Meet Johann Sebastian Bach, who in 1721 presented six concertos — now named the Brandenburg Concertos, named for the Margrave for whom they were written — to a local official he hoped would offer him a job.
The Margrave did not hire him and it’s possible he never even heard them.
The 1946 Christmas film, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart and Donna Reed, is equally hailed as a great of the film classics.
It failed at the box office and the original story met with such rejection that its author decided to self-publish and send it to 200 friends instead.
At museum shows of the legends Michelangelo, Charlotte Bronte and the Japanese print-maker Hokusai — whose Great Wave is one of the most familiar of all images — I learned the more nuanced truth of these lives, of penury and struggle, their lost and cancelled commissions.
It’s tempting to think that all the great art and music and literature we still enjoy today was produced from warm homes filled with good food, with healthy children and wives and husbands. In fact, there was much sorrow to endure.
Bronte’s dress and boots
Bronte suffered the early death of all her siblings, married late (37) and died the following year.
Bronte’s writing desk
I so admire anyone who chooses the creative life.
My father made films and documentary television shows. His second wife wrote and edited television scripts. My mother worked as a print and radio journalist.
I get it!
We lived its ups and downs, emotionally, intellectually and financially. Rejection can feel annihilating, most often wielded by people with salaries and pensions, unwilling to take creative risks themselves while harshly judging those of us who do.
Without a wealthy family or partner (and some have this) it can mean many years of financial struggle, and the endless hope of recognition.
No one needs a new novel or oratorio or painting!
So I gave my husband — a freelance photo editor and photographer this book for Christmas.
One of my favorite sources of inspiration is Tharp’s first book, The Creative Habit; she’s a choreographer, but the challenges she faces, and her wisdom and practical advice, are just as fitting to many other creative efforts.
If you’re working to create something new, keep going.
The thing most of us crave, (certainly living in the U.S. where falling into or staying in poverty is terrifying), is financial security. No one wants to not be able to make rent, buy groceries, buy a bus pass or gas the car, clothe their kids or pay off those miserable student loans.
So many of us will lunge toward the first job that offers us a steady income because….steady income.
It’s the fortunate few who have the time, energy and fiscal freedom to slow down and decide to focus on what they really hope to creatively accomplish. When you work for others, you de facto work to their needs, budget and deadline.
People have told me I’m an artist…I think I’m more of a tailor. You want your trousers hemmed two inches (intellectually speaking)? I can do that. You want a navy gabardine suit size 42R? No problem. I know how to work quickly and efficiently and give people what they ask me for.
I’m no Phoebe Philo nor the late Karl Lagerfeld nor my favorite fashion designer, Belgian Dries van Noten. Occasionally, yes, I come up with a wholly creative idea and am able to sell it.
Jose recently had an idea that will literally make history. I am so proud of him! We can’t share what it is for a few months, but he realized that a specific annual event of great cultural importance had (?!) never before been documented visually. He knew its administrator and pitched the idea to her and he suggested a budget for it and she said yes.
He spent 31 years as a photographer and photo editor at The New York Times, a place of prestige and power, and it gave him a source of challenge, steady income with a union-protected job and a pension. All good.
Very little creative freedom.
Those outside journalism may fantasize about its creativity but the wage slaves within it know better; too often the thinking is stale and the formulation of coverage cliche. Those who keep coming up with new and interesting and untried ideas — as Jose did many times — can be ignored, dismissed and just give up.
When he took the buyout they offered in 2015, I was scared. How would a guy with a desk for 31 years thrive as a full-time freelancer?
He has, because his creativity is finally being rewarded, both financially and professionally.
At an age when some people have retired and hung it up, he’s tootling along, impressing the hell out of new clients and, best of all, seeing the fruits of his labors.
On my last day of work at the American ad agency, something strange happened: I was smiling. A weight had been lifted, and I felt like a prisoner about to be freed. And despite my fear that no one would hire me, I soon found a job in Zurich doing exactly what I had been doing in the United States: copywriting for an ad agency.
