Professor Wu's Rulebook

The writer’s paradox: can you retain your creative freedom if someone pays you to write?


We live in an age where author’s incomes are collapsing to abject levels; when we are forced to work ever harder for lower pay, often holding down multiple jobs to supplement our creative endeavours.

This is, of course, not necessarily unique to the writers of the neoliberal era – where profit and money are prioritised ahead of new creative ideas. Indeed, the image of the artist struggling against adversity in order to placate their muse’s inspiration is one that has been with us perhaps as long as art has (and this itself may have something to do with the fact that artists and writers love to paint a picture of themselves within this romanticised idyll of artistic struggle).

The artist as a sell-out

Nonetheless, the question of where one’s next meal is coming from remains a pressing issue for countless aspiring creatives. And while it is therefore only natural for writers to pursue a means of actually accruing funds to purchase said meal, this itself is something often brushed over by creatives, perhaps due to some unspoken taboo about making money from one’s art. The term ‘sell-out’ still carries enough weight of negative connotations to deter artists from speaking about the ways they earn their daily bread, unless of course they do so through ‘acceptable’ means (these being somewhere along the lines of working a dozen hours a day, seven days a week in some back-breaking or soul-crushing job – preferably shovelling sewage or else shifting several tonnes of letters and parcels at the local post office).


To those creatives who may be deemed to have ‘sold out’, such accusations against them are usually dismissed (by themselves, of course).

Accepting an Academy award in 1972, writer, director and actor Charlie Chaplin said: “I went into the business for money and the art grew out of it. If people are disillusioned by that remark, I can’t help it. It’s the truth”.

Other artists have dealt with accusations in other creatively dismissive ways. When roots-music producer and civil rights activist John Hammond claimed Jazz hero Duke Ellington had sold out to the man, Ellington claimed Hammond was acting in “his role an ‘ardent propagandist’ with connections to the Communist Party.”

Ellington’s response set the tone for further op-eds as to the problem with the ‘sell-out’ label. While Thatcher and Reagan reigned supreme in the 1980s, Harpers Magazine described it as being “an old Stalinist term”.

Fighting for creative freedom

getpaidorstarveartist-300x401Yet it is clear that a reader or fan – or a peer or a critic – can claim an artist has sacrificed some of their originality and flair as a result of being paid to create art, and for that person not to be a raging communist. Indeed, writers can feel it within themselves: as Shakespeare writes in Sonnet 10, “Alas! ’tis true, I have gone here and there/ And made myself a motley to the view/ Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear.”

This personal torment of artists faced with trying to retain their creative freedom whilst meeting the needs of patrons or ‘bosses’ is captured in a stunning letter from the poet William Blake. Having been commissioned by a priest, John Trusler, to write a new piece for him, Blake found the task impossible, for it required what the poet saw as disobeying the muse. In a letter to Tusler, Blake explains:

“[I] cannot previously describe in words what I mean to design, for fear I should evaporate the spirit of my invention… And tho’ I call them mine, I know that they are not mine, being of the same opinion with Milton when he says that the Muse visits his slumbers and awakes and governs his song when morn purples the East, and being also in the predicament of that prophet who says: “I cannot go beyond the command of the Lord, to speak good or bad.”

Such a paradox has also been described by the composer Illich Tchaikovsky, who, in a letter to his patron in 1877, wrote:

“Of course it is not a degradation for an artist to accept money for his trouble; but, besides labour, a work such as you now wish me to undertake demands a certain degree of what is called inspiration, and at the present moment this is not at my disposal. I should be guilty of artistic dishonesty were I to abuse my technical skill and give you false coin in exchange for true only with a view to improving my pecuniary situation.”

Writing and modern capitalism

All aspiring creatives will uncover their own ethical dilemmas during their lives, both personal and professional. Everyone, of course, has different desires and needs; but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. In writing for money, it is inevitable we will eventually find ourselves in situations similar to Blake and Tchaikovsky; as we will all inevitably be asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about – whether that means cutting a character we cared about from our novel or writing as a trilogy what was only ever intended to be a short novella.


Of course, choosing how we respond to these situations is what will define us as artists and writers. Yet even if we stay ‘true’ to ourselves and our muses, it may no longer be possible – if it ever was – to avoid ‘selling out’ in some way shape or form. We live in a world of artificiality and commercialism; where that which is successful begets further success, and shapes the market in order to maximise profit for shareholders. This is why we see copies of novels that are copies of other successful novels; why we are given sequels and prequels instead of new books by new authors; why every movie is now a re-boot or part of a never-ending franchise; why every song is auto-tuned and sounds the same as every other piece of music we have heard that year.

You can use what happened to the so-called punk movement as a case study here. In the excellent book ‘Gatekeepers: The Emergence of World Literature in the 1960s’, the author William Marling notes how the great American poet Charles Bukowski was able to maintain his authenticity; “remaining completely himself: ugly, drunk, and interested in sex” – and in doing so, “made headlines”, with numerous Punk magazines, including Liberation remarking how great the poet was because of this. Indeed, in a curious further paradox, Bukowski became more successful, and more famous, the more he tried not to be.

A similar fate often awaits those artists who attempt to defy the mainstream or live outside of it. The late, great writer Mark Fisher writes in ‘Capitalist Realism’ how the new world of capitalism has affected original thought and creativity in profound and impossibly stifling ways. Using the example of Kurt Cobain and ‘Alternative’ music, he notes:

“In his dreadful lassitude and objectless rage, Cobain seemed to have give wearied voice to the despondency of the generation that had come after history, whose every move was anticipated, tracked, bought and sold before it had even happened. Cobain knew he was just another piece of spectacle, that nothing runs better on MTV than a protest against MTV; knew that his every move was a cliché scripted in advance, knew that even realising it is a cliché. The impasse that paralysed Cobain in precisely the one that Fredric Jameson described: like postmodern culture in general, Cobain found himself in ‘a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, where all that is left is to imitate dead styles in the imaginary museum’.”


It may always be that we find it easier to love artists and writers who are young, poor, and idealistic than those who dictate their latest novel to an assistant typist as they sip cocktails on the edge of a swimming pool. It may also be that even if we attempt to fight to retain our creative freedom and independence, that we will still find ourselves caught up by the marketplace, writing for cold-hearted bosses. Yet of course, to define ourselves in relation to money or the wider workings of the economy is to limit who we are, and accept the confining principles of the world as it is. This, if anything, is something writers and creatives should always resist; instead looking at ways to expand the reference points against which we measure ourselves.

As David Foster Wallace notes:

The only thing that’s capital-T-True is that you get to decide how you’re going to see something. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.”

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