Some Do Nots for writers and artists:
- Tell your life story
- Enclose a poem (unless submitting to a poetry magazine in which case enclose 6-8, single spaced, typed, previously unpublished)
- Include a picture or an illustration (not applicable for visual artists)
- Worry about someone stealing your idea
- Accuse someone (famous) of stealing your (unpublished) idea
- Post on Facebook about how difficult being an artist is
- Write a blog about how you should have been invited to see the Queen
- Spell the important person’s name wrong
- Chase up continuously
- Send simultaneous submissions
- Criticise another (better know) writer/artist or their work publically
- Respond to a rejection
- Ask for feedback
- Send your work to the wrong place
- Send your work to the wrong person
- Tell a critic they can change your life
- Tell an agent they can change your life
- Tell a random person working in a theatre/funding organisation etc they can change your life
- Use lots of different coloured fonts
- Quote your Grandma
Anyone would think artists are idiots.
Why do we do these idiotic things?
Because we’re young/inexperienced/mentally ill/deluded/having a bad day
But often, I think, because this line of work is soul destroying. Of course most of us are warned of this early on. The warning has absolutely no effect on us stubborn folk who don’t see any other option for our lives except to write/to make theatre/to perform etc etc… and therefore find ourselves continually looking for help, support, opportunity, money, audience, publication, commissions…
Working in this industry is soul destroying and that can result in us suffering from temporary mind-loss and doing some pretty ridiculous, irrational things. Of course these aren’t big things. No wars have been started over a silly covering letter.
Because these aren’t big things, because our silliness doesn’t hurt anyone, I wonder if it’s reasonable to request some compassion from those on the receiving end of our idiocies. Many of those on the receiving end are actually being paid to receive our mistakes. Many are not, many are writers or artists like the rest of us and probably made similar mistakes at some point. So either way…
Here’s an example from my own true-life story:
Five years ago I submitted a few poems to a magazine and forgot about them, being accustomed to sending poems into black holes. I set up a do-it-yourself website for the first time. I put a few poems on my website. I received an email from the editor saying that she had read my poems with interest but then discovered I had already ‘published’ them on my website:
‘I realise this may be an alien concept to you, as someone who appears to be more at home performing than publishing, but if you want to get ahead in print as well as on stage, it’s something you will have to accept and embrace…otherwise you will very rapidly make yourself unpopular with editors.’
I’d only just made the website and it’d had about three views, I’d partly forgotten about the submission, but I also hadn’t quite clocked that putting it on my personal website counted as ‘publishing’. I immediately took the poems down and apologised profusely. Of course my poems were not published in nameless magazine. I was let off with a slapped wrist and instructions to buy the Writers and Artists yearbook (which I’d bought and read years before).
(That is by no means the most idiotic mistake I’ve made but the other ones are so idiotic I’m too embarrassed to share them.)
Of course we need to put ‘soul destroying’ in perspective. Cleaning toilets for a living is more soul destroying. Standing in a dole queue is soul destroying. Working in a call centre is soul destroying. (Whether or not the above activities are more soul destroying for aspiring artists than for non-artistically-afflicted folk I can’t say.) Artists and writers should be grateful for any shred of encouragement, or sliver of success we get, we should be thankful for any time we manage to spend writing/making at all. The trouble with us is we’re insatiable and ambitious.
What makes an otherwise rational and intelligent person act like an idiot?
I believe the answer is a mix of ambition, Sisyphus, and black hole syndrome.
Black hole syndrome is when you get no response to your communications. These could be emails, letters, submissions, tour booking queries, invitations to see your work, etc. When no replies are received to a large number of the above, over a period of several years, you feel that you are pouring yourself into a black hole. The whole exercise becomes slightly absurd. You lose perspective, you might (subconsciously, you understand) start to view yourself as a kind of subhuman creature not deserving of a reply.
You get so used to receiving no response that you start to believe it is indeed a black hole, and at this point, a kind of fuck it mentality takes over and that is when the idiotic email is sent. And of course, sometimes, the idiotic email gets a response. Not a good one.
