Why creativity can ruin a writer’s career — before it starts

I don’t want to write literature. I’m not rich enough to pretend I’m a poet. I’d rather bite off my own earlobe than go to a literary party.

Make that both earlobes. I hate arty talk with a venom.

You might think these traits are a handicap for a writer. I used to think so too.

But the moment I admitted to myself that I could no more write a novel, short story or poem than I could spontaneously generate maggots in a jam jar – well, it was the turning point in my career.

Instead of wasting my time trying to cultivate the kind of creative imagination I couldn’t achieve and didn’t want, I switched my attention to the nuts and bolts of writing — the words, and the ways you can put them together.

From then on my stuff began to read less like other people’s and started to sound like the way I think.

It wasn’t a case of ‘finding my voice’. I just stopped looking for clever things to say.

Why creativity puts people off writing

There’s snobbery in all the arts, and writing is no exception.

Imagine a Top Trumps deck in which the cards represent different genres of writing.

The most valuable card would be The Novel, surrounded by a entourage of power trumps that placed Poetry and Drama in a rank above History and Biography.

The least desirable cards in the pack would be things like Copywriting, Technical Writing and Trade Mag Journalism.

I think we pick these values up at school. ‘Good’ writing is stuff like Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Orwell and what-have-you.

Bad writing is… well, if you want to read that stuff, that’s your guilty secret.

(In 1994 I was in a tutorial led by Robert Crawford. When he asked which of us had ever read a Mills & Boon novel, my hand was the only one to rise).

But I digress. The point I’m making is that we’re conditioned to admire the creative imagination first, and the words as some sort of servant to it.

That pisses me off, because I think it puts lots of people off writing.

People like me who might not have the creative imagination to write a novel or a book or a play, but who love the sounds, texture, patterns and shapes of words.

And who lose that love because they direct their energies at cultivating an imagination they don’t have, tilling it vainly for ‘literary’ ideas. They become failed poets, failed novelists, failed short story writers — when they could have been some of the most sparkling, engaging communicators out there.

So next time you find yourself cudgelling your brains to create characters you don’t want to meet, scenarios you don’t care about or poetry that does clever things with metre and nothing to the heart — then stop. Whip out your pen and jot down some bold, bouncy, brilliant prose about the stuff that really interests you — whether it’s beer, girls, or the migratory habits of fish.

And while you might not get fêted as the Next Great Literary Genius, you’ll have an audience of appreciative people who like your stuff — and the satisfaction of becoming the writer you want to be, instead of the thinker you think you ought to be.

14 responses to “Why creativity can ruin a writer’s career — before it starts”

  1. meg says:

    very good points – i agree absolutely that the relentless pursuit of creativity (whatever creativity means!) is almost guaranteed to stifle any that you have. just write, and see where it goes … this is advice i really should be taking myself, btw. put the kettle on, there’s a good chap

  2. Kevin says:

    On the button as always – great advice. Punchy, clear and colourful. Love ‘cudgelling your brain’
    (There’s a green dotted line under my first sentence above)
    Proof I am not a copywriter.


    * Off to buy a bottle of absinthe and start on my novel. *

  3. Rich says:

    I love your honesty. As a (youngling) copywriter myself, I agree with the sentiment. It is important to ensure that your writing energies are focussed along realistic paths – we don’t have time to waste on projects that don’t help us stay afloat – but I don’t agree that creative writers should abandon their ambition.

    I had a similar (or perhaps just related) realisation several years ago, and concluded that “originality s the enemy of Creativity”. For me, this was about writing music. Everything I produced sounded like a copy of something I liked, but then I realized that we can’t escape being influence by the things that inspire us. It’s ok to copy, fake, redirect, and respin old ideas into new shapes because the originality (if we’re still striving for it) comes from the new spin YOU have given it.

    What I’m trying to say is: don’t let go of a dream to create something important or profound, just shake off your outdated ideas of what “literary” or “original” might mean.

    Shit, was that “arty talk”?

  4. Gareth Cook says:

    A very interesting viewpoint, and one that makes a lot of sense. I think it’s important not to support a hierarchy of writing by perpetuating the myth that literature is somehow ‘better’ than the engaging, clear communication that the vast majority of people are far more likely to encounter on a daily basis.

