You have to be absolutely determined, otherwise you might just as well write poetry.
(Sir Terence Conran, quoted in The Creative Economy by John Howkins)
Terence Conran offers excellent advice to aspiring entrepreneurs, but he obviously has a thing or two to learn about poetry.
He seems to think writing poetry is easy compared to building a business, and that most poetry is written by shy, retiring wallflowers with little or no ambition.
It sounds as though he hasn’t met many successful poets. And he’s certainly reckoning without the likes of T.S. Eliot.
First and foremost, Eliot was a poet of genius (and regular readers of Lateral Action will know I don’t use that word lightly) who worked extremely hard at his writing. It would be nice to think that writing great poetry would be enough to establish his name as one of the foremost writers in the English language, and win him the Nobel Prize in Literature. And maybe it would have been enough.
But Eliot left nothing to chance. As well as writing the poetry itself, he was extremely determined and persistent in establishing himself as an influential man of letters and successful businessman.
I’ll leave it to you to judge whether his standing as a poet would have been just as high if he hadn’t bothered to do any of the following.
Eliot worked incredibly hard, some might say insanely hard. Early in his career, he was putting in a full day’s work as a banker at Lloyds in the City of London, before returning home to write essays, lectures and book reviews – eventually taking on the editorship of a new literary magazine, the Criterion, in his spare time.
To begin with, he needed the extra money from his literary journalism, but even later in life, when he was financially comfortable, he still set himself an incredibly demanding schedule, over and above his ‘day job’. He continued to write articles and essays, give lectures, attend meetings of various societies and serve on voluntary committees.
Meanwhile, he managed to produce several volumes of some of the greatest poetry in English.
Takeaway: Do what it takes, for as long as it takes. Fed up with your job? Spend your evenings creating something great – something that could eventually offer you a viable alternative.
Establish a Routine
Some artists thrive on chaos, others on order and routine. Eliot definitely fell into the latter category. One of the things he liked about working in the bank was that it gave him the security of a daily routine, falling into step with the other bowler-hatted bankers.
Again, even when he was successful enough to order his day as he pleased, he carried on with the daily routine. During the 1940s, for example, he was leaving his flat at 6.30 each morning to attend early Mass (by this time he was a devout Christian) before returning home to eat a large English breakfast, then spend the morning writing. At midday he would rise from his desk and take the bus into his office at Faber and Faber, completing The Times crossword on the way. The rest of the day was taken up with routine publishing business – meetings with colleagues and authors, reading manuscripts and dictating letters to his secretary.
Takeaway: Opinion is divided on whether routines stimulate or stifle creativity. But if you want to get a lot done, a regular routine is hard to beat.
Take Time Off
I won’t pretend Eliot had a healthy work/life balance. He didn’t. It’s hard not to see his various illnesses as his body protesting against his punishing work schedule. Every so often, he worked himself to a state of nervous exhaustion, and was forced to take time off work.
These breaks took the form of retreats in the English countryside or visits to health spas in continental Europe. And they were often the occasion of bursts of creative activity. The Waste Land, considered by many his greatest poem, was largely written while on sick leave from the bank, with sections written at a sanatorium in Switzerland and on holiday in Margate.
Looking at the big picture, the alternation of hard work and relaxation can be seen as an important part of Eliot’s creative process. There was some method in the madness, although I can’t help thinking he could have made it a lot easier on himself.
Takeaway: Take regular breaks, for the sake of your Muse as well as your health.
Eliot’s character and life choices were riddled with conflict and contradiction. As an American who left his home country to set up home in England, he found himself a stranger in both countries, who habitually described himself as a “resident alien”. He once said his poetry “wouldn’t be what it is if I’d been born in England, and it wouldn’t be what it is if I’d stayed in America”.
Some of Eliot’s bohemian friends were so horrified at the thought of the great poet having to earn a living as a banker, that they tried to set up a trust fund so that he would be free to pursue his writing full-time. Eliot wasn’t keen. Apart from feeling embarrassed at being treated as a charity case, he quite enjoyed putting on his suit and working at the bank. He clearly relished upsetting people’s expectations of how a poet should dress and behave. Even among the bohemian outsiders, he was an outsider.
