July 30, 2020

I was hunting in a music store for stuff that might trigger some creative spark in college students I was teaching how to write. My eye was caught by a glint of metal coming from what looked like a zipper on a long-playing album (the precursor of the CD).  It had a black-and-white photograph of a man in jeans, from just above his waist to just above his knees, with one hip casually out-thrust on which were stamped The Rolling Stones and Sticky Fingers.

I glanced around and approached.  The zipper was real, and that the man-in-jeans photo wasn’t one piece of cardboard but two, so that, when you pulled the zipper down, the pants opened.

I glanced around again, grabbed the zipper, and pulled it down.  Behind it, I saw Jockey Jockey Jockey.  At this, I steeled myself—in a store with a crowd of customers who might pause to wonder why a man with long hair and blue-tinted glasses was investigating another man’s crotch—pulled the pants open, and stared in.  I saw a round red rubber stamp that read Copyright © 1970 Andy Warhol.

And there I was, surrounded by all kinds of people, staring at Andy Warhol.  It wasn’t the first time.

But—and here’s where we get to what I’m trying to tell you—that was it.  Warhol’s genius lay in showing us all how to grab an audience, period.  He was one of the first modern platform guys.

Writers are not platform people, though.  They’re content people.  Their first job is not to figure out how to attract their audience.  Their first job is to have something worth saying, and to say it. 

You’d be surprised how many writers don’t actually know this.

People (some of them well-meaning, some not) will inevitably ask you, “Oh, you’re a writer?  Get anything published?”  And, if you say you have, “Oh, yeah?  Make any money?”

Publishing and making money from it are platform matters.  They’re what happens after you write stuff.  But you must be a writer before you’re an author.  And to the extent that you allow yourself to think about how you will try to shop your work, or wonder whether it will ever be a best-seller, before it’s down on paper to the last crossed “t” and dotted “i”, you are sabotaging yourself.

Why? Because you hobble your creative process. Some writing projects can make money, and some can’t—because they’re too narrow in focus and the numbers aren’t there, or the subject has already been exhausted by others. You can’t afford to ask yourself whether this piece will fall into either of those categories, or any other. It’s like counting your money at the poker table before the dealing’s done. Always write first for the pleasure (and grief) it will give you. There will be plenty of time when you’re done to figure out how to peddle it.