"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."