|Apr/May 2016 Nonfiction|
Twenty years ago, I started my own copywriting practice, wrestling the dark angel of my artistic ego at every step. A part of me deeply desired to be Emily Dickinson, left alone in my attic to my art, though I didn't have an attic, among other discrepancies. I didn't even read much Dickinson—my guy was W.B. Yeats. Yeats was way too busy communing with the trembling of the veil to be in business. Why couldn't I be like him?
But the one who really messed me up was Hemingway. Goddamn Hemingway. "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." I read his memoir with unspeakable envy. The days writing in cafes, the cold-water flats, the hand to mouth living, the circle of other struggling brilliants. I wanted it all. What literary young man wouldn't eat pigeon for the success that followed?
But ultimate triumph is what makes the myth of the starving artist so compelling, and I had no such confidence in myself. Also I was nowhere near being ready to significantly publish, and would have simply expired from hunger. My Scottsdale, Arizona, home couldn't have been further from turn of the 20th century expat Paris, or its 1990s counterpart, Prague. But I'd already lived in cool cosmopolitan places—Manhattan, Dublin, Tel Aviv—and truthfully they had done nothing for my writing.
I might have gotten hired on at a Phoenix ad agency, but the value of a freelancer's hour is at least double what it would be on salary. I was, and am, a first-thing-in-the-morning writer, so being my own boss meant I could roll out of bed, work on whatever unpublishably obscure and inchoate piece of poetry/essay/fiction hybrid I was gnawing on at the time, and then move on to the commercial stuff.
Six years earlier, in 1990, I had been accepted to the Columbia Poetry Writing MFA program but chose not to attend, in part, because though my poems had good moments, I knew they weren't really about anything. I doubted myself daily, but never fully stopped identifying as an artist. And every once in a while some evidence appeared—a scholarship for a writers conference, a teacher suggesting I submit something for publication—that I was not entirely mistaken.
At one workshop I attended, the instructor, an MFA candidate, stated in no uncertain terms: "Every artist needs a patron." It was the last thing I needed to hear to get my business off the ground. I so wanted a patron to come along and recognize me (more than I recognized myself) and free me from all this earning-a-living crap. Yeats had his patron; where was my Lady Gregory?
The instructor was a black woman, and had she substituted either of those identifiers for "artist," we would have no doubt found the remark highly objectionable. Try it: Every woman needs a patron? Every African American needs a patron? Doesn't work.
For that matter, slip in any other identifier you can think of—homosexual, Jew, WASP, Canadian—and none of them work.
But somehow to the implication that artists are not self-reliant, no one blinked an eye. Why? And why particularly from an MFA candidate, formidable both as a writer and a person, at a well-regarded university program that produced its share of success stories?
We artists certainly have a rich tradition of financial helplessness. Patti Smith, to name just one of a legion of examples, writes in her memoir, Just Kids, of arriving in New York City from South Jersey to start her new life as an artist: "I was beat and hungry, roaming with a few belongings wrapped in a cloth, hobo style, a sack without a stick..."
But does this archetype of the cash-disabled artist so readily apply to our current MFA environment? Smith admits: "I had dropped out of college, having not the discipline, the focus, nor the money needed to continue."
The decision to pursue an MFA is a strategic one. Why would anyone with the focus, resources, and initiative to complete four years of college, and apply to and attend grad school, who is ambitious enough to conceive of writing a good novel, for example, invest the time, energy, planning, and money in a career path that left them dependent on a patron?
The answer, in part, is the success of MFAs themselves. Twenty years ago there was still a debate about whether you could teach writing. Now that debate is mute. The marketplace has spoken, and the market wants MFA programs. In the organically unpredictable journey of wandering and revelation that is being an artist, the MFA offers structure. You get accepted, you do the work, you get the degree. You're in.
MFA programs provide community, learning, and perhaps above all, identity. What they do not provide very well is a financial means for sustaining that identity, having proliferated so dramatically that the supply of graduates far surpasses the demand for their teaching abilities.
The problem is particularly acute for those writers who don't strike literary success early, whom MFA's were especially designed to support. If your star rose right out of school, in one manner or another, you were on your way. You might actually have sold enough product to make your fortune, or could at least translate recognition into well-paying gigs of one kind or another—journalism, speaking, teaching, Hollywood. The ones who really needed the teaching credential were the later bloomers, who required another good decade or more of reasonably stable living to hit their stride as artists.
But today they are largely out of luck. What good positions are available typically go to writers who attain significant acknowledgement sooner. These early achievers gain not only the reassurance of recognition, but the status of the good teaching gig. For the others, already living in daily question of their artistic ability, there is this detraction, too: not only are they not publishing, but they're struggling financially. In the mind of an artist in doubt, the negatives pile up.
I've heard the system described, uncharitably, as a "pyramid scheme," in which the many fund the few. This is an unfair criticism. There are plenty of writing teachers who care out there. And everyone who attends has the opportunity to learn, and to excel, early or late. The devaluing of the teaching credential is simply an unintended consequence of the oversupply of MFAs.
As I struggled to accept myself as a commercial writer, I had no idea it was the smartest artistic move I could have made. The truth was I needed time. Much more time than I imagined. Years of time. To write my way out of the noise and negation and false idols in my head and into an authentic voice that also worked as product. That word, in fact, product, applied to my writing, would have offended me. It took time to get over that, too.
