savor obscurity while it lasts

[More thoughts on “How To Be Creative”:]

35. Savor obscurity while it lasts.
Once you “make it”, your work is never the same.

It’s a familiar story, re-told countless times. An artist creates something amazing and wonderful when she’s young, poor, hungry and alone, and the world doesn’t care. Then one day something happens and her luck is changed forever. Next thing you know she’s some sort of celebrity, making all sorts of obscene sums, hanging out with royalty and movie stars. It’s a dream a lot of young artists have, something to sustain them during their early, lean years etc.
The funny thing is, when you hear the “rock stars” talk about their climb to the top, the part they invariably speak fondest of, is not the part with all the fame, money and parties. It’s the part BEFORE they made it, back when they were living in a basement without electricity and “eating dog food”, back when they were doing their breakthrough work.
Back when they were young, and inventing a new language to speak to the world with. More importantly, back when they were young, and inventing a new language other people could also speak to the world with.
Some years ago, after he’d been playing stadiums for a while, the rock singer, Neil Young was booed off stage by his fans when he tried playing new Country & Western material. They didn’t want to share his in new adventures. No, they had paid their money to hear the classic rock, dammit. “Down By The River” and “Heart Of Gold”, dammit. And if they didn’t get it, dammit, they’ d be out for blood. As events proved.
It’s hard to invent a new language when a lot of people are already heavily invested in your work [including yourself]. When a lot of people are already fluent in the language you’re currently speaking with, and they don’t want anything new from you. Like the Neil Young fans, they don’t want to see your metaphorical new movie, they just want to watch the sequel to the old one.
And success needs lots of people to keep the show on the road. When it’s just you, a dream, and a few cans of dog food, there’s only one person to worry about. But when the dream turns into reality, there’s all sorts of other people suddenly needing taken care of, in order to keep the engine running. Publishers, investors, managers, journalists, retailers, suppliers, groupies, employees, accountants… and the paying customers. They all have a stake your act, and they all want a piece of the action.
So you crank out another sequel and wait for the money to roll in. It’s a living.
Of course, one reason the rock stars can speak of their basement-and-dog-food era so fondly is because it eventually came to a end; it didn’t last forever. And with all the world tours and parties, this era of creating their seminal work soon became a distant memory. So quite naturally, they miss it. But if they were still “eating dog food” after a few decades, I doubt if they’d be waxing so lyrically.
But as long as you can progress from it eventually, it’s a time to be savored. A time when your work is still new to you, a time when the world doesn’t need to be fed, like a voracious animal.


  1. Your point about “if they were still eating dog food after a few decades, I doubt if they’d be waxing so lyrically” is profound. Those who chase a dream and do not reach it are often bitter. But those who reach the dream also can become jaded.
    Once you have established a personal “brand”, it is hard to reinvent yourself. Not just because of your audience, which you rightly point out…but also because of yourself. Too many people identify themselves by their craft and not at a deeper, more personal level.
    However, just because it is hard does not mean it is impossible. I hope to reach my goals and then find new ones to chase. I hope that I can have many lives.

  2. I stumbled upon your “How to be Creative Manifesto” a few months ago and what an inspiring document! It completely changed my perspective on things and I am no longer the jaded creative type, as Thom describes in his comment.
    In fact, I recently made a podcast talking about your manifesto– they should be teaching this in school.
    Anyhoo, I am so happy to also stumble upon the fact that you’re adding to the manifesto on your blog. “Savour obscurity…” another great piece of advice. I am so obscure right now but enjoying it because no one is telling me to “change that cartoon”!
    Thanks again and RSS feed subscribed!

  3. One of the interesting things to watch is what happens when artists are forced to reinvent themselves. For example, after the Dixie Chicks dared criticize President Bush, they lost a core part of their audience. Radio stations stopped playing their music, their songs dropped off the chart, and CD sales plummeted. They had to become a new group in order to keep making music.
    At the end of “Shut Up and Sing,” the documentary that followed this chain of events, one of the trio, Martie Maguire, talks about how, in spite of the ugliness, there was a positive. As a group, they had to return to basics and figure out who they wanted to be, the music they wanted to create, and the audience they wanted to attract.
    However, they didn’t have the option of “eating dog food.” They had families and employees to support—definitely not the most ideal circumstances for reinvention. I do wonder, regardless of what they say, if the group has any regrets because they sacrificed a lot in the process that I’m not sure they can get back.