My job title was the same, but I worked part time — and for a higher salary than I had received working full time in the United States. When I was politely asked to work additional days beyond the ones specifically mentioned in my contract, the agency paid me for that extra work.
Not only that, but instead of two weeks of vacation, I had five. And I was encouraged to use every single day of it, guilt-free. Once, when I went to Spain for “only” 10 days, my Swiss colleagues chastised me for not going away long enough.
Instead of worrying about working weekends and holidays the way I had in the United States, I planned trips like the rest of my colleagues: Paris. Prague. Zermatt. For the first time in my working life, I was living, too. Because of this, my creativity flourished. I had both time and money, and because I had real time off, I was more productive when I was at work. In my spare time I wrote blogs and essays and I swam in the lake.
I’m firmly and decidedly out of step with American values in this regard.
In 2015, I’ve spent 3 weeks in Europe in January, another three weeks in June in Ireland, 10 days in Maine and 10 days in Ontario.
Because my husband and I are, as of this year, now both full-time freelancers, (he’s a photo editor and photographer, I write for a living), we can work from anywhere there’s wi-fi and can take as much time off as we can afford.
We’re not wealthy and we live a fairly frugal life, with a small apartment and a 14-year-old car. Nor do we have the financial responsibilities of children or other dependents.
We’ve had terrific careers and won awards and the respect of our peers and while we still need to work for income…it’s time for us.
I’m not fond of the word “self-care” but it’s a concept I believe in strongly, especially for women who are socially encouraged to give everyone else their time, energy and attention — but often feel conflicted or guilty when they stop long enough to take equally thoughtful care of themselves.
Self care can take many forms:
— massage, manicures, pedicures, facials
— dressing well
— a barbershop trim or shave
— regular medical and dental checkups
–– cooking or baking something delicious, especially “just” for yourself
— a pot of tea in the afternoon, possibly with a biscuit or two (no sad little teabag in a cup!)
— drawing, painting, taking photos, nurturing your creative self
For some, it’s calculus or making a roux or hitting to the outfield or soothing a colicky baby.
It’s been years since I’d had to acquire some new and challenging knowledge. Once you leave the world of formal education, it’s onoing auto-didacticism (love that word!) or slow mental atrophy. I work alone at home, and have since 2006, so unless I make a conscious decision to take a class or attend a conference, no boss (for better or worse) will force me to learn some new skills.
This weekend, my husband and I are taking a workshop in…how to create a workshop. How American is that? I hope to offer one for writers next summer and he hopes to offer one for photographers. (Stay tuned for details!)
But while many of my peers are rushing to learn computer coding, I wanted something different, a new set of skills for my own pleasure.
Time to learn German? It looked really difficult! More practically, when, if ever, would I really use it? I live in New York and getting to Europe is so costly that I usually visit France, (where I already speak the language), England or Ireland.
Instead, I’m learning how to play golf.
Mostly because my husband loves it. Like me, he came to it later in life as neither of our families were into the sport when we were growing up. My father, still sailing and cycling in his mid-80s, still shakes his head at my taste for it.
We’re not wealthy and where we live a game of golf can cost up to $100 for a decent course, so it’s not something we can do every week.
But Jose is passionate about it and playing golf also combines the elements that make me happy: his company, being outdoors in a beautiful setting, exercise, socializing.
He gave me a set of older clubs, some great golf shoes and off we went to the driving range. (That’s where you buy a bucket of balls and spend an hour or so practicing your shots with every different club. Large round wooden targets that look a bit like archery targets saying 50, 100 and 200 yards, tell you how far your shots are reaching.)
It’s a very male place.
But on a cool summer’s morning it’s also a great start to the workday; we have a range only 10 minutes drive from our suburban home. Two days after hitting a bucket and a half my arms, chest and oblique muscles are sore!
We were very lucky, on a recent trip to Donegal, Ireland, to be invited out to a links course by the edge of the Atlantic. We played with two women in their 60s, who were terrific golfers and yet very patient with me, playing my fourth or fifth game ever.
