July 08

A Life Lived For Art Is Never Wasted

Authors want to be published. I feel comfortable saying that as a blanket statement. They want to be published as much as a singer wants to hear themselves on the radio.

No one blames us for this. People write stories to be read. People record songs so that they might be heard.

But when I started writing, being published sounded about as likely as finding a unicorn in my backyard. I wrote anyway. Because I wasn’t writing to be published. I first seriously started writing because I was heartbroken and hurt, and wished that a situation had ended differently. So I fashioned make-believe characters, put them in my situation and made it so the outcome did end differently. It was like therapy. Over time these characters sunk deeper and deeper into the world of fantasy and soon I wasn’t writing because I was heartbroken anymore–I was writing to tell a story. I was writing because I had something to say. I had a landscape of a wild imagination that nipped at me, until I turned those daydreams into characters.

A funny thing happens though, when you finally finish a book to the best of your abilities, your desire to see it published heightens. It grips you. You have to have it. And shouldn’t you have it?

Being published is good. Getting radio play is good. Getting an agent, landing a label, all of that is good. But if that is the reason you’re creating, you’ve lost. Creating is something that takes a lot of courage and requires some risk. Creating means making yourself vulnerable, then making mistakes and letting others call you out on it. And if you’re going to measure your success by whether or not you’re agented or whether or not you have a publishing deal, you’re not going to be satisfied. Because even if you get those things, you’re going to need another benchmark of success.

To borrow a little bit from Neil Gaiman, at what point do you start making good art? When an agent makes you an offer? When a publisher makes an offer? When you sell a second book? When you end up on a best sellers list? When you outsell JK Rowling? When money is no longer an object? What is it?

If your motivation comes from the right place, you’re making good art right now. That chapter you’re working on that no one has read or paid you to write, that’s good art. If you’re writing because you have a story to tell, not because you’re desperate to make a name for yourself, that’s good art.

There are thousands of singers/songwriters who make amazing art and never have gotten radio play. There are also thousands of authors who make amazing art and many have never gotten recognized for it. That doesn’t diminish their work.

Now there is a flip side to this. If you’re writing good stories and being driven to do so from the right place, you may come across a published book and think, “THIS is published? Really?” Listen, I’ve been there. I’ve done that. Especially, when it’s some celebrity’s book and you know the whole thing was ghost written for them. And there might be a temptation to be mad about it. Maybe you don’t think they deserve that success. Maybe you don’t like the author or think that their story is weak. And you think to yourself, “I write better than this.”

You might’ve even had the feeling the first time you heard Rihanna’s “Diamonds” and you thought, “The only words to this song are ‘shine bright like a diamond?'” or maybe you have the thought every time Ke$ha uses incorrect grammar in a verse.

I know the feeling. I’ve had it. But guess what? You don’t need it. In fact, you need to stop it.

Someone else’s success doesn’t take away from your own–even if they’re more “successful.” Someone else’s art doesn’t diminish yours–even if more people recognize it because it’s under a spotlight.

I think sometimes writers feel discouraged because they feel they have no way to measure their success, and they don’t feel like their getting anywhere. They’re just writing and writing and writing, and feel there’s no pay-off. But if you’re writing for the pay-off, stop, and re-prioritize. Because maybe you’ve forgotten why you started writing in the first place.

Recently, Macklemore had this little hit called “Thrift Shop.” Anyone with twenty dollars in their pocket wanted to go pop some tags. It was Macklemore’s first no. 1 song, his second no. 1 happened with the release of “Can’t Hold Us.” But maybe what you don’t know is that Macklemore has been making music since 2000. Maybe what you don’t know is that he’s the first artist since 1994 to have a hit without the backing of a record label. That’s right, he’s independent, unsigned. I didn’t know that when I heard “Thrift Shop.” (I’m admittedly not loyally tuned into the rap community). But when I went online and looked him up, he had all this other music that I loved and I realized he’d been making good art for a good long while without having commercial success. And when I started listening to all his other songs, I couldn’t stop, because he had something to say and I wanted to hear it.

So if you feel discouraged that other people are having “success” and you don’t feel like you’re having your share yet, take a deep breath, adjust your perspective and keep writing. In the words of Macklemore, “A life lived for art is never a life wasted.”