On Compromise and Stilton Jars

This is a kind of follow-on to my last post, which was about working within boundaries – both as a creative writer, and as someone who works on creative writing projects and teaches creative writing to others.

It was about the way I feel that boundaries can either shape or stifle the work, and me feeling a bit uncomfortable about setting other people boundaries – even though I know I can be very creative inside some rules myself and I know that sometimes writers appreciate a brief, a nudge in the right direction, a set of guidelines to bump up against.

I still haven’t found an answer to that one – still haven’t decided how I feel, other than ‘it depends’.

This post is about compromise, which is related, I think. Doing creative work might seem to be full of kicks and freedom and a world away from the 9-5 drudge you do for a boss, but in actual fact it is often a series of compromises between what I would like to do, and what the funders require – what I think is best or most effective, and what ticks the right boxes. Sometimes this means working really creatively on developing and delivering a project that ticks everyone’s boxes (that idea of boundaries being inspiring again) and sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes is means he who pays the piper calls the tune.

I’ve not been doing freelance work (writer-for-hire) long enough to be able to tell how these compromises are going to feel to me before I start, although I’m learning that the amount of compromise involved is important to me. Because when the compromise is too much, I start to feel bad. I feel dishonest, or like I don’t want to be associated with the product because it’s too far away from the way I think it should have been done. I’ve been mainly lucky so far with this.

And what about my own writing? I can write what I like, and most of the time I do. When I was writing A Kind of Intimacy I hoped but did not expect to get it published, and that gave me a lot of freedom to write about things I didn’t think anyone else but me would be interested in. It just turned out that they were. It was lucky. I liked it. I hope it will happen again like that.

I can write what I want, please no-one but myself, and refuse to compromise. I can be playful, and I am allowed to write badly or oddly and I am allowed to write things that won’t ever be significant to anyone other than me. I’ve noticed the more I need to budge in my professional life, the more independent and wilful I need to be in my own writing.

But. But. But.

But if I want other people to read my writing, or I want it to be published, or I want to make a living doing it, or I want to win something, or if I want it reviewed, or if I want to go to festivals, or I want to get more work teaching (or any combination of these, some of which I do and don’t want in varying degrees of importance that change from day to day) there are also compromises to be made.

So far, these compromises have been small and have been the creative kind of boundaries that have felt inspiring. So I might write a story to a theme I hadn’t thought about before, or stick to a word count when if left to my own devices I’d give the story a bit longer, or take into account the submission deadlines of a competition when planning my work for the week… these things are basic. They are things that influence my creative decisions and I am fine with that.

But what about bigger compromises? How do I balance that? How do I balance being able to earn enough to pay the rent against being able to write something that feels okay to me, and feels like what I wanted to say? I could always get a real job, and write what I like without compromise. That is always open to me.

This is connected, again, to my half-hearted planning for novel number three. Annie says she’s a minority interest, like ‘folding paper birds or collecting stilton jars’.

I think my writing is a bit like that. 

10 responses to “On Compromise and Stilton Jars”

  1. belljarblog says:

    Another corker. I like it when you get contemplative. Myself, I am too shallow.

  2. Jenn Ashworth says:

    And I am as deep as a Stilton Jar… 🙂 x

  3. catdownunder says:

    Prowling in from Downunder to find out who you are. I had never seen a Stilton Jar before – terribly elegant!

  4. screamish says:

    hmmm, yeah. i started latest writing project after a cold sweat wake up at 3am worrying about how we'll support our kids. i figured that writing is one thing I can do half well so i should aim for selling something rather than writing the earnest heart wrenching stuff that fills my box files.

    and yet..and yet…i dont know how far you can take compromise…

    but i think if you want your stuff to be actually read, if you care about your reader, then you do compromise, dont you? the moment you visualize your stuff out there and being read, you're no longer writing just for yourself? isnt that the ultimate compromise?

    and to some extent its those wordcount limits and deadlines that actually make you get stuff done…?

    I dont know…i'm a gifted amateur..you're a Real Writer (!!!!!!)

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  6. Anonymous says:

    Being and Nothingness is good. "Human reality is what it is not, and it is not what it is." See also: Satre's waiter.

  7. Megan says:

    But while it's good (and often necessary) to push yourself and try things out, I think maybe there is also the thing with your own fiction where to a certain extent you can only write what you can write, or you start to lose the point of it, the heart of it.

    However, that might just be me and my own restrictions or self-indulgence. I'm definitely minority and never know if what I'm writing will be published, though I hope (but then again, I love a stilton jar so perhaps that's all ok)

    Thank you for this Jenn,

  8. Jacqueline Christodoulou says:

    'I can write what I want, please no-one but myself, and refuse to compromise. I can be playful, and I am allowed to write badly or oddly and I am allowed to write things that won't ever be significant to anyone other than me.'

    I needed to hear that. Great post.

  9. Talli Roland says:

    Really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for the great advice!

  10. adelaidefromadelaide says:

    You might find that they aren't really compromises at all. They might just be things you have to do in a certain way, because that's what the job requires. Maybe. I do love that stilton jar.

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