As someone who grew up with limited access to television, (spending much of my childhood in boarding school and summer camp), my cultural consumption was books, art and music. (Although every dinner at home in my teens began with the theme music to As It Happens, the nightly CBC radio current events show.)
I do enjoy some television, mostly BBC, PBS, Netflix — original series, not the standard stuff of weekly network shows. Favorites include Wallander (Swedish version), Babylon Berlin, Call The Midwife, Victoria.
I confess — I’m also a fan of Lifetime’s Project Runway, now heading into its 17th season.
My favorite media are radio and film.
I listen to radio daily, (NPR, WFUV. WKCR, TSF Jazz from Paris) and typically watch two to three movies a week, either on TV or in the theater. (Not a fan of horror films, which I avoid; writing a book that included gun violence was quite enough!)
Only in later life did I appreciate what beauty I enjoyed in my parents’ homes, filled with Japanese ukiyo-e prints, Inuit sculpture, mirrored Indian textiles and more. That visual feast much shaped my own tastes — whether a Mexican wooden mask or a vintage photograph.
Today, thanks to the Internet, we all have ready and free access to millions of exquisite images, through the British Museum (37,000 images) and many more. Even if you live very far from a gallery or museum, even just scrolling through Instagram, you can stumble across an incredible array of beauty and history.
I’m not as familiar with, or fond of, contemporary art and design (I try!); I do love the work of Julie Mehretu.
Growing up in Toronto, a large and multi-cultural city with good museums and galleries, also helped me develop my taste. Travel to Paris, Venice, Florence, London, Berlin, Boston, D.C. and San Francisco, (to name a few places), has showed me more amazing art.
Two of our favorite museums focus on Asian design — the Sackler in Washington, D.C. and the Guimet in Paris.
A very rare event for me — I went to this auction and bought two 1920s French prints (Dufy, Vlaminck)
Musically, I feel woefully behind! I haven’t (she says embarassedly) yet tried Spotify, so I need to expand my horizons, although I’m not a fan of rap, hip-hop or country.
Only in the past month have I seen two operas, the first for me in decades, and enjoyed both. I don’t attend as many classical music performances as I could — in New York and environs, there are so many to choose from! — but enjoy it when I do.
As for popular music concerts…sigh. Some of the people I want to see sell out within minutes, generally.
The writerly apartment in this fantasy is bare and minimal; the walls are unpainted plaster, or the wallpaper is peeling; the heat is faulty or not there; there are books stacked on the floor. It looks this way because it’s Paris struggling out of the deprivation and destruction of a world war, or New York soldiering on through the Depression, living in the wreckage of 1920s glamor. The writer spends hours in cafes, working and drinking, because the cafes are heated and the apartment is not. The aesthetic of this fantasy is permanently frozen in the first half of the 20th century, in the cities (and occasionally the beach resorts near cities) of Europe and the United States. The reason the fantasy writer lifestyle is set in such a particular time and place is that the interwar and postwar American writers who went to Europe for cheap rents have exerted a massive influence on the American idea of what literature is. Who casts a longer shadow across American fiction and curricula than Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin?
While considering the specificity of these images, recently, something came to me: It’s an Anthropologie catalog.
(For those unfamiliar with it, Anthro is a major American retailer, with stores that change their look every few weeks and who sell a costly-but-gauzy kind of clothing and accessories to women who typically work in a corporate environment.)
Everyone wants to be a writer!
Or make films or art or music because…freedom from typical work constraints is so deeply appealing.
Life costs money.
I grew up in a household of creatives, and we did live in a house my father owned, and drove decent used cars. Some years were better than others financially, but we also lived in Toronto, where the CBC and NFB had appetites and budgets for my father’s work as a film diector, long before there were dozens of cable channels seeking content.
Living in Canada also meant we never paid a penny for healthcare — which has cost me and my husband, living in New York as self-employed workers, $1,700 a month for the past two years.
Thanks to a new plan, I’ll “only” pay $700 a month starting today, saving us $700 a month.
But our monthly “nut” is still more than $5,000 and we have no children.
Living a life creating things is one many people dream of. But it still has to be supported by someone, usually multiple someones, actually paying for food, fuel, medication and housing — let alone haircuts, dental work, new eyeglasses, etc.
The solo creative life is affordable only to those who can stand to live frugally, and for long periods, because so little creative work actually pays well enough to live a life that allows for sick days, a vacation, owning a home.
As one childhood friend, who, as a single mother helped to create animated films you might have watched, told me recently: “I lived on air.”
