Artistic Integrity and The Pressure to Be Other Than We Are « Official Author Website of Melissa McPhail

Artistic Integrity and The Pressure to Be Other Than We Are

Integrity is the quality of being whole, complete, undiminished.

Most people think of the word integrity as ‘adherence to moral and ethical principles,’ but there is another definition equally important to understanding the word: ‘the state of being whole, entire or undiminished.’

The two meanings of integrity are integral to each other. When one exhibits moral character, he is whole; when he displays unethical behavior, he opens himself to attack and harm from others, i.e., he breaks the one true shield he has protecting him in life.

This concept of being whole applies also to one’s creative work. The only way the work can remain undiminished is by staying true to the initial qualities that made it what it was.

One of the most pervasive (and potentially tragic) battles of integrity that artists face is how to maintain the integrity of their art against the pressure to be something else. I've especially seen this in new artists who achieved quick success.

An author pens a story that becomes wildly popular; their next book is highly anticipated, yet fails to catch on. A musician’s first album resonates with multiple generations, but the second hits a flat note. A photographer’s first collection has a spark of inspiration that his later work cannot seem to capture.

What is this phenomenon?

Often it’s the result of a somewhat unexamined (and thus the reason I'm writing about it) aspect of an artist's life: that of the artist receiving praise and then trying to achieve that praise again. Rather than creating newly, with the same interest and enthusiasm for (and integrity towards) the creation itself, they either attempt to do exactly the same thing again (which falls flat with audiences – they’ve already seen this), or they change who they are and the essence of their art in an effort to produce what they think others want to see, read or experience.

Creation can be collaborative, but more often it is individual, solitary, sprouting first from a singular consciousness. While you’re bathed in that creative light, the work springs forth from you and flows outwards. Others receive it, enjoy it, contribute to it by applauding for it, purchasing it, talking about it, sharing the experience.

They interpret it, discuss it, appreciate and admire it, compare it to their lives and their own ideas and develop an opinion about it. In many ways, they make your work their own. Then they communicate back to you, the artist, sharing their thoughts, ideas, and even expectations of what they feel your work should be, now that they’ve incorporated it and made it theirs.

Sometimes this return flow is a trickle; sometimes it’s a deluge. Amid a maelstrom of other people’s opinions about your work, it’s surprisingly easy to forget who the creative work belongs to.

Artists love their fans (usually) and want to please them. Their fans are their livelihood. But the moment an artist lets that desire to please impact who they are or what they’re doing…that’s the moment the lights go out on their work.

Seeking to be liked or admired—this is the surest way to fail as an artist.

Here's an example: an artist friend of mine gained a celebrity follower on twitter and was so desirous of keeping him that he changed the content of his twitter feed, trying to tailor it more to the supposed interest of that celebrity. The prime illogic in this action is that the celebrity started following my friend already knowing the things my friend was tweeting. In an attempt to keep one person's interest, my friend changed the very things that had made his feed successful and lost a host of followers, including that celebrity.

Admiration is a treasure. It’s also a dangerous trap. Ask an artist of any nature which is more rewarding: money in the bank or the admiration of his fans?

Being on the receiving end of a swarm of admiring communication is wonderful, but it’s also deadly, because admiration penetrates any shield. No criticism is so deeply felt as one coming from a true and obvious fan.

Basking in admiration’s warmth can become an obsession, a craving, a canker. The moment an artist begins to seek admiration, the moment he changes what he’s doing in the hopes of maintaining it…the moment he shifts any part of his creative work from a flowing outward to a pulling inward of attention or admiration, this is the moment his art loses its magic. Thereafter, everything he makes will be tainted, his shield corroded and ineffectual.

Exploring the myriad qualities of integrity is an important theme in my epic fantasy series A Pattern of Shadow & Light, and is especially prevalent as I'm writing book four, Kingdom Blades. Many of my characters face ethical and moral questions that become a battle of integrity, even as we all face such choices in our daily lives.

But integrity is far more than making an ethical choice. It’s the making of choices that keep you whole and as impervious as possible to attack. It’s central to making the kind of choices that you can be proud of. It’s the secret to living without regret.


