Codependency and Creative Community

“Come to my state and read poems from the book over which you spent five years laboring. It’ll cost $400 in travel, $200 in lodging, and $20 in food and drinks. We can’t pay you but it’ll be a reeeeally big crowd and you can sell your book.”

Natalie Eilbert, brilliant and ferocious poet (Indictus)

The offer to read at a workshop, convention, or public event is a rite of passage for new writers. It’s exciting! It’s proof that someone was paying attention. Considering that so much of the creative process happens in solitude, an offer to read or present is the best kind of validation. However, especially for people who are just starting out, they can be problematic too.

For example, what if I don’t have $400 to spend on air fare? What if I don’t have a place to stay when I get to the event? Should I try to make it anyway? Saying yes is going to create problems for me — but saying no feels like it’s not an option.

Codependency is a serious problem in the creative community. The expectation that other writers (or artists, or musicians) will work for free, or ‘for exposure,’ is poisonous. Yet, this expectation is normalized: everyone does it. Don’t they? Aren’t creatives supposed to help each other out? Well, yes. But helping yourself at the expense of other people is not help. It is selfish. By the same token, helping others when you know it’s not in your best interest isn’t healthy, either. Yet, we can easily get sucked into a cycle of seeking validation and being taken advantage of — because we accept that as the way that things are.

A codependent relationship with your creative community can seriously harm you. From giving way too much time to critiquing or editing a friend’s piece, to helping someone process their way through writer’s block, to keeping unhealthy friendships with people who might be able to advance our careers — we all do it. I’ve done it. I will never get those hours back, or that energy. The time and money I invested in other people’s creativity never came back to me. I’m not saying that in a bitter way. It’s just the facts.

In order to grow as a writer, I had to put myself first. I learned to develop boundaries which have protected me from being taken advantage of, and making choices that weren’t in my best interest. Yet, it was very difficult to maintain those boundaries at first because, like most people, I really, really, wanted to be liked. Accepted. Popular. I wanted people to read, share, and enjoy my writing, and I thought that the way to do that was to just give it away to as many people as possible. I thought that, in order to reach maximum exposure, I had to lower the bar to entry. I told myself that this was normal, and that everyone was doing it. However, after a couple of years, I learned that the choices I was making only seemed to be normal. Not everyone was doing the same thing — and many of the people who weren’t were enjoying the kind of success I wanted.

Saying ‘no’ when you feel like your livelihood depends on being liked is very difficult. For me, I had to take a close look at my motives. Why was I tempted to say yes? Who was asking me for the favor, and what were they getting out of it? I had a serious addiction to sympathy and validation, and gravitated towards people who would provide those things — even when they had nothing else to offer me. Once I started detaching my creative work from my desire to be admired and loved, two things happened:

  1. My writing got better.
  2. So did my gigs.

Learning to say no allowed me to focus on what really mattered: my writing. It also forced me to work with what I have, instead of chasing things that were solidly out of my reach. No, I can’t afford to fly to your exclusive retreat in Vermont — this year. But next year? Maybe. I started to work within my means, and keep a budget. If I was working for free, I wouldn’t have any money to go to workshops. That seems like a no-brainer, right? Then, I took it a step further. If I was appearing as a guest speaker or reader, it counted as a professional event. I’d be reading my own writing! Shouldn’t I value that as much as I value my published stories?

Slowly, I was able to let go of professional relationships that were based solely on validation. I realized that I was taking my payment in positive attention — not even exposure, as many of the people who were publishing my work didn’t have the ability to share it widely. I was able to do this because I was working full time, and didn’t need to be scrupulous about being paid for my writing. However, when I switched to freelancing full-time, it because painfully apparent that I needed to be very careful about working for no monetary payment. Now, I balance paid work with unpaid — that is, writing that is published for no money, but is shared widely, by compassionate editors. Often, I’ll submit stories to journals that don’t pay because they’re experimental, or a weird style for me, and harder to land in paying markets. For every personal essay that finds a home in a paying magazine, there is one unpaid short story sitting in a slush pile somewhere.