I know artists and illustrators and film-makers and writers and playwrights and poets. They love their creative work but rarely enjoy the payment and insecurity that comes with it.
So, to pursue this life often also means having a side hustle, a day job, a trust fund, a hard-working, well-paid spouse or partner.
It’s extremely rare for me to have a month in which I’ve generated no income from my writing, because I don’t have a side job. It is my job! That means, without my husband’s hard work at his two freelance positions, (and our emergency savings), we’d be in deep shit, unable to pay our bills in full and on time.
It shames me to admit that this is the case for me right now — but the reason I do so here is because it’s true.
This can be a financially precarious life, and often is.
Whenever I’ve taught or lectured on journalism, I crush a few young dreams when I make clear that traditional news journalism more resembles an industrial assembly line than an artist’s studio.
Editors aren’t terribly interested in whether you’re feeling creative — they want accurate copy/content/visuals and they want it now!
The worst of its managers rely on the crude tool of by-line counts, i.e. how many stories have made it into the paper with your name on it (your byline.) So re-writing press releases or dumping puff pieces all add up to more bylines, if total garbage. So you’re visibly and undeniably producing and are therefore (whew! job saved!) productive.
Now….how to be creative?
What does that look like to you?
It might mean inventing a recipe, choosing a new color for your living room, or starting a poem or sketching your cat or simply staring into the sky for an hour to let your weary brain lie fallow, like an overworked farmer’s field that needs time to re-generate.
I’ve been going to auctions for decades, mostly small regional ones in Nova Scotia, England, New Hampshire and Ontario. I’ve scored some great/lucky deals, both in the room and bidding by phone, buying (gulp!) almost sight unseen, beyond a small thumbnail image on a website.
I’ve even bid in Swedish (!) on a visit to Stockholm and came home with a large antique tray.
On holiday this past summer in Berlin, I stumbled upon an auction house there, Grisebach, and now get their catalogue as well.
My best auction buy ever is a large teal-stained armoire, possibly Quebec in origin and possibly 18th century — as evidenced by its form, its hardware and its construction, (all of which I’ve studied so I had some idea what I was buying!) I bought it over the phone from a New Hampshire auctioneer I know and trust; even with delivery charges to New York, it cost less than new junk made in China.
We’ve sold photos at Swann, so I get their newsletter with upcoming sales and carefully examined everything on-line for this one. So many gorgeous things!
This sale was of 19th and 20th-century prints, including drawings, lithos, etchings, engraving, monoprints, by everyone from Picasso to Thomas Hart Benton to Diego Rivera, whose pencil portrait was something I so wished was in our budget. The estimate was $20,000 to $30,000 — and the price rose quickly from $14,000 to the hammer (final) price of $32,000.
(It’s called the hammer price because, like a courtroom judge, the auctioneer knocks with a small piece of wood on his podium to audibly finish the bidding and announce the piece is sold.)
If you’ve never attended or bid at auction, it can seem terrifying and mysterious, but is neither.
My paddle and the catalogue; (the cover painting, a watercolor by Feininger, sold for $38,000)
You really do have to do some homework, though, to know what it is you hope to buy and whether it’s a limited edition, its rarity, in what condition, and who owned it before, known as provenance. That can add a huge boost to the perceived value of an item, for example, a Cartier watch that belonged to Jackie Onassis, estimated at Christie’s for $129,000 sold for $379,500.
The auction preview — all of this free — allows everyone to carefully examine and note the condition of the item(s) you might want to bid on; if furniture, it’s quite normal to take a small flashlight or blacklight, (which can show evidence of repair), even a threaded needle to see if “wormholes” are fake.
If you’re looking at furniture, you also need to know that a “marriage” means someone has added new material to an older piece, reducing its value, even if it looks great.
At Swann, I saw immediately that both prints I liked had some acidic damage to the surrounding paper, something I wouldn’t have known by bidding online and I learned that a conservator could clean it and what that might cost.
You have to set a budget, as there’s almost always a buyer’s premium, in Swann’s case an additional 25 percent, (plus New York City tax) so the final cost was just over 33 percent more than the hammer price.
Several others might be bidding against you, driving up the price very quickly. Decisiveness is key!
You register and are given a paddle, (a sign with a number), to signal your bid. Each time someone bids the price rises, by increments each time of $100, $1,000, $2,000 or more. (At smaller sales, those can be much smaller.)
Others might also be bidding against you on-line, by a left bid, in the room and by telephone, and the auctioneer has to stay on top of all of it; at Swann, there were four people handling phone bids, one handling on-line bids and one with orders, bids left on paper.
