An Absence of Jack

My name is not Jack. I have not blogged before, though I have had a monthly newspaper column for a few years and have written opinion pieces for some time prior to that. Blogging is a new discipline for me, and as with every writing form I have experimented in, I am going to approach it in my own style whilst showing a respectful awareness of the traditions and expectations usually associated with it.

I was discussing this recently with a fellow writer, and was told to consider how I wanted to present myself, as by blogging my brand could become confusing. I was at risk of becoming a Jack of all trades, master of none, and apparently I did not want that to happen.

‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ comes from the pseudo-Latin ‘Johannes factotum’ which appeared in a booklet in 1592 by Elizabethan author Robert Greene. It meant ‘Johnny do-it-all’ and was used to dismissively describe actor-turned-playwright William Shakespeare. The principle held then—and still now—is that you should find one thing you are good at and focus upon it, becoming an expert in that field instead of dabbling in many. Now, I am not going to compare myself to Shakespeare, but instead I am going to consider the phrase itself.

Gaining singular expertise in the fashion referred to by Robert Greene meant either focusing on acting craft or developing as a writer, not moving from one to the other at whim. To Greene, Shakespeare was being greedy by trying out writing as well as acting, and Greene presumably felt a degree of insecurity regarding a so-called-amateur invading his speciality. As with the concept of the phrase itself, however, it has in recent years increased in focus.

Whilst once, being a writer meant specialising in writing, in more modern times it came to mean choosing a discipline: author of fiction, poet, journalist, and so on. Writing was too broad a term, as was photographer—landscape, portrait, street, abstract, et cetera—or filmmaker, artist, even actor. The focus was then intensified further: a street photographer had to be city or town or country, day or night, film or digital; a poet could only be traditional or contemporary, form or free, performance or page. It goes on more, as once you have carved yourself that niche, it is where you must live. You are expected to replicate, not create, and stay within self-imposed confines based on your most popular creation to date. Otherwise you are trying to be a Jack of all trades, master of none. Better to be a master of one, albeit a very specific one.

It is this expectation upon creatives which can be stifling. You have a brand—a style, or type, or pattern—which must be adhered to at all costs. In effect, you feel you must reproduce that which people love again and again. It is particularly noticeable with photographers, as those who force themselves to toe the line recreate variations of one shot repeatedly, using the same lighting and framing and editing, so their portfolio becomes a huge collection of the same old stuff. Writers, poets, artists, filmmakers, and all other kinds of creative types are also facing this same restriction, and are told similar things. Do what you have already done to get more interactions on social media. Stay in your comfort zone. Conform. It becomes the opposite of creativity and suffocates the mind.

As a writer, my trade is to string words together into something that imparts meaning when read. I do not need a hammer or a camera, but letters and a blank page. I am in no way a polymath—or, as some prefer to unfortunately phrase it, a multipotentialite—but a specialist in the imparting of substance through written language. If my forte is anything, it is evoking an emotional response in the reader, rather than an intellectual one. As such, a while ago I decided to ignore this single-brand mind-set of super-niche limitation completely. I have found many other creatives have done so also, and from what I hear, they feel all the better for it. There is more to life than chasing analytics numbers.

I appreciate the irony of writing this on a platform designed entirely around follower counts, which encourages likes and comments. Even more ironic is my sharing of this post on my own social media channels, but what is a human if not a contradiction.

I am focused on writing as my mastery, and I will continue to learn and strive to improve. I write in a few disciplines—fiction, non-fiction, poetry—and within each, several forms. In part I am able to do this thanks to the support of my patrons, to whom I am exceptionally grateful. I can create, and so I will create. If I want to write about folklore traditions one day and review a film the next, then write a short story and share a snapshot poem from my typewriter, I will do. I may even develop vaguely consistent brands within certain areas, as a way of organising what I do, but I will not be limited to replicating one thing over and over again. Neither should you.

If you create, no matter what it is, do not be fooled into believing you need to keep doing the same thing. Broaden your horizons and create more. This is not good marketing advice, I realise, but I am not a marketer. I am far from a marketing expert. I know writing, as that is my form of creation. In yours, try out new things, experiment, and develop within the overall creative discipline you have engaged with. Be daring.

Master your craft by exploring it fully and ignore anyone who calls you Jack, unless that is, in fact, your name.

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