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Monday, 24 June 2013

A case of the muzzled muse

Entering the working world can be riddled with paradoxes for the creative type. Since you have an artistic temperament, it makes sense that you should gravitate towards more creative careers.

But herein lies the dilemma. Once you transfer your creativity to the workplace, others start putting sanctions on it. Regulating it, directing it. Compressing it into a cramped and clinical office cubicle.

Because when you're working for the man, man, it's all about the profit - which can sometimes mean muzzling your muse.


When I trained as a journalist, one of my tutors used the analogy of a "straitjacket" to illustrate the news writing process. I learned how to write in tight, punchy copy, but I also learned how to erase any trace of character from my articles.

Newspapers generally don't expect readers to finish most stories, so articles are structured in a funnel shape, with key information, quotes and sources strategically arranged in descending order of interest. Any elbowroom left for creativity could well find itself at the mercy of a slash-happy sub-editor, who will have no qualms chopping off your narrative coup de grace from the bottom of your story to meet strict word counts and deadlines.

Sadly, I've found that one of the most prized qualities of a good writer in the fast-paced world of business is not their capacity for independent thinking - but their ability to assume another voice entirely to better represent a brand or client. I've encountered content mill companies that order "batches" of articles from hard-up writers and sell them on to high profile clients for disproportionately more than they pay the writers - the lifeblood of their company. These clients, which are often household names, might then go on to post your work under an in-house writer's byline, instead, to give their blog a "home-grown" feel.

Of course, as with anything, it's possible to be creative within a predetermined framework. In fact, it can stretch you - just look at poetry written to formal structures. Then again, the knowledge that you're challenging yourself as a writer offers lean comfort when you're penning a piece that might as well have been put together with a random article generator. (I once was lumbered with arranging the horoscopes section of a newspaper. "Are you feeling under-appreciated by a colleague, loved one, acquaintance, associate or well-wisher?")

On the other hand, feature articles and reviews offer somewhat more scope for creativity, and sometimes, just sometimes, you get to break the rules. In fact, the more established you are, the more you might be afforded the luxury of writing for yourself as well as others. But this presents another creative conundrum - in order to break the rules, first you have to play by them. And the fact that wealth, status - as well as a hefty dose of luck - should be pre-requisites to living with a bit of creative integrity intact is a little sad.

My parents would probably tell me that that's the point of adulthood - taking orders from people you don't like to do things you don't want to so that you can make money you probably won't see. Now, I get that constructive feedback is essential to the creative process, and a certain degree of compromise is to be expected in any money-making venture - but contemplating a career that doesn't feed my soul is hard to stomach.

So what's the hungry artist to do? If making money mattered more to me, and I was a little savvier, at this stage I would probably be whipping out allusions to my "5-Step Plan to Creative Success" and soliciting subscriptions to my exclusive newsletter.

But honestly, I'm still trying to figure it all out myself. One thing I've realised is that picking a career that involves my craft - or even in going against my gut and pursuing one that doesn't - doesn't have to signal the end. At least, so long as said career doesn't take over my life (unless it's ultra rewarding). That way, I can leave work at the door at the end of the day and pick my inner artiste back up again when I come home, like an attention-starved beagle. This makes some sense to me. Freelancing and self-employment are appealing prospects, too, but not so feasible full-time. Ideally, I would be "gainfully unemployed" and spend my days on artistic crafts, honing my carpentry skills for my self-sufficient log cabin in the woods undertaking, and making up any loose ends by, you know, dog-sitting. Or something.

Until that day arrives, I can only plod along the best way I know how - by taking the less unreasonable work opportunities that come my way and, every now and then, reclaiming some of myself with short, sharp bursts of frenzied creative activity (like this post).

2 comments:

  1. I can completely sympathize. If I figure out a way to feed my inner artiste and my mortal body and still maintain a happy balance, I shall let you know.

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  2. Thanks, Lynny! It's such a comfort to know there are others going through the same thing. I guess the creative life wouldn't be what it is if it wasn't so bittersweet.

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