Every item also has a pre-sale estimate — i.e. what they think it might sell for, at the lowest price, but it can go for less, (usually not less than half of that) or for much, much more. It just depends how badly someone wants it.
As the final bids came in, the Swann auctioneer gently said: “Fair warning…Are we all through?” When someone won a piece who was in the room, he said: “Thank you. Congratulations.”
After I won both images (!), he smiled and said “You’re cleaning up today!”
The Swann saleroom was empty most of the time I was there except for a few dealers, with all the action happening on-line and by phone. There were several dogfights and one piece, (by Picasso), started at $60,000 and quickly soared to the hammer price of $100,000.
Matisse works went for $8,000, $13,000 and $12,000 — but one also went for only $550. A work by Paul Klee began at $19,000 and sold for $24,000.
Not every auction is this pricey! At smaller regional auctions, I’ve carried home armloads of loot for $20 to $50.
Who attends, and bids at auction? Collectors, dealers, interior designers shopping for clients.
It’s not very far from one city to the other — about 1.5 hours by train.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, its broad steps familiar to anyone who’s seen the film Rocky, is a lovely place with interesting shows, so I took the bold and costly step of traveling from our home in New York to see a show there, paintings from Mexico 1910 to 1950.
It meant taking a train into New York from our suburban home, changing train stations, then another train to Philadelphia, then a brief cab ride to the museum.
But the train ride there proved, as it often does, to be the highlight of the day.
Three African American women got on at one of the New Jersey stops and one sat beside me, swathed in a leopard print cape, and wearing leopard print gloves. She wore a simple black wool hat and beneath it a sheer black scarf printed with images of Jesus.
I’m not sure how we started talking, but we were soon trading stories and recipes for all our favorite foods. She was raised on a North Carolina farm. She bore nine children; her first-born, a daughter, and her mother, were burned to death in a house fire.
One of her grown daughters, a pastor, sat behind us, wearing a large necklace in rhinestones that spelled out the word Queen.
This, to me, is one of the joys of travel — to break my daily bubble and speak with people I’d never meet any other way.
We’re not wealthy, so we don’t fly first class or take costly cruises or stay in luxury hotels, certain to only meet people at a similar income level. That means, de facto, meeting a broad cross-section range of fellow travelers.
My seat-mate was 89, and the best company I’d had in weeks. When I got up to leave, we hugged goodbye.
The museum show was impressive, and exhaustive.
It took me 2.5 hours to see it all, although I’m an outlier now at museums because I actually look at things. It’s become normal — how depressing! — to quickly snap a cellphone photo of the art and/or its wall text and simply move on — without looking at the art itself.
I lived in Cuernavaca when I was 14, and have been to Mexico many times, a country I love and miss. It’s also the birthplace of my husband’s grandfather. So I was very interested to see the art, which included some famous and familiar images by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, including many lesser-known works.
I enjoyed lunch in the museum restaurant, now closed for 15 months for reservations.
On Friday nights, the museum offers live music and serves food and wine on its enormous central staircase. It creates a great welcoming atmosphere, and the stairs filled up quickly with people of all ages.
I needed to call Jose, (of course I’d left my phone back in New York), and a woman lent me hers and we fell into a long conversation; she was a Phd student from Belgrade.
I sat for a while in the Philadelphia train station before heading back to New York. It’s a classic — very high ceilings, tall white glass Deco-style hanging lamps, long polished wooden benches.
A statue at one end, an angel holding a male body with torn trousers, is a WWII memorial, one of the most powerful and moving I’ve ever seen.
I finally arrived home around midnight, having traveled further in one day than I had in six long months — my head and heart newly filled with ideas and memories, refreshed and recharged.
As some of you know, I was a nationally ranked saber fencer in my 30s, a sport I took up when I moved from Canada to New York. I’ve been athletic since childhood — competing in swimming, diving, sailing and other sports, and recreationally playing squash, softball, badminton and skiing, horseback riding, cycling and skating.
But working with a two-time Olympian as my coach forever changed the way I think, behave and react to stressful situations.
Having just finished a 15-week semester teaching college writing and blogging, it became clearer to me once more what useful lessons any creative person can learn from competitive/serious/elite athletes, like:
Pain is inevitable, suffering optional
We’re all facing challenges, whether finding clients, paying our bills, drumming up ideas, collecting late or missing payments, seeking inspiration. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and depressed when it piles up, but much of this is — sadly — quite normal. Knowing that others are facing similar issues, and finding solutions to them, will give you a necessary sense of perspective. We all struggle! Some show it more than others. The most successful, though, are able to pick up and keep going.
