“Don’t worry about credit… be a canvas for other people to paint on,” Ryan Holiday writes in his essay The Canvas Strategy. I still remember reading it my senior year of high school in the pages of Ego Is The Enemy, lying on the couch in my parent’s living room.
It wasn’t just that I loved the essay, though. It’s that, from the ages of 18-23 it was constantly on my mind when considering projects to take on. It was one of the principal lenses I used to make decisions.
Holiday’s idea is simple. If you’re young and inexperienced, you shouldn’t worry about credit. Instead, help other people so that you can learn from them. In his words, you should focus on “being a canvas for other people to paint on.” In the long run, the skills and relationships you develop in this process will be far more valuable than whatever credit, notoriety, or money could have earned.
This idea helped me become a better student, a better apprentice, to leave my ego behind and not worry about money, notoriety, or credit, and instead do my best to make other people look good.
It meant editing articles for websites without my name, helping out with books, and saying yes to any professional opportunity, because I never knew who that person knew or what opportunities that could lead to.
I got really good at doing a lot for other people, and I would invest the best of my creative energy into other people’s projects.
In fact, I would look for canvases with which I paint, draw, and write on, going out of my way to exceed expectations.
The Canvas Strategy helped me evolve into, as biographer Robert Caro called a young Lyndon B. Johnson, a “professional son.” I would tweak that a bit, and call myself more of a professional student, eager to do anything if it meant the opportunity to learn.
And it got me very far. It got me where I am today; with unmatched opportunities to learn and work with those I’ve looked up to, a diverse skill set as a writer, some of my closest friends, and directly or indirectly almost every professional opportunity I’ve had.
In 2022, a few months before my 24th birthday, I was spending the summer in Barcelona where I stumbled upon a series of books by the Spanish and Catalan author, Carlos Ruiz Zafón.
I was sitting in a coffee shop in Barcelona’s Gracia district when I read the opening paragraph to the second book, The Angel’s Game.
“A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story,” He continues, “A writer is condemned to remember that moment because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.”
In the first part of the novel, Martín gets his break as a writer when a publisher in Barcelona offered him a contract to write, under a pseudonym, 200 pages a month of “penny dreadfuls.” In other words, he was writing garbage fiction designed for quick, easy sales.
For Martín, it was his first big break, even if it meant he would have to slave away through exhaustion to hit his monthly quota. “I was beginning to consume more coffee and cigarettes than oxygen,” Martín says.
The series was hugely popular, lining the pockets of his publisher while his own health deteriorated.
As I read that line and followed Martín’s story, I saw our parallels. I, too, had accepted jobs for little and worked with people in the name of building connections and skills.
Martín was writing, honing his craft, helping others who, we might assume, would inevitably help him.
In Martín’s story, I saw where I was heading too. I realized, as is possible with most generally good advice, I was taking The Canvas Strategy too far.
Although the ‘penny dreadfuls’ nearly killed Martín, and he had no legal or financial way out, it wasn’t the most devastating effect of his immovable willingness to stick to the Canvas Strategy.
In the beginning of the novel, a man named Pedro Vidal helps Martín earn his first writing job. It’s Vidal, who without a father figure, became that person for him.
When Vidal was struggling with his own literary masterpiece, Martín, a professional son in his own right, would secretly edit his transcript enough to improve the book, but not so much that Vidal wouldn’t notice it was his own writing.
“I smiled to myself,” Martín says, “My mentor had even used the title I suggested to him years before when I had given him the idea for the story.”
The book got published to lots of fanfare, while Martín’s own book, the first in his own name, flopped. And Vidal, filled with the arrogance of commercial success, says it’s all Martín’s fault.
David Martín, who is nothing short of brilliant, descends to the lowest low, because he’d spent all his energy writing under other people’s names, about stories which didn’t matter to him.
As I read Martín’s story, I would put my bookmark in Zafón’s story and then open my Macbook where I would work away for the next hour, at the peak of my productivity and creativity, writing a headline for a supplement product page, or an article for a health content site. These were my equivalent of ‘penny dreadfuls.’
Like Martín, I was using the best of my talents on what’s important to other people, not to me. When, in the book’s first paragraph, Martín says that a writer’s “soul has a price,” it was not as dramatic as I first thought.
‘Soul’ is a metaphor for a writer’s best work, our peak creative efforts. Any writer knows that when we write, no matter what it is, we’re giving a piece of ourselves over to that work. In self-development terms, ‘soul’ is our time, energy, and bandwidth, all of which are finite resources.
Just as Martín burned himself to a crisp on crappy fiction and a book not in his name, I saw myself heading in a similar (although much less dramatic) direction.
“Just a few more months of taking on as many projects as I can,” I told myself, “then I’ll have the financial security, time, and circumstances to prioritize my own writing.”
This is the path I was going down, and Martín’s warning stopped me in my tracks. I, like Martín, had abused The Canvas Strategy. I had twisted it and used it as a cop out to avoid the writing that matters to me.
As Martín says, “I was selling my integrity for a pittance, thereby lining the pockets of a couple of sewer rats, because I didn’t have the courage to write from my heart, with my own name and my own feelings.”
At least Martín had the courage to admit it to himself; I didn’t even have that.
Even great advice, and to be clear, The Canvas Strategy has had an unquantifiable positive impact on my life, can be taken too far. Or worse, it can be used as a scapegoat to avoiding asking ourselves the hard questions. I was on track to be like Martín, the writer of a lot of things that don’t matter, while sacrificing everything I say is important to me along the way.
You can, in good faith, do everything to support and elevate others and forget to take care of yourself.
Of course we must earn a living. However, I realized that I was making more than a living, dreaming of a fancy, more expensive apartment, and calculating how many penny dreadfuls I needed to write per month to get that.
In reality, I can have both: the things I know make me happy while maintaining the core of my soul for what matters. But, I have to have the courage to make that decision.
Second, there is no guarantee that the work you do for others will pay off. The connections, the reputation, the skills may not translate into the success we imagine, as happened with Martín and his ghostwritten book for Vidal.
The skills, in particular, may not be as useful as we wish.
The penny fiction and product pages are not improving our skill at what matters as much as actually doing what matters. Yes, we must learn from others, but we also must learn from ourselves, to face the writing that’s scary and uncomfortable. As Neil Gaiman said, “The moment that you feel, just possibly, you are walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind… That is the moment, you might be starting to get it right.”
In The Angel’s Game Martín realizes that he needs to kill his pseudonym.
“Ignatius B. Samson had been left lying on the rails in front of that tram, exhausted, his soul bled dry, poured into too many pages that should never have seen the light of day… for once in my life, I should have the courage to use my own voice” (89).
While I don’t have the symbolic artistry of a pseudonym to send to a figurative grave, I should also, like Martín, have the courage to use my own voice.
Author’s postscript: As much as I would like to end with that sentence I stole from Zafón, life is not nearly as neat as fiction (and even less neat than personal development thought-pieces).
There are other practical considerations here. Writing for others, giving my energy to that which isn’t important, not only finances my livelihood and lifestyle, it also gives my art a freedom.
I feel better knowing that part of my soul is given to others, if it means that in my care, the rest of it can express itself without pressures or biases. I have no pressure to sell or promote anything.
The perils of capitalism plague all creatives, and there’s no sign of escaping it in this form of civilization.
There are times of the day, week, month, and phase of life where we should and must work for other people.
However, we must do so, knowing the sacrifices to our soul’s creativity, our health, so that which matters most to us, does not suffer beyond repair.