The course was crazy! One hole required hitting straight over a cliff to the fairway on the other side. There were no carts on a course so hilly that we felt like sheep clambering up and down, carrying our clubs backpack style. (Links golf comes from the medieval work hlinc, meaning hilly.)
I found it hard to concentrate because the scenery was so stunning: deep blue water, a distant island, seagulls swooping so low we almost hit them. I felt salt spray on my cheeks as a strong wind blew in our faces.
I love that golf is a portable sport — almost anywhere green with some land will have a golf course, or several, and often much more affordably than where we live. We’ve now played in rural Ontario and midcoast Maine, in the crisp air of autumn and on a day so hot I gave up after the fourth hole.
I like how challenging the game is. It forces me to slow down and pay very close attention. It requires a stillness and a shutting out of all distraction. It rewards both power and fine motor control.
I enjoy it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t — I admit — keep going. But it’s also satisfying to be acquiring new skills later in my life. It’s so easy to stick to what I know and am good at.
After our three weeks in Ireland, listening to my friend’s voice calling out the official station stops on Dublin’s tramline, the Luas, (she speaks fuent Irish and did the voice-over), I’m debating trying to learn even a bit of Irish.
My great-grandfather was the schoolteacher in the tiny Donegal town of Rathmullan, and we recently revisited his one-room schoolhouse there. I have roots in that world.
But Irish? Now that’s deeply impractical; only two percent of Irish people even speak it anymore, in three areas known as the Gaeltacht.
I recently watched two terrific films — one a feature, one a documentary — that raise interesting questions about when, how, why and where we, (I’ve been a journalist for 30 years) decide we see a story and decide we want to tell it.
It’s a very rare journalist who gets to write a story, let alone multiple pieces all-expense paid to travel to some distant country to do original reporting, for The New York Times Magazine. It’s considered a real pinnacle for ambitious writers — and one I have yet to scale, even as I enviously read friends’ work being published there.
What Finkel did, combining several characters to make one more compelling, is completely taboo in news journalism, which is mean to rely wholly on verifiable, truthful fact.
But the pressures to stay well-paid and widely admired and respected by editors with the power to make or break our careers? Relentless. It’s only worse now in an age of social media, as my friend Karen Ho knows — her recent Toronto Life story about a murder-for-hire has won huge attention and kudos from the toughest editors in the business.
Yet she’s still working, for the moment, for a small and remote news outlet.
In “True Story”, which features a chilling performance by James Franco as Christian Longo, who murdered his entire family, the mutual manipulation is quite amazing to see. (Another fine film examining this issue is Capote, starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as author Truman Capote.)
One of the many issues I found so compelling about TS is how it lays bare the ravening ego of a writer who’s fallen from grace — and how desperate he was to redeem himself professionally. Like throwing meat to the lions, he calls every editor he knows, all of whom now worry that he’ll just lie to them as well.
It’s also a painfully truthful film for anyone who’s still lusting to reach the higher rungs of the ladder of writing success — which is almost everyone!
You’ve just won a Pulitzer? Your best friend has a Neiman. You won a Neiman? Your college room-mate won a MacArthur “genius” grant or your former intern won a high six-figure advance/Hollywood contract/three-book deal/NYT best-seller list.
It’s a world of insecurity, self-doubt and perpetual status anxiety.
Yet — without credibility — even the most talented and hardworking journalist has nothing.
The documentary, The Wolfpack, is an astounding film, about six brothers — wearing dark sunglasses, waist-length glossy black hair and some very sharp suits — who grew up sequestered in one of the world’s largest cities, Manhattan. The Angulo brothers (they also have a sister) were essentially held hostage by their father, the only person with keys to the door of their huge apartment in a public housing project on the Lower East Side.
The pathology of his marriage to their mother, a gentle, soft-spoken Midwestern woman, is equally mysterious. Only one moment, and it’s brief, hints at even darker issues.
Darker than keeping your seven children locked up for decades?
As one of them tells film-maker Crystal Moselle, they’d leave their home maybe nine times a year — or one year, not at all.