Not all my writing is of equal value, but my personal choice is asking, always, for what I think it’s worth. That choice extends to my public appearances as well. I have a few simple rules that I follow that make it easy for me to decide what is worth my time:

Don’t travel unless:

  1. Your travel is covered, and
  2. You are positive you will sell enough copies to make it worth your while.

That’s an and, not an or. This rule holds true for artists, writers, musicians, everyone. Do not dig yourself into a financial hole because you want to please others. Can’t afford to go? Don’t. Do not shell out money just because you want other people to love you. That money is better spent on a publicist — or therapy.

Look at your return on investment first.

If you are selling $2 chapbooks and spending $10,000 a year from your own pocket to go to conventions and workshops, you are probably going to get in trouble, financially. You may need to look at your ROI. What are you really getting out of all this travel? A sense of self-importance? Lots of pats on the back? A few sales? Be rigorously honest with yourself, and run the numbers before you commit to something you can’t afford.

Your business model needs to keep you in the black. Check your motives and put your work first.

As many creatives learn, some people will turn up their noses at the mention of money. Currency, how crude! Those people are never going to pay you what you’re worth, and they will shame you if you ask for compensation. I once pulled a short story from a journal because I noticed that it was funded by a foundation, but didn’t pay its writers. When I followed up with the editor and asked why, I got a snippy response. She tried to make me feel like I was being rude for talking about money, as though ‘real artists’ only care about their muse. Well, I care about my phone bill, and I don’t care what she thought of me. I pulled the piece.

Check yourself.

The creative community can be very codependent. It’s difficult to tell which way is up. Not all writers are transparent about how much they make, where they work, how they support themselves, and what their prices are. I’m not saying that everyone has to show receipts — but the lack of transparency can sometimes give the impression that everyone works for free, or everyone is independently wealthy, or everyone says yes to every offer. Furthermore, the person who wants you to work for free is not going to tell you that your work is worth cold, hard cash. They’ll want you to give it up for nothing. And the rest of our community, by not modeling stronger boundaries or by cosigning that decision, is feeding into a cycle that strangles promising writers.

“But I’m building my brand!”

No, you’re not. You’re paying $500 to maybe make some friends and get 15 minutes of attention.

“But other writers do it!”

Well, maybe they have rich parents. If you’re dying to read, do it locally. Honor your limitations. You won’t make headway if you’re letting your ego undermine your progress.

“But the person who’s asking me is a big deal!”

Then they can afford to compensate you. Don’t be starstruck. Everyone, even your idols, started somewhere. You don’t need to give your work away to anyone.

“But if I say no, I will alienate the person who asked me!”

Yes, you could end up like me: crabby, unpopular, and alone. Just kidding! Healthy boundaries enable me to work and pay my rent. At the end of the day, I would rather be respected than be popular, so I put my needs first.

I’ve also found that, when I started asking for payment — either by requesting compensation for my travel expenses, or submitting only to markets that paid, I also received more respect. Unsurprisingly, the editors I worked with who are paid for their time were more professional than the ones who were not. The markets that paid me for my work were better at communicating, more timely in their responses, and better at sharing my writing. That caused me to improve my own professionalism — sending invoices, emailing instead of texting, and making sure my pitches were spit-polished before I hit the send button.

When I started raising my standards, the rest followed. I continued to focus on my writing — and let my peers’ opinions fade into the background. Realistically, the only opinions that really mattered were the ones of the people who were paying me. I didn’t have to impress all my friends. I had to impress the editor who was going to publish my essay. I had to impress the slush reader who was going to fall in love with my short story. Once I realized that I didn’t have to nurse every relationship I had, the unimportant ones fell away. I grew, both creatively and professionally.

Because I am only focused on my own work, I am no longer worried that my success will offend someone else. I don’t feel like I have to hold back, or tone myself down, in order to stay in my community. As I’ve grown, I’ve gravitated towards other incredible writers and artists who are just as driven as I am. I’ve had the opportunity to meet storytellers and creators who truly knock my socks off — the kind of creativity you don’t find where it’s safe, in the shallow end of the swimming hole.

People will tell you that ambition, like money, is uncouth. Those are people who won’t celebrate your wins. Move past them.

Outgrowing codependency is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. On the other side, though, is a world of potential — and I’m racing through it, as fast as I can go, and howling the entire way.

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Author. Your favorite uncle. New York Times, Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Catapult. Buy my book: https://bit.ly/2OIIjGc