Artists are Idiots (have some compassion)

Some Do Nots for writers and artists:

  1. Beg
  2. Tell your life story
  3. Enclose a poem (unless submitting to a poetry magazine in which case enclose 6-8, single spaced, typed, previously unpublished)
  4. Include a picture or an illustration (not applicable for visual artists)
  5. Worry about someone stealing your idea
  6. Accuse someone (famous) of stealing your (unpublished) idea
  7. Post on Facebook about how difficult being an artist is
  8. Write a blog about how you should have been invited to see the Queen
  9. Spell the important person’s name wrong
  10. Chase up continuously
  11. Send simultaneous submissions
  12. Criticise another (better know) writer/artist or their work publically
  13. Respond to a rejection
  14. Ask for feedback
  15. Send your work to the wrong place
  16. Send your work to the wrong person
  17. Tell a critic they can change your life
  18. Tell an agent they can change your life
  19. Tell a random person working in a theatre/funding organisation etc they can change your life
  20. Use lots of different coloured fonts
  21. Quote your Grandma

Anyone would think artists are idiots.

Why do we do these idiotic things?

Because we’re young/inexperienced/mentally ill/deluded/having a bad day


But often, I think, because this line of work is soul destroying. Of course most of us are warned of this early on. The warning has absolutely no effect on us stubborn folk who don’t see any other option for our lives except to write/to make theatre/to perform etc etc… and therefore find ourselves continually looking for help, support, opportunity, money, audience, publication, commissions…

Working in this industry is soul destroying and that can result in us suffering from temporary mind-loss and doing some pretty ridiculous, irrational things.  Of course these aren’t big things. No wars have been started over a silly covering letter.

Because these aren’t big things, because our silliness doesn’t hurt anyone, I wonder if it’s reasonable to request some compassion from those on the receiving end of our idiocies. Many of those on the receiving end are actually being paid to receive our mistakes. Many are not, many are writers or artists like the rest of us and probably made similar mistakes at some point. So either way…

Here’s an example from my own true-life story:

Five years ago I submitted a few poems to a magazine and forgot about them, being accustomed to sending poems into black holes. I set up a do-it-yourself website for the first time. I put a few poems on my website. I received an email from the editor saying that she had read my poems with interest but then discovered I had already ‘published’ them on my website:

‘I realise this may be an alien concept to you, as someone who appears to be more at home performing than publishing, but if you want to get ahead in print as well as on stage, it’s something you will have to accept and embrace…otherwise you will very rapidly make yourself unpopular with editors.’

I’d only just made the website and it’d had about three views, I’d partly forgotten about the submission, but I also hadn’t quite clocked that putting it on my personal website counted as ‘publishing’. I immediately took the poems down and apologised profusely. Of course my poems were not published in nameless magazine. I was let off with a slapped wrist and instructions to buy the Writers and Artists yearbook (which I’d bought and read years before).

(That is by no means the most idiotic mistake I’ve made but the other ones are so idiotic I’m too embarrassed to share them.)

Of course we need to put ‘soul destroying’ in perspective. Cleaning toilets for a living is more soul destroying. Standing in a dole queue is soul destroying. Working in a call centre is soul destroying. (Whether or not the above activities are more soul destroying for aspiring artists than for non-artistically-afflicted folk I can’t say.) Artists and writers should be grateful for any shred of encouragement, or sliver of success we get, we should be thankful for any time we manage to spend writing/making at all. The trouble with us is we’re insatiable and ambitious.

What makes an otherwise rational and intelligent person act like an idiot?

I believe the answer is a mix of ambition, Sisyphus, and black hole syndrome.


Black hole syndrome is when you get no response to your communications. These could be emails, letters, submissions, tour booking queries, invitations to see your work, etc. When no replies are received to a large number of the above, over a period of several years, you feel that you are pouring yourself into a black hole. The whole exercise becomes slightly absurd. You lose perspective, you might (subconsciously, you understand) start to view yourself as a kind of subhuman creature not deserving of a reply.

By Patricia Piccinini
By  artist Patricia Piccinini

You get so used to receiving no response that you start to believe it is indeed a black hole, and at this point, a kind of fuck it mentality takes over and that is when the idiotic email is sent. And of course, sometimes, the idiotic email gets a response. Not a good one.

Sisyphus is basically a Greek version of the above.