Your competitors are fierce, determined and well-prepared — are you?
It’s naive and foolish to think your success is going to happen quickly and smoothly. If it does, cool! Champagne! For most creatives — whether you’re a fine artist, graphic artist, writer, photographer, film-maker — it’s a road filled with people every bit as determined to succeed as you are. Possibly much more so. Find the smartest and toughest mentors possible; take classes and workshops to sharpen your skills; attend conferences to see what everyone else is up to.
A great coach is essential
I would never have considered it possible to compete at a national level were it not for a tough coach who pushed hard and knew exactly what excellence looked like — and what it required to achieve. It’s hard to get up to speed if the only people you turn to for help and advice are all working at the same level as you, or below. Aim high!
Practice, practice, practice
I’m amused by people who say they want to write — but never do. Nor they read. That’s a toughie, really. Athletes spend hours watching footage of themselves and their competitors to analyze what’s working and what’s not. Then they get to work on their weaknesses. It won’t happen if all you do is wish and hope and read blogs about other people succeeding. You have to do it, too. A lot.
Your mind and body need to rest, recover and recharge
In a gogogogogogogo culture, where everyone is always tweeting and trumpeting their latest success — a grant, a fellowship, a new book, a big fat gig — it’s tempting to compare yourself unfavorably and feel you’re falling behind the pack. No matter how hard you practice, train and compete, you also need downtime to rest your mind and body. Take a hooky day. Sleep in. Play with your kids/dog/cat. Take in a matinee or a museum show. Pleasure refreshes our spirits. Rest recharges our minds and bodies.
Stamina is key!
It’s tiring to stay in the game, week after week, month after month, year after year. It’s also difficult to stay if and when you’re weary, fed up, hurting from rejections. Stamina — which includes mental toughness — is often what separates champions from also-rans.
What are your competitors doing better — and how can you do so, too?
No matter your creative field, you need to stay abreast of developments. What new skills do you need to be acquiring? Do you need to find a new teacher?
Someone is always going to lose. Sometimes that’s going to be you
Yes, it hurts! No one likes losing and it can feel like the end of the world when you do. Take it as a testament to the strength and dedication of your competitors.
Is this your best sport?
If things are going badly, no matter how hard you try, maybe this isn’t your game. It can be very painful to admit defeat (or what looks like it) but it might be worth considering if your very best efforts keep producing little satisfaction or success.
Working through pain is simply part of the process
We live in a world that focuses all its energy on winning, happiness and success. But we’re all likely to have down times — illness, lost clients, a period of creative frustration. Knowing it’s all part of the game reminds us of that. A pain-free, disappointment-proof life is usually unrealistic…and resilience a key component of creative success.
The way we habitually think and talk about these matters betrays a deep and venerable ambivalence. On one hand, art is imagined to exist in a realm of value that lies beyond and beneath mere economic considerations. The old phrase “starving artist” gestures toward an image that is both romantic and pathetic, of a person too pure, and also just too impractical, to make it in the world. When that person ceases to starve, he or she can always be labeled a sellout. You’re not supposed to be in it for the money.
On the other hand, money is now an important measure — maybe the supreme measure — of artistic accomplishment. Box office grosses have long since become part of the everyday language of cinephilia, as moviegoers absorb the conventional wisdom, once confined mainly to accountants and trade papers, about which movies are breaking out, breaking even or falling short. Multimillion-dollar sales of paintings by hot new or revered old artists are front-page news. To be a mainstream rapper is to have sold a lot of recordings on which you boast about how much money you have made selling your recordings…
It never occurred to me that “artist” and “starving” belonged in the same sentence. Nor should they!
This notion that being creative means penury or 1%-land is absurd. We don’t expect or require this of others — the middling executive, the stalled lawyer, the so-so administrator. The world is filled with people doing their best and never hitting the heights, nor surviving on ramen in a group squat.
More, from the Times’ piece:
Inexpensive goods carry hidden costs, and those costs are frequently borne by exploited, underpaid workers. This is true of our clothes and our food, and it is no less true of those products we turn to for meaning, pleasure and diversion. We will no doubt continue to indulge all kinds of romantic conceits about artists: myths about the singularity of genius or the equal distribution of talent; clichés about flaky, privileged weirdos; inspiring tales of dreamers who persevered. But we also need to remember, with all the political consequences that this understanding entails, that they are just doing their jobs.
I’ve been writing for a living — sometimes for a nice wage, sometimes for a much-less-amusing one — since I left university. But I’ve never cracked that sexy glass ceiling of the six-figure income.
