easy route listening to ‘what is in’ to moulding your work to please. In her diary, Susan Sontag noted:
Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol.
With integrity and vision
To remain risk-taking and true to an artistic and creative quest, to be humble enough to listen to good advice and confident enough to not deliberately court fame and approval, takes extraordinary integrity and vision. This is how the composer, Felix Mendelssohn put it:
When I have composed a piece just as it sprang from my heart, then I have done my duty towards it; and whether it brings hereafter fame, honor, decorations, or snuff-boxes, etc., is a matter of indifference to me.
He wrote this not as the famous person we now know, but during a time of anti-Semitism and a faddish popular taste. In his lifetime, he did not achieve fame and approval, but held to his creative integrity anyway, composing for pleasure and passion. Writing to Eduard Devrient, he says:
You reproach me with being two-and-twenty without having yet acquired fame. … I cannot help it, for I no more write to gain a name, than to obtain a Kapellmeister’s place. It would be a good thing if I could secure both. But so long as I do not actually starve, so long is it my duty to write only as I feel, and according to what is in my heart …
And he goes on to note an ironic fact about not trying to write to please:
I have hitherto found that the pieces I have composed with least reference to the public are precisely those which gave them the greatest satisfaction.
For the wild joy of being
Mendelssohn held to his vision and the voice of his heart, allowing for ‘success’ to be a by-product but not a goal of his art. Whitman held to his integrity when as a young poet, an unknown writer at a time when the going was hard because, as he later reflected, he had a vision that had nothing to do with fame, money or approval.
Has it never occurr’d to any one how the last deciding tests applicable to a book are entirely outside of technical and grammatical ones, and that any truly first-class production has little or nothing to do with the rules and calibres of ordinary critics?… I have fancied the ocean and the daylight, the mountain and the forest, putting their spirit in a judgment on our books. I have fancied some disembodied human soul giving its verdict. […] The quality of BEING, in the object’s self, according to its own central idea and purpose, and of growing therefrom and thereto — not criticism by other standards, and adjustments thereto — is the lesson of Nature.
When our writing arises from passion, from generosity, from connection with all life, it has its own pulse and spirit. When we create with this level of integrity, something deep and interior happens and all that is shallow falls away. Whatever we are creating takes on life of its own, a life that connects to all life.
Be a creator, not a producer
- for readers, not critics
- with integrity and vision
- for the wild joy of whatever you are brining to life
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — if you’d like to join writers who are diving deeply into the writing life and making transformations, sign up to my email list. You’ll also find free courses on my site. While you’re there, take a look at my book Writing Down Deep: an alchemy of the writing life.