I was having a discussion recently with a talented young writer about being a "hack": a “hack,” in this case, was defined as anyone who takes a paying assignment, as opposed to working on a passion project; the classic starving artist, slaving away alone in his or her garret. “If writing work that pays makes someone a hack,” I offered, “then most successful writers are hacks—in which case it’s an honorable title.” From my perspective, there’s nothing more honorable than feeding your family and making sure the bills are paid.
That said, I understand the eternal battle between so-called art and so-called commerce, writing passion projects versus work-for-hire; in fact, years ago, that creative tug-of-war plunged me into a minor crisis. I’d just written Moonshadow and Blood: two projects that helped me find my voice as a writer, that came from the deeps of my soul and imagination. Those stories had nothing to do with Batman or Spider-Man and the denizens of their over-populated universes; no editor approached me and asked me to create them: they were mine and mine alone. (Even that wasn’t completely true, of course: they belonged as much to the artists—Jon J Muth and Kent Williams—as they did to me. But, between us, we owned those worlds and no one else could lay claim to them.) In my heart of hearts, what I wanted then—and, to be honest, what I still sometimes want—is to just go off and write “my” stories and not have to play in anyone else’s sandbox.
I said pretty much that when I was on a panel at a convention in England. “If I could have a career, support my family and never write another superhero story...another story that didn’t originate with me...then I would.” A few minutes later, during the question-and-answer period, a guy in the audience got up and said (essentially): “You know, I don’t really care if it’s a creator-owned title like Moonshadow or if it’s an issue of Spider-Man. All that really matters to me is if it’s a good story.”
My jaw dropped a little, and a tiny piece of my skull might have blown off and hit the ceiling, because what he said was incredibly obvious, incredibly true, and I’d been so lost in my “artistic crisis” that I’d missed it. The fundamental law of writing is this: It’s all about the story.
Yes, there's a part of me that would always prefer to write originals, but if I'd followed that instinct throughout my career then a) I wouldn't have been able to support my family and b) I would have missed out on wonderful creative projects, some of which turned out to be among my very best, and most gratifying, work. Kraven’s Last Hunt wouldn’t exist, I’d never have collaborated with Keith Giffen or written for film and television. My life—not just creatively, but personally—would have been far less fulfilling than it is today.
The key for me—whether I'm writing established characters or doing more personal projects—is the the commitment, the passion, I bring to the table. As long as I'm pouring heart and soul into a piece of work, it really doesn't matter whether it’s commercial or personal—because it all becomes personal in the end. I can show you Spider-Man stories where I revealed as much about myself, the intimate details of my life, my hopes and aspirations, as I did in my autobiographical graphic novel Brooklyn Dreams. Perhaps it wasn’t as obvious to the reader because I was talking through Peter Parker and his cast, but the intimacy, the honesty, the passion was all there on the page.
Here’s an uncomfortable truth: Sometimes you labor over a piece, your Precious Personal Project, for weeks, months, years—and it dies in your hands. All the creative CPR in the universe can’t save it. And sometimes you're pressured by a ridiculous deadline, working feverishly, rushing out the next issue of The Cataclysmic Camel-Man...and it's better than anything you've ever done.
It’s all about the story—and, as writers, we often know less about what's brilliant, what's hackwork, than the story itself does. (It's as if there are the stories I want to tell and stories that want me to tell them—and they're not always the same thing.) I've come to realize over the years—and I’ve written about it at length here at Creation Point—that stories have lives of their own and, whatever the tale’s origin point, my job is to wholeheartedly surrender to it and let it tell itself as best it can. Then all questions of "good" and "bad," "hackwork" vs. "art," go right out the window.
I’m sure there are hacks out there, people who don’t give a damn, who just hurl words at an editor and wait for a check to come flying back at them, but I’m not sure I’ve ever met one. The vast majority of writers I know—whether they’re laboring over their “masterpiece” or getting that script in as fast as they can because the mortgage is due—care passionately.
Once you sit down at the computer and engage with your story, surrender to it, it doesn’t matter what your motivation is—so let other people worry about who’s a hack and who’s an artist. It’s all about the story—and the story will take you where it needs to go.
©copyright 2013 J.M. DeMatteis