The Golden Rule of Art and Writing: Everything Comes Second to the Work

I have two main rules about my writing. The first I refer to as the “butt-in-chair” rule, because it states: put your butt in the chair and do the thing. Or, as my former creative writing professor Ron Carlson said once, Write until your parents beg you to come away from the desk and have a cracker. I covered this idea in a previous post.

Rule two, however, I refer to as The Golden Rule, because it pretty much covers all the other rules you can think of, and The Golden Rule states:

Everything comes second to the work, even and especially the ego.

Technically, that encompasses the butt-in-chair rule because if you follow The Golden Rule, things like laziness or not feeling like it come second to the work itself, which means the work gets done. But the butt-in-chair rule is occasionally useful in its own iteration.

This rule calls us, as artists, to prioritize the work itself higher than anything else in our lives. Other things can be priority, but the work — the painting, or the writing, or the music-making — must be the highest priority. Higher than family. Higher than exercise or self-care. Higher than love.

Right now you’re probably thinking that sounds crazy, and let me say that I do not think you should purposefully neglect yourself in pursuit of art. But your self-care should support your art. Your family and friends and lovers should support your art. And your ego, your own understanding of yourself, and your cultivated qualities, should support your art. Everything must be aimed at the work itself.

I believe the purpose of art is the experience of that art, either in encountering it or in creating it — two sides of the same coin. The first side of that coin is the act of expression, of bringing into be-ing, that the artist executes when making the art. The second is that very special moment of recognition and relation that the viewer or listener or reader experiences when they find and connect to that work of art. Notice that no part of this purpose is dependent on recognition, awards, earnings, ownership, or even the quality of the work.

And in fact, I would argue that art’s purpose cannot be fulfilled if this other shit gets in the way.

If you are worried about offending or pleasing your friends and family (or even buyers or editors or agents), you will not be able to express yourself fully while creating. If you are making art for the purpose of money, there will be very little emotional connection made between you and the art or between the viewer and the art. And if you can’t get your own ego out of the way to accept and integrate criticism, the work is not going to be as good as it could be, and ultimately that impacts its purpose: your self-expression, and the viewer’s experience.

Let me be clear: I have this rule for myself because I have trouble forcing my ego to take a backseat. I’ve been writing for something like thirteen years now, and just last week when I got feedback on a first draft, I moped for twenty-four hours because I had to admit that other people had better ideas about how to improve my work than I did. I hate getting feedback. But it serves the work. And to the little nerd girl who picks up my first sci-fi novel in two or three years and magically connects with it in an incredibly special way, it won’t matter whose ideas they were. It won’t matter how many drafts I had to do. It won’t matter how long it took to write, or how many copies I sold, or what my mom thinks about the mom character. None of that shit matters when it comes to fulfilling the purpose of the work. So all of it must come second.