All creative endeavors are, to some extent, selfish

Maybe the best example is The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. What’s shocking is who wrote it, more than the story or plot or whatever. And what’s more interesting is that Rowling had the courage to write and publish such a novel.

And a lot of people got upset because of this. Because a lot of people mistake their part in the relationship they have with any artist. Somehow, some people think artists owe them for their success. In may ways, yes, they do, but ultimately, art is a selfish endeavor.

The act of writing a book, the act of reading one, deriving pleasure from these activities…

We, artists, make art for ourselves just as much as we do to please someone. Or everyone. And we also make art because we can, because we feel like it, because we’re bored or tired or we just want o make something beautiful. We make art for a million different reasons.

Sadly, I don’t write for you, whoever you may be. And even sadder, I don’t really give a damn what you think about my stories or essays or even blog posts. That’s how things go. I write for myself, I write because it’s the one thing that makes me happy, no matter how cold it is outside.

Let me tell you one thing. If you keep wondering whether people will like your art, if you believe that others have to validate you as an artists, you’ll never be free to do what you want. As an artist, of course.

It’s quite simple. Art for art’s sake, like they say. Art because it matters to you, not because you hope it would matter to someone else.

And yes, it’s never as simple as that, and I’m sure there are at least a dozen posts on this blog about the importance of finding an audience, of finding true fans, and all that. I remember writing that you can’t call yourself a writer unless you’re being read, I remember writing that we write hoping for our words to matter to someone other than ourselves, but in the end, we shouldn’t care and it shouldn’t be a requirement for one to be an artist.

“There is no part of me that feels that I represented myself as your children’s babysitter or their teacher. I was always, I think, completely honest. I’m a writer, and I will write what I want to write.” – J.K. Rowling


117 thoughts on “All creative endeavors are, to some extent, selfish

  1. Thanks for this, Cristian. It's good to remind ourselves as writers sometimes that primarily we write to indulge ourselves. It's certainly an aspect of all art, even though it's not all there is to art.

  2. In this context, I don't think that "selfish" is a bad thing. It would be silly to assume that we are selfless…and there is no "I" in there…in what we think, say and do throughout our lives. As an artist, I embrace the "selfish" that says that my art is part of myself, of who I am and made for my own gratification as well as for its own sake and the gratification of others. Yes, I'm selfish…and I'm also you-ish and them-ish and we-ish.

    • It's a good book. I read it a few weeks ago. Rowling used issues not often used so respectfully. I never read the Harry Potter series, so I didn't know what kind of writing to expect, but I enjoyed it. I'm glad I read it.

  3. I needed to read this at this point in my life. And although this may run counter to what you expressed about how you're just writing for yourself, I am thankful that you have shared this piece with your readers.

  4. Great piece here, my friend. Many times we get caught up in the details of sales, and if someone else is going to like our stuff. We’d all like to get millions for doing what we do, but it’s always good to remember that some of us do actually get that elusive rush of endorphins by creating something we truly love, regardless of who else likes it. Good stuff man!

  5. Christian, I think there is more to be said for this – we write or make art to express ourselves because we feel driven to do it. Artists should grow and if that means a different direction, then so be it. Many artists have been criticized for doing something different (see the reaction to Bob Dylan's change to electric guitar). But I must disagree with you – all artists want recognition, even if it is only small. Some want fame. It is just a matter of degree to and to say you don't "give a damn" doesn't quite ring true. The "you" is the reader and readers matter.

  6. Yes! I believe when we adopt this attitude it frees us from the kinds of blocks that occur when we're too concerned about being liked, about who will read it. The first audience is ourselves!

  7. Insightful as always. J.K. Rowling quote on the money. Yet somewhere inside me there's always a longing for validation, that someone appreciates my work. However, I guess it's way different than hoping for validation when you are writing your work and change it according to what's "popular". You can't satisfy everyone anyway, right? Might as well satisfy yourself.

    Great post.

  8. The exact reason it took so long for me to do it (write).

    It was very much the same as standing in a room of people naked, wondering what they think. Or worse, not wanting their opinions and getting them anyway. I had to get right in my own mind. I had to hope the words resonated and be okay if they didn't. That took awhile, but, here I am. To be clear, the very first comment (response) from a friend I got was, you have talent, but 'have you every considered a writing class?' So, I had to ask her, does my writing need work, or do you just not connect because you aren't my target audience? Even after that comment, still I write. I know that not everything I write is fantastic. And I know there is always room to get better. In fact, hope that I never stop learning and improving.