Talent and hard work, prizes and fellowships — got ’em. There are few direct correlations between the standard metrics and creative success, let alone buckets ‘o cash. Your ability to schmooze, to accept and perform work you find creatively grotesque, to suck up abusive client behaviors — these, too, factor considerably into who will (quickest) ascend the greasy pole of fame and fortune.
The creative life is one that many mythologize or fantasize about: waking up at noon to daub a canvas or noodle about with your screenplay. How lovely, how freeing to flee the grim confines of cube-world and the predations of The Man.
Every time I put on a pair of shoes, or eat a meal, I touch the direct reflection of talent and hard work — it produced the income that keeps me housed, fed, clothed and will fund my retirement.
Making art — of any kind — in no way excuses the artist from the costly necessities of life, no matter how cool or offbeat our lives and work may appear to others choosing a different vocational path.
One of my favorite books is The Creative Habit, by American choreographer Twyla Tharp, who has made her career by — as she eloquently puts it — walking into an empty studio and making a dance.
In the end, there is no ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn’t scare you, doesn’t shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that’s habit-forming. All preferred working states, no matter how eccentric, have one thing in common: When you enter into them, they compel you to get started.”
― Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life
Creative work absolutely is work, even if/when it doesn’t earn enough to buy you a house or a shiny new car — or any car, ever — or the plaudits of The Right People.
And holding fast to principle — creating something you imagine to be of lasting cultural worth, not merely sating contemporary appetites or shoveling cash at your expenses — remains a difficult challenge for many artists faced with the same costs of heat, fuel, clothing, food and housing as the rest of the workforce.
I ask whether we should focus on being productive (look what I made!) or creative (which might be publicly inaudible and invisible for months or years, producing no income):
I’m not persuaded one can be both all the time.
We all need time to think, reflect, ponder, meander, take some detours, some of which — being immediately unproductive — lead into dead ends, some of which lead us off into totally new and hugely profitable (financially or creatively) directions.
Shutting down the production line for a while — silence! solitude! no immediate income! I’m wasting time! — can feel terrifying.
It’s absolutely necessary.
Do you work full-time in a creative field?
How’s it going?
How do you measure your success?
LAST CHANCE FOR WEBINARS!
SATURDAY MAY 17:
Conducting a Kick-Ass Interview (what’s the one question you must ask?)
I enjoyed this recent book review, which the blogger Victoria Best, a former lecturer at Cambridge, admits she found both challenging and beyond her normal taste. Her blog, Tales From the Reading Room is always smart and thoughtful:
(author Susan) Nussbaum was a drama student in her twenties when she was knocked down by a car. Now nearing sixty, she has spent her adult life in a wheelchair with partial function in her arms, working as a playwright and a disability activist. Good Kings, Bad Kings is her first novel and it achieves the wholly admirable feat of giving a memorable voice to some forgotten members of society.
Good Kings, Bad Kings takes place in a nursing home for adolescents with disabilities, a grim institution…
So much fiction is for comfort or escapism, so much is created with pleasing and appeasing the reader in mind, that you have to love a book that has the courage to tackle a really difficult subject…
Books should raise our awareness of the vulnerable and forgotten, we ought to be jolted out of our comfort zones sometimes. It’s one of the things we rely on writers to do, when most of us lack the courage.
Having recently visited a country of head-spinning poverty — average annual income is $1,080 — working for a week in Nicaragua, I’ve been thinking a lot about when, why and how any of us choose to leave or stretch our comfort zones.
The poverty there was stunning; in Bilwi, where we stayed, only 20 percent of people have access to running water. Most houses are made of wood and corrugated metal. Many people do not go beyond a primary school education as it’s not available in their village or they need the income.
It is profoundly — and usefully — unsettling to see how differently others live.
We often choose to create a cozy and familiar world for ourselves and then begin to think everywhere is like that or should be like that.
Just because we know and like it doesn’t mean it’s the best or only way to live, just the one we know and are used to. The one all our friends and family know and are used to.
I moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico with my mother when I was 14. I had lived my life in comfort in Toronto and didn’t especially want to go.
There, we lived in a simple apartment building with an empty field next door with cows in it. We had no telephone, only a pay phone on the street corner below. We got hot water by lighting a burner in the heater in the kitchen. We had no bathtub, only a shower. The floors were tile, cool and smooth beneath our feet — but not carpet or hardwood, which I was used to.
I only stayed there for four months before returning to Toronto.
But that experience changed me, for good, in many ways. Living, even briefly, within a wholly different culture — whether literally, or through art or music or design or a great book — will do that to you, if you let it.
