Why it matters to develop your narrative as an artist and writer

by Danie Botha 

What is your personal manifesto as a creative individual?

How do you respond when people ask you what you do? How do you refer to yourself?

Do you shrug your shoulders and say, I’m an accountant by day and a writer of fantasy by night? Or perhaps you’re a teacher, a nurse, a lawyer, a plumber, a doctor or a journalist who writes in your spare time and dream of your big break one day to quit your day job and write full-time. Perhaps you don’t even tell people about your writing. Maybe you’re a closet writer.

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Or, maybe you’re an established professional writer and published author! Irrespective whether you hold a regular day job and write as a second career or a hobby or are a professional author and writer, the question remains:


What is your narrative?

What is your story?

How do you present yourself to the world?

According to Daniel H. Pink, we don’t have to sell Buicks from an auto dealer’s floor to be a salesman; regardless of what we do for a living, we are all selling, in fact, “to sell is human”, he claims.

Speaking of narrative, we are not talking about fiction or nonfiction or genre or plot and character arcs and story development, but about what drives you as a person. What is the underlying thread in your life, what is the line that runs through your writing? If you’re not sure, go and look for it—it’s there.

What are you about?

What drives your ideas?

What drives your stories?

What grounds your stories?

This applies to nonfiction as well. What do you build, or hope to create through your writing or art? Yes, I know, in essence, it’s about making a living, sell your books/stories/ essays/poems and survive. And then repeat more of the same.

What if there’s more? (Because there is…)

According to Diane O’Connell, it is one thing to take yourself seriously as an author but an entirely different narrative (forgive the pun) to build a successful author career. To be a best-selling author or a professional writer who makes a living off one’s writing, irrespective of the publishing path you choose, you need to become an engaged entrepreneur and an informed marketer. Writing an excellent book is no longer enough. She points out how important it is to ask yourself these ‘why?’ questions from time to time. How do your training and experiences influence your author identity? Perhaps your writing is brave enough to tackle pressing issues of the day such as socio-economic injustices, corruption and power play in politics, the plight of refugees or perhaps the devastation of abuse and how hope is to be found amidst the ruins of life.

Diane further points at the importance of polishing your presentation as an author. No one else is going to do it for you—the importance of presenting yourself as a professional. You have to be committed; you have to put in the work. You have to take yourself seriously. Even smaller things such as your website, the way you present yourself online in comments, in articles you write, matter. Your book covers, your business card, the way you dress. The way you talk and what you say. It all matters. Which does not mean you shouldn’t have a sense of humor. Laugh often—it’s therapeutic. Learn to laugh at yourself. Life is short.

You will do yourself a favor by reading Jeff Goins’s most recent book, Real Artists Don’t Starve: Timeless Strategies for Thriving in the New Creative Age. He makes a compelling case to debunk the myth that to be an artist (creative persons/artists/musicians), equals poverty and misery and being seen as a second-class citizen. His book is not a “quick-fix to become rich through writing,” but is filled with actionable steps for creative individuals on how to become financially independent while following their dream of creating art. What I found profound in the book is the importance for each one of us (as creative individuals) to take our art seriously. To place value on our work, take pride in our art, and then through hard work and entrepreneurship and close collaboration with other creatives, turn our work into an income stream. The goal is not the money (which is crucial) but the ability, by being paid well, to continue to grow as artists and keep on creating art and make our world a better place. My only critique of the book is its title; I would have preferred it to read, Serious Artists Don’t Starve.

When I look at my writing, I’ve noticed a thread which had manifested itself throughout; forgiveness and reconciliation and a willingness to delve into uncomfortable topics such as history we choose to forget, abuse in all its different formats and the importance of work ethics. Without setting out to do so, my published novel and novella, Be Silent and Be Good, as well as my soon to be published novel, Maxime, (31 October 2017) has forgiveness and the need for it, laced throughout—although, in a hidden fashion. I am convinced it stems from growing up in the African interior, growing up in a household where there was love, but also ample emotional abuse from the paternal side. Also following decades in the medical field, witnessing the devastation in lives when mercy and forgiveness are absent or scarce, abuse is rampant, and work ethics become blurred.

The challenge and our task are to find order amidst the chaos and to create beauty from a broken reality. How else can our writing offer hope (or escape) to our readers? I am a physician: an anesthesiologist, who writes. I blog at daniebotha.com, and you will find my books and stories there.


What we read and the company we keep impacts us more than we care to acknowledge. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and The Daniel Plan and the Daily Hope devotionals, goes so far as to say, “I will be able to tell what kind of person you are without meeting you by the books you read and the friends you keep.”

We cannot be prolific or serious writers without reading wide and extensively. Learning how to read like a writer, is vital. The same goes for our writing collaborators. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings met on a weekly basis in Oxford for close to twenty years between 1930 and 1949, producing some of the greatest stories known to us.

Being multi-faceted is a good thing, if not vital to help us blossom into vibrant, well-balanced humans, endowed with humility and compassion. Never stop learning and diversifying your craft—remain a student for life.

Take for instance Kazuo Ishiguro, the 2017 Nobel prize for literature winner, who gave us works such as The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go and A Pale View of Hills. He’s a Bob Dylan fanatic, and a man who’s been playing the guitar and writing songs from before the publication of his first book.

Even if you believe you don’t need to develop your narrative, give it serious thought. I would love to be thought of one day, in Sebastian Barry’s words speaking of Ishiguro, as someone “between genius and gentleness … a measure of the best mankind can be.” Or, as Robert McCrum describes Ishiguro, “an artist without ego.”

How do we get there?

By giving thought to our personal manifesto first as human beings and second as writers and artists. You and I, as creatives, as individuals, play a role in how others read us, in what we become.

The choice to a large extent is ours!





  1. Jeff Goins: Why the story of the starving artist needs to die – http://bit.ly/2xupr1g
  2. Real Artists Don’t Starve – Jeff Goins
  3. Diane O’Connell: How to build your author career – http://bit.ly/2ybn7RC
  4. The Guardian on Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2017 Nobel prize for literature win – http://bit.ly/2ytdEW8
  5. Daniel H. Pink: To Sell is Human. The surprising truth about moving others.
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