  9. Lest we quibble over small details, I think that self-interest for a creative person, in any field, is a primary motivator for art. As you said, we make art for the sake of art, no matter what medium is our palette. Our appetite to create, to organize existing materials, or thoughts, or ideas, in new ways is what drives the creative soul. Once that appetite is whetted, there is a number of directions that the art can take you.

    If you want to sell, you need to be aware of what the market wants and needs, and find a need to fill with your art. Is it going to be purely you? Not quite. For example: I write books. My truest draft of the novel is the one that is in my notebooks and in my head. Once I get that down on paper, I can shape it and mold it into something that other people can recognize as a story. Then I craft it and polish it until I feel that it is market-ready. Then I turn it loose.

    Art must come from the heart to be felt. How satisfying is it when someone appreciates your art? I know I love it. But that is not what drives me to create. The spark of a new idea is enough to banish the darkness and get me searching around for the rest of the flame.

  10. Interesting post. As artists, we may write what we like…but most of us hope someone else likes it too. Isn't that why we post our writing in blogs, publish it in books and so on? So, at some level, most of us are writing for or at least seeking an audience, even if that audience is a clone of ourselves. As a professional writer, I feel a duty to write for an audience, though you're right, we should write the type of material that we ourselves want to, and I do. On the other hand, painting is my hobby and I do it purely for my own enjoyment. However, I do post the results on Facebook, on an art site and even in my blog. So I guess I'm seeking an audience for my art, too (though that's not my main objective). I would like to pose a question that has been considered before, and which I could argue equally for or against, but I'm interested to hear the views of Cristian and of others on this post:

    Is a piece of creative work (a story or a painting or a song, for example) art if the only person who sees it is its creator?

    • Tricky question. I always (or at least for a long, long time) believed that art's main goal is to make people feel. If the only thing it does is make its creator feel something, well… then it must be art. Also, we have brilliant novels and paintings and songs that were never meant to find an audience (Kafka's novels and stories are an example of that.)

  11. Love this post, thanks! It reminds me of a motto I stole from Rousseau:

    "If the book is bad, I am all the more obliged to own it: I do not wish to be thought better than I am…Who then will it please? Perhaps no one but me…"

  12. Pingback: All creative endeavors are, to some extent, selfish « E-Com Dreams

  13. Reblogged this on Stephen Nielsen and commented:
    "If you keep wondering whether people will like your art, if you believe that others have to validate you as an artists, you’ll never be free to do what you want." So true. I have to quit trying so hard to please people and just write–write what I want to write, write what pleases me. And don't think so hard to get it right, just write it down and get with the flow of it.

  14. My goal is simple. To write something I want to read. If the world enjoys it as well, that is great but I am the target audience and only I know when I am happy. Thank you.

  15. To me, art is like an anecdote of an expression in a given time. If you do it, you can look back on it perhaps and wonder who it was that did it.. like it wasn't the person you are now. If you didn't do it, it is like losing this part of yourself that once was. One must if they are an artist, there is no why. :)

  16. I don't agree that art is a selfish thing. The art is how an artist breathes.I once posted a comment to one of your posts saying I write to breathe, and that's right. how can breathing be a selfish thing?

  17. There's no way to please everyone, so your mind-set is perhaps the best/healthiest to have when it comes to writing. As I write, I write for myself. Editing, I'm guilty of making adjustments with others in mind. And I can't help but have the hope – a very strong, yet fragile hope – that at least one person will read and enjoy what I've worked so hard on. I want that extra justification. Can't help it. I'm content without it. But I'd be happier with it, I think.

    Thanks for blogging; you've always got something interesting to say, and beautiful flow to your work.

  18. I agree (mostly) with the sentiment of art for art's sake. I do write because it makes me feel good about myself and I enjoy creating something so personal and intense. But there is a whole era of writers who disagree with you to an extent. The Neoclassical authors, for example–Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, etc. Most serious artists from this time period believed that art should be used to teach others something. The Age of Satire was all about using their powers of good writing to correct moral folly in society. Of course, as society progressed the more modern thought of aesthetic art grew to be more prominent. But my point is that I think there's more to it than just writing what I want to write. As a person, but especially as an artist, I'll say whatever I please, but I also like to think that whatever I say is worth being said.

  19. I'm still not sure if I'll read The Casual Vacancy any time soon, but I've been wanting her to write something that isn't Harry Potter, or even necessarily children's lit for quite some time. I suppose that sentiment puts me in the minority, but even though I enjoyed Harry Potter, I'm glad she's not letting it rule her life, or milking the idea into a husk of itself. I know she's a writer worth her salt, just as I think it's reasonable to guess she must have other stories she wants to tell, and can tell well. Ignoring what she wants to write to write only for her fans would take all joy out the craft and be a disservice to her, and whether they believe it or not, it would probably be a disservice to them, too.