Ambition is a Jekyll and Hyde character. Hyde is about success, acknowledgement, maybe also about money (even if just on a paying-the-bills scale). The Hyde side propels us to submit scripts, to write funding bids, to email important people, to keep emailing important people, to keep looking for opportunities. It makes us blinkered and driven, it prevents us from being satisfied with where we are, with what we’ve got, it produces in us a strange cocktail of self belief and hope and persistence, ambition is what makes us constantly unsatisfied therefore constantly trying to get our work seen, made, heard, acknowledged.

The Jekyll side of ambition propels us to make better, to write better, to take risks with our work, to think big, or small and complex, or simple and beautiful, or new and strange…  This side of ambition doesn’t go away either, not even when the book is published or the great review received or the commission achieved, ambition is what makes us constantly unsatisfied therefore constantly trying to make better work.

Of course not all people have split personalities. Some might only be Hyde types. Perhaps they could go down the commercial route if they are naturally talented, but ambition for success without ambition to make better work is not a winning formula in the long term. Then of course there are those with the ambition to keep developing their work but no ambition for success, acknowledgment, etc. There are quite a few of those. Some reckon that being good and working hard at what they do is enough, they perhaps think they shouldn’t have to send endless communications into the black hole. Some don’t have to, because they get lucky early on. Some make great work but no one sees it. If they’re happy –great. But I’ve met a few folk on this side who are a bit bitter. Maybe that’s because they’re not listening to their inner Hyde.


(Neither Jekyll nor Hyde are ever satisfied.)

*end of dodgy literary metaphors

‘Normal’ people, when faced with rejection after rejection, decide to change career/expectations. This is perfectly rational. Artists and writers, because of the strange mix of ambition, hope, self-belief and love, stick with it. Obviously this makes us a little unusual. It makes us a little deluded, if we weren’t, we’d give up. This delusion ingredient is essential, but a bit risky, at some point we need to stop being deluded and start to see our work in perspective. Hopefully we are only just the necessary amount of deluded to keep going.

So black hole syndrome resulting in idiotic communication is one feature. Another is idiotic email/letter/communication sent to important person in response to actually getting good response from important person. This is of course ludicrous. Writer/artist in question finally receives the news they have been waiting for. Perfect opportunity to act like a normal human being and respond in rational fashion. But artist/writer does not do this, writer/artist responds in idiotic fashion. Why would artist/writer self sabotage in this way? I think the answer might be because writer/artist has pinned so much on this response, has been waiting so long for this response, is amazed that they are actually receiving communication from a human, has bottled up all their ambition and ideas and hopes for so long, is pinning everything on this poor person, that  suddenly they let it all out and say too much/beg/explain how difficult they are finding it or commit other idiotic mistake listed above. Writer/artist doesn’t hear from important person again. Artist/writer mortified.

The web is full of people giving advice, full of rules on how to submit work, full of Facebook comments from editors complaining and laughing about idiotic communications they have received, and full of earnest writers and artists making mistakes. I have beaten myself up on many occasions for being an idiot. I’m sure I’m not alone.

So next time we fuck up, instead of directing our anger at ourselves, let’s instead think of all the other writers and artists who are at that moment fucking up too. Let’s pool our mortification and self-loathing and blinkered ambition, let’s imagine it draining away into the black hole of our collective hope, and let’s give ourselves a fucking break.

To those on the receiving end of our many idiocies, please remember that this profession is full of hope and full of rejection. Constant rejection makes even the best of us act like idiots now and then.

Artists are Idiots.

(Have some compassion)

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17 thoughts on “Artists are Idiots (have some compassion)

  1. This rang quite a few bells with me.
    What I don’t understand is how Important People became Important People when so many of them (not all, but many) don’t have the decency to reply to emails; that is, to reply to emails that require a reply. When did it become acceptable to ignore communications – polite, reasonable communications – from fellow human beings? Important People wouldn’t ignore you if you communicated with them face to face in a way that required a reply, so why is it considered acceptable via the medium of email? Answer: it is not acceptable, it is rude. So I have a bit of a problem with the way that your post seems to accept that being ignored by Important People is something to be expected and accepted. It’s not, and Important People should realise that what really matters in life is not power and status but kindness and decency.
    Don’t you think?