Just before my 25th birthday, I received word that I’d been chosen, with 28 other journalists from 19 nations, to spend eight months in Paris and traveling through Europe reporting. I would leave behind all my dear friends, a thriving writing career, my dog, my apartment, my live-in boyfriend who wanted to get married. My identities.
I shrieked with excitement when I opened that acceptance letter, but the day my plane left I was weeping in a corner, unable to do anything but toss a few things into my suitcase. I knew, (as it did), that year would indelibly change and mark me.
I dedicated my first book to M. Viannay, shown in the photo above that I took of him on the balcony on Rue du Louvre, in gratitude for this extraordinary experience he created — one that shoved me abruptly out of my comfort zone and into an entirely new set of competences and friendships.
the Rite is the most over-documented premiere in history, and yet so many things are obscure. Was it the choreography that annoyed people, or themusic? Were the police really called? Was it true that missiles were thrown, and challenges to a duel offered? Were the creators booed at the end, or cheered?
There were certainly plenty of good reasons for outrage, starting with the high, almost strangled bassoon melody that begins the work, soon draped with fluttering, twittering woodwind sounds.
It’s often said that the pulsating rhythms of the Rite of Spring are what caused the outrage, but pulsating rhythms at least have an appeal at a visceral level (an appeal certainly felt at the Rite’s premiere, where according to one eye witness one excited onlooker beat out the rhythms on the bald pate of the man in front). It’s more likely that the audience was appalled and disbelieving at the level of dissonance, which seemed to many like sheer perversity. “The music always goes to the note next to the one you expect,” wrote one exasperated critic.
The trick is being open, being emotionally porous enough to allow something new — and possibly frightening — to enter.
I recently watched Australian film director Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 version of The Great Gatsby. Much to my surprise — as I love the 1970s version with Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan, (much better cast than Carey Mulligan) — I really enjoyed it, even though it’s crazily over the top, as he usually is; my friends’ reactions on Facebook were interesting.
Some were appalled by the film and shocked that I liked it. Because, harrumphed some, it wasn’t true to the book. He had thoroughly messed with their expectations.
Most people agree that what distinguishes those who become famously creative is their resilience. While creativity at times is very rewarding, it is not about happiness. Staw says a successful creative person is someone “who can survive conformity pressures and be impervious to social pressure.”
To live creatively is a choice. You must make a commitment to your own mind and the possibility that you will not be accepted. You have to let go of satisfying people, often even yourself.
My subconscious conjured an image of a fabulous party, filled with other writers and publishing types. A place where I could walk in the door to a chorus of cheers, the “Norm” moment, where guard could be let down completely, where there was only shared vocabulary and a fluid ease that would make the jitters go away. There was a social circle that would be the payout for all the rejection and worry and sweat equity I poured into my books. When I talked about it with my brother, I simply described it as “that.” I wanted to have “that.”
All I had to do was get a book deal. I would break out of the world I knew and set up in some secret corner of the social fabric, a backstage pass to the world of writers that I just *knew* was out there, even though I had never seen it before…
There is no party. Not beyond the hour or two at a con or publishing event where you get to show off for a shining moment, bask in the accolades for a few minutes, fan boy gush face to face over someone whose work you admire but never hoped to meet.
And then it’s over, and you’re left with the work.
My husband Jose recently passed a major professional milestone: 30 years as a photographer and photo editor at The New York Times. On 9/11, the day he was to have moved into my apartment in suburban New York from his home in Brooklyn, he instead unpacked his scanner, printer and computer — and helped his colleagues transmit their horrific images from his apartment. His grace under fire helped the paper win that year’s team Pulitzer Prize for photo editing.
He grew up poor, the son of a Baptist preacher in Santa Fe, NM, far from the centers of media power and influence. He attended state school on scholarship. He’s slight, quiet, modest. Everyone else in his family became teachers.
One day, shooting for the Associated Press, the White House press corps — accompanying then First Lady Rosalynn Carter, landed in El Paso.
“Someday that’s going to be me,” said Jose, as he saw its four or five wire service photographers emerge from the plane.
Several colleagues snickered at his hubris.
And then he was, during his eight-year career in the White House Press Corps, photographing Presidents Bush, Reagan and Clinton.
Here’s his brand-new blog, Frame36a, (which refers to the extra frame we used to be able to squeeze from a 36-image roll of film), which will offer advice, insights and fantastic back-stories to some of his best photos.
We all won’t have a career like his.
But anyone with creative ambition — musical, artistic, photographic, literary, choreographic — will face obstacles, whether you’re 17, 27 or 57: lack of funds, no representation, a lost prize or fellowship or scholarship.