Sisyphus is basically a Greek version of the above.
Ambition is a Jekyll and Hyde character. Hyde is about success, acknowledgement, maybe also about money (even if just on a paying-the-bills scale). The Hyde side propels us to submit scripts, to write funding bids, to email important people, to keep emailing important people, to keep looking for opportunities. It makes us blinkered and driven, it prevents us from being satisfied with where we are, with what we’ve got, it produces in us a strange cocktail of self belief and hope and persistence, ambition is what makes us constantly unsatisfied therefore constantly trying to get our work seen, made, heard, acknowledged.
The Jekyll side of ambition propels us to make better, to write better, to take risks with our work, to think big, or small and complex, or simple and beautiful, or new and strange… This side of ambition doesn’t go away either, not even when the book is published or the great review received or the commission achieved, ambition is what makes us constantly unsatisfied therefore constantly trying to make better work.
Of course not all people have split personalities. Some might only be Hyde types. Perhaps they could go down the commercial route if they are naturally talented, but ambition for success without ambition to make better work is not a winning formula in the long term. Then of course there are those with the ambition to keep developing their work but no ambition for success, acknowledgment, etc. There are quite a few of those. Some reckon that being good and working hard at what they do is enough, they perhaps think they shouldn’t have to send endless communications into the black hole. Some don’t have to, because they get lucky early on. Some make great work but no one sees it. If they’re happy –great. But I’ve met a few folk on this side who are a bit bitter. Maybe that’s because they’re not listening to their inner Hyde.
(Neither Jekyll nor Hyde are ever satisfied.)
*end of dodgy literary metaphors
‘Normal’ people, when faced with rejection after rejection, decide to change career/expectations. This is perfectly rational. Artists and writers, because of the strange mix of ambition, hope, self-belief and love, stick with it. Obviously this makes us a little unusual. It makes us a little deluded, if we weren’t, we’d give up. This delusion ingredient is essential, but a bit risky, at some point we need to stop being deluded and start to see our work in perspective. Hopefully we are only just the necessary amount of deluded to keep going.
So black hole syndrome resulting in idiotic communication is one feature. Another is idiotic email/letter/communication sent to important person in response to actually getting good response from important person. This is of course ludicrous. Writer/artist in question finally receives the news they have been waiting for. Perfect opportunity to act like a normal human being and respond in rational fashion. But artist/writer does not do this, writer/artist responds in idiotic fashion. Why would artist/writer self sabotage in this way? I think the answer might be because writer/artist has pinned so much on this response, has been waiting so long for this response, is amazed that they are actually receiving communication from a human, has bottled up all their ambition and ideas and hopes for so long, is pinning everything on this poor person, that suddenly they let it all out and say too much/beg/explain how difficult they are finding it or commit other idiotic mistake listed above. Writer/artist doesn’t hear from important person again. Artist/writer mortified.
The web is full of people giving advice, full of rules on how to submit work, full of Facebook comments from editors complaining and laughing about idiotic communications they have received, and full of earnest writers and artists making mistakes. I have beaten myself up on many occasions for being an idiot. I’m sure I’m not alone.
So next time we fuck up, instead of directing our anger at ourselves, let’s instead think of all the other writers and artists who are at that moment fucking up too. Let’s pool our mortification and self-loathing and blinkered ambition, let’s imagine it draining away into the black hole of our collective hope, and let’s give ourselves a fucking break.
To those on the receiving end of our many idiocies, please remember that this profession is full of hope and full of rejection. Constant rejection makes even the best of us act like idiots now and then.
Artists are Idiots.
(Have some compassion)
Hannah Silva just got her first poetry collection published, you can buy it from Penned in the Margins
And she is currently touring a play ‘The Disappearance of Sadie Jones’
Birmingham, Capital Theatre Festival 20th November
Plymouth Peninsula Arts 21st November
London, The Pleasance, Islington: 26-30 November