    I’m caught in the middle of this one: poet and novelist by night, but a business writer by day to bring in the cash I need to support my other projects. For the record I don’t consider my ‘literary’ works of higher worth than the stuff I write for clients’ websites, brochures or videos. Just different.

    I’m privileged enough to be able to do both but I don’t look down on (or up to) either.

  5. Jo Murphy says:

    Oof! It’s healthy to discard false writerly ambitions, but exploring creative writing can be liberating (and totally self-indulgent). I recently started a creative writing course, not with the intention of getting published, but simply to have some fun – a writing workout, if you will.

  6. Tim Aldred says:

    Fully agree with your sentinments.

    I feel like I arrived at writing quite late because, in the beginning, I just assumed that writing = novels. I’ve never even wasted a moment dreaming that one day I’d write a novel. Not interested. Turns out, however, I’m a great technical writer and it’s something I really enjoy, too. So now that’s my day-job.

    When I tell people I’m a writer, the first question is always, “of novels?” and then I get to disappoint them with what I really do. But I’m happy.

  7. Oli says:

    Ben, I love this post. I could not agree more.

    I also *love* the tags 🙂

  8. Katie Saxon says:

    Oli – thanks for pointing out the tags, hadn’t noticed them!

    Bizarrely the idea of writing as a purely creative passion put me off studying English – I went and studied art instead because it seemed more practical. I kid ye not, it seemed like art could open up a world of design related jobs whereas English led either to writer or English teacher (failed writer).

    Such a shame that other jobs involving writing as a key skill are rarely mentioned at school.

  9. Lucy Smith says:

    Nice post. I sometimes feel like, because I can do one type of writing, I should be able to – and want to – write everything. But nope. I write for a job because I like it, but I don’t want to spend my evenings and weekends working on a novel that may or may not ever see the light of day. I have other interests.

    I also laughed at your tags. Some of those need to be used more often 😉

  10. Martin says:

    Wikipedia tells me that Charles Dickens’s last words, as reported in his obituary in The Times were alleged to have been:

    “Be natural my children. For the writer that is natural has fulfilled all the rules of art.”

    I’ll but that.

  11. Martin says:

    I’ll even buy it.

  12. I wanted to be a novelist right up to the point when I started my copywriting business. I had a real go at it too, spent years writing short stories for obscure magazines, did an MA in creative writing, wrote more short stories (one of which I got onto Radio 4), wrote a novel, found an agent, wrote the first draft of a second novel. And then I stopped.

    When I became self-employed, I realised that my yearning to write fiction was nothing to do with creativity and everything to do with not being a wage slave. I get everything out of my copywriting work that I thought I’d get out of being a novelist – no boss, control over my life etc etc. Plus the money’s way better than most novelists can ever hope to achieve.

    I don’t miss the creative writing at all. It’s probably a good thing that my agent never found a publisher for that book…

  13. David K says:

    Spot on, Ben. Most importantly in terms of pushing the equal validity of copywriting as a means of indulging a passion for words and a facility for using them.

    And let’s not pretend that ‘literature’ is any less commercial – one of the reasons why copywriting can be looked down on. Publishing houses increasingly only take on ‘safe sells’, which therefore ends up being what people write. Even the great Dickens himself, much celebrated with his current anniversary, changed the ending he wanted for “Great Expectations” out of fear people wouldn’t like it and sales would suffer. Arguably the integrity of the characters is poorer for that decision.

    All writers have their niche. Many novelists have proven to be poor short story writers because the discipline is completely different, requiring remarkable powers of economy – much like copywriters!

    I think my only quibble is with creativity. Copywriting can be incredibly creative. In fact, if you’re going to make your client’s copy stand out from their competitors’ then it has to be. Creativity can be concise! It can also be just as enduring as literature. Shakespeare is held aloft for bringing such expressions to the language as “there’s method in the madness” but we also have, “it does exactly what it says on the tin!” Commonly used now and from a Ronseal ad. A great example of deceptively simple creativity.

    Or how about getting over the message that cream cakes make you fat but it’s worth it. “Naughty but nice!”

    And of course, famously, that one was coined by Salman Rushdie during his days as a copywriter.

    So perhaps it’s more misdirected creativity that ruins careers. To thine own self be true!

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