We Need to Talk About Hierarchies

Riding the waves ... 

Over lockdown, I've been having some online conversations with fellow creatives about what we want from our work, and how that changes as we grow older. How we manage our expectations. How we deal with disappointment. How we navigate the line between working at what we love and getting reasonable payment for that work. 

The real trigger for this post, though, may have been somebody referring to 'writers lower down the ladder'. It is a common enough expression and one that we often find ourselves using or implying. I've probably used it myself.  But the more I thought about it, the more it struck me that the hierarchical model is useless where creative careers are concerned. If you see your career progression in terms of some hypothetical hierarchy, where you're aiming for status, authority, celebrity and massive remuneration, you will almost certainly be doomed to disappointment. 

Worse than that, you may waste good writing time hoping for your big breakthrough, when you should be getting on with writing. This isn't a counsel of despair. Nor does it underestimate the skills required, skills that you'll mostly acquire by practising every day. Reading a lot and writing a lot. 

The truth is that there is no single ladder. For the vast majority of people, a creative career is a giant game of snakes and ladders, with most of the ladders turning out to be more like step stools - and a whole lot of snakes of varying lengths, some more deadly than others. 

There are exceptions. There are wildly successful people. Some are fine writers. Some, not so much, but they have tapped into something in the popular imagination, and good for them. I may envy their success, but I don't begrudge it. But they are all outliers. You may as well go and buy a lottery ticket. The odds of mega success are pretty much the same. Somebody will win big every week just as somebody will achieve genuine, enduring, multi million pound worldwide best seller status. But if you do the lottery, the most you stand to lose is a couple of quid a week. If you waste a lifetime pursuing mythical best seller status as a writer, you may well lose a whole lot more: the joy of writing, of loving what you do, of honing your craft, of - yes - making as much of a living as possible along the way, but of not letting the pursuit of somebody else's expectations or fashions impinge too much on what you feel in your bones you should be writing. 

Besides, as the wonderful William Goldman says in his Adventures in the Screen Trade, 'nobody knows anything' - so you're just as likely to make it big following your heart as you are following somebody else's 'how to' prescription. Or last year's fashion.

The myth of the ladder to success - if you try hard enough and climb long enough you'll make it - is such a powerful one that all writers seem to subscribe to it when they're starting out. Me too. But it's demonstrably untrue - a tale usually told by those who have already made it big, often more by good luck than good management. 

With experience comes the harsh but liberating truth. Experienced writers often make judgments based on all kinds of things, often conflicting things that we would do well to acknowledge. Do we want to get this book or play or other piece of work out there? Do we want to communicate? Are we working on something for ourselves alone? Do we trust this person with this project? Do we believe in the project? How much are we prepared to sacrifice? Do we feel exploited or are we - as is so often the case - partners in some worthwhile but not very lucrative exploration. 

Everything is a negotiation between what we want and what is possible. Which in turn makes us think about how we can manage a career and how our aspirations can change over a lifetime. There is no ascending curve that you can plot your position on at any one time. We are, lets face it, all at sea, almost all the time. Sometimes our little craft is riding the waves beautifully. Sometimes we're rowing like mad and getting nowhere. Sometimes we're clinging to the wreckage and praying for help. Just occasionally, the million pound yacht looms on the horizon and we dream of climbing on board but more often than not, it motors on by. And sometimes, in the words of a very fine poet indeed, we're not waving, but drowning. And even then, we'll probably write about it. 


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