After a decade or so, they’ll probably morph into different challenges, but it’s rarely easy.
If you think it should be, this isn’t the world for you.
You don’t have to start out by winning a major prize or selling your work for a lot of money. You just have to get started. I began my career as a photographer, and one of my first sales was to my own high school, an image they bought for the school library. Was I scared to pitch our principal? Hell, yes! But it worked. I also had a show of my images in a Toronto library, again, because I dared to ask. The smaller the ask, the less scary it should be. Those initial triumphs are essential baby steps to your self-confidence as a creative person able to find, and sell into, the marketplace of ideas.
Don’t wait for permission to create! You don’t need a certificate or degree from anyone, anywhere, to create interesting, challenging and worthwhile work. Don’t be terrified if your competitor graduated from RISD or has a Phd from Harvard or was a star at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. If you have the passion and drive to find the toughest teachers out there — and they might be someone you meet at a conference or class — you’ll be on your way. I sold my first photos, three magazine covers, when I was still in high school. Jose was selling his photos while a freshman in college to the Associated Press; by the time we both graduated, we had large and impressive portfolios of nationally-published work. We were far, far ahead of our 22-year-old peers competing for work and jobs.
Don’t give up if you fail the first (second, third) time
I’m amazed how quickly some people give up. I interviewed three times at Newsweek and was never hired there. No harm, no foul. I’ve had an awesome life and career without them. I’ve applied two (three?) times for the Alicia Patterson Fellowship, and was one of 14 finalists (of 347 applicants) last time. I’ll probably apply a few more times until I get it. In the meantime, I just keep improving my skills and strategies.
If you’re really aiming high, you’re always competing against highly-educated, smart, talented and well-prepared competitors. Expect it and arm yourself accordingly. If you want it badly enough — whatever it is — you’ll keep coming back to get it. Or you’ll find something more interesting instead.
Both of my non-fiction books, both of which were published by major New York houses to excellent reviews, were each rejected by 25 publishers first. Fun!
It’s too easy to watch others win awards and prizes and fellowships and hate them. Bandage your ego and get back in the game.
Find people whose work inspire you
This is essential. People who have succeeded in your field have likely hit (and surmounted) many of the same obstacles along the way that you’re facing. Read, listen to and watch them: at conferences, in TED talks, their websites or blogs or books. Follow them on social media like Instagram and Twitter.
If you’re feeling bold, reply to them or re-tweet their words. A relationship with someone who’s already carved their path is helpful. Don’t expect them to mentor you, though. Successful creatives are really busy!
Understand your industry or field: who has power and why?
The best way to get ahead creatively is not to shut yourself away in your studio or a hut in the woods, no matter how romantic that sounds. If you don’t keep up with the movements, controversies and players in your field, you’re too isolated and have no real idea how to access the powers-that-be, the ones whose choices are going to affect your ability to succeed as well.
Make sure to attend at least one conference a year in your industry so you can hear the latest and network with your peers. Showing up in person helps to prove your commitment; people see that and respond accordingly.
Self-doubt and self-confidence will perpetually war within you
It’s the ultimate paradox: to create means taking a risk, putting your skills and ideas into public view for possible rejection or criticism, but it also requires and demands enough confidence in your work to put it out there in the first place.
No creative person I know, or know of, hasn’t suffered — sometimes mightily — from this internal war.
Writers, even the most visibly accomplished, the ones we envy and admire, (who now have a reputation they might squander), lose their nerve or voice. Performers vomit and tremble before setting foot on stage. Artists burn work they’ve spent months or years to produce.
We’re human. It happens.
Make peace with your fears. Name and number them — “Oh, yeah, self-doubt 34a, how the hell are you these days?”
Then keep moving.
You will have to hustle, self-promote and shout louder than you might ever prefer
If you are a modest, gentle soul — like my lovely Jose — you may find the creative path more difficult, surrounded by arrogant, shouty chest-beaters. If you truly crave Big Success, however you choose define it, you may have to toot your own horn loud and long, no matter how declasse your family or friends or native culture consider that.
Volunteer your time and skills within your creative community
I think this is overlooked as a key to long-term success.
You don’t have time? Make it. People most respect, value and reach out to help those they respect personally — not just someone whose work they read about or saw in a show or in concert. I was only 19, still in college, when I volunteered to interview lions of Canada’s journalism industry for a book. How else could I ever have met or spoken to them, let alone learned their wisdom? Then they also knew who I was. Win-win.
