Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

“One for Love, One for Money”

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?

Boss

When you're the Boss, love is money

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?

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

30 Responses to ““One for Love, One for Money””

  1. L. P. Bob
    April 24, 2013 at 2:27 am

    It seems you just solved the current dilemma in my professional life. Thanks. Specially for the ending.

  2. April 24, 2013 at 4:05 am

    Thank you.

  3. Basilis
    April 24, 2013 at 4:15 am

    Why not both, I agree.
    To be honest I couldn’t work on any of my projects if they couldn’t fill my soul. The rest will come. Readers search for the same thing.

    Gates of Fire is a good example of such a hybrid book, and an inspiration how to unite dreams with reality.

  4. April 24, 2013 at 4:53 am

    Spot on! If you don’t love it, don’t do it.

  5. April 24, 2013 at 5:09 am

    Thank you sir, I needed to read that

  6. April 24, 2013 at 5:48 am

    As I tell my friends who ask why I don’t try writing something ‘more commercial’: I don’t know how. Honestly, I can only write something I would want to read, or want to watch. And I have no idea whatsoever what is trendy or popular or of-the-moment (or more importantly, what WILL be). I only know that it interests me, and I try to operate on the asusmption that there is someone–perhaps several someones–out there who would like read/watch the same thing.

    Thanks for keeping it real, Steve!

  7. Kent Faver
    April 24, 2013 at 6:03 am

    Great post again – I needed this. Interesting that Bruce and the Grateful Dead and others that have spanning generations of fans – I think it’s the lyrics – their stories connect with the listener.

    Bruce was so driven to make Darkness on the Edge of Town a success after Born to Run, he wrote well over 50 songs to get to the 10 or 12 on the album – true!

  8. April 24, 2013 at 7:45 am

    “Doncha draw the queen of diamonds, boy, she’ll beat you if she’s able. You know the queen of hearts is always your best bet.”
    (In case somebody doesn’t recognize this, it’s a line from The Eagles’ “Desperado,” written by Glenn Frey and Don Henley.)

    • April 29, 2013 at 10:49 am

      Great connection! Now the jukebox in my mind is coming up with other songs that express the same truth. But you win for posting this one.

  9. Uncle Vanya
    April 24, 2013 at 7:51 am

    Question: How do you then explain the career trajectory of someone like, say, van Gogh?

  10. April 24, 2013 at 8:22 am

    I have write for love. Yes, I want to earn money, and see some commercial success, but I have no control over that outcome. The only thing I have any “control” over, is sitting down to write and working on what I feel passionate about. I’ve tried to analyze the market and see about writing to it, and it’s never worked. So, like S.J. quoted above, from a favorite song of mine no less, I have to go with the “Queen of Hearts.”

    Thank you, Mr. Pressfield, for doing this blog for the love it. I’ve benefited more than I can say from reading it.

  11. April 24, 2013 at 8:30 am

    I was a bit too quick off the mark on posting my comment. To restate, thank you for doing this blog for “the love of it.” Not only have I benefited a great deal from you posts, they are a great supplement to your wonderful books “The War of Art” and “Turning Pro,” which have also proven a huge help to me. Thank you!

  12. April 24, 2013 at 9:29 am

    Thanks for this post. I write from the heart and sometimes in the back of my head I find myself wondering if maybe I should be adding more ‘marketing’ into the mix.
    This is a great reminder that it is okay to keep doing what I am doing and that writing from the heart and soul can bring success too.

  13. Miss Lola
    April 24, 2013 at 9:48 am

    Do it for love. If you do, your work will last far longer than you do.

    Thank you Steven.

  14. April 24, 2013 at 10:02 am

    Every time I try to do something just for the money I feel like I’m flushing my soul down the toilet!

  15. Randy Stuart
    April 24, 2013 at 10:46 am

    Amen, my brother. Amen.

  16. TV
    April 24, 2013 at 10:50 am

    I can really appreciate this topic… I am an instructor at a leadership & management academy, and I can see the correlation to my job. A person serving in this position could easily just “do the job”, but it takes a person with a passion for the development of others to really commit. We all need to make a living, but some of us are lucky enough to do something in which we can find value.