11 Responses to “Artistic Integrity and The Pressure to Be Other Than We Are”

  1. CS says:

    Love the post! So I wrote almost a full book with a friend but after a few feedbacks we decided to change it up. The problem was it was a little too dark for what we were aiming for. The problem now is I’m torn – I like the new way it’s going, but my heart was in the original version because it was a part of me. But it’s a part of me that I’m afraid to put out there. See I’m bipolar, so I feel like there’s 2 different people inside me. The me where all my past hurts and fears hide that lets my mind go places I don’t dare let out because it’s dark, but it’s a place where I can control the outcome without real fear or real pain. However there’s also a moral side to me that shuns my dark side.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      CS,

      Thank you for bravely sharing your experience. I completely understand your situation. Without getting into labels, I think many artists and writers harbor fears over expressing their true thoughts and feelings. I can only say that writing is a creative endeavor and it should bring you happiness. My suggestion would be to evaluate your reasons for writing the book (what audience are you trying to reach and what message are you hoping to convey to them?) against the feedback you got that took you in a new direction. In this age of independent publishing, there is truly a market for every sort of work. Good luck!

  2. Paula Stokes says:

    Great post. I recently discovered one of my 2016 releases shares a lot of plot elements with a much more famous author’s book that is coming out before mine. I was really crushed when I learned this, and my initial urge was to change my book completely so it would not be labeled a “rip off” or “copy cat.”

    I replotted the book and the new story was okay. I could see where it might feel more fresh to voracious YA readers and maybe even be more marketable overall. But it no longer told the story I wanted to tell. I wrote this particular book way back in 2012, before I had been published, when I was both fearless and clueless when it came to reader and bookseller feedback.

    Ultimately I have decided to stick with my original plot and let readers think whatever they want. *I* know that book is not a copy cat, as will anyone who cares enough to research the deal announcement or read my blog. It’s more important to me to preserve the integrity of the story than to try to switch it up at the last minute to please other people. from now on when people ask why I didn’t change it I’ll just direct them here 😉

    Paula

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      Good for you, Paula! What a trial by fire to have come through that and be secure in your decision to stick to your original inspiration. I so appreciate your sharing your story. I do think these kinds of pressures are far more common than people acknowledge. I hope it really pays off for you in the end. In the very least, I hope you’re able to rest easy in knowing you stayed true to your work.

      I”m not sure my humble blog post should be held up as the definitive response on artistic integrity, but thank you very much for the vote of confidence! 😉

  3. Bill says:

    Melissa,

    A really great post! So often as readers, we don’t see these external pressures. I have a question- The first book seems easy, no one can see what’s not been published… but after, when the feedback, observations, suggestions, comes- how do you stay humble yet confident, keep subsequent books true to the spirit of that first creation?

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      That’s a million dollar question, Bill.

      My answer reduces down to “How sure are you of what you’re trying to communicate?” That artistic communication is bound within the sphere of integrity I mention above. Thus any feedback applies to how well I communicated what I was intending to communicate, but the same criticism and feedback never gets through the shield to change the communication itself.

      Emerson wrote in Self-Reliance, “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

      Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion.

      Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness, but must explore if it be goodness. Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.”

  4. David John Dietrich says:

    Hello Melissa,
    I found your blog, and will be quoting you on my radio show this evening. Your writing is good.
    -David John Dietrich
    “Notes from the Studio”
    WHIW 101.3fm Harvard, Illinois

  5. Melissa says:

    I loved your post. Some, but not all, of my poems are mildly, I emphasize mildly, erotic. They are not graphic and are definitely not pornographic. It is usually couched within themes of loss or impermanence or nature or some similar theme. Occasionally I have one that is simply a celebration of sexuality. But those are rare. But I’ve been getting complaints. People can’t take the sexuality. They want me to stop writing them. But I consider them art, because I work so hard on them…the syntax, the alliteration, the pursuit of an idea, all the attention to detail. I had a short list of people to whom I sent poetry. I just got a long letter of complaint about a poem. And so I wrote a letter of apology saying that I would never send out such poems again. My poems really aren’t that graphic. But I don’t know whether I should regret my decision or not.

    • Melissa McPhail says:

      I think it’s a matter of who are you writing them for? Writing for yourself because you have something important to communicate, because the writing itself is cathartic, because this is a necessary and needed outlet for your creativity…those are all valid reasons to change nothing. If you’re writing to please an audience, that’s fine too, but then you need to know what that audience expects and write to suit it. And also remember, feedback from a single reader can be valuable, but it’s still only a survey of one. Because one person remarks upon something doesn’t mean the world hates it.

      Good luck!

      • Melissa says:

        Thank you so much, Melissa. I do write them because I feel that I have something important to offer. After I issued the apology, I had one reader write back to encourage me because she said she would miss those types of poems, that for her they enlightened that part of the human condition. That was very affirming for me, and so, on some level, I must be doing something right. I appreciate your feedback.
        Write on!

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