Thursday, February 25, 2010

A blog about not giving up on your creative dreams

The other day a good friend of mine, an amazingly talented artist, called me up and told me she was thinking about giving up on her dreams of an art career and pursuing nursing instead. I promptly talked her out of that idea; she’s been dreaming of being a professional artist since I met her 13 years ago and she is not the type of person who would be able to do all the things nurses do. But while I was talking her down off the ledge, I realized I had a lot to say on the subject of “pursuing a career in the creative industry” and I thought it was something worth sharing.

I should start by saying that my friend called because she was doubting her abilities. She looked around and saw artists who were “better” than her, she kept hearing how hard it was to make a living being a professional artist, and she saw how miserable her boyfriend, a professional artist, was. As a creative person myself (my medium being the written word) I could really relate to how she was feeling; how a lot of artists (visual, written, etc) must feel while trying to achieve their dreams and work their way to…maybe not even the top, but somewhere safe, comfortable, or stable enough to build a life around. I wanted to put this advice out there for those creative people (to be referred to from here on out under the umbrella term ‘artists’ because that’s what they are, no matter the medium), including my friend, so they have something to think about when they start to doubt themselves. Hell…so that I can have something to think about when I start to doubt myself.

Firstly, there are always going to be artists who are “better” than you. I put better in quotation marks because art is very subjective and one person can love a work of art and another person can hate it just as passionately. The key is to be happy with your own art and be able to find a job or career path that suits your particular brand or style of art. If you work hard enough and you have passion and a willingness to learn and grow, you will have options. And in the meantime, it isn’t going to help you to compare yourself to the competition. Be inspired by them, learn from them, but don’t be intimidated by their presence. Remember that for every artist whose work intimidates you, there may be an artist who is equally intimidated by your work.

I do want to acknowledge that it is hard out there for artists to make a living. That’s a fact and I won’t gloss over that. It takes a lot of persistence, determination, hard work and talent, and (sometimes) a certain amount of luck to become a successful artist. The thing is you can’t just go forward thinking “I want to make a living being an artist.” You have to be smart about it. What are your particular strengths when it comes to your art? If you want to make a living in your art, is there a way to do so without being a starving artist? When I graduated from high school, all I wanted to do was be a writer. I went to college because it was expected of me but I got an English degree (Writing Concentration) because I figured I’d learn for four years and by the time I graduated I’d have a book written, a publishing deal and enough money to live off of. In hindsight and after years of working in publishing, that’s a laughable goal. But when I got to my senior year of undergrad and had nothing worth publishing, I had to think outside the box. Sure I wanted to be a writer but what could I do for a living that was related to my art? At times I just wished I could read for a living. I loved books so much. It was that wish that led me to become an editor. It was a job related to writing, it required me to use my skills as both an avid reader and a writer, and it was something I was passionate about. And the deeper into that career path I got, the more my passion grew. I had found a way to make a living (bupkis at first, sure, but still more than I was making as an unpublished writer) while working with the written word on my terms, even if it wasn’t what I had initially set out to do.

That’s something that happens very often---the path you start off on leads somewhere you never expected it to. But ultimately, the journey is what life is all about, not the destination. I never knew how passionate I would be about editing until I got into it, and I had no idea how passionate I already was about children’s and YA books until I started working on that side of the industry. And ya know? Working in this industry has inspired me in my writing, the original creative venture that led me to becoming an editor. I’m surrounded by book people every day. A lot of my friends, who I met at work or through industry networking, are book lovers. Many of them are writers too. I’m part of two book clubs, I’ve been and am still involved in writing groups, all of which are filled with colleagues from the book business. When I first read a Sara Zarr novel (her debut, Story of a Girl), I was inspired by what she had done; by the artistry of her words and the impact of her story. To then be able to contribute my thoughts while she was revising her next book (my boss was her editor), to see her process and how she worked, was such an honor. It opened doors in my mind that I hadn’t known needed opening. I realized that my love of YA novels extended to my writing and suddenly I was coming up with more YA story ideas than I was adult story ideas. And the ideas meant more to me because of my passion for YA lit.

That's one thing that always bugged me about the musical RENT. As much as I loved that show, I always wanted to strangle the characters and say, "just because you are artists doesn't mean you can't get a job and support yourself! You don't have to abandon your art to make a living!"
Sure, you might not be able to make a living immediately just by creating art, but there are ways to have a career that is related to your art, that will allow you to utilize your artistic talents, and they will inspire you to grow as an artist. And if you are really passionate, you will continue your art on the side, using evenings and weekends and any spare time you can commit. To paraphrase Rainer Maria Rilke, you will create art because you can’t not create art.

And there are always going to be naysayers and people who have a rough time of it. As far as my friend’s boyfriend is concerned, he’s a whiner. I’ve heard countless stories about how he procrastinates, misses his deadlines and has held up production and in general sounds like a real nightmare for any editor who is stuck working with him. He’s obviously not happy doing that type of work, but he signed a contract out of obligation and is now dragging his feet. There are always going to be people like this---self-defeatists who give up and blame other people for their failures, or who blame the industry for how hard they have it when they’re just doing it to themselves. And like I said, any creative industry is going to be hard. The competition is heavy, there are going to be people who try to step on you to get to the top and you will often be told you’re not good enough or not right for the project. But it is possible if you’re smart and you have the right attitude. And ya know, a lot of people are going to give up along the way. They are going to realize this isn’t for them, or they don’t love it enough to stick with it through thick and thin, or maybe they’ll just burn out. But if you love your art enough to be able to hold out longer than everyone else, you’ve won half the battle. Again, being smart and professional is the other half.

I truly believe that if you can’t see yourself anywhere but in the creative industry of your choice, you shouldn’t give up pursuing it. My friend was born to be an artist and would never be happy being a nurse. I was meant to work with books (and hopefully publish some of my own someday) and I would never be happy working for an insurance company (which is what most people do back in my hometown). If you were born to create art, do it. If you can’t support yourself with your art right away, find a way to support yourself while also creating your art on the side. And let your fellow artists inspire you, lift you up and teach you. And most importantly, be open to growth in your art, don’t blame others for your failures, and learn to view mistakes and rejections not as failures but as opportunities for more growth. You can do it…but only if you are willing to put yourself out there and do what it takes. Do you have what it takes? You won’t know until you try.


JenWriter said...

Awesome & inspirational post!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

A wonderful essay! Thanks so much! I'm definitely going to highlight the link in my round-up tomorrow.

T.S. said...

Thanks for spreading the word, Cynthia! I appreciate it. Hopefully this will help at least one or two people to stick it out.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post--thank you for writing it. And your friend is exceptionally lucky to have you in her life.

Lynsey Newton said...

Loved reading that, thank you!

Jennifer Brown said...

YES! YEEEES! Love this! I'm pounding my fist on my desk in triumph right now!

Seriously, I just had the "there will always be someone better than you" conversation with my son yesterday. It's not a competition between you and all the other artists out there. It's a competition between you and yourself. Don't let yourself beat you (deeeep).

And I so agree with the broadening of your initial vision thing. When I was working in an office, I NEVER even considered being a writer. When I finally considered it... I thought I was going to be a poet. After getting into poetry, I thought maybe I'd just write some short stories. Plotting out a short story made me curious about novels. Adult novels. Never in a million years would I have thought I'd be penning YA novels and loving every minute of it. But being open to it and following a creative vision was absolute key in making it happen.

Brilliant blog, T.S. I'm going to share it with my friends!

Danielle said...

Fantastic essay, my friend! :)

Now do you need me to email it to you so you can give yourself that same fab advice? :-p

-Danielle, Reading Between the Lines

T.S. said...

Danielle, you actually came up in the original conversation with my friend as one of my inspirations/motivations to keep creating. :-) I believe I used the phrase "forces me to write through threats of physical violence." HA!