On the other hand, his other life of the imagination meant he never really fitted in at the bank. One of his colleagues said that he “often seemed to be living in dreamland… he would often in the middle of dictating a letter break off suddenly, grasp a sheet of paper and start writing quickly when an idea came to him” (quoted in T.S. Eliot by Peter Ackroyd).
These days, people would talk about the contradictory elements of Eliot’s character contributing to his USP or (shudder) personal brand. But Eliot was lucky enough to live in an age when he was simply known as ‘an original’.
Takeaway: Be yourself. All of your selves.
When Eliot moved to London, he worked his way into some of the foremost literary circles of the day, making acquaintance with influential writers and other cultural figures, including Bertrand Russell, Ezra Pound, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, and Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group. Ezra Pound was responsible for publishing and championing his early work, and throughout his career his powerful friends helped him ensure a positive reception for his writings.
One of his reasons for editing the Criterion in his spare time was the opportunity it afforded him to commission work from influential writers and make their acquaintance. It was through his network of contacts that Eliot was introduced to Geoffrey Faber, who offered him a highly attractive way out of banking.
Takeaway: Build your network before you need it. The day will come when it will make the difference between success and failure for you.
Art and Business Are Not Mutually Exclusive
Eventually, Eliot did leave the bank – to become a Director of the publishing firm Faber and Gwyer, later known as Faber and Faber. His combined experience as a businessman, editor and respected poet made him the ideal candidate for the position.
Publishing allowed him to continue with his daily routine as a London businessman, and combine his interest in business with his love of literature. Under his editorship, Faber and Faber grew into the pre-eminent publishers of poetry in Britain. He exerted a significant influence over the course of 20th century poetry by publishing a stream of major names, including Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Steven Spender, Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin.
Takeaway: There’s nothing wrong with being a full-time artist or pursuing your art in your spare time. But don’t shy away from combining your artistic and business interests, just because it’s unconventional.
At one of his public lectures, a member of the audience asked him whether he was concerned that the references to Greek and Roman literature in his poetry would be lost on many contemporary readers, who would not have had the benefits of a classical education. Without hesitation, he replied:
They’ll damn well have to learn.
Takeaway: Don’t pander to other people’s expectations. As Hugh puts it, you need to know “where to draw the red line that separates what you are willing to do, and what you are not”.
Educate Your Audience
As editor of the Criterion and at Faber and Faber, Eliot was in a powerful position to shape the tastes of his audience, by choosing which authors to publish, and writing and commissioning reviews and critical articles. He also delivered numerous lectures and published volumes of his literary essays. All of which helped to create the cultural climate in which his own writings were – favourably – received.
Takeaway: Ask yourself “What do my audience need to know in order to appreciate my work/buy from me?”. Then work out a way to teach them. It may look like extra work, but it’s one of the best investments you can make.
Quality, Not Quantity
Compared to many great writers, Eliot didn’t write much. His Collected Poems would be embarrassingly slim – if it didn’t contain such a high proportion of masterpieces. Eliot said he wanted the publication of every poem to be “an event”.
The result was that his audience eagerly awaited every new publication, however short. In 1940, he published a single poem, ‘East Coker’, as a pamphlet – it sold 12,000 copies in less than a year, a very high figure for the UK poetry market.
Takeaway: Don’t churn stuff out for the sake of it. Give your audience your best, or wait until you can.
Don’t Repeat Yourself
Even within such a small body of work, Eliot displayed a remarkable range of form and subject, from the avant-garde imagery and rhythms of ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ and the fractured modernist consciousness of The Waste Land, through to the spiritual meditations of Four Quartets. Each time he published a new volume of poetry, there were readers who complained that they preferred his previous work and wished he could have done more of the same.
After completing Four Quartets in 1942, Eliot gave up writing poetry for the page altogether, and devoted his creative energies to writing plays. His play The Cocktail Party, was a popular hit, with a run of over 400 Broadway performances.
Takeaway: Achieved a success? Congratulations. What are you going to do next?
For more about Eliot’s extraordinary life and career, read Peter Ackroyd’s excellent biography, T.S. Eliot.
Portrait of T.S. Eliot – Wikimedia Commons
What Do You Make of Eliot’s Example?
Do you agree with Terence Conran that the fine arts are a soft option compared to business?
Does Eliot sound like the kind of example you’d like to follow?
Was he a ‘one-off’ – or can you think of others who successfully combined art and business?