Creative success — grinding it out one play at a time

By Caitlin Kelly

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

Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The truth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While offering little or no money to writers.

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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.)

I HOPE YOU’LL JOIN US!

DETAILS AND SIGN-UP HERE.