Creative success — grinding it out one play at a time

By Caitlin Kelly

Here’s a wise post about how to sustain a creative or artistic career.

Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is from American writer, actor and director Greta Gerwig, whose most recent film “Frances Ha” I loved and blogged about:

I have gotten into baseball recently, and whenever I have trouble writing, I think about the pace of baseball. It’s slow. You strike out a lot, even if you’re great. It’s mostly individual, but when you have to work together, it must be perfect. My desktop picture is of the Red Sox during the World Series. They aren’t winning; they’re just grinding out another play. This, for me, is very helpful to have in my mind while writing.

I play softball, and it’s taught me a lot, as sports will do, about how I handle or manage my emotions and failure, on or off the field.

Many new writers, quivering (Rocky Horror Picture show-style) with anticipation, are quite firmly persuaded that they are going to be become rich, famous, adored by millions. This lies in distinctly naive/annoying contrast to the lived experience of thousands of talented, accomplished, award-winning writers who have never had, and never will have, a best-seller or a movie made of their work.

Working artists get up every day and step up to the plate, as it were, and swing. We might hit a single, or a double. On a very good day, we’ll hit a triple.

A home run? If we focused on achieving that, and only that, we’d probably stay in bed in the fetal position.

Writer's Block 1
Writer’s Block 1 (Photo credit: NathanGunter)

The creative life looks so alluring — wake up at noon, sip an espresso, read, do your artistic thing for a few hours. You know, be creative.

A recent NYT obituary of publisher Andre Schiffrin was blunt about the cost of his principles:

…one of America’s most influential men of letters. As editor in chief and managing director of Pantheon Books, a Random House imprint where making money was never the main point, he published novels and books of cultural, social and political significance by an international array of mostly highbrow, left-leaning authors.

Taking risks, running losses, resisting financial pressures and compromises, Mr. Schiffrin championed the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Günter Grass, Studs Terkel, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Noam Chomsky, Julio Cortázar, Marguerite Duras, Roy Medvedev, Gunnar Myrdal, George Kennan, Anita Brookner, R. D. Laing and many others.

But in 1990, after 28 years at Pantheon, Mr. Schiffrin was fired by Alberto Vitale, the chief executive of Random House, in a dispute over chronic losses and Mr. Schiffrin’s refusal to accept cutbacks and other changes. His departure made headlines, prompted resignations by colleagues, led to a protest march joined by world-renowned authors, and reverberated across the publishing industry in articles and debates.

Many in publishing spoke against the dismissal, calling it an assault on American culture by Random House’s billionaire owner, S. I. Newhouse Jr., who was accused of blocking a channel for contrary voices in favor of lucrative self-help books and ghostwritten memoirs for the sake of the bottom line.

The truth?

You have to want creative success (let alone a livable income), quite badly, as this recent New York Times piece reminds us:

The point of work should not be just to provide the material goods we need to survive.Since work typically takes the largest part of our time, it should also be an important part of what gives our life meaning. Our economic system works well for those who find meaning in economic competition and the
material rewards it brings…But for those with humanistic and artistic life interests, our economic
system has almost nothing to offer…

The situation is even worse for those who want to produce the literary, musical and artistic works that sustain our humanistic culture. Even highly gifted and relatively successful writers, artists and musicians generally are not able earn a living from their talents. The very few who become superstars are very well rewarded. But almost all the others — poets, novelists, actors, singers, artists — must either have a partnerwhose income supports them or a “day job” to pay the bills. Even writers who are regularly published by major houses or win major prizes cannot always live on their earnings.

Even New York magazine, which birthed the careers of some stellar writers and editors since it began publishing in 1968, just announced they’re cutting back from a weekly publishing schedule to bi-weekly.

David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker
David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker

I spent 8.5 hours yesterday at a conference held in the august halls of Columbia Journalism School, traditionally one of the country’s most prestigious gateways into the writer’s life.

The entire day was devoted to the future of digital longform journalism — how to create, produce and promote work on the web.

Payment for writers — or persistent, bald-faced lack of it — was the huge elephant in the room. No one dared challenge the confident 20 and 30-somethings up on the stage, with their ponytails and costly new shoes, about their insistence they need great writing to actually fill up their sites.

While offering little or no money to writers.