  2. Hi David, thanks for reading!
    – I agree with you entirely, I didn’t mean to suggest that it is acceptable or should be accepted that emails are ignored in such a fashion, it’s incredibly frustrating (and I imagine there are many different reasons why it happens). I also agree that face to face communication is entirely different and brings out the (kind and decent) human in us! – and that decency should also apply when it comes to emails etc…

    1. Thanks for the response. It’s a real concern of mine that in these still early days in the development of email etiquette (not yet 20 years down the line really) the notion that replying to email is optional seems to be becoming established. As a true idiot/artist/writer, I will simply not accept this! However, because the idiot/artist/writer hasn’t completely taken me over, I tolerate it without resorting to petulant and ill-advised follow-ups. Mostly.
      (But the non-repliers all go on my ‘list of enemies’…)

  3. It’s true. One day you win a prize so you think you’re great, the next day your work gets rejected or ignored, or adversely criticised, so you think you’re hopeless. So our mental state goes a bit bipolar, even those of us who are not clinically bipolar. And in many other walks of life, your work is part of a team, you are buoyed up, or cushioned from failure, by sharing the experience with others. Artists and writers are generally working alone, so feel very exposed. It is quite a difficult way of life, especially when money is tight and you are relying on this talent that you are not sure you’ve got, to feed and house yourself.

    1. I was going to bring this up. I really enjoyed the blog entry, but I do feel that one of the big problems with poetry is that a lot of people feel they’re not allowed to pass comment on the work of others. I find it genuinely frustrating and actually stopped blogging honestly about a lot of live events as a result of this. Before I wrote or performed poetry I still regularly read and went to events and could happily say whether I enjoyed someone’s work or not without feeling as if I was passing “jealous criticism” or being worried about whether I might create a serious argument. As soon as I crossed the divide and got published/ got a few gigs, however, it seemed to be regarded as taboo to even mention – even in passing around a pub table – that a full-time poet’s latest live show or anthology might be a bit average.

      But why? If you look at other artforms, plenty of people are big enough and brave enough to hear criticism about what works for their audiences and what doesn’t. The oversensitivity you refer to seems to predominantly exist in poetry, possibly because it’s such a small world and we bump into each other all the time, or possibly because a lot of poets – especially professional ones – are a tad oversensitive and need to accept that not everyone is bound to enjoy their work. Down in the basement and in the margins, the rest of us often hear helpful criticism at workshops and live events on a regular basis.

      1. Thanks for reading David
        – It’s an odd one, I also think we need to be able to critique each other’s work. This happens with page poetry – one poet reviews another…but not with poetry in performance. I think that should change, as it’d be useful to have more critical/constructive response to the performance work, and if poets/performers don’t lead the way in this respect, I’m not sure it will happen…

      2. Absolutely agree. It is so important to flex your critical muscles and say what you think. Perhaps more so when you are growing your own writing chops as it were. We can all be a bit too precious at times. Take it on the chin. Consider what people say. Take what you want from it and move along.

  4. That email etiquette comment is interesting. It’s such an ephemeral way of communicating that the recipient can easily ‘forget’ you and drop you into the black hole. That’s partly why I don’t agree with not sending in simultaneous submissions. We have to wait so long for rejections that it’s daft not to. Be courteous, of course, and withdraw as soon as you get accepted somewhere else.

    1. Pleased you found my comment interesting.
      There’s no reason though why email should be ephemeral. In fact it’s not ephemeral at all – it’s as permanent (or more so) than the printed word. And I feel there’s no excuse for editors (or whoever) ever ‘forgetting’ you and your submission.
      This strange and unwarranted approach to email, whereby it is somehow acceptable to neglect to reply, drives me round the bend. And like all such evils, it is self-perpetuating – because the more that people come to accept that the ‘forgetting’ of their emails is to be expected, the more that the practice of sending nagging follow-ups becomes standard. So it will not be enough to just send someone an email, you must send two or three before even expecting to be attended to! Then the flood of emails to Important People increases, and they then feel more justified in neglecting to attend to every one they ought to attend to. Arghh!

  5. Great article Hannah, we all know this feeling and are very familiar with the black hole – it’s not only creative people who get this. As I can’t earn enough from my writing I have to work as an office manager. I make a point of answering every job application, however illiterate and whether it arrives by snail or email, even if only to say thank you for applying but…

  6. I think you have to let it go….send the email and if they don’t reply, let it go. Otherwise you just end up getting more and more wound up. Just leave it as a mystery (!!) why they don’t reply……I love the idea of this blog, I too am an idiot, but try to be compassionate to myself about all the idiotic things I’ve done in the name of ambition. I try…….thanks Hanna, for this.

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