In conversation with friends this past weekend, the following insight popped out. When we say "be true to yourself", we often do so in ignorance of the way people can be "true to themselves" while at the same time excluding the possibility of any connection with others. A happy medium must be struck, and so I ventured that maybe "be true to yourself" isn't the most complete formula — that it should be more something like, "be true to your balance".
The key word there isn't balance, but your. It seems a truism — although one worth repeating — that it's worth finding a balance between the work you want to produce and the audience you want to reach. Most people are okay with a story that isn't necessarily designed to present them with instantly familiar things; we're OK with a novel about someone that isn't in our age group or that doesn't even speak our language.
But most of us balk at the idea of a story that compulsively rejects conventions of storytelling, unless we're specifically interested in such things or unless a really specific case can be made for breaking from the formula. In most cases, our acceptance of the second of those is permitted by the first of those anyway; a book like Norman Manea's Captives breaks plenty of rules and for good reason, but it's tough getting people in the door to experience it in the first place.
What everyone has to find, I guess, is whatever spot between those two poles — accessibility and adventure — that seems most suited to them. Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned started as my take on a underworld thriller/crime story/gangster picture, but for me that was a point of departure into territory more akin to Alejandro Jodorowsky than it was Martin Scorsese.* I wanted each half to inform the other — to have the more conventional stuff give the more psychedelic stuff a grounding, and to have the crazier material revivify and rejuvenate the more familiar and tired material. I don't know if I'll be successful — that I'll have to leave to the readers when they finally pick it up — but I do know that neither one of those poles alone would have worked.
I'm still fond of experimentation for its own sake, but I'm finding that the vast majority of artistic experiments only work when they come from one of two key motivations. The first is when you have good reason to break the rules, because that's the only way you can hit what you're aiming at — and that requires you know the rules and be able to follow them scrupulously in the first place. The second is when you have no choice, because you're producing something that comes from a place that is not beholden to anything but your own experience. The latter is orders of magnitude rarer than the former, and for good reason: how many of us ever wind up in such trackless space, let alone return from it to report back on it?
Whatever balance you strike between going crazy and going careful, it has to be entirely yours — something you can own and own up to. Fail, and you don't end with maverick masterworks like Naked Lunch or 2001: a space odyssey. You end up with pockets full of nearly illegible scrawls of things like "WASH YOUR SOCKS IN GRAVY".
* The more I talk about this book, the more I suspect everyone will be confused as hell about what it is until they finally read it.