I’d like to start with a short vignette from the world of writing and publishing. In the early 1970s, Robert Pirsig was working as a technical writer (of computer manuals). That was his day job. He would get home from work, go to bed about 6pm, and sleep until 2am. Then he’d get up (at 2am!) and start writing. He’d write from about 2am to 6am—and then off to work, writing computer manuals. He did this for several years.
His writing practice was interesting: he wrote ideas on index cards, which he kept in a shoebox. He developed a system of organizing these index cards, so that they made a kind of cohesive narrative. Then he wrote a book based on the cards. That book is about how we explore ideas and culture, and how we approach creative practices. One approach is the classical, or analytic way, which Pirsig contrasts with a more romantic, feeling-oriented style. Based on his shoebox of index cards, Pirsig constructs an argument for how and why we might bring these two approaches—the classic and the romantic—together, so that we see their underlying unity. (This was also a personal odyssey for Pirsig, who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and struggled to integrate the different parts of himself.)
Pirsig crafted the book into a narrative (of several hundred pages) in which he and his son take a (semi-fictionalized) road trip across the United States. As they travel, Pirsig grapples with the questions of classical and romantic thinking. He does some work on the motorcycle, he sees the landscape, he interacts with his son, and they have an interesting journey. And, at the end of it all, the reader gleans some wisdom about how we might, in our own lives, integrate together the different parts of ourselves.
When Pirsig finished writing the book, he sent it various publishers and was roundly rejected. In fact, he was rejected 126 times. But, eventually, the book was picked up—and is now one of the most successful self-awareness books ever published. It has sold millions of copies, and is a great example of the eventual success that can come to a writer in a surprising way. (The name of the book is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.)
And so, part of what we want to explore in this class is how this journey of the creative arts might look for each of us as we start out. Pirsig was working as a technical writer at the time he began writing his book; he didn’t have a background as a literary author; he didn’t have an agent. He had published nothing on his own as an author. He struggled through a couple of years of writing this book in a very unconventional way—with index cards, getting up at two o’clock in the morning, and so on. With a lot of commitment and tenacity, he stuck with it. He called upon his gumption, as he describes in the book. But there was no expectation of success, no hope that he would make any money from it. He just believed deeply in the ideas and the ways in which the process of writing helped him deal with his own inner life. That’s something we’ll come back to repeatedly in this class: finding fulfillment in the creative work that we do. What does that look like for us? What does a career look like that’s fulfilling, whether or not we’re working as an author?
Pirsig’s success is a great example of the often surprising twists and turns of traditional publishing. But traditional publishing is slowly being supplanted by new models of publishing that leverage the internet, social media, and novel forms of cultural currency. We also need to talk about those. What does it look like now to be a creative person working in the world? How do we balance our different priorities and commitments? How do we make a living? How can we develop a gig that pays the rent and also cultivate a creative career? How do we build something that allows us to do the creative work when the creative work is not paying us to do it?
Many creative professionals find that the most sustaining way to make a career in writing is to have at least a couple of things going on: creative work intended for publication and sales, and a day job—a regular gig that pays the rent and allows time for writing. That regular gig, of course, must be something that will not cause you to be exhausted, burned out, disillusioned, or cynical. It must be something you enjoy. (Or, at least it should be; but there are arguments for the opposite view. Borges, for example, did his best writing while working at a job he hated—which, incidentally, was working in a library, the symbolic role for which he is now best known.)
And then there is the third stream of activity and work: the radical experiment that is just interesting and fun and may not ever lead to anything professionally. The creative experiment doesn’t have to be writing. It can be anything that you love to do, that sustains you emotionally, or even spiritually. Something interesting and different, that gives you ideas, that helps cultivate your creative spark.
Between the traditional publishing models, the newfangled web-based approaches, and the radical experiments, hopefully this course will offer a sense of possibilities, how we might pursue them, and what the balance might be for each one of us.
The course is fairly straightforward, and my only request to you is that you commit to it as much as you are able. The more you commit to it, of course, the more you explore and experiment, the better it will go, the more fun you’ll have, the more sustaining you’ll find it to be. That’s true for all the courses I teach; they’re focused on cultivating a space that you can inhabit creatively and that will encourage you to follow your own pathways wherever they lead.
In this class, those pathways follow three different projects: a reading project, a writing project, and a self-awareness project. You have much freedom in these projects. My hope is that the projects will provide opportunities for you to follow your own sense of what a creative career means to you. To give you a glimpse of what some possibilities are for your own development as a creative professional, if that’s where you see yourself going (and even if you don’t). As with all of my courses, this one is self-directed in the sense that I don’t tell you precisely what to do. I don’t tell you what you should read, what you should write about, what you should reflect upon. That’s up to you. The course is for you. You are a unique person, and your creativity is personal to you.
Careers in the creative arts are as diverse as the people in those professions. There is no single right or proper way to do this. There are a bunch of ways to do it—indeed, an infinite variety of ways to craft a meaningful life that involves creativity, whether or not you make money from it.
My basic goal is to cultivate a creative space in which you can explore. To the extent that you guide yourself into that space, that you inhabit that space, you’ll learn something useful. At the same time, because this course is largely self-directed, you’ll need to decide how much you want to interact with me. You can reach out to me as often as you like. You are welcome to send me multiple drafts of projects. You can ask me any kind of question. I leave it up to you. It’s your class; it should be customized for you. Creativity doesn’t work well when it’s overly prescribed. Ultimately, creativity depends upon personal exploration and discovery. These are features that I try to cultivate in all the courses that I teach—that sense of wonder when we discover something unexpected. This will not happen if I predetermine all the learning outcomes for you.
We’ll talk about all these things as we go on. But for now, welcome to the class. If you need help, or if you want feedback at any time, reach out to me. And let’s hope that the space created here for you will be rewarding, useful, and insightful as you make your journey forward toward being a creative person in the world—whether or not creativity becomes your main career in life.