    With that being said, I figure the dilemma with trying to cater to what people want to hear/read is a tough one. I’ve found in my current duties that a group of motivated students (as compared to inspired readers in your case) are necessary if we want to continue doing our work “for the love.” When I get the impression that my students’ hearts aren’t in it, my motivation suffers, and it can feel like just a job at that moment.

  17. April 24, 2013 at 12:41 pm

    I’m with you and Goldman on #1. We can’t know. We don’t know. We are guessing.

    That guessing costs us in life, sending us down pathways that look profitable, commercial or do-able. And the shame is not so much that we “sell out” or that it doesn’t pan out, but that we deceive ourselves about it. “I’m not doing what I really want to do because it’s not commercial” sounds a bit like resistance to me…

  18. April 24, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    This blog speaks close to my heart. Follow the flow.

  19. Tony Derbyshire
    April 24, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    Great post! So many of us get caught up in our ‘shoulds.’ We should write something that makes money. We should work a respectable job, in a respectable profession, whatever that means to us, but, when we begin to rely on that inner voice, our heart, the muse, whatever you want to call it, our lives can really become incredible…if we’re not completely overcome by the terror of it all! I think we admire these people that you mention because they had the guts to follow their hearts and it created great things…

  20. April 24, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Thank you, Mr. Pressfield. I really needed to read this today.

  21. April 24, 2013 at 3:33 pm

    If I follow the path of self publishing do I even need to have an agent?
    I just started reading Guy Kawasaki’s book,APE
    Don’t worry, I need lots of help. Steve, your like the motivator whose been there. I’m thinking APE might be the getting it out there.
    Wait! Here’s a second draft, Steve, you enable getting the words on paper whilst suffering the slings and arrows of Resistence. If I can manage that, then what?
    The idea of getting the approval of an agent, editor, publisher and Odin knows who else gets my Irish up just thinking about it.
    I’m definitely naive in wishing to make something and put it ‘out there’ to be critiqued by the market rather than the marketeers. Has anyone read APE? Steve, if you have, does it seem realistic?
    John

  22. April 24, 2013 at 4:51 pm

    What he said.

  23. April 25, 2013 at 10:32 am

    FOR LOVE is exactly how it is suppose to be!It is what makes the world go ’round.
    The “commercial” concept came way later to interrupt a perfect union of give and take.
    commercial means money but it is not connected to anything–it is fleeing. A quickie with a stranger–after you are dis-embodied. A quiver or two-but over-all a confusion of emptiness.
    we are learning how to receive nourishment through a different via.

  24. April 25, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    I too pick the one I love. That’s the only way I know to carry the book through to the end and to make it shine, be delicious, get my full attention, even when it’s hard and scary to write, promote, finish, reveal to the world.

    I believe that as artists we are leaders. This is for all of us: “Instead you lead them. They want you to. ” I’ve heard a reader say to Isabelle Allende something like, “I’m so glad you decided to write fiction. The world is better for it.”

    Yes, Why not do ‘em all for love?! I so agree.

    Life is too short to prostitute ourselves for money. And for what?

    If we can communicate our love well, in a compelling way, and help people find us, then we can share our love; people will take our stories into their hearts and be glad we write them.

    That is my wish.

  25. April 25, 2013 at 7:43 pm

    Great article. :)

  26. April 26, 2013 at 6:46 am

    When my son Dan wanted to go to Berklee College of Music, after a music degree at Harvard, I gave him a book called “Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow”. He did and it did: he is now a very happy professor and assistant department chair at Berklee. Indeed, follow you heart, your passion… even if you need a ‘day job’ to pay the bills.

  27. Brent Smith
    April 26, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    I totally agree, Mr Pressfield.

    Life is short and one is a long time dead, but one’s legacy of work, if done with passion, should not be.

  28. April 27, 2013 at 3:05 am

    My only words to those that say “I have a family to feed” is that you can feed them with your day job. I think that if you are meant to “go pro” you don’t write for the money(although money is nice). As always Mr. Pressfield has hit the nail on the head… Try to find something in the middle ground!
    Thank you for the great post and the inspiration– Jim

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