The men are funny, engaging, stylish and blessed with extraordinary imaginations and empathy. It’s hard to even imagine their life before Moselle discovered them, and their story, on a city sidewalk.
From a recent review:
The Wolfpack is mesmerizing but not because it has stunning cinematography or dazzling effects: the footage is grainy, resembling home movies. Moselle’s camera is surprisingly non-judgemental, especially considering that the film’s subject matter screams “child abuse” and “domestic violence.”
Nevertheless, I couldn’t look away, and each cut felt like a cliffhanger, leaving me with questions that I had faith the filmmaker would answer (or at the very least, acknowledge). However, the documentary leaves many questions unanswered, and I couldn’t help but wonder why this family would volunteer to put their life on display considering the legal and moral questions the film was bound to raise.
In a press release, Moselle claims that she never felt the need to intervene, and that she sincerely believed that the children were well cared for. Perhaps the idea that all is well in the Angulo household is more clear to her than to the average viewer — she did spend years with the family — but a little on-camera reassurance (perhaps by a lawyer) would’ve made me feel slightly less uneasy.
It’s the boundary between voyeurism and value, between finding and telling an astonishing story and feeling squeamish knowing — as we do — that “astonishing” often means “bizarre” or “terrifying”.
Those of you working in journalism may have already heard this:
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
― Janet Malcolm
“A lot are coming to school who don’t have the resilience of previous generations,” Dr. Jones said. “They can’t tolerate discomfort or having to struggle. A primary symptom is worrying, and they don’t have the ability to soothe themselves.”
…And so personal setbacks that might once have become “teachable moments” turn into triggers for a mental health diagnosis.
“Students are seeking treatment, saying, ‘I just got the first C in my life, my whole life just got shattered, I wanted to go to medical school and I can’t cope,’” said Micky M. Sharma, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors and head of Ohio State University’s counseling center.
I spent the past year teaching at a private college that charges $60,000 a year. It was an interesting experience to see how fragile and coddled some of these students were.
My husband and I are career journalists; his website is here; mine is here.
Maybe it’s the careers we chose — if you not debrouillard(e) — resourceful and resilient — you’ll hate the job and quickly leave the industry.
It’s likely the generation we grew up in.
Maybe it’s having survived three recessions in the past 20 years, times that forced many of us to shelve our dreams and say farewell to some others forever as our incomes dropped and good jobs disappeared.
I do know one thing.
If you are unable to tolerate discomfort, your life beyond college — no matter where you live, what you earn, what career you path you choose — you are going to be miserable.
So are your co-workers, bosses, husbands/wives/partners.
Life has sharp edges!
When someone tells you that your work, or skills — social and/or professional — are weak or sub-standard or do not measure up, these are some of your choices:
— Disagree and ignore them
— Disagree but listen to their input for whatever lessons you can learn from it
— Acknowledge that their point of view is fair and listen to it carefully
— Never try that path of endeavor again
— Complain to a higher authority and push as hard as possible until they take your side
I have several friends who teach college ready to tear out their hair at the behaviors they see from students who refuse to take “no” for an answer when that “no” bumps up against their cherished self-image.
When life feels difficult and unfair and uncomfortable, here are some of your choices:
— Yell at someone
— Run away
— Deal with it
— Use drugs or alcohol to numb your unpleasant feelings
— Talk to someone wiser and calmer, whether a friend, relative and/or therapist for their insights
–– Change as much of the situation as possible
— Examine how and why your reaction to this challenge is making things even worse; as the Buddhist saying goes “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional”
As readers of this blog know, I do not have children and never wanted to have children.
I do nurture and mentor about a dozen younger writers and photographers, one of whom just arrived in Australia for a two-month assignment there. Jose and I are happy to do it.
But they listen! They also have developed the requisite ego strength, even in their early 20s, to hear tough-if-loving feedback and use some of it without a shrug, hand-flap or quick dismissal of anything that challenges them.
I was still an undergraduate when I began selling my writing to national publications. At one of them, an editor was so harsh I’d end up in tears after a phone session with her.