I named my business: Complete Writing Services. Since I really didn't have expertise in any area, why limit myself? I discovered a business ecology as fecund and diverse as the deepest Amazon jungle, which both fascinated and repelled me, threatening as it did to swallow me up in its limitless evolution of products, and copycat products, and the supply chains for those products, and the professional organizations supporting those supply chains, and on and on.
I'd grown lazy in the name of art, waiting on some poetic event to sweep me up, and being in business for myself forced me to reconnect effort to outcome. Later, when it would be time to push through as an artist, to stand in the unknown of a work, and require of myself the patience and focus to bring about the detail and meaning that completion demanded, I had those muscles of concentration and effort developed.
Just as crucial was that copywriting taught me to connect to audiences who weren't me. I wrote for teenage girls and retiree golfers, social climbing moms and tech obsessed engineers, and corporate folk of every rank and income range. I learned what they would consume and what they would not, and that the power to engage or alienate was entirely mine.
Going into business denied me the time and energy to obsess about my own work. When you don't take care of clients, they don't come back. I had to engage more fully, and couldn't coast, as I might have as an employee. I wrote my own stuff and then was forced to put it aside for the day. I gained some perspective on the metabolism of my subconscious, that it operates on its own rhythm, and doesn't really need the conscious me butting in all the time. I could just leave the writing until the next morning, where I picked it up fresh, much to my advantage
I learned to broaden myself by working on multiple projects at once, taking each as far as circumstances, like client feedback, would allow, then letting it go and picking up the next one. That's how you make money. Not by sitting on the same project like a mother hen waiting for it to hatch. This has carried over into my own writing, where pursuing a diversity of projects has helped liberate me from some of the tyranny of waiting—waiting on clarity, waiting on editors and producers, waiting, basically, on the future.
But above all, going into business built, over time, a value of myself in the marketplace. I learned to be a passable copywriter and then a very good one, how to estimate projects and manage clients. But I also learned how to ask for money; I learned to get paid.
Unfortunately, writers today are largely learning to not get paid. Our expectations start low and only dip lower as we become more informed of our plight as artists. The dynamics of today's MFA culture tend to work against us gaining a greater sense of our dollar value. We have teachers modeling a paradigm of success—teaching in the MFA system—that most of their students will not realize at a comparable level. But even so, many of these teachers are already under-valued themselves. Hence the talk of needing patrons.
We might also honestly ask ourselves: are we really all teachers? Or have we somehow professionally clichéd ourselves. Even when writers do take on a more entrepreneurial posture, as I am advocating for, it is often in the form of their own writing workshop. Of course, this can be successful on a limited basis. But in general, focusing on gaining revenue from the people we know have little money—other writers—is not a sound strategy for sustainability.
We are artists. We are creators. Why are we limiting ourselves? Why do we keep going back to the same dry well? Are we scared business success, any kind of financial success for that matter, will take us away from our art? I certainly was. Or do we think we are so close to life altering literary stardom that it makes no sense to build anything so long-term as a business? I did that, too.
Many writers have pursued entrepreneurial endeavors. Joseph Conrad was a sea captain. William Carlos Williams and Arthur Conan Doyle practiced medicine. Zane Grey was a dentist. James Joyce and Nora Barnacle opened Dublin's first cinema. Kurt Vonnegut started a Saab dealership. Haruki Murakami and his wife operated a coffeehouse and jazz bar.
It is said, rather patronizingly, that such activities give writers experience to draw upon in their writing. This is no doubt true, but also misleadingly reductive, as if the writer, when not writing, is in some half-dormant state, engaged only to the degree of jotting down anecdotes to later metamorphose into literature, when their artistic winter has passed. Let's not forget one of our most celebrated literary lights, James Salter, had a career as fighter pilot. While he did write about it later, he could hardly have been scribbling in his notebook while dueling MiGs over Korea. Nor was that the topic of writing that ultimately made him as an artist.
It's much more meaningful to say that these writers living their lives, including their business and professional lives, helped make these people into the artists they would become. How better to sharpen the powers of observation and empathy for a poet than by diagnosing children suffering illness, as Williams did? What greater way to instill the discipline, and inner discovery of novel writing than by leading sea expeditions like Conrad? And there are few more impacting teachers of tragic irony than business failure, as in the case of Joyce.
Above all being in business is the experience of ownership. If it works, it works because of you. If not, also because of you. This is the elemental truth every artist has to accept as well, and grow comfortable enough with to fail as well as succeed. So why avoid it so scrupulously in our working lives?
Just as being in business can help build the vital musculature of writing—observation, effort, commitment, self-improvement—it's also true that many of the fundamental attributes of being an artist apply directly to entrepreneurship. Vision, creative problem solving, self-motivation, passion, agile thinking—go to any entrepreneurship gathering and you will hear these spoken of with reverence. Yet this is the basic currency of being an artist to begin with. Why waste it on some dead end career path that ultimately threatens your sustainability as an artist by its sheer drudgery?
Why not apply the traits inherent to you as a writer to entrepreneurial endeavors that challenge you to make the most of your day, while actually building in you the very qualities you will need to be the best artist you can be, teaching you to be a money maker, and affording you that most precious of all commodities for an artist—time?