I don’t know about West of Channel and West of the Pond – but here in Italy, it usually goes like this: you are having a normal conversation with some non-writing acquaintance or some editee and/or young hopeful, and all goes swimmingly, until they ask you about one particular play or story, and you said that oh yes, that was a commission from…
And suddenly they frown as though they couldn’t believe they’ve heard you right.
“Commission? You mean… you write on commission?”
And you say that yes, of course you do.
“But… I mean, you write fiction on commission? Like short stories, or…”
Stories, you explain, and plays, yes.*
By this point, they are staring at you in frank horror. Commissions! How can you do that? How can you take money to write what other people want you to write? That’s the basest, most commercial of things – and they thought you different, and you’ve greatly disappointed them. No, they don’t say it quite in as many words, but it’s clear as day. And I’m not even speaking of starry-eyed teenage girls (we’ve all been there, haven’t we?) – or at least not just of them. It’s when full grown adults look at me that way, that I feel an irresistible urge to explain that no – writing on commission is not the devil’s work.
Come on, how many Caravaggios do we have because one morning Caravaggio woke up with a random inspiration, and how many thanks to some commission? Commissioned work often provides us with a good look at the relationship between artists and their time, artists and the society they came from and lived in…
But that apart, on the individual side, and more specifically about writing, commissioned work can be great in many ways. Or at least, it has been for me.
It has repeatedly drawn me out of my comfort zone – and this is, I have come to realise, a very good thing in itself.
It has given me a chance to explore in some depth subjects and characters that I thought I had no interest in, or even thoroughly disliked. At best, I’ve come to change my mind on the matter; other times, I’ve learned to find some interesting angle in the least congenial subjects.
It has sparked off new fields of interest I wouldn’t have tried otherwise.
It has given me a chance to work with people, theatre companies, institutions, and organisations I wouldn’t normally seek out.
If nothing else, it has provided new frameworks, new sets of limits and constraints to work with – and we all know how good this can be to writing.
Because of all of the above it has (sometimes unexpectedly) produced some of my best work.
Most of all, I don’t believe I’ve ever worked through a commission without learning a good deal – or at least something. About a new subject, about my own abilities, about writing, about people…
And I’m not saying there are no awkward moments, awkward people, awkward or unreasonable requests, frustration, nearly averted murder and general mayhem. Oh, plenty of that – but one learns to sift through them, and pick the really interesting ones, the ones that are stimulating, promising, challenging, maybe even uncomfortable – in a good way. The ones where you are expected to give your own twist to someone else’s general idea.
So to recap, commissions are stimulating, (almost) always a learning experience, and paid work to boot. I only wish it weren’t so hard to explain to people – and aspiring writers – in my corner of the world.
* Although, on the whole, the notion of a commissioned play seems to appear slightly less disturbing. I have the impression that short stories rank just under poetry in the Italian notion of Spontaneous Bursts of the Heart?