Both, is my answer. Only if we’re (exceptionally) lucky can we earn a living following only our heart. If we’re sensible, we keep our head firmly where it’s supposed to be, checking that the heart doesn’t get out of control.
Stephen King, in On Writing, talks of writing the first draft with the door closed, listening to no one but our own heart (I paraphrase) and the second draft with the door open, listening to our professional knowledge of what needs to be in the book in order for it to be published and for people to buy it.
So, balancing head and heart and not letting one get out of control for too long (though a bit of wildness is allowed!) seems a valid way for a writer to go about the business of being a writer.
But there’s another eminently right-headed way of being a creative person: to do some projects where you mostly follow your heart and others where you get your head down and do stuff that people want to pay for, even if your heart sits in a huff in the corner of the room, ignored and pissed off.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, not least during a discussion on Facebook after I'd praised this piece by Andrew Crofts, provocatively titled, Struggling as an author? Stop writing only what you want to write. Now, I didn’t enjoy all of it but what I do agree with are these ideas that I took from it: that the world does not owe us publication just because we want to write something; that we owe a great deal to readers and sometimes we ought to compromise in order to give them at least something of what they want; and that it is perfectly legitimate and sensible to write some things for purely commercial reasons and others for the heartsong.
Last week, something happened to my family which provides an example. Some of you know what’s coming. A couple of years ago, my younger daughter and a friend, Caroline Bartleet, who were working for a film production company, decided to crowdfund and create a short film, from an idea of Caroline's, inspired by her hearing a 999 call while researching for her day job.. Caroline would be the writer and director; Rebecca would be the producer. They got a team together, all in the industry, many of them working for love or favours; they raised the money they needed through Kickstarter; and, after months and countless hours of planning, filmed it over one weekend last year. The resulting short film was Operator.
Meanwhile, of course, they carried on working in their jobs. Because you have to pay your bills. Operator went into post-production and was ready last summer. They started submitting to festivals, with no expectation of anything.
It was picked up by many festivals, most excitingly the London Film Festival, where it had its UK premiere. Just before the news of LFF came, Rebecca went freelance, with a leap of faith and bravery.
Then, astonishingly, it was nominated for a BAFTA. We knew it was good, because we’d seen it and we’d seen it with other audiences and witnessed their reaction. But a BAFTA??
Incredibly, they won. An actual BAFTA. She has her very heavy golden trophy to prove it. (She's on the left in the pic.) Personally, I think it should stay in our house – so much safer. I would polish it, too.
They followed their hearts, gambled with their time and immense effort, and the generous help of all their Kickstarter supporters, and they won. Beyond their dreams. Huge luck, of course, but nothing venture, nothing gain, and that was down to hard work and skill.
(The link to their website, with a clip, is here. They haven’t had time to update the news yet! There's a Skype interview here. And the official You-Tube clip and interview with Zoe Ball. Matt Damon may feature...)
My point is only this: that sometimes you must follow your heart. Sometimes that’s how to feel alive. And sometimes you have to follow your head, because that’s the only way to eat - and stay alive. So, Rebecca is back at her uncertain freelance jobs, where she may be a BAFTA-winning Producer but she’s still at the coalface doing jobs that may be below producer level, jobs that she hasn’t initiated, jobs where her heart may not always be. But it's still film production, just as ghost-writing (etc) is still writing. Heart and head.
I know other young people who have started bands, for example, with just the same mentality: this is where our hearts are; the heads are paying the bills. And maybe one day the two will come together.
Do what you can, do what you have to, do what you want, do what works. Just say yes. Head, heart, head, heart? Whichever you can. Just don’t feel demeaned on those occasions when you follow your head instead of your heart. Heads are good. But they don’t work without hearts. And vice versa.
Nicola Morgan still needs to practise what she preaches. One day. Oh yes, one day.