  4. Too bad there’s no “mark this post as a favorite” icon. Five stars. :)
    Actually, more for the subject matter than anything else. We need more posts about this topic in general, not just from you, but from everyone reading this.

  5. Yeah, although I can’t help but think of Radiohead and, well, maybe it’s just Radiohead these days.
    They regularly pissed off their ‘core’ fans and made music so dense and obscure that it took some fans – myself included – months or even years to come to terms with the new things they were doing.
    The fact about Radiohead, though, is they’re actually just so fucking brilliant that they always end up being right – they create beauty in a way that no one really thought it could be created. And they expand our minds in the process.
    Miles Davis did it, too. The Beatles, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce – people who represent the absolute dedication to the craft and the art. Also, they were geniuses.
    For the every day, non-genius artist maybe this holds more true but…. still need the caveat in there.
    If you’re a really dedicated artist, you’re willing to take risks for the sake of big-A Art, and you’re also – as I said – completely fucking brilliant then that sort of complicates the argument.
    My take, at least.

  6. I’d also like to add, whether you’re below water or above water, you have a dysfunctional relationship with your audience. In one case, they ignore you and refuse to acknowledge that you exist. In the other, they think they own you.
    An artist can have millions of fans, but very few of them will have the attitude of “I wonder where they go next”, as opposed to “I want more of this”. They might even be voicing the former out loud, while still clutching to some form of the latter unconsciously.
    I think this has a lot to do with why we become creative artists in the first place; the realization that we don’t own or control our heroes, and the acceptance that if we want to see a particular expression come into existence, we have to let go of the celebrity — let joe rock star put out whatever the hell he wants — and start doing work in our own names.
    And that, my friend, is fucking hard to do. :)

  7. Perhaps the one star who really does understand this better than anyone else is Damon Albarn, initially of Blur fame; now a master of reinvention through virtual bands, starting with Gorillaz and now The Good, The Bad and The Queen.
    He’s managed to get his fans to expect change rather than the same riff time and again.

  8. Yes, Nick, Damon Albarn is a great example of “continuous re-invention”.
    Even more so, when you compare him with Blur’s arch rivals from the mid-1990s, Oasis…

  9. This is awesome stuff! The very concept of creating and then re-inventing yourself is something that is constantly on the chopping block for businesses, artists, writers (and the list goes on). There definitely is no formula to this equation but there are plenty of success stories. The hip hop group Outkast is an excellent example of constant re-invention. They have done it for every album they have released for the past 10 years. NO two albums have been the same and they have a huge fan base. I think part of it is that from the beginning they let people know that we are different, we are left of center, we will push the envelope, don’t try to define us hence the name Outkast ( How you brand yourself in the VERY beginning dictates your ability to change and evolve. In the beginning you have to think about your present and your future simultaneously. You can’t think linearly which lots of people do. If you brand yourself in the beginning as non-controversial, middle of the road like the Dixie Chicks and then out of nowhere you suddenly decide you want to speak up against the machine, that has consequences because in the beginning that was NOWHERE in your formula. Bono has reinvented himself but that didn’t happen overnight. He didn’t jump out of bed 3 or 4 years into his career and say “dammit I want to raise the profile of African issues”. That took time. You have to know and understand the nature of markets and audiences and that means knowing and understanding people. Once you have that under your belt it becomes another ballgame.

  10. If the trappings and expectation of being a rock star (in whatever your field) are pissing you off, just move. Move to somewhere where nobody knows who you are or cares what you used to do.
    It provides you with the opportunity to reinvent yourself. I remember that was one of the best things of going away for university. Nobody knew who you used to be, and you didn’t have the same social trappings to hold you back. You could start fresh and be whoever you wanted to be.

  11. This is so true. I’ve got sweet offers from publishers to do another “word of mouth marketing” book. Could probably crank it out quickly, make it pretty good, and make some money. Much harder to get interest in newer, bigger ideas. (But I ain’t complaining … good problems to have.)