I found this sad, infuriating and highly instructive. I spoke to a few young journalists in the hall — who shared stories of a life without health insurance, flitting desperately from one freelance, part-time or contract job to the next, their hunger for some handhold palpable and often financially unresolvable.

Ironically, the only people who didn’t reek of desperation were those still writing freelance for old-legacy print media (as I do) or those with coveted, rare full-time jobs inside someone’s corporate newsroom where — as one legendary editor suggested from the stage — “find the formula and mimic it. That’s half the battle.”

If you hunger for creative success — what are you willing to give up to get it?




16 thoughts on “Creative success — grinding it out one play at a time

  1. I needed this post today. As much as it’s an intimidating and terrifying reality, it also reminded me that I am trying to do something for reasons that go beyond financial game. Yesterday I got some feedback from a reader/editor that made me want to throw up my hands and give up. Not that she was wrong, her comment was very right, but it means more time pouring over a manuscript I thought was done trying to deal with an issue that I didn’t think I could solve. My thoughts were kind of, “why bother” when I feel like there is little hope of ever getting my work out into the larger world. But, your post has reminded me that the act of creation is something I love, and that I want creative success very badly. So I’ll get up and take another swing, and another, and another . . . who knows what will happen next.

    Thanks for another great post, Caitlin.

    1. Good to hear from you again!

      I know the feeling all too well…My latest book proposal didn’t sell and I now have an idea for another that’s an outgrowth of it. Do I feel like writing *another* book proposal? Hell, no. But that’s how books get sold. Sigh. 🙂

  2. I find digital publishing both exciting and depressing–exciting because of all the cool multimedia things you can do, and depressing because it seems there’s no money in it, at least not for the writers. I’ve wanted to try out some of these long form digital Websites, but, like you, was disheartened when some of the panelists yesterday said yes, they pay, but when I looked at rates it was like $100 for a 5000 word story. I don’t know what the answer is here. Clearly these Websites have people willing to write for that amount of money, so why should they increase their fees?

    1. I agree.

      I love the possibilities of the new medium — but without $$$$, who can afford to offer their time and talent? You and I are among the fortunate few who have feet in both worlds, only one of which actually affords us a living. I was very struck by this yesterday.

  3. Oh wow, very disheartening but I suppose the reality is sometimes tough to hear; I’d rather hear that than a rosy picture that isn’t actually true. I’m not sure what I’m doing with my writing yet…but this post gives me a lot to think about…thank you!

  4. I’m reading a book now titled, “One Person, Multiple Careers: A New Model for Work / Life Success.” It’s written by Marci Alboher. I just started but I’m quite excited to learn about how other creatives have been able to support themselves by balancing different careers keeping their work lives interesting and manageable. I know that’s something you’re interested in doing, too!

    1. This sounds interesting.

      I manage, as many creatives do, with a patchwork of skills: teaching, writing, coaching, editing, photography. I think there are two keys: multiple skills and the ability to really hustle HARD to sell them to paying customers. The second bit is often the least appealing.

  5. rich

    I am curious as to your thoughts on self-publishing and was wondering if you would consider writing a column on this. I read JA Konraths blog from to time and while he is devoted to fiction writing, the idea of e-books and how it is changing publishing and rethinking some paradigms of publishing is interesting. Many authors are doing some degree of both.. would you ever considering self pubbing an ebook for instance on amazon…. I know that there are strong opinions on both sides of the debate, but I just wanted to get your take on it…

    1. Thanks for asking…

      Not sure when or why I would so do. I’m not opposed to it — and many people are choosing it, clearly. The challenge is always the same: income replacement! Every minute not spent earning income (freelance) is “wasted”…so any project that is, by its nature, speculative (a gamble on a hoped-for audience) is a calculated risk. How much time can I afford to lose (given my $$$ overhead and financial goals) versus….what?

      I’m fortunate enough to have breached the gates of commercial publishing so don’t *have* to e-publish. It’s not clear to me what any e-book I write would be about (how to write? surely there are dozens of those already). I might. Just have not made it a priority yet.

      Traditional publishing is indeed such a nightmare in so many ways — hard to get a deal, hard to get a decent advance and then all the $$$$$ of marketing and promoting your book is still up to the author.

  6. rich

    After reading this I came across an ad on craigslist where they were asking for people to write for their sites without ever having a writing background. The idea was that companies want their products or services advertised, as long as they were being “written about” that was okay. It didn’t matter how well it was written. Very sad

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