    And yes, what is the point of writing, if we can't write the stories we want to write?

  20. I believe this to be true of my story. I write aphorisms because I need to be reminded of what I think, and why I think – because ultimately, I am distorted.

    I paint because I need to 'see', and this act enables me to do so.

    I've just been surprised at the responses I've received since I've stopped doing these things in secret – my art was never intended for others. I wouldn't stop if I had no audience.

  21. Writing solely for one's self is one extreme of a spectrum and is testosterone to the seductive myth of the toiling undiscovered genius. This is destined only for (a few) some but we all can't be Van Gogh. I would aver that most of the greatest art in history was created with an audience in mind: Michelangelo's Sistine chapel; Rembrandt for his patrons; Shakespeare wrote for the people; Dickens serialised his novels in newspapers for the masses; the great tragedians of old, Sophocles and Euripides, wrote for the demos; the Impressionists came to public attention when they launched their own exhibition; Citizen Kane was made for an audience of 1+; it was for and to others that Astaire danced and Bessie sung etc etc; and the greatest epic poem ever, The Iliad, was crafted and perfected by generations of poets over centuries in front of listening audiences before Homer wrote it down in his own breathtaking style. Great artists and artistes put something of themselves into their works – that's the part that can't come from anyone else; it's what makes their works unique. What makes their works great on the other hand is [fill in the blanks]. Even JK Rowling after the incredible success of the first Harry Potter novel must have kept those millions of reading kids in mind as she spun out her tale to seven installments.

  22. I have to say I strongly disagree with "you're not a writer unless you're being read." I think that's a mental state that breeds negativity to a writer. A writer is someone who writes. A lot. If you're passionate about your writing, and you write every day (or, almost every day), why shouldn't you be able to call yourself a writer? It's like you said, write for yourself, not for an audience. So, why would one not be able to call him or herself a writer if writing is what they do?

  23. Wow, a lot of comments from people. I guess this struck a chord. It certainly did with me. I started blogging for my own selfish, creative reasons. But it's still nice when I get feedback from friends, family and random fans every now and again. Obviously I'm just starting out, but we all have to start somewhere. Anyway, I'm rambling. Thanks for the post!

  24. When you write for yourself without thinking of pleasing other people, it is really fulfilling when they became please with what you write because you're not expecting it. That's true happiness. but if they wouldn't like it, they might as well kill themselves.


  25. Have you seen Cormac McCarthy's interviews with Oprah? He voices the same thing you do in this quote: "Sadly, I don’t write for you, whoever you may be. And even sadder, I don’t really give a damn what you think about my stories or essays or even blog posts. That’s how things go. I write for myself, I write because it’s the one thing that makes me happy, no matter how cold it is outside."

    Have you read "The Road"? Anyway, check this out – McCarthy is one of the best, most unique writers out there, and his attitudes mirror yours (or yours mirror his, we should say). Here is the link to the interview:


    • good point. that is the gray area here. the audience is part of your creative dynamic. i guess the point might be that the control resides with you – you make a decision about how your audience fits in your creative process

  26. i know you didn't write this for me, or anyone else. but these are words i needed to read today. thank you for reminding me.

  27. Caron, that is an interesting question that you finish with and I pondered it a bit. I think if the creator calls it "art" then it is art in the creator's mind. They have named it and defined it for themselves. However, once it is in the public eye it is subject to the definition of art and subject to art criticism, book or music reviews. There have always been standards of quality set for creative work: intent, effectiveness, beauty, composition, relevance, etc. It is a tough call sometimes but I would prefer thoughtful critique to blanket acceptance of my art as there would be no bar set beyond mediocrity if everything is considered art.

    • Yes, I agree with you. What about Roland Barthes, who said the author is not important ("Death of the author"), rather it is the reader's interpretation that matters? I understand what he was saying but still, in the context of what Cristian has said here, and as an author myself, have trouble with accepting it totally.

  28. Yes, yes, and yes!! This is such excellent advice, and a great reminder to all of us to continue stepping bravely out into the world, guided by our own artistic whims and fancies. I often fall into the trap of feeling I need others to validate me as a writer … that I can't feel I'm "really" a writer if I'm not being read. And I have to remind myself that this isn't true. I am a writer because I write. And because I would still write, even if no one read, ever. (Although the truth is that I would be sad if no one ever read.)

