The Business of Blockheads

Image: Kept in the Dark by John Everett Millais and Joseph Swain (1882)/Birmingham Museums Trust

A chef starting a blog can show off their recipes and photos of the food. A visual artist can write about and show their work. But a writer writing about writing… it doesn’t read right.

I don’t know when I started hating writing about writing. If I were to guess, it would probably be somewhere in the quasi-ponzi scheme of writing workshops (“Pay me and I’ll show you how to pitch!”). I can’t be mad at writers trying to make an extra buck, but do you have to go after the aspiring writers? Be like Axios, add a few 0’s, and charge it as a corporate line item

There are also the pieces that make me want to quit writing if I’m going to turn out like this; a three-time novelist beautifully describing the humiliation of nobody going to their readings… (Book tours are terrible promotional tools, was advice I’d gotten a long time before I even tried writing my first book.) Out of respect for the publication and the novelist, I’ll skip the critical linking. The majority of links at this blog should be praising someone.

Anyway, I can tell you around when I stopped hating it, and it didn’t even take much. A few weeks ago, somewhere in between Manfred Kuehn’s Taking Note blog, which he took down, and Nicole Dieker’s archived This Week in Self-Publishing column, I got to appreciate writing about writing again. I learned a fair amount. But more importantly, just in reading their words, I remembered how fun writing can be.

Writing is supposed to be fun and honest. I think that’s what I like best about writing about writing. It’s supposed to be enlightening, informative, inspiring. It’s supposed to rescue other people writing from the supposed harsh reality of writing. It’s not just supposed to be thought leadership fodder, content marketing, or to be measured in vanity metrics—which a lot of writing about writing has become. 

Speaking of which, somewhere along the way, writing became about juicing a piece for Google (SEO), Facebook Likes, Twitter hearts, Medium’s algorithm, and all that other stuff. The businessification of writing took over, and the motive became just to make money writing. The saying goes, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” 

To which I’d invoke a passage from Jay-Z’s Decoded, about how he chose the business of recording artist. The paradox is, in order to do the business properly, he had to be a true artist as well:

The other part of “commercialization” is the idea that artists should only be thinking about their art, not about the business side of what we do… when I committed to a career in rap, I wasn’t taking a vow of poverty. I saw it as another hustle, one that happened to coincide with my natural talents and the culture I loved. I was an eager hustler and a reluctant artist. But the irony of it is that to make the hustle work, really work, over the long term, you have to be a true artist, too.

Perhaps I’ll call this the blockhead-businessperson paradox; in order to succeed at the business, you have to be something of a blockhead. If you’re going to make real money, you have to make art for its own sake. Then again, even if you don’t succeed, at least you spent your time in a way that fulfills or excites you.

There’s nothing to it—it’s just writing at the end of the day. I’ll remix what Big Mike told me for my book, “Put the words on the page!” And that’s what I’m doing now, once a day. It’s been four days, and I’m scheduling it every week—so I’m four weeks worth of blogs out. I’ll fill in more gaps in between as I keep the schedule going.

One last point: I’ve been consciously writing a lot—pitching, etc.—but I haven’t been as diligent with my unconscious. Graham Wallas quotes Henri Poincaré in The Art of Thought (p. 38), “All that we can hope from these inspirations, which are the fruit of unconscious work, is to obtain points of departure for such calculations.”

That’s what this blog is for, it’s a place to create new points of departure, to keep myself practicing, and to stay prolific. To document the journey, because I’ve neglected that for so long. Who knows, maybe I’ll hate it, and I’ll take it down like MK—but maybe someone else might find it useful, and I’ll keep it up.  

If you’re a sucker for blockheads… 

Thanks for reading this. If you love books and the blockheads who write them, sign up for the Best of Books reading newsletter (three great books in your inbox every month). See you around!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *