You know, there are a lot worse places you could go for some writing advice than the late, great David Bowie. As someone who’s always looking to improve their writing, I’m often searching the Internet, Podcasts, Twitter for advice to creatives, to musicians, to writers to see if there is anything I can learn and then apply to my own craft. Sometimes, it’s just a quote, a line. Sometimes, it’s a whole hour-long Podcast or some long-form article. Some of the advice sticks and some doesn’t.
But about a year ago, I found these two great quotes on writing from David Bowie and I can’t get them out of my head. Just can’t. I finally tracked them down and they’re so good, so on-point, that I wanted to share them with all of you. Anyone who writes, or does anything creative, should get a lot out of them.
Ready? Here we go.
- Don’t Fulfill Others’ Expectations
“I think it’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfill other people’s expectations. I think they generally produce their worst work when they do that.”
Ain’t that the truth. I have been asked and heard the question, “Who do you write for?” It’s usual meant as something like: “Who do you think your audience is?”
Well, I have an answer for that second question and I’m ready to answer that for any interviewer, friend, fellow writer, or agent who might ask. [You can see some hints about this on my “About” page.] But as for that first question, for me, there can only be one answer: “Me.”
I write for me, not for anybody else. Not for a friend. Not for my significant other. Not for some corporation. Not for some editor. And in the end, when the story is done…Yes, even when this life is done–the only thing that will matter is if I liked the story. Not anybody else. Me.
And you know what? When I write stories for myself—and myself alone—they come out better, truer, more emotionally impactful than they ever could be if I wrote something I thought might please someone else.
2. If You’re Too Comfortable, You’re Not Working in the Right Area
“If you feel safe in the area that you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”
I think this is great. I love the image at the end. Creatively, I think Bowie’s right on.
You don’t want to be so far out there in the rip tide of the deep ocean that you have no idea what you’re doing. You don’t want monstrously complicated plots, complex POV changes, stylistic pyrotechnics, and all this stuff overwhelming you as you write (or create).
At the same time, you don’t want to be wading too close to shore. Where everything is easy, facile, and you just KNOW you can conquer it. Where you could just phone it in.
You want to be somewhere in between. Between the open ocean and the shore. Somewhere where you are feeling stressed, but not overwhelmed. Somewhere you will feel challenged and be able to go for it. Where you toes are just touching the sand, where you can get back to shore if you want, or go deeper out, if you feel comfortable. Creatively, that’s exactly where I want to be.
Of course, you should realize that your depth, your ability to go further out, can expand with time and experience. And when you feel it is, you should feel free to do so. And do so again, and again, and so on, as you sense your abilities expanding.
It’s just simply a great metaphor and great way to think about creativity. Now, when I am deciding about taking on new writing projects, I think: “Will this help expand me as a writer? Is it challenging? But not overwhelming? Am I ready to write this particular piece?” If the answer to those questions is “Yes,” it’s time to get to work!
Apparently, these quotes are from the David Bowie documentary, “David Bowie: The Last Five Years” from 2017. I’m not sure about that, but you can see a clip with the quotes here. It’s definitely worth literally one minute of your time:
I finished and polished a new story this month called, “The 17th Street Anomaly.” I’m really pleased with how this little gem of a Cosmic Horror short came out! It’s saying something I wanted to say/share for some time.
It’s also very dialogue forward—a trend I’ve noticed lately in my work. And one which I’m very fine with!
Also, spent a lot of time editing the longer piece “TBOS” that I have mentioned before. I’m trying to figure what to do with this and how to efficiently edit it, so I can move onto the next thing.
Reading, Watching, Playing
Here’s a little breakdown of what I’ve been consuming media-wise:
Ancient Sorceries and Other Weird Stories by Algernon Blackwood. I can’t recommend these stories enough. Blackwood is someone I had never heard about until recently and now he’s one of my favorite authors. These are like mashups of Edgar Allen Poe and Thoreau. Fascinating.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Figured I should read these, being poetical and all now. And you know what? Some of them are very “meh” and others are OUTSTANDINGLY great. Just a reminder to self that even the very best poets are very uneven in their output. So, don’t criticize yourself too much, just create. Let it flow and shut down that inner critic. After all, even Shakespeare had big misses.
Also, Shakespeare’s queerness really comes through in these. (His queerness/being gay was not something I was taught in school, but I for one, am definitely convinced of it). The poems either have no mention of a woman, are vague about the poet’s “mistress'” real identity, or mention (or hint at) another male as the object of the poet’s affections. I had no idea that the greatest love poems (arguably) in English are homoerotic. A fascinating lens to read these through!
Books of Blood by Clive Barker. This is more conventional Horror than I usually read. And more violent! (Something I sort of abhor in Horror. Strange, I know!). Nevertheless, he’s clearly a top talent, but they strike me as somewhat dated and very 80s. Which itself just goes to show how Horror is a vibrant, healthy art form that is constantly evolving.
The Andy Warhol Diaries on NetFlix. So sad. Don’t watch this if you want to be in a good mood! This is a dramatic tracing of Andy Warhol’s Diary covering the last decade or so of his life. It struck me as a sad, elegiac sort of piece. Andy comes across as a sincere man, but one who didn’t know how to love others, and saddest of all, didn’t know how to love himself. It also left me wanting to know more about his early life and influences, not just his final years.
PS: Speaking of Warhol, I wrote a fun little blog post on “Warhol, Coca-Cola and the Apotheosis of American Art” which asks that immortal question: “What is the ultimate work of American art?”
See you next time! Remember: Toes in the sand!
If you’re not familiar with Bowie–shame on you! Just kidding…. Check out this old video. This is how you do it. No gimmicks, no special effects, but very effective!
And for a little fun, here’s Flight of the Conchord‘s parody of everything Bowie: “Bowie’s in Space.”