"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Thursday, June 06, 2013

" Some people have a way with words, other people just...uh...don't have a way, I guess"

So you want to be a writer or an actor or a musician?

Go read THIS. Twice. Commit it to memory. Have it tatooed on your chest if necessary. It is excellent advice.

No, stop reading right now and go back, click the link and read the post. Do the goddamn homework for once, I'll wait.

You've read it?  Good, you may proceed.

Speaking as someone who has wordsmithed in one way or another for a living pretty much non-stop since I got out of school the second time (okay, there was that three or four years teaching ESL in Japan, but trust me, that was a kind of writing/performance art) let me offer some advice: If you can do anything else, do that instead. Sell insurance, be a hairdresser, fix cars, join the army, be a code monkey -- Christ, go to law school or get into the porn industry or politics if you have the lack of gag reflex needed, all are more dignified and more profitable than working as a writer, actor or musician.
Okay, fine, so you can't do anything else. You MUST create. Fine, so create. But since you will also have to eat and probably would prefer to live indoors, learn some skills so you can hold down a day job other than waiting tables, because waiting tables is a cliche and once you get past 30, not much of a career option either with very few exceptions and that maitre'd at the fancy French place is probably too busy memorizing wine pairings and practicing upselling to write a novel. Everyone needs that day job. Because creating art does not pay.
There is no such thing as a mid-list author anymore. Freelance writing is ten percent writing and ninety percent salesmanship. No one will pay you anything for your short stories or your poems.
I'm not suggesting that is a reason not to write short stories or poems or songs or symphonies. Not for an instant, just don't expect to make a living at it.
In many ways, those who hope to make it as professional athletes may have an easier time of it. Pro sports is very much a meritocracy -- those who win, succeed and those who lose do not. If you are not making the Jr. B hockey team when you are  17, you can be pretty sure that you are not headed to the NHL and can resign yourself to simply enjoying the game for its own sake and moving on with your life.
Not so the career of an artist. The performing arts are a lot like sports in some ways. There aren't many people who become pop stars or 50 year old pop idols -- though there are some terrific journeymen actors and musicians who have years of quality work we can all enjoy despite them never having had a hit.  No one decides at age 45 to suddenly quit their job as a marketing manager and pursue their dream of playing centre for the Montreal Canadiens, but an awful lot of people think that when they retire, they are going to write that novel or screenplay. They probably won't won't, but it could happen. The thing is, it is a lot harder to keep score in novel writing than in a hockey game.
As it happens, I haven't written the novel yet. I went into the newspaper business early and stayed there. I work in a room full of writers, most of whom are older and more experienced than I am. Not a one would have traded their career in a dying industry for a ground floor spot in computer programming, investment banking or bio-tech. But the jobs they held no longer exist, so you had better learn another trade. Those jobs that allowed would-be novelists make a living while honing their chops as a reporter or ad copy-writer are drying up fast. Obviously, someone is still writing that copy, but for the most part, they aren't getting paid. They are interns or they are people desperate enough to "get their name out there" that they are writing for free or all the copy is coming from the six people still paid to write boilerplate at head office and it is just getting tweaked for your market.
All of which is to say, create, but find a day job you can do without hating it.
And don't listen to anyone who tells you that getting a day job is selling out. It isn't selling out, it is being a goddamn grownup and paying your own bills. Putting your artistic talents to work in a commercial setting to pay the bills isn't selling out either. It is using your skills to make a living. Selling out is when you produce dishonest crap that you know is dishonest crap and try to sell it as art to people too stupid to know the difference. Selling out is when you purposely set out to make art to please anyone but yourself first. Selling out is when you say to yourself: "Wow, this is some cheesy piece of crap I've created that the rubes will just eat up with a spoon. Show me the money and let's see if I can make more bullshit and sell it as chocolate ice-cream!" That isn't using your skills to pay the bills, that's faking orgasms for the johns or feigning outrage on Fox news over Obama being a secret Muslim.

But I digress.

My point is simple. Creating art must ultimately be its own reward, as any expectation of major  financial reward is most likely to result in disappointment and may very well taint the creation of the art in the first place. If you start doing things a certain way in the hopes of pleasing the critics, the advertisers, the publishers or so the record will sell -- the audience will be able to tell. And nothing smells worse than a desperate need to please.

As writer you might have heard of once put it "To thine own self be true"  or in the more modern parlance, let me quote songwriter Guy Clark: "You gotta sing like you don't need the money."



theo said...

Hi Kevin,
I enjoyed this latest blogpost about creativity. I read the link you provided and agree totally. That perspective sums up well my take on creativity. I’m 64 years old and been doodling and colouring for going on 50 years simply because I have to. I never expected to make a living being creative so I found other ways to survive. Quite a few ways actually, some of them even paid well. :) It is sometimes hard for a person to escape the dream and some never do. The old bromide, “Stop and smell the flowers” applies equally well to the desire for fame and fortune in one’s particular area of creativity.

Your Name Here! Ask Me How! said...

"No one decides at age 45 to suddenly quit their job as a marketing manager and pursue their dream of playing centre for the Montreal Canadiens,"

Have you not played Old Timers hockey? Honest to Christ, the way these guys spear and cheat, you'd swear there was a scout in the stands, just waiting to snatch them up. Same goes for any rec sport it seems. Lighten up Francis.

Anyway, great post. You have way, even though there were too many notes.

democommie said...

Dear Kevin,f/k/a Reverend Mr. Paperboy Sir*;

I read the piece and focused on this:

"Sometimes you have to eat shit in your life, so you eat it."

Years ago, a friend of mine suggested that I might have to do some shit eating, in order to achieve the satori of corporatist synergistic, um, things.

I told him the following:

"If you eat ice cream every day, at some point in time, it will begin to taste like shit. If you eat shit, every day for the rest of your life, it will NEVER taste like ice cream.".

I have been fortunate enough to never get too deeply enmeshed with activities like earning a fucking living (it does have its downside).

I write poetry, a lot of it truly bad. One of these days--if my brain ever stops spinning like a top--I might get around to publishing a book of my poetry, illustrated with my own photographs. I expect that it will be ignored or, if it's deemed "good", stolen by someone and repackaged as their own. That is one of life's other facts. If you do good work and you do it outside the environment of mainstream publishing you should expect it to be ignored or stolen.

We don't write for anyone but ourselves, until we look to make a living from it.

* At least by this humble but SWAGGERING scribe.

Kevin Wood said...

could not agree more Democommie, you can't produce art for anyone but yourself or it isn't art, it's a consumer product. That said, there are some people who can turn out some pretty artfully made consumer products -- I'm thinking of great pop songwriters or illustrators who paint pictures to match someone else's writing or good commercial television shows or movies. Sometimes it is a fine line.