What you sell, not make

Creative professions have two opposite demands: be an artistic genius! Pull solutions that are effortless and brilliant and otherworldly out of the goddamn air! But also! Sell things like precious little hot cakes! Get clicks! Make rent!

Rejection is soul-killing, but the capitalistic realities of creativity make it worse. In order to get paid as a creative, things have to sell, we have to grind for money, clients and CEOs have to approve the stuff you make them, even if they are making decisions entirely out of random personal preference. Rejection isn’t just a cold little email you don’t want to click. Rejection can mean you don’t get to eat, your debts don’t get paid, and then your kids need to take out expensive loans and repeat the cycle all over again.

In design, I just didn’t truck with artistic voice. Design is creative work, but it’s amplifying someone else’s message, helping users do their own work better. It wasn’t until I started writing books or drawing pictures that I really had to contend with voice and vision, and the capitalistic soul-killing commenced. Not so enriching to share something intimate and vulnerable with the world and have it collect fewer of The Red Hearts than an off-hand snap of someone else’s latte art on a sunny morning, am I right, ha ha ha! 🗡

How does an artist, especially a working artist, ride the line between some kind of creative career and staying true to their vision? Hopefully this mantra will soothe: Let other people determine what you sell, never what you make.

I find it particularly cruel to tell an artist that capitalism is a fortitude problem, that they should be completely unbothered by invisibility or negative feedback. Fact is, even the creative juggernauts we all look up to need encouragement and community, and are buoyed by external validation. You’re gorgeous and amazing, but you just need to hear it sometimes.

But yes, of course, if you listen to everybody, how will you hear yourself, etc etc etc. That’s why I like this middle ground, where all parties are recognized. You owe it to yourself to find your voice and learn how to speak with it, but you exist in a larger system, too. The way I do this personally is to go into a hole and spend time with all my obsessions and hurts, and pop up with an armful of stuff to explicitly submit, share, and gather feedback on.

Then it’s back into the hole, which is really more of a cozy little shelter with too much fascinating crap pinned up all over the walls.

What does sell-not-make look like for you? Using only the last week of the month to submit or share? Not telling anyone but your closest co-conspirators what you’re up to? Let me know if this advice opens up your own practice, I’d love to hear your tips, or share them next letter, if you’ll let me.


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December 8, 2021
art     creativity    


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