    I couldn't agree more with what you said regarding JK Rowling. I thought it was incredibly brave for her to write her newest book (which I enjoyed reading … but perhaps I'm in the minority). Realistically, if she was writing just to gain acclaim or money, she never has to write again. And yet, she had other stories ti tell, and she was brave enough to write them down. I love that so much, and my respect for her shot through the roof with the publication of her latest book.

  29. Came across this just the other day:

    “Somebody said that writers are like otters… Otters, if they do a trick and you give them a fish, the next time they’ll do a better trick or a different trick because they’d already done that one. And writers tend to be otters. Most of us get pretty bored doing the same trick. We’ve done it, so let’s do something different.”

    —Neil Gaiman

    Great topic, great post. I know that for me all writing begins for myself.

  30. "Art for art's sake" is a concept that has been around a long time. Art has to have meaning to a viewer to be considered art, even if that viewer is the artist. We have to create to please ourselves, as artists, first and foremost. If others appreciate it, too, that is just icing on the cake, so to speak. Yes, art is very self-ish, but not necessarily "selfish" — with all the negative connotations. Excellent post.

  31. I always just write for myself. Except for one slight problem… which is: Myself, according what I feel is true, includes everybody else. No, this does not mean that I will brush your teeth for you (i.e., for me). It does mean that I'm not very inclined to shoot bullets at you during a war.


    You are responsible for the world… because the world is you.

  32. Excellent post. I would say the quickest way to losing sight of your goals and creativity is to start trying to force them to conform to another's desires whatever they may be.

  33. Ultimately we write because we have a message that we are compelled to share. Even if we don't always understand it ourselves it demands that it be heard. Thus your post has spoken to many.

  34. You might not give a dam about what I think about this blogpost but hey, I just have to tell you that this actually helped me with my art work. I always worry about getting my work out there but what I actually want to do is to create stuff, so whether you actually care about what your followers think or not, these were some wise words, Cheers

  35. Although a fairly inexperienced writier, I feel like I understand. Even within what you call the contradictions of the piece (that you have written of finding a good audience) those things come secondary. While typing a way on my laptop and friends ask me what I'm doing I simply reply 'writing'. Not all of my writing is meant to see the light of day, but every last word is written because I want it to. No book written by an author who isn't invested in their own work is going to be worth while. I feel finding an audience, getting writing 'out there', comes second. First and most important is what you've expressed: writing for the sake of the writer's own desires.

  36. You are right. Sometimes writing is more for ourselves than anyone else. I know I enjoy going back and reading the things I've written. But if there's an appreciative audience, that's always a nice bonus. I like to write when I have the time, but often when I should be doing other things, that's when I produce my best material. If I had all the time in the world to write, I would probably bore the pants off of everyone.

  37. You're absolutely right with this. Yes, it would be wonderful if our art, writing, whatever, was pleasing to the masses and made them happy and us rich. But ultimately you cannot as an artist or writer, be true to yourself or your vision if you try to manipulate what you create with the idea that it will be pleasing to others and make you successful. The creative thing must come from the source that drives us and be allowed to be whatever it is. If others get it, and love it, fabulous. If they don't then the creator of the work still has the pleasure of having done it. I paint and write, and a long time ago had to decide if I was going to try to do art on command (i.e. commissions). I don't, because I do what I do for the love of it, because it feeds me, because whatever else I must do in my life for others and at their direction, my creative pursuits, painting and writing, I do for me. Yes. I would love to get rich and be wildly successful. Wouldn't we all. But I can't write, or paint while second guessing myself.

  38. Wow. Great conversation! I would like to add that I think all endeavors are selfish. Even nuns have to look in the mirror to brush their teeth. But, to the point: Don't ever write for me Cristian. And don't ever consider it sad that you don't. You have 382 likes on a post where you told your audience you don't write anything for them… I'd say that's a start. :-)

  39. Still love your opinions about being an artist. :)

    True, even though people liking (or at least appreciating) ones art is quite important and -you can say- motivates an artist, in the end (or should I say beginning?) it's the artists that decide what they want to make. And others' satisfaction is one of the bonuses. ;)

  40. I found one of the comments about needing praise from those closest to us interesting. It's nice when those closest to me enjoy my work, but if they don't, their less-than-love-it opinion doesn't impact my motivation in the slightest way. On my wall is a piece I was told was horrible. I liked it — a lot. Over the last two years, people tell me they love it and ask for prints. Neither the first opinion nor the following opinions affect my feeling about the piece — I like it a lot, regardless of what others say about it.

