Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On Creative Vampires (A Letter About The People Who'll Suck You Dry Through Two Holes if You Let Them)

I received a letter recently from a young poet. (No, I am not going all Rilke on ya'll). Upon the printing of her first commercial poems she discovered a backhanded compliment via Facebook (the Mecca of passive-aggressive bulldinky) from a writer accusing her of aspiring to be something she's not, for "forgetting her true friends" in the process. They claimed that anyone who wrote for money was "selling out."

Gut reaction: F@#!. THAT. NOISE.

Secondary more mature reaction: This happens more frequently to writers and creatives of all kinds than any teacher or book can ever prepare you for.

It knocked loose the memory of a successful writer-poet-journalist-friend who recently experienced something similar: After a milestone year she published a piece thanking the writers, mentors and patrons who supported and inspired her over the course of 365 days. Soon thereafter an old contact got in touch to let her know he was "one of the ones who knows" her "best," and therefore HAD to express his feeling that her essay was a grotesque combination of unchecked ego and name-dropping. He also alluded to something the other young poet's friend did: selling out.

She wrote to me fuming, wounded in that way that comes with realizing you and a creative cohort are parting ways, questioning which sides of the river you'll soon be staring at each other from.

Below is my (edited) response to her. It is a version of what I will also send to the young poet.

It is what I wish someone had said to me a long time ago:

[To my creative Lovie];

Once you've hit a certain point in your growth bursts of uninvited opinion are inevitable. Some will happen to your face. Most will happen behind your back.

Jealousy and ambition in combination form a strange, unpredictable cocktail. The jealousy shot is palpable...it masquerades as concern, insight, criticism or commentary. But its foundation is, "Why do these things happen for someone else and not happen for me?" A creative always wrestles with jealousy, because in order to focus on "the work" we must tune it out, stay the course, support others going through the same struggle...everything we've ever read in any verbose artist's journal. 

Your "friend" is jealous and understandably wrestling personally with it.

But his ambition has kicked in and stirred the struggle with jealousy and shame into a less-than-personable email. [Or conversation. Or note. Or Facebook post.]

By writing to you, alternately stroking and slapping you (and not in a fun, vaguely pleasurable way) with his uninvited opinions, he is subliminally saying "I know you better than these successful new contacts of yours. I am someone worth remembering." He writes to work through his own issues, and he writes so you will not forget him--so that you will remember his struggle with ambition and success, relate to it and deem him worthy...

...then tap him to be the next person pulled up the ladder by the chain of friends, mentors and patrons who have made your own success possible.

When someone writes something condescending from the position of stalwart advocate or ally, what they are really saying is this: "Please take me with you to that place I claim I do not want to go."

Tune. These people. Out.

If you are like many writers, you have never (not seriously anyway, or at least without the influence of several bottles of port or dusty pint of whiskey) pretended you want only to write in a garret somewhere, penning a great work on parchment to later hide in a cupboard where those who have not been enlightened would damage it by reading it before you die of consumption.

You see things, experience them, suss out meanings and work hard to put them into words. You want people to read those words and experience something as well. In order for people to read them you have to put them out there.
Writing (for now) about your experience as a starving artist doesn't mean you want to be defined by starvation. Mapplehthorpe, Warhol, Joplin, Cobain, Lennon, Patti Smith...they all believed in "art." They also wanted to, and struggled with, the desire (and occasional inability) to EAT.

Do not let anyone who covets your dinner make you defend your desire to eat. 

Now this part is important, and I add it with intense love: In almost every criticism there will be some tiny thread of reality you can choose to tug on, or not.

You  have thanked people you love and who love you, but also people you are proud to be associated with, correct? There's a little ego in that...and there bloody well should be. Why shouldn't there be? Look what you did so far. Look what you are doing. But it is true that that same sliver of ego, or inkblot of simple pride, will be interpreted by some as "name-dropping," and it will alienate them. Think about how you feel about that. If you don't care, own it and carry on. If you find you do care, recalibrate your delivery.
There is no wrong choice so long as you recognize and own it.

My own humble personal rule has been this: Promote your friends and contemporaries, but keep your mentors secret.

Or, in more sound-bitey terms: "Shine your light as bright as it can burn, baby, but keep your fuel source well-protected." 
This response is a little long. I am not sorry about that. I mean all of it and hope it helps now and in the future, because you will have many unsolicited opinions forced upon you over a lifetime.

