Where to Draw the Red Line

Another Hugh MacLeod insight on creativity, this one on where to draw the red line, ie what you are and aren’t willing to do with your art when told to by others (typically those who pay you.) This is good advice for all new creators that make a stab at a career of it, before you get into the thick of things decide which compromises are reasonable. This also applies to entrepeneurs who accept venture money, proprietors who take on a partner. Sit down and think through your values and what matters to you while the heat is off, and use that thinking to inform your decisions when the heat is on. It is the nature of things that you can often get talked into things you don’t want to do when told things like “you have to do this or we will cancel the project/not publish your book/ not syndicate your comic strip.” That’s where unhappiness begins, when you accept what is really unacceptable to you in service of acheiving the goal. By establishing the point at which you walk long before it is necessary, that helps you stand tough when you need it.

Says Hugh:

When I see somebody “suffering for their art”, it’s usually a case of them not knowing where that red line is, not knowing where the sovereignty lies.

Somehow he thought that sleazy producer wouldn’t make him butcher his film with pointless rewrites, but Alas! Somehow he thought that gallery owner would turn out to be a competent businessman, but Alas! Somehow he thought that publisher would promote his new novel properly, but Alas! Somehow he thought that Venture Capitalist would be less of an asshole about the start-up’s cash flow, but Alas! Somehow he thought that CEO would support his new marketing initiative, but Alas!

Knowing where to draw the red line is like knowing yourself, like knowing who your real friends are. Some are better at it than others. Life is unfair.

Hidden in there at the end is another point, which is to hope for the best in these endeavors but never count on anyone else to do what they should or even what they said. If you are a first time novelist, assume you will get zero promotion and make plans to do what you can on your own. Be prepared for the VCs to be intrusive and to bust your balls. Figure that you are on your own, and treat it as a pleasant surprise if you aren’t.

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Dave Slusher is a blogger, podcaster, computer programmer, author, science fiction fan and father. Member of the Podcast Hall of Fame class of 2022.