But I learned a lot from her: how to write better, how to listen to criticism (even painful!), how to maintain a calm and professional demeanor. That growing (up) wasn’t going to be all puppies and rainbows.
Decades later, she’s still reading and admiring my work. That’s hard-won and well-valued in my world.
I wish every new graduate the best of luck as they move into the larger world of commuting, low-level drudgery, long hours, too-little money for too-much work.
More than anything, though, I wish them the resilience they most need — not just a shiny new degree or a stellar GPA — to thrive in the decades ahead.
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.
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.
Students signed up for my fall webinar series, and individual coaching — thank you! — from Australia, New Zealand, London, Chicago, D.C., California and Connecticut; one student saw her blog’s page views and followers increase as soon as she made the simple change I suggested.
I also coach individually whenever it suits you — by phone, Skype and/or email.
(All photos on this post are courtesy of my husband, Jose R. Lopez.)
These are the six 90-minute classes, each priced at $125:
May 10, 10:00-11:30 a.m. ET
This practical, lively seminar offers more than 30 steps you can take — right away — to boost your blog’s engagement, views and followers; Broadside has more than 10,000 followers now, and grows every single day. To win writing jobs, freelance or full-time, your blog is your best marketing tool. Broadside has been Freshly Pressed six times and chosen as one of 22 in “culture” by WordPress worth reading. Let’s do it!
You, Inc: The Business of Freelancing
May 10, 1:00 pm to 2:30 pm ET
I’ve freelanced full-time since 2006, this time, for local, regional, national and international clients. You can too! In this super-focused, tips-filled webinar, we’ll discuss how much you really need to earn, negotiating, how to find (and keep!) clients and how to maximize your productivity. My clients include Cosmpolitan, Ladies Home Journal and The New York Times and on-line sites HGTV.com, Quartz.com, reuters.com and the Harvard Business Review blog.
Learn to Think Like a Reporter
May 10, 4:00-5:30 pm ET
If your mother says she loves you, check it out! This class teaches the tips and tricks I’ve gained from working as a staff reporter for three major dailies, including the New York Daily News — and freelancing for The New York Times since 1990. What’s a stake-out? A nut graf? A lede and kicker? Every reporter knows these basics, and if you hope to compete with them — whether you’re blogging, or writing for on-line or print or broadcast or video — this is the stuff you need to know.
Conducting a Kick-Ass Interview
May 17, 10:00 a.m. to 11;30 a.m. ET
No ambitious non-fiction writer, blogger or journalist succeeds without knowing how to conduct probing and well-controlled interviews. I’ve interviewed thousands of sources, from an Admiral to convicted felons, Olympic athletes, cancer survivors, duck hunters and ballet dancers. How to best structure an interview? Should you tape or take notes? What’s the one question every interview should end with? My 30 years’ experience as an award-winning reporter, author of two-well-reviewed books of nationally reported non-fiction — one of which included 104 original interviews — and frequent New York Times writer will help you ace the toughest interviews.
Crafting the Personal Essay
May 17, 1:00 p.m – 2:30 p.m. ET
From The New York Times to Elle and Marie Claire — to Thought Catalog, Salon, the Awl, Aeon and Medium — the marketplace for personal essay continues to thrive. How to sell this challenging genre? How to blend the personal and universal? Every essay, no matter the topic, must answer one key question, which we’ll discuss in detail. Having published my own essays in the Times, Marie Claire, Chatelaine and others — and winner of a Canadian National Magazine award for one — I’ll help you determine what to say and in what voice.
Finding and Developing Story Ideas
May 17, 4:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m ET
We’re surrounded every single day by dozens of potential story ideas. Recognizing them — and developing them into salable pitches — is the topic of this helpful webinar. And every non-fiction book begins with an idea; developing it into a 30-page book proposal means “saving string”, collecting the data you’ll need to intelligently argue your points. This webinar will help you better perceive the many stories already swirling in your orbit and determine who’s most likely to pay you (well) for them.
Feel free to email me with any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me in New York at 914-332-6065.
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.)