Stay strong and be sure to stake any vampires that threaten to suck you dry.

Love Always,

KK Van Helsing


  1. Damn. Yes. You've got it right on the kisser.

  2. Why is it that once folks know you have talent, they want it for themselves? It's okay if they're rollin' in dough, but if you mention the fact you don't pay YOUR bills with compliments, they find it difficult to compensate you appropriately for your time and talent? I think that it's especially prevalent with writers, whether it's prose, poetry or any other literary bent. I'm no wordsmith but I do admire a well-turned phrase and don't mind paying for it.

  3. It's always floored me when people say, "______ sold out! They're making money for their art!!! They've given up their art for cash!!!" All bullshit. There's a difference between selling out and coming into some money for your talent and work.

    If you're true to yourself and someone wants to pay you for what you've been doing with your art, that's not selling out. That's living.

    Now, if you go and change your art simply to cater to the public in order to increase your profits, then yes. You're selling out.

    But, sticking around and keeping your work "underground" to please the whims of people who would tell you you're "selling out" if you make a bit of dough is just as bad as selling out for money.

    Be true to yourself and your work and fuck the nay-sayers. It shouldn't matter what anyone thinks about your work whether they like it or hate it. Write. Live. And if someone throws you a bit of cash for your work, then buy some food, a bottle of bourbon and write some more.

  4. Beautifully said and that goes for the comments above. :)

  5. What warm, kind and positive words to write to someone who has been feeling wounded by mean-spirited, vicious, arrogant and negative jibes. (Don't you think ducklings and puppies would help?? ;-))

  6. Fantastically said. The concept of "selling out" in art or literature makes me giggle. So... the entire legacy of commissioned artists we study in Art History 101, from Michelangelo to Picasso, as well as my literary heroes of the early 20th century (Hemingway and Wharton) were all sell outs? Geez

  7. @Syllable: I think most people forget things such as that. Mozart was paid to create many of his works....what a god damn sellout. *rolls eyes*

  8. @Dale and @Syllable: There will always be people out there leveraging "sell out" in whatever way suits their cause best at the moment. I can even enjoy a good debate between professional-level hobbyists and professional artists, or the line between high art and commercial product.

    It's when one creative ready to snatch a check out of the hands of any editor/employer attempts to reduce the emotional equity of a friend/creative by firing off "sell out" that I begin to feel violent. Violent as in I want to pluck each arm hair from the perpetrators body one at a time with a pair of girly-print Tweezerman tweezers until they admit they're being silly.

  9. It is tough to be heard, tough to have your voice listened to in a now very crowed, raucous public square - and that is all to the good. The days of magazine publishers launching and sustaining the careers of the next generation of American writers is long gone. We publish ourselves and work to find ears to hear it. The jealousy, the snark, the high-and-holy comments are not sent by friends, but rather by the little man/woman within who fears never being heard, who rages at another's talent and finds their own wanting. Emotional vampires thrive on fear - their own and the fear they hope to induce in others. It is nothing you can control, so let 'em go, and get back to work. Your audience is waiting.

  10. hit the nail on the head its like being creative means that you are not allowed to profit from it now! its ok when someone who knows their drain pipes makes money from plumbing and enjoys it but heaven forbid you enjoy being creative and getting paid simultaneously *sigh

  11. Oh vampires are so ugly, aren't they? But your intense, loving advice is sure to stave them off. ;)

  12. While I love your initial "#$%^ That. Noise!" reaction, your more "mature" version was even better. I find myself grappling with this in my own life - from young people and people who feel they are too old with too many wasted chances that are too bitter about themselves to see the young hopefuls grow and achieve the kind of success and happiness that they didn't.

    I feel like I read this at exactly the right time. I want to layer it into to an art piece and hang it on my wall for whenever I find myself feeling the same way as the young poet.

    Basically, I think that you are badass and wise. And awesome.

  13. Like that.Excellent.

  14. This is absolutely the best thing ever.

    (Also, hope you don't mind, but I put a link to your blog on mine. I love your blog and thought I'd spread the joy to anyone else who needs a little pick-me-up.)

  15. http://lifetimespoeticmind818.blogspot.com

  16. Hi there! I'm new to your site, but already love what I see! This particular post was great, because I too have dealt with criticism that stemmed more from jealousy and ego than from a real distaste of my work, though I am as yet unpublished. Thanks for sharing your insight!

    Laura @ Literary Legs Blog