    I'm reminded of something I heard the controversial artist, Christos, say at a lecture about he doesn't care what people think of his art. Some felt that was selfish. There's healthy and unhealthy selfishness. I think as artists, a good dose of healthy selfishness is required to be authentically creative.

  41. Another perspective is one I share with others: when I learn a work was created for an audience, it detracts from my admiration for that work. Yes, including the Sistine Chapel. Sure, the mastery necessary to execute it is fantastic. Yet, what Michaelangelo felt about it and how he was made to do it when his true love was sculpting impacts the perspective of it being part of the greatest art in history. Imagine what some of those you've named above created, uninfluenced/restricted by an audience.

  42. You're right. As a visual artist, I gave up making art for many years because I was so hung up about what other people thought about it. Only when I stopped caring and developed the self-confidence to do art for myself, was I truly happy not only with the artwork I'm doind but also with myself as an artist. yes, it's great when people like what you do, and it's even better if they buy some, but you can make a living stacking shelves in a supermarket if you must.

  43. Thank you kindly for you well written few point!!! Sometimes as artists we get caught up in our gifts from the world's vantage point, forgetting our own. To be gifted in an art as creative as writing is a form of expression that is universally relate-able. But I write because I am best able to share my feelings this way. That is most important!!! :) Happy writing & thanks for writing!!! ♥

  44. Great and thoughtful post. I have mixed feelings. I hope to be meaningful, make a difference,

    help someone, and yet, I do just like to write. For some reason, I think writing is more than self indulgence.

  45. Thought provoking post. Easy for me to say that my writing is largely therapeutic, but as someone else has said; without praise , if even slight from someone, we lose motivation. I do hope others are inspired by my writing and its sometimes a struggle to stay public (post) without feeling that connection being made. If truly just for myself; my personal journal would suffice.

  46. I am with Alison! Thank you for the reminder. I forgot why I started blogging in the first place. I really did not do it because I was desperate for anyone to like or even get what I had to say. I was writing for the sheer joy. A little hint of recognition and suddenly I caught some sort of fever. Thank you for the reminder.

  47. I write because it it the only future availabe to me… or at least that's how I see it. Your post is right; I think without being selfish the inspiration and drive to document what you feel can't come, at least not in its truest form. We are all lucky to live in a time where we can throw ideas around as we like, and also throw a finger to the consequences. Selfishness is only an interest in self-worth, and self-worth is tantamount to survival. Survival is hardest when your an artist.

  48. As always your words are a compelling read Christian. Early on as an aspiring writer I read and heard from countless successful writers that keeping perspective on one's writing ambitions begins with one basic and critical rule…write for the love of writing come what may.

    It's fascinating to see just how many have engaged in creative writing over the years and in the dozen years I have seriously written online that has been a substantial number of individuals. Many are recreational writers and the exercise of writing affords those individuals their own derivative measure of personal consumption and satisfaction while also enjoying some degree of feedback from a reading audience of sorts. For them, a daily dose of the joys of creative authoring and the response of a small but dedicated audience is all they want now and ever after.

    Beyond are a broad spectrum of writers who possess greater levels of literary skill to the extent that their words draw a considerably larger, more consistent level of interest amount their reading audience and other writers who share their publishing medium. For this group there is perhaps a sense of potential commercial value to their written craft, that their artistic merit will carry their authored creations to lofty heights of accreditation, recognition and reward.

    Indeed we create out of our own image and to our own satisfaction. We embrace what we create artistically with or without an audience. Deep down inside, though, there is a sacred place within our heart, mind and soul that is reserved for the accolades, the kind and inspired recognition that drives our inner instinct and motivation to pick up that proverbial pen the next day to write again.

    That we create as in an art form, whether written, sculpted, painted, chalked onto a city sidewalk or by whatever other means, is a personal gift, a joy, selfish perhaps, yet driven by the emotions of creative instinct and self-proclamation. That another may share in that emotion, that joy, that creative celebration, the challenge of interpretation and reward of acceptance at some level may well come down to the old adage that 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder'.

    Would a reader whose remarks on my writing disparagingly falter my efforts? No. Does an enthusiastic, appreciative and inspired reader's comments accordingly influence and motivate me to create on an even better level tomorrow?….absolutely.

  49. Really enjoyed this post. I just finished having a conversation about this with a writer friend, about how I write for myself, regardless of what people think about the writing, because if I don't, I will explode with the pressure of what needs to be released. I even shared this on my facebook page because I don't have the courage to say it like you do. :)

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