By Steven Pressfield | Published: April 24, 2013
A friend who’s a painter sent me this in an e-mail:
When you write, are you coming from your gut/heart, or from a merchandising view? Both?
It got me thinking about the old Hollywood axiom, “One for love, one for money.” This is the wisdom proffered in good faith to writers, actors and directors by their agents. It means, “Alternate the projects you work on. Do one that’s commercial, then do the next ‘for art.'”
The counselor offering that advice is trying to steer her client’s career between Scylla and Charybdis. Don’t be too precious and work only on artsy-fartsy stuff. But at the same time, don’t be so mercenary that you stick only to surefire commercial trash. Glide back and forth. Keep your hand in both worlds. The “one for money” will pay the rent, the “one for love” will feed your soul.
Of course most of us aren’t lucky enough to even get this choice. We don’t have the luxury of turning down paying gigs. But let’s set that hardball reality aside for the moment. The question on the table is: “Do you work from your gut/heart or from a merchandising point of view?”
Here’s how this issue has played out in my career:
I’ve been trying to sell out for years. My problem is I can’t find anyone to sell out to. I’ve tried to go commercial. I’ve tried to pick surefire winners. Every time I do, I crash and burn.
Now I may be an exception. My case may not apply to others. I’m a spec writer, not a writer-for-hire. Meaning what I like to do is invent my own stuff, then roll the dice on whether or not I can sell it. Someone in that boat doesn’t have the luxury of fielding offers. I might have a different opinion if I did.
The question remains: what criteria do I apply to a spec project of my own? Do I choose the one that feels commercial? Or do I go with the one I love?
Answer #1: I try to do both. I try to pick a subject that I have passion for—but one that I also think will be of interest to people in the real world. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. As William Goldman famously said, “No one knows anything.” If I could pick winners, I’d be pointing to one hit after another. So Answer #1 is dicey from the get-go.
Answer #2: I pick the one I love.
I can only say, this has worked for me. When I’ve gone for a “sure thing,” I’ve bombed. But when I’ve picked projects that seemed like commercial lunacy–i.e., a mystical golf novel (The Legend of Bagger Vance) or a war story set 2500 years in the past in a place that no one can spell or pronounce (Gates of Fire)–those projects have found an audience. They’ve been hits. Even this blog, which started out as utter insanity—a site consisting of nothing but videos of me ranting about tribalism in Afghanistan (!)—has worked out fine (as long as you don’t ask it to produce any income.)
What the issue comes down to for me is this:
I believe that life happens on two levels. The body-level tells us to go commercial. The soul-level tells us to follow our hearts.
If you’re lucky, you’re like Bruce Springsteen. You live on the heart level and you never have to leave it. You ignore every concept of “what will sell.” Instead you dive deep into your own world and your own passions. You go from Born to Run to Darkness on the Edge of Town to The River to Born in the USA and you keep going.
If you’re the Boss, you don’t have to sell out. You don’t have to pander to your audience. Instead you lead them. They want you to. You tell your story, follow your obsessions–and, holy Asbury Park, your secret, inner, crazy life turns out to be their secret inner crazy life too.
A project that for you is “one for love” turns out to be “one for money” as well.
I love filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, I love songwriters like Jackson Browne and Neil Young. I love actors like Ryan Gosling and George Clooney and Edie Falco because they seem to always pick projects based on love. I will even give a shout-out to Tom Cruise. He has rolled the dice more than once.
Sometimes readers will write in to this blog (or to me personally) and take me to task for this point of view. “How dare you suggest to people that they follow their hearts? Life is tough! I’ve got a family to feed!”
I can only answer for myself. Chasing a payday has never worked for me. When I go for a sure thing, I wind up with nothing.
So I vote for the heart side.
One for love and one for money?
Why not do ’em all for love?