I’ve served for years on volunteer boards for writers’ groups. It helped to hone my people skills, (still a work in progress!), taught me about fund-raising and how to defend and explain my ideas to a skeptical group.
It also shows clients and colleagues my pride in, and commitment to, my larger creative community.
Find, or create, a group that meets weekly, or monthly. Create an on-line listserv or Facebook group. Mentoring others comes back in waves of generosity, for years.
Make time to reflect, recharge and revive your spirit
No matter what you hope to create or produce, make time to recharge. Sit still in silence every day. Stare at the sky, no matter what the weather. Make notes whenever you get an idea. Keep them!
Travel as far and as often as you can afford
There’s no better way to sharpen your senses than to step out of habitual behaviors and routines: taking the same subway line or bus route; eating the same cereal at breakfast; seeing the same faces at work. Even a two-hour road trip to a nearby town or city or nature preserve can offer you new ideas and insights.
Have a clear vision of what you hope to accomplish, today and/or in a decade
You can’t get there, wherever there is, without a clear idea what it is. Only by naming it can you start to lay the necessary groundwork — whether admission to the best program of study, a fellowship, a job, access to a busy mentor, publication of your novel or a gallery show. It’s too daunting to stare only at the cloud-shrouded Everest of your final goal. Focus on the foothills!
I recently started a writers’ group and called it Story Sherpas — no one gets there alone, without the help and support of a team along the way.
Study the work of the very best in your field
Don’t assume the best are working today. They might have powerful lessons to offer from their endeavors — possibly centuries ago.
Save a lot of money!
Creative “success” can, and often does, evaporate overnight — and with it your ability to dick around and await your muse.
Read this cautionary tale, from a New York writer whose book advance was a stunning $200,000, way more than any writer I know has ever received. She blew it.
Don’t ever rest on your laurels. They can wither mighty fast.
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.
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.
…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.
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.
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?
THIS WEEK’S WEBINAR — THE LAST OF THE SUPER-SUCCESSFUL FALL SERIES — IS “YOU, INC: THE BUSINESS OF FREELANCING”; 4:00 p.m. EST DEC. 14. (THE SERIES REPEATS IN FEBRUARY.)
How badly do you really want to be a writer/composer/dancer/artist?
How much are you willing to give up attain that goal?
Sometimes having the choice to not create — i.e. a regular, reliable, steady income — means endlessly postponing the frightening leap into the void, of actually producing work you try to bring to market, to finding an audience, discovering that people are eager for your work — or not.
I started writing for a living when I was at the end of my sophomore year in college, as a full-time undergraduate at the University of Toronto. My parents were off traveling the world, long before the Internet, cellphones or Skype made regular contact easy and affordable. Neither gave me a penny.
I was on my own, living in a small studio apartment in a not-great neighborhood, all I could afford on my monthly income of $350, money inherited from a grandmother.
That was all the money I had available. My rent was $160/month. Then there was food, phone, answering service, clothes…and oh, yeah, tuition and books; $4,200 a year isn’t much money to live on in a major city, even a few decades ago.
So I freelanced, a lot. I missed classes, (and my grades certainly showed it), to chase down paying assignments, both as a photographer and writer. I had a photograph published in Time at the age of 19. I wrote for the country’s biggest magazines and, surprisingly perhaps, am still in touch with my very first editor who assigned me work when she was editor of Miss Chatelaine, now called Flare.
I had a weekly shopping column in The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, in my junior year, paying me $125 a week, a fortune at the time.
But all this blazing ambition, fueled by real financial need, also carried costs, losses I will never be able to recoup.
I barely remember the people I attended college with as I spent much of my time in phone booths (remember those?) contacting editors to line up work or fight for (more) payment. I didn’t drink or party or pledge to a sorority or disappear on spring break to exotic locations. I was too busy working my ass off.
And so I went to the chair of the English department to suggest that, since I was already selling my writing to national publications, I receive class credit for it — given the choice between writing another paper on 16th century drama or paying my bills for another month or two, there was little choice for me.
The reaction was scathing and dismissive, one reason I’ve yet to darken the door of another university.
A highly effective way to make sure you’re actually producing — and not just talking about it all the time — is to actually rely on the income from your work.
I do realize this is impossible for many people — with children to support, and/or a partner; who, as Americans, simply cannot afford market-rate health insurance or have crushing amounts of student debt as well.
But if you never have to test the market, what will finally impel you?
DON’T FORGET TO SIGN UP FOR MY NEXT WEBINAR, BETTER BLOGGING, ON SUNDAY NOVEMBER 10 AT 4:00 P.M. EST.