Danielle said...

hahahaha! love it :-p

Now where are those pages? *pounds right fist into left palm*

Sara Z. said...

Great post - there is so much I want to say about this but only have iPhone keyboard til Monday so have to wait!

Bethanie said...

Thank you I needed that. I have six completed books waiting on someone to say yes. I have sent out information to many on my second one. First one is published, but under vanity publisher, was new to the industry and didn't realize that is what I was doing. Everyone that has bought one though likes it very much and second one I have recevied several rejections. I have also received two "would like to see more", but it usually stops there. It becomes disheartening to say the least. I am in the YA romance genre. I feel like that is where my strength is, so I keep writing. Waiting in the background to see what happens. Thank you for your post.

Sara Z. said...

Some additional thoughts now that I'm at a full-sized keyboard...

- I almost quit a bunch of times in the ten years from when I first seriously pursued writing novels to when I sold my first. During that time, I applied for a SCBWI work-in-progress grant almost every year. Never got anything. I applied for other grants, and got feedback like, "Ordinary writing." "Nothing special." "Boring." At one point I thought I'd sold a book to a packager, and then that totally fell through. My first agent didn't really like my writing. There were SO MANY reasons to stop! Why didn't I? I don't know. Every January, I thought, "This is the year," so I only needed enough hope to last 12 months at a time.

- Even when you are successfully published and maybe even a National Book Award finalist, there are people who are "better" than you, or seem to have better careers, or who have intimidating genius, or for whom work seems to come easier, or who make more money, or have more facebook friends, more whatever. It goes on and on - there is no end point, there is no "arrival." So when aspiring writers are seeking "arrival" and measuring success or happiness by an idea of "arrival," the whole process is bound to be rough because honestly, in my opinion, there is no such thing. Once you embrace that it's all process and journey and no arrival, it's easier to see the pre-published and/or rejection or career lows part of the journey as temporary.

- And you know, TS, from your work in editorial that even good writers turn in stuff that needs A LOT of work. You saw from the inside that there is very little magic or's work. And you can go a long, long way on work (lots of thoughts on this at the Blue Rose Girls controversial post on talent!).

- I love your point about RENT, and that there is lots of middle ground between being dressed in rags and being James Patterson. I'm with you - better to cobble together a living doing something at least related to what you love than to have an all-or-nothing approach.

Anyway, yeah. Agree with everything you say here!

T.S. said...

Thanks for adding your thoughts, Sara! It's great to see that even an award-winning author (and one that I cite as an inspiration in this very post) has gone through (and still goes through) what us aspiring artists go through.

Folks, let this be a lesson that hard work, determination and believing in yourself can go a long way. And Sara's right, I can vouch from the editorial side of things that even the best writers sometimes need help whipping their books into shape.

And the more I work on my own writing, the more I tend to think of writing in the same way I've always thought of Sudoku. The longer you spend on it, the more likely it is that you'll figure it out, but if you give up because it's too hard, then you've automatically failed. Of course, some people are not suited for either Sudoku or writing and some don't enjoy it enough to stick with it, but as Sara and I have both stated, if you love it enough and stick with it long enough, you'll get there.

Susan Adrian said...

Thanks for this. I think every writer/artist needs this kind of reminder now and then. And thanks, Sara, for chiming in too! You're one of my inspirations as well.

I am all about the hard work and positive attitude. Speak it! :)

Anonymous said...
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ethatsme said...

I love this post, I really believe that if we only get one life why not spend it, pursuing and perhaps one day, doing something that you love. I’ll try my hardest for something like that. I’m sure as long as I have tried, then I’ll have no regrets no matter where I end up.

Strawbry Jiles said...

Great post. I was just googling and came upon your blog. Great advice. I just recently graduated college with an English Writing Arts degree and I have been trying to figure out whether to go to law school (as I originally planned), or go with my passion, writing. I'm going to pursue writing (whether my parents agree with it or not), I just don't know where to begin. Any advice? How did you get into the publishing industry? Thanks for the words of inspiration.