Sep 29, 2010

On Making the Mental Shift

Pursuing a career in any of the "creative arts" becomes by definition a fairly complex and in many ways unlikely endeavor. It becomes an issue of ambition, determination, skill, natural talent, timing, social connections, and many times just a matter of dumb luck - and that's just the basics of getting your foot in the door! You also need tenacity, reliability, a work ethic, marketability, reputation and a lot of additional luck to remain in the game. It's an ongoing process, and I see many people with high quantities of skill and talent who never go anywhere. Some don't want to; some don't want to...enough.

Some of the fields of "the arts" are more competitive than others, clearly. Acting, popular music are two of the most intensive and difficult to be highly successful at, but anytime your skillset or potential market footprint is valued on an admittedly subjective scale, it's going to be a challenge to convince any of the "powers that be" to invest in you, to trust you to make money for them.

Oh, sure, in a perfect world money would never be part of the equation; in an artistic utopia, all artists would be greeted unilaterally with open arms, minds and hearts by all who happened upon their works; enjoyed and appreciated without being funneled into the merchandizing sausage-maker.

Clearly, we're not living in that utopia.

I've known a lot of musicians, for example, at all stages of commercial success. I remember a lead singer from a band you've never heard of who was eventually dismissed from the group because he insisted on having a roadie carry his microphone and mike stand from their van to the stage and back. This contrasted with their drummer who managed all his equipment himself, and did the full setup and sound check on his own. Some folks might believe that to live the dream, you have to start early. But make no mistake, the life of a diva must be earned. Earned. And even then, it's rarely a good idea.

I also knew a belly dancer who would often become very frustrated - to the point of casting vitriolic insults - at audiences who didn't "appreciate" her talent sufficiently, either by volume of applause or tips. Sadly, she'd neglected the primary rule of thumb: as a performer, you're there to perform. The audience is not there for you; you're there for them.

I give these examples for two reasons.

1) As an artist, you should forget that success rarely comes without much effort. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

2) If art is truly something you love doing, you should love doing it for the sake of doing it. If you're looking to be loved, you're in the wrong business.

Back in the days of striving for a gig as a professional musician, I confess that I leaned more in the direction of "maintaining my artistic integrity" - which is a wonderful, if not naive, perspective. And if, really, my artistic integrity was all I wanted, then, hey, I succeeded. I made music that I felt strongly about, and the music sounded the way I wanted it to sound, etc. Was I financially successful? Well, that's a point for debate. I paid off all my debts; I didn't make my millions, but I neither owed millions. That alone put me in a better place than many professional musicians.

In the end, I looked down the barrel of a music career and decided that in a combination of my own resolution and likely marketability, I just wasn't going to ever hit that magical plateau of artistic imaginings and economic payoff. But I also discovered that I was okay with shifting my focus. That alone - the realization that I really didn't want it so badly - was really informative.

So now, ten years later, I write books. I'm just getting started in the process (just the two printed novels thus far), but have been impressed with the vast and striking similarities between the two publishing industries (music and literature). Both are highly competitive, fairly subjective, and encourage perparation and self-sufficiency in their candidates for success.

In short, it isn't just about being "good enough". There are a slew of additional qualities that prospectives should struggle to engender in themselves, for example:

  • Work Ethic
  • Quiet Confidence
  • Objectivity
  • Business Acumen
  • A Thick Skin
  • Manners
  • Humility
  • A Sense of Humor
  • Financial Sensibility
  • A Second Job

That last one - - I'm serious! I know plenty of professionally published authors who have to maintain a full time job in order to have enough money to actually write. Their usual advice to me boils down to this: "if you're just writing because you love writing, then no one's stopping you. Write and be happy."

I have no false aspirations about writing. The odds of ever being financially independent based upon my royalties and earnings as a published author are roughly that of winning the lottery(and, since I don't play the lottery, that should help put things in perspective for you). No, my aspirations are a little bit love of a good story, buoyed by the desire to share that story with others. Any money I make at the process (and once again, I find myself in the contented state of a balanced spreadsheet - no debts from writing, but no house in the Hamptons, either) just goes towards justifying what might otherwise be nothing more than a satisfying hobby.

Speaking of satisfaction, I got my first copy of my second novel last week. I found myself grinning every bit as broadly as I did from the first - like Christmas all over again. Oh, sure, I'll deal with balancing my dissatisfaction in this word choice or that, later. And I still need to jump back into the next novel, too. And there's the whole process of slowly building my net presence, taking the next steps along my marketing strategy, and so on. Those sorts of fundamental challenges which require the mental shift from creator to businessman are, yes, essential, because I would love little more than to be able to justify spending my Work-time each day on the various projects I have planned out for the next few years and beyond.

But for now, I get to wear each hat, one at a time. I'll take another few moments, grin stupidly at the new shiny cover, and celebrate with the realization that I've managed what was previously unlikely. The zen and tao training tells me to pause now, and recalibrate, and continue again on my path, feeling tranquility and joy in all things. The mental shift is mine to initiate, and for now, I choose to smile.

Take a moment, would you, and smile as well? It's a good world, and it's a good time to tell